From President Truman to President Trump the United Nations has been part of all our lives for 75 years since its founding in 1945. Under normal circumstances, the 2020 UN General Assembly would have New York gridlocked but the constraints of Covid-19 have ensured that it will stand out in a different way: as a general non-assembly.
As part of this milestone, I took part in an online discussion with four experts who know the UN well. Key participants included Wendy Sherman, an American professor and diplomat; Gérard Araud, a French diplomat who served as Ambassador of France to the US from 2014 to 2019; Mark Malloch Brown, who led the UN’s creation of the Millennium Development Goals which were adopted at the UN Millennium Summit in December 2000; and Richard Gowan, an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
All of them agreed that the UN was like a comfortable chair which everyone had become very fond of but needed refurbishment. They also agreed that reform from the top down in the UN is long overdue, but they regretted to say that the needed reform is impossible. Gérard Araud explained about a failed reform project that he was involved in that included creative ways to break the entrenched viewpoints of the five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US.
All agreed that over the last four years under the leadership of President Trump, the US had sidelined the UN as the “America first” thinking took precedence over US interests outside of their borders. We also now have a transatlantic relationship between America and Europe that is really broken.
They also agreed that the UN has been neutralised by the big powers and the upcoming American elections are a “fork in the road” for the UN. Over the last four years Secretary General António Guterres has had to self-censor in order to assist the organisation to get on with the job at hand.
This year the formal commemoration on September 21 of the UN’s 75th anniversary was a subdued affair. Even before Covid-19 disrupted arrangements, it was planned to be low-key. Wendy Sherman during our discussions mentioned her disappointment that the first 52 speakers at the commemoration were men raising another problem with the organisation.
Rather than throwing a big party, Guterres decided to use the anniversary for a “global conversation”, consulting world opinion through a series of surveys and meetings. The conclusions, in a report called “The future we want, the United Nations we need”, were released prior to the 75th anniversary commemoration.
The survey concludes that people’s priority is access to services such as healthcare, sanitation and education. For the future, they worry most about climate change and are also concerned about respecting human rights, settling conflicts, tackling poverty and reducing corruption. Eighty seven per cent of respondents believe international co-operation is vital to deal with today’s challenges.
Great-power rivalry is crippling the Security Council. And at 75, in its structure – with the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council – the UN still reflects the world as it was in 1945 rather than one in which India, Africa and others deserve and demand a growing say.
I’ll leave the final words to Kofi Annan, “More than ever before in human history, we share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations.”
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]