Blog: Reflections from the UN General Assembly

Blog: Reflections from the UN General Assembly - Digital

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In her latest blog Anna Oosterlinck, ARTICLE 19’s Head of UN offers her reflections and key takeaways from last week’s UN General Assembly. 

Last week, 189 world leaders descended on New York for the annual High Level Week of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Incredibly, only 21 leaders participating in the 78th general debate of the UNGA were women, one less than last year. But if you think that is troublesome, that’s only the start of it.

It is not an understatement to say this annual week of meetings comes at an extremely difficult time for the United Nations (UN). Growing geo-political tensions are closing down space for multilateral collaboration, and although we are no longer in a uni-polar world, some observers argue it’s a bi-polar one whereas others say it’s a multi-polar world. In any case, we are seeing more players than ever on the world stage vying for power and influence, while the rules governing the multilateral game are increasingly being undermined and weakened. Not a great combination. 

And all of this is happening in the face of, as US Secretary Blinken said, a “mammoth scale of global problems like the climate crisis, food insecurity, mass migration and displacement”.

The meeting’s formal theme was “restoring trust and reigniting global solidarity”. And that has never been more needed than today. 

The UN has failed to tackle major crises since the last UNGA High Level Week in September 2022, including Afghanistan, Sudan and the ongoing war by Russia against Ukraine. Climate change is spiralling out of control; and progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is lagging far, far behind. 

Old bugbears such as lack of UN Security Council reform and frankly, more general reform of the wider UN system (including peacekeeping & humanitarian assistance); systemic gender inequalities; global economic divisions; and enduring crises such as Syria, South Sudan, Mali, Libya, and many more are still very much there and remain unresolved.

So… has the UN become obsolete?

At ARTICLE 19, we do not believe this is the case. The UN continues to offer a unique platform to bring together voices from all four corners of the globe to find global solutions. But, it’s clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that the UN has an incredible amount of work to do and the organisation will require pragmatism and flexibility to get it done.

It’s impossible to sum up all the events of last week as there were so many meetings – to name a few:

  • The General Debate (where world leaders lay out their priorities for the next year) had lots of strong moments. President Zelenskyy’s made his first in-person appearance at the UN in New York since the war began for a highly anticipated speech at the UNGA. President Biden was the only Head of State of the five UN Security Council permanent members who actually showed up in the city. President Lula da Silva stated “Brazil is back”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov criticised the West for creating an “empire of lies”.
  • The 2023 Sustainable Development Goals Summit, marking the half-way point to the deadline set for achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). ARTICLE 19 believes that the right to freedom of expression, which consists of the right to know and the right to speak, is at the heart of dismantling poverty, and therefore critical to achieving sustainable development (read out takeaways from the SDG Summit here).
  • Three high-level meetings focused on health — universal health coverage, pandemic preparedness, and tuberculosis. 
  • A heated Security Council’s high level open debate on Ukraine, with the Russian U.N. ambassador clashing with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (currently holding the rotating presidency of the Security Council) over giving President Zelenskyy the floor during the meeting. The PM had a clear answer: “There is a solution for this. If you agree, you stop the war and President Zelenskiy will not take the floor.” President Zelenskyy asked the Security Council to strip Russia of its veto power as punishment for attacking Ukraine.
  • The Preparatory Ministerial Meeting for the Summit of the Future, where UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that without strong multilateral institutions, multipolarity “could result in even greater geostrategic tensions, chaotic competition and further fragmentation.”
  • A very impressive schedule of side events organised by a wide variety of civil society, governments, academia and private actors. Just to mention one: Canada and the Netherlands launched their Global Declaration on Information Integrity Online.

Without attempting to summarise all conclusions and enduring challenges emanating from this week filled to the brim with tense and rich discussions, ARTICLE 19 will continue to monitor four broad questions:

Ukraine versus sustainable development? 

Many Global Majority countries want the UN to focus on supporting management of their debt and on fostering sustainable economic development for all. They feel the UN and Western countries need to put their money where their mouth is and invest more in progressing the SDGs in the face of the economic shocks tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine. 

Many countries feel a diplomatic solution or peace agreement should now be sought to end the war. However, President Zelenskyy has argued that he doesn’t believe that the Russians will negotiate in good faith and warned that Russia is weaponizing essential goods such as food and energy, using them “not only against our country, but all of yours as well.” The question in the next few months will be to what extent diplomatic support for Ukraine (as evidenced by several UNGA resolutions) can be maintained as other priorities seem to beckon. 

UN reform? 

UN Secretary-General António Guterres used strong language in his own address to the UNGA General Debate. He warned leaders that the world is “becoming unhinged,” and underscored that the fundamental purpose of the UN is to resolve crises in moments of “maximum danger and minimum agreement.” UNSG Guterres also stressed there is no alternative to institutional reform of the multilateral system, stating “it’s reform or rupture.” 

However, in reality very little has concretely moved in terms of UN reform. Discussions around Security Council reform, in particular, are fraught and dead-locked, in spite of President Biden’s expression of support for expanding the Council’s membership one year ago. There were a lot of discussions on reform of the World Bank and IMF as part of the international financial architecture. The Un Secretary General on his part will undoubtedly continue pursuing his Our Common Agenda initiatives (with lots of reform ideas built in). 

ARTICLE 19 will monitor in particular negotiations of the Global Digital Compact, the development of a voluntary Code of Conduct for information integrity on digital platforms, and more broadly, how new and emerging technologies including artificial intelligence will be addressed across the various parts of the Pact for the Future.

What about other multilateral fora? 

Many UN observers and analysts are pointing out how action is increasingly shifting to other multilateral fora, with the G-20 welcoming the African Union in its midst, and BRICS expanding to include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Ethiopia, Egypt, Argentina and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Perhaps some political or security challenges can be resolved more easily in smaller fora, but the UN with all 193 member states represented with 1 vote at the UNGA table offers a unique space to facilitate discussions and find global solutions in this fractured landscape. ARTICLE 19 will continue to expand our advocacy engagement to the other fora, while resolutely maintaining our UN engagement.

AI, AI, AI – but so what is AI exactly? 

AI, or artificial intelligence, was most definitely a buzz word at this year’s High-Level Week. It was mentioned at all major meetings, at times highlighting its potential benefits (say for turbocharging implementation of SDGs), and at other times warning about the risks and challenges. ARTICLE 19 will continue to work closely with the UN, representatives of all interested Member States and the private sector to understand the human rights implications of various AI technologies and to formulate recommendations.

Until next year.