Home Improvement:   The General Assembly Initiates Some Deferred Repairs, Dr. Robert Zuber

10 Apr

Anyone who has followed this space knows that Global Action is committed to a UN system that is suitably structured both to focus on needs and threats that states can’t solve alone, and to better honor its many development and security promises made to global constituents. If and when the UN bogs down in petty concerns or takes undue liberties with its vested authority, the hopes that people have invested in this community will continue to fade.

Our own humble contribution to this system has long focused on the way we do our collective business as much as the content of that business.   The promises of a disarmed world, of an end to extreme poverty, of responsive governments that respect the rights of their people, of a planet that can find healing amidst the relentless onslaughts of human ambition – these and more require structures of global governance that privilege effectiveness and whose movements and rationales can be more easily discerned by the governed.

Those of you who rightly wish for the UN to “do more” on development, climate and security should recall: When the home roof is leaking, the boiler barely functions, the tap water is contaminated and the weeds have taken over the lawn, the quality of life of the family is compromised, as is its ability to make meaningful contributions to the life beyond the home.

Indeed, the three major bodies that constitute the UN’s “home” base have all heard rumblings in recent years that their structures and methods of work are simply insufficient to the many challenges on their collective agendas.  In the Security Council, the Accountability, Coherence and Transparency (ACT) group is just one of several initiatives designed to ensure a Council that is better able to respond to security threats at earlier stages and assess past decisions so as to eliminate future mistakes, while strongly urging the permanent members to “work and play” better both with elected members and with other core components of the UN system.

Under the presidencies of Austria and now the Republic of Korea, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has recently recovered its own footing, demonstrating through the High Level Political Forum and other structures that it is able and committed to creating meaningful and reliable space for assessment and oversight of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals — including its emphasis on ending economic and social inequalities — perhaps the single most far-reaching “promise” issued by the United Nations over the past decade.

As the most representative of UN organs, the General Assembly (GA) has also had its share of effectiveness-related issues. In the recent past, it has struggled trying to manage the needs and expectations of a growing roster of member states, including the expectation that the UN as a whole must become more democratic in its core concerns, including on matters of peace and security.  At the same time, the Assembly suffers under the burden of one-year rotating presidencies that make it difficult for leaders (especially from some of the smaller states that have recently held the position) to get full policy traction. The GA has also been limited by a funding mechanism that does not provide resources adequate to any sort of ambitious presidency (which exacerbates tendencies to bend the rules as appears to have been the case with 2013 GA president John Ashe).  And the president has always to contend with large and powerful states (including permanent Security Council members) that do not wish to have the Assembly wandering into their policy territory.

Into this morass in 2015 wandered the current GA president (PGA), Mogens Lykketoft of Denmark, who has made much of his country’s diplomatic reputation and links to the European Union (perhaps even exploiting his country’s pre-eminent levels of happiness) to rapidly enhance some of the GA’s luster.  He and his senior leadership have done so through massive infusions of attentive energy, insisting that this GA house be restored to purpose and set on a path of relevance to a new standard of global expectations.

His strategy has had multiple facets, but two stand out for us.   The first is his office’s omni-presence in the system.  Just this month, he has presided over/keynoted discussions on topics as diverse as African development, trafficking in persons, disaster relief strategies, and peacekeeper abuse in the Central African Republic.  He has traveled to other UN sites to share and to listen. He has also been an indispensable voice in efforts to open up the selection process for the next Secretary-General, a process that might well result in the first female SG but one which will surely change forever the dynamics affecting future selections.  This presence from the PGA has been both consistent and understated, permitting the president to define the GA’s stake in key global issues without undermining the expertise and authority of others, nor the many helpful precedents in the UN system that have brought us to this current, reform-minded place.

The second facet is related to a decision by the PGA’s office to hold fewer key policy discussions in a mostly formalized GA Hall setting – where prepared statements rule the day – in favor of more informal, less predictable discussions in other UN conference rooms.   President Lykketoft did not invent this format by any means, but he has seemingly embraced it in a way which allows delegations to reflect on responsibilities without the burden of producing resolutions, and which also underscores the abundant skills within the general UN membership that simply must be energized if the current collection of existential threats is to find permanent relief.  That some delegations continue to read prepared statements in such informal settings testifies in part to the complexities of the UN’s diplomatic habit; perhaps even to a lingering mistrust in a process that is likely to result in what for Global Action would be a welcome leveling of decision making authority within the entire UN system.

There are no either-or impediments looking forward.  We can find ways to honor both policy precedent and policy innovation.   We can test our current working methods to ensure they are sufficient to our policy challenges without throwing the UN system into procedural chaos. We can show competence on issues and contribute to their resolution without excluding other relevant stakeholders or marginalizing other helpful contributions.   We’re learning how to function as a system – as a home base — slowly but steadily.  It’s an exciting moment; but also an essential one.

The recently released Panama Papers provide those who question the motives of government officials with yet one more reason to do so.   For the UN, deviating from the revised direction recently established for our most important policy organs must not now be an option.  We seem at this point to have the energy and urgency to take better care of our home business, initiating the repairs we have long needed to make. We need to stay this course so that the hope still invested in this global policy community is not in vain.

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