Opening a discussion at IPI on Broader Perspectives on the UN of Today and Tomorrow, outgoing President of the United Nations General Assembly Miroslav Lajčák said the “sad reality” facing the international organization was that “multilateralism is under threat.” He said that principles on which the UN were founded are “no longer universally accepted and cherished. We are seeing trends that go in the opposite direction. We see a return to bilateralism, and exclusive clubs. We see an erosion of the rules-based system.” He warned that what he called this “me first” approach “puts us all in danger.”
Mr. Lajcak, who is also Slovakia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, made these opening remarks at the September 10th IPI meeting, held to showcase the report of a pro bono group of 16 globally respected individuals he had nominated at the beginning of his year-long service as PGA to examine the challenges confronting the UN, and, in particular, the General Assembly. Over the past 11 months, the group held meetings on topics such as global political issues, sustaining peace, the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement on climate change, human rights, human dignity, and UN reform.
“There is a sense of urgency,” said one of the panelists, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former President and CEO of the International Crisis Group and Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations from 2000 to 2008. “The clock is ticking; there are not many years to react and turn the tide. If we sit back, it may continue to get worse. This is a call to action.”
Jeffrey Sachs, Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the SDGs, agreed with the assertions of the gravity of the threat to the UN but argued that it underlined the importance of the world organization. “The UN is more important than ever,” he said. “Solving major problems like climate change are urgent and cannot be done other than through the UN…the UN only grows in importance, more interconnectedness, more terrifying problems, more potential to do good…the UN as a concept, as a set of principles, as a set of interconnected treaty relations is more relevant than ever in its history.”
Amina Mohamed, former Permanent Representative of Kenya to the UN and now Cabinet Secretary for Education, declared, “I am a multilateralist, and I believe in the General Assembly as one of the only organs of the UN that has legitimacy and accountability to drive change.” She contrasted it with the Security Council, saying it was better constituted to focus on issues the Council might overlook like women and children in conflict. She said that the General Assembly also was capable of taking up more subjects than the Council though she cautioned that it might be wise to restrict the number so as to insure wider participation.
She also sounded the familiar call for reforming and expanding the membership the Council where Africa has no permanent presence. But another panelist, Antonio Patriota, Brazil’s Ambassador to Italy who served as Brazil’s Foreign Minister, ambassador to the United States and Permanent Representative to the UN, said he feared the movement for Security Council reform was “going nowhere” as powerful states are “trying to torpedo” efforts.
Mr. Patriota lauded the General Assembly for having agreed on a compact on migration and noted that in this case it had been more difficult for the 28 countries of the European Union to find common ground than for the 193 countries of the UN to do so. The General Assembly has “extraordinary strengths,” he said. “I think if we continue to work in imaginative ways, drawing strength from the fact that it is a level playing field, that anything can be discussed, there is a flexibility, even in the face of paralysis in the UNSC.” He pronounced himself a big defender of the sovereign equality of states, no matter what their size, and noted that one of the driving forces in the Paris climate change accord was the small island state St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Nik Gowing, a British television journalist and co-author of a book on leadership called Thinking the Unthinkable, said the 11 months of study and meetings had begun with high expectations but had become increasingly “somber” with the growing evidence of the rise of nationalism and populism in the world. He said his studies of leadership showed that “the conformity which gets you to the top in many ways now disqualifies you from understanding the enormity of disruption that’s underway and the implications of how to handle it.” In the case of the UN, he said, the challenge was linking up “those across the road [at the UN] and those who serve it on behalf of governments and the feelings out there” in the public.
Mr. Guéhenno and other speakers lamented the flagging interest in multilateralism of the most powerful UN country, the United States, at a time when American influence in the world was itself diminishing. “What happens,” he asked, “when that power that inspired the whole construction does not believe any more that the UN serves its interest and at the same time is losing some dominance, not military, but in other areas?”
Ambassador Patriota noted the rise in unilateralism but argued that the UN had overcome such challenges to its influence before. “The most destabilizing unilateral decision taken during the 21st century was the decision to invade Iraq militarily,” he said, “and we still live with the consequences of that. But despite unilateral destabilizing activity, the UN went on to adopt the 2030 agenda, the nuclear ban, it didn’t become paralyzed, it continued to work. And it can continue to work even in the face of these new tremendous challenges posed by unilateralism.” To meet those challenges, the UN must unite those who see value in the UN and respect its tenets, he said.
Mr. Lajčák was praised by other speakers for having succeeded in increasing the involvement of civil society in the work of the General Assembly and inviting the kind of accountability represented by the creation of the team of external advisers. In closing remarks, he said, “This discussion proved that we need the United Nations more than ever before.”
Others who spoke during the meeting included Susana Malcorra, Adviser to the President of Argentina, former Foreign Minister of Argentina and former Chef de Cabinet for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; Francisco José Pereira Pinto de Balsemão, former Prime Minister of Portugal and Chairman of the Board of the group IMPRESA; Femi Oke, international journalist and co-founder of Moderate the Panel; Carlos Lopes, Professor at the University of Cape Town and former Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa; and Terje Rød-Larsen, IPI President, who made welcoming remarks.