– Non- Verbatim –
Statement by H.E. Tijjani Muhammad Bande, President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly
23 July 2020
Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor, the University of Buckingham,
Nicholas Rees, Dean of the School of Humanities,
Mark Seddon, Director of the Centre for UN Studies,
Paul Graham, Deputy Director of the Centre for UN Studies,
Faculty Chairs and Professional Colleagues,
Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen.
I am truly honoured that I have been invited to this conversation with staff, students and others who are interested in multilateral diplomacy and its work for all of us around the globe.
Seventy-five years ago, the world took a historic step by establishing the United Nations. World leaders, at the time, reckoned that the creation of a forum at which state parties could iron out their differences before they got out of hand would ensure that cataclysmic events like Second World War would never occur again.
In effect, these Leaders chose hope over cynicism, proactive engagement over indifference, and cooperation over distrust. Their determination to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war” made it possible to stitch together the fabric that had almost been ripped to shreds in a world held hostage by belligerent forces. At the root of the resolve to transform a divided world into the United Nations was this abiding faith in multilateralism. It was felt that the world stood to gain when nations pull together to confront common challenges.
It is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about the essence of, and the need for, multilateralism. All the same, even when we disagree on how the world should be structured to anticipate, or respond to, mounting challenges, we shall eventually make common cause on the principle underlying, if not the actual workings of, a rules-based international order. In a highly polarized world, multilateralism is our only guarantor of peace, security, and sustainable development. The world will benefit more if we cultivated the give-and-take spirit, which is a central element of multilateralism.
As COVID-19 ravages the world, individuals had to bear responsibility for their safety. But it is not only about individuals, it is also about the responsibility of States and of the States to relate to others to deal with this issue. The external effects of both individual and national choices underscore, rather than obliterate, the role of international institutions, especially, WHO as well as agencies actively engaged in the development of testing kits, treatment of confirmed cases, and exchange of morbidity and allied statistics.
While acknowledging the role of international law and institutions in preserving world order, we must also realize that not everyone is sold on the idea of multilateralism. This is not surprising. Multilateralism, as we understand it today, is a relatively new concept. When it was established in 1919, the League of Nations was an ambitious experiment in multilateral diplomacy and supranational governance, or should I say, the first forum at which nations got together to address pressing global challenges from multilateral angles.
I am sure that historians among us will quickly remind me of arrangements antedating the League, arrangements which were as “multilateral” as the 1919 initiative. Certainly, a handful of specialized agencies existed before the League of Nations came into being. Among these are the International Communications Union that was established in 1865, the International Meteorological Organization, which was created in 1873, and the Rhine Commission which the Congress of Vienna established in 1915. The Concert of Europe, which was convoked by the Congress of Vienna between 1815 and 1914, is clearly a precursor to the present-day Council of Europe and the European Union.
Regardless of the earliest and modest attempts at forging multilateral partnerships around specific issues, relations among states were largely bilateral and were founded on a system of competing alliances. The United States, which is today a major player on the international scene, maintained an isolationist position up to the 1930s, preferring to act unilaterally in defence of its interests.
The defunct League of Nations and the present-day United Nations are examples of the new supranational sovereign. So is the network of rules and institutions that have evolved at the international level over decades if not centuries.
The League of Nations was a failed experiment because its emergence did not erase inter-state suspicions or to halt the drift to another devastating war, spanning the period 1939-1945.
However, where the League experiment was short-lived, the United Nations has been in existence for the past seventy-five years and has, within this period, weathered many challenges.
It has demonstrated a remarkable staying power. It witnessed and outlived powerful storms, among them, the Suez, the Cuban missile, the Indo-China crises, as well as localized conflicts and wars of national liberation. Even if the United Nations was largely side-lined during the East-West Cold War era, it played quiet roles in the background, helping in more ways than one to stabilize the world. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the replacement of Apartheid with black majority rule in South Africa, and the liberation of many African states from colonial rule and of Namibia from Apartheid South Africa’s control, are some of the United Nations notable achievements.
Many still wonder why the League of Nations was unsuccessful and why the United Nations has stayed afloat for decades. What lessons did the world learn from the League of Nations, a body that an observer once termed, “the League of Foes”? This failure taught us that, the world must balance the imperatives of order with the imminent and inevitable clamour for equity, inclusiveness, and, above all, sovereign equality.
Unfortunately, and swayed by the memory of erstwhile power struggles, the creators of the defunct League leaned towards sovereign equality while sacrificing the exigency of global security. The result was a supranational arrangement under which practically each competing interest wielded a veto power. Institutional paralysis was the natural outcome of such a chaotic multilateral arrangement. Nothing gets done when every actor is licensed and equally determined to obstruct progress.
The Charter of the United Nations which the framers ratified in San Francisco in 1945 endeavoured to avoid the pitfalls of the past. At least, up to a point, the Charter envisaged a world in which sovereign equality would co-exist with the imperatives of order. The question is whether the United Nations did not move from one extreme to another. Can it be reasonably argued that the United Nations has sidestepped the landmines planted under the League, and has done so without coming with a baggage of its own?
It is perfectly legitimate to raise questions about the essence of, and the need for, multilateralism. All the same, even when we disagree on how the world should be structured to anticipate, or respond to, mounting challenges, we shall eventually make common cause on the principle underlying, if not the actual workings of, a rules-based international order. In a highly polarized world, multilateralism is our only guarantor of peace, security, and sustainable development
Let us start with the upside. As I presided over the General Debate last September, one of my first duties as President of the 74th Session of the General Assembly, I formed the distinct impression that, far from being an outmoded principle, the United Nations remains an accepted and reliable forum for managing relations among nations. The fact that so many world leaders made time to participate in the deliberations which took place during the High-Level Week is, along with the quality of engagement at the General Debate, indisputable evidence of the United Nations’ relevance.
This is not to argue that the United Nations has no flaws. Support for multilateral cooperation still competes with allegiance to national and individual sovereigns. Choices and moralities continue to collide. Besides, far from being an anachronism, hierarchy has emerged in a new form, in the form of super-power hegemony within a supposedly classless multilateral arrangement.
The UN Charter as adopted in San Francisco in 1945 underscored the need for sovereign equality. At the same time, and to avoid the situation in which the League found itself, the Charter took the veto power from the multitude and conferred it on a few, specifically, on five countries, the United States, Great Britain, France, the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, now Russia and China. The five countries were thenceforth to constitute the Permanent Members of the Security Council and each was vested with the veto power.
There is no doubt that the UN Charter is an improvement over the Covenant that was ratified in 1919 to legitimize the establishment of the League. No longer is it possible for any State Party which is not a member of the Security Council to hold the entire United Nations to ransom. Only the five Permanent Members have the power, acting severally or collectively or individually, to block a decision that is considered by them objectionable.
While the concentration of power in a few hands makes for order and allows for the predictability of choices and consequences, it also lends itself to abuse. A Permanent Member that is determined to pursue its strategic interest at the expense of its rivals may do so in defiance of the will of the majority or contrary to the intent of General Assembly resolutions. That raises the question how much price the disempowered nations are willing to pay to ensure the survival of the existing multilateral arrangements.
Great power rivalry is escapable where an institutional arrangement allows, nay, encourages, a party to pursue its interest at the expense of others. This is borne out by the United Nations’ experience over the last seventy-five years. No sooner the Organization came into being than Second War Allies became antagonists. The Cold War which pitted the West against the former Soviet Union and its allies, was fought not only on proxy battle fronts and wars of national liberation, but also at the Security Council. So it is that the Security Council which is charged with the primary responsibility for the maintenance of global peace and security became a forum at which the Members occasionally blocked and outwitted one another. It is equally intriguing that the same Security Council, the custodian of global order, is made up of Members that happen to be the top exporters of arms and ammunitions.
When the Charter provisions were being debated back then, the key actors were the five nations which ended up constituting the veto-wielding Members of the Security Council, the United Nations’ apex decision making organ. The bulk of the current membership of the United Nations had either minor supporting roles or did not exist because of colonialism.
The situation has since changed. Today, the United Nations is made up of nations that attained their sovereign status in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The geo-political map has also been redrawn, with Russia rising from the ashes of the disintegrated Soviet Union, East Germany merging with its Western counterpart, and new regional blocs springing up in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Japan and Germany might have been devastated by the Second World War, but they are today among the world’s economic power houses. More or less can be said of large economies like South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, and India in Asia; Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina in Latin America; Turkey, Iran and Israel in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East; as well as Nigeria and South Africa in Africa.
The difference between today’s world and the conditions prevailing in 1945 cannot but have a tremendous impact on the United Nations. As new states emerge on the scene, questions about the structure of the Organization have become frequent and insistent. Among the questions that keep coming up are those concerning the inclusiveness of the Organization’s decision-making bodies, the legitimacy of decisions that are not founded on the considerations of equity and sovereign equality, and the responsiveness of the existing arrangements to new and unfolding challenges.
It may interest this distinguished gathering that, in deference to the pressures for change, mechanisms are now in place aimed at examining the burning questions of UN reform from all possible angles. There is for instance the Inter-Governmental Negotiations on the Question of Equitable Representation on And Increase in the Membership of the Security Council and Matters Related to the Security Council (IGN). The group’s mandate is to engage Member States’ constructively on the design of a roadmap for the reform of the Security Council.
No one entertains any illusion that the journey would be smooth and easy. All the parties to the IGN process acknowledge the delicate and complex nature of the challenge.
All the same, and without prejudice to the ongoing negotiations, every effort must be made to engage all parties with respect and to negotiate in good faith.
My address to this distinguished audience will not be complete if it omits an important initiative of the United Nations, the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development. Agenda 2030, as the initiative is known, is an ambitious but realistic expectation of what the world should look like in the year 2030. When I say, “look like”, I mean the type of progress we expect the world to make in eradicating poverty, banishing hunger and mal-nutrition, expanding access to potable water, sanitation, and a wholesome environment, countering the mis-education of the youth by providing quality education, empowering women and youth, and combating terrorism, human trafficking, and crime within and across nations. Agenda 2030 is thus basically one geared towards the sustainable development of the world and ensuring that none is left behind in the drive towards a better and hospitable world.
I commend the role of the youth to ensure the implementation of the Agenda, particularly what relates to climate action and environmental and social justice.
Today, we are all aware of the movement of Black Lives Matter which is a continuation of struggles of individuals beyond borders to connect to issues that concern them and us as humanity.
I thank you, and look forward to the engagement of the participants.