UNGA set to end high-level meetings as geopolitical rifts threaten to erode multilateral mechanism

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UNGA

The major diplomatic convention – the high-level meetings of the 77th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) – concluded on Monday in New York, with about 150 world leaders spending days discussing the most urgent issues amid growing uncertainties and geopolitical turbulence in the world. 

Deemed as “a watershed moment” to find solutions to tackling challenges, this year’s gathering, which was also the first in-person meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic, provided the floor for dialogue despite the that many believed the UN has been paralyzed by worthless quarrelling and denunciations, dominated by the US-led hegemony that also cast a shadow over the effectiveness of the world’s most important multilateral mechanism. 

The general debate of the UNGA concluded on Monday. Leaders and representatives met at a high-level plenary meeting to commemorate and promote the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons on Monday, marking the end of the high-level week of the UNGA. In addition to the Russia-Ukraine conflict dominating this year’s meetings, some questions have been raised about what the UNGA can do in the turbulent world order and what true multilateralism is when the UN grapples with a profound crisis of faith.

This year’s UNGA is remembered by many for the “startling” scope and “scathing” nature of US President Joe Biden’s attacks on Russian President Vladimir Putin and also for world leaders who did not listen to each other. 

Also, some leaders, for example, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, questioned double standards practised by certain countries over the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states, while those from smaller and developing countries such as Colombia and Seychelles were much more concerned about the issues such as climate change and food crisis rather than condemning Moscow. 

“We’ve been seeing increasing conflicts and confrontation in today’s world, but it’s important to maintain this platform for communication and exchange,” Yang Xiyu, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times on Monday.

“Although there has been no consensus reached through the meetings, it still provided a chance for communicating with the hope of overcoming divergences,” he said. 

Despite that this year’s gathering was overshadowed by the growing division in the world over the Ukraine crisis, experts believe some countries achieved their goals by elaborating their stances on global and regional issues. But under the US hegemony, the functions and effectiveness of the UN have been further weakened in terms of safeguarding the global order, some experts said, warning that the multilateral platform will lose its value if it becomes a battlefield for geopolitical wrestling between major powers. 

A divided world 

As the world powers clash and collide over the Ukraine crisis, their geopolitics is undermining the UN agenda and stalling the multilateral cooperation needed to remedy many global crises … And dozens of world leaders “in love with the sound of their own voices turn the ‘high-level debate’ into low-level diatribe,” boasted of their achievements or blamed others for their failures, Al Jazeera said in an opinion article on September 20.

The French newspaper Le Monde said in a recent article that the international order has never seemed so fractured, with the conflict revealing a new map of global power relations. “On one side is the West and its allies, led by the US, tired of playing the world’s police officer, but spearheading support for Ukraine in a Europe traumatized by the return of war,” and on the other side is Russia, “a member of the Security Council and accused of violating the UN Charter by invading its neighbor.” 

“The UN gathering should be an opportunity for communication and exchanging the positions, but it’s regrettable that there was no such engagement especially on the Ukraine crisis as Russia sensed a very strong hostility against it,” Tang Bei, associate professor at the school of international relations and public affairs at Shanghai International Studies University, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov delivered his speech at a UN Security Council meeting on Thursday and left once as soon as the speech was done as the Russian diplomat refused to stay as the US and its Western allies have been harshly criticizing Russia for its military operations in Ukraine, according to media reports. 

Meanwhile, Biden used his first speech at the UNGA to attack Russia and Putin. The New York Times said, “the scope and scathing nature of Biden’s attacks on Putin were startling; they appeared to be the most direct and sustained focus on a single adversary by an American president at the UN since 2002.”

Besides the Ukraine crisis, the world is facing many major issues such as a public health crisis, climate change and the ever-growing economic disparity between rich and poor countries, which all should be fully discussed, but this year’s meetings were overwhelmed by one voice or one issue, given that the US-led West sought to take the leading role, Yang noted. 

“To boost the UN functions, all members should have this consensus of enhancing the leadership of the UN in the international system, enhancing the UN’s role in the global affairs, but unfortunately, those two requirements have not been met,” he said. 

Some leaders also pointed out the ineffectiveness of this important diplomatic convention. “The seriousness of the present moment obliges me to share difficult but true words with you. Everything that we are doing today seems impotent and vague. Our words make a hollow and empty echo compared to the reality that we are facing,” Vucic said at the UNGA.

UN’s reform 

The reform of the UN has been a central theme as some world leaders called for reforming multilateralism, considering that the current structure is ineffective. Countries such as Japan and Germany also expressed their willingness to expand the permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) during the UNGA. 

India’s external affairs minister S Jaishankar called for reforms in the UNSC during an address on Saturday, saying that the current setup of the UN was “anachronistic and ineffective” and that needs urgent reforms, according to Indian media reports. 

China supports the UN reform but emphasizes that it should be gradually pushed forward without setting a timetable or forcing an agenda. The reform should also ensure the council’s representativeness and effectiveness in its decision-making procedures, Tang said. 

China has been firmly safeguarding the UN-centered global system, but some US-led Western countries treat it with a utilitarian attitude, in other words, to make the UN decisions in line with their own standards, some Chinese experts said. 

“For example, if those Western countries oppose some resolutions, they ramp up efforts in jeopardizing them, but if they support some, they will largely advance them, which is not helpful for the organization’s operations,” Yang said. 

In contrast to the US-led hegemony, China introduced its five roles as China has always been a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, a defender of the international order, a provider of public goods and a mediator of hotspot issues.

China has held more than 40 bilateral and multilateral activities during the UN high-level week gathering. Following the address of Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, many representatives, officials and diplomats from all around the globe gathered outside the assembly hall to shake hands with the Chinese delegates and expressed their support for the China-proposed initiatives, according to media reports. 

Major powers should take a responsible attitude in making the UN play out its role instead of gaining interests from it, and countries need to reject the hegemony and “double standard” practice to support the UN in handling global issues per international laws and regulations, Yang said.

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