Now that the speeches at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) have been delivered, perhaps we can look for some takeaways. On top of the agenda is the UN’s effectiveness in fulfilling its mandate: that analogous to a world government, like national governments that pass laws and ensure they are followed, the UN, formed after WWII, would “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”.
As such, it should surprise no one that, in opening this 76 UNGA, Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke directly and candidly to the US and China, who appear to be squaring off against each other in a number of strategic areas: “I fear our world is creeping towards two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately, two different military and geopolitical strategies. This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War. To restore trust and inspire hope, we need cooperation.”
The theme for this year’s General Debate was ‘Building Resilience through hope to recover from COVID-19, rebuild sustainably, respond to the needs of the planet, respect the rights of people, and revitalize the United Nations’. But the subtext was on how to keep the peace, since the history of the world since WWII has demonstrated that the UN has not been noticeably effective in preventing wars within and between nations. After WWII, as alluded to by the Secretary General, it was the “Cold War” between the US and USSR that became very hot, especially in the developing world such as Guyana. Cheddi Jagan and his PPP were removed from office after debilitating race riots because they chose to align themselves with the USSR ideologically.
But since this year’s theme mentions the need to “revitalize the UN”, it is a candid and welcome acknowledgement that this ultimate multilateral institution has been in the doldrums of late and in danger of becoming moribund. The reasons for this are multifaceted, but go back to the formation of the UN by the victors of WWII, when most of the countries in the world today were colonies of European Empires and had no say in their distribution of internal power. For instance, only China as a developing country has a permanent seat on the 5-member Security Council – along with the US, UK, Russia, and France – which has a veto over decisions of the 193-member General Assembly.
Of recent, the US – especially under President Trump – displayed great skepticism, if not hostility, towards the institution, and balked at accepting its mandate. To his credit, President Joe Biden, in his 30-minute in-person speech, responded to the Secretary General’s caution and insisted that he had no interest in commencing a new Cold War. He expressed eagerness for the U.S. to return to supporting international institutions that prevent conflict. But the UNGA is noted for grand statements, and nations would be looking for those words to be translated into action. That the US has just agreed for Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and entered into an alliance – the Quad – with India, Japan and Australia could only mean that it was concerned about China’s expansion into the Pacific. Not surprisingly, China responded to the meeting of the Quad leaders, which followed their appearances at the UNGA, with a warning not to target any “one country”.
As for Guyana, we have to accept President Biden’s commitment to utilising the auspices of the UN for the peaceful resolution of conflict. We have taken the border controversy initiated by Venezuela as per the terms of the Geneva Agreement signed by that country along with us and Britain, to the UN, which referred it to its Judicial arm – the World Court.
Venezuela’s rejection of that decision does not bode well for peace in our hemisphere, and we expect the US to use its influence to rein in Venezuela’s revanchism.