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Opinion

October 3, 2015

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New York’s annual ‘carnival’

The month of September every year comes and goes without changing anything in our turbulent world, but for the world’s leaders it brings the season of a ‘global carnival’ that takes place with lot of fête and frolic in the ‘capital’ of the world, New York, with almost the entire leadership from across the globe descending on this already crowded and congested city, and bringing its normally pulsating life to a chaotic standstill.
For nearly two weeks at this time of the year, the Big Apple, as New Yorkers like to fondly call their city, is paralysed with extraordinary traffic logjams and security gridlocks. It also becomes a big bazaar where a lot of money is spent in the name of the world’s poor and for peace. The United Nations is the centre stage of this carnival where the world’s majesties, sheikhs, sultans, emirs, khalifas, princes, crown princes, democrats, autocrats and dictators assemble in a gala-like mood trying to take a break from the worries of their lives back home.
Their programme normally kicks off at a breakfast hosted by the UN secretary-general at the UN headquarters with a lavish global menu of all sorts. Annually, on the sidelines of the UNGA session, a series of luncheons, receptions, banquets as well as a flurry of ‘bilaterals’ are held that keep them terribly busy with each other. Six to seven course meals are served on these occasions in top seven-star hotels of the city in the name of the world’s poor and hungry. These so-called bilaterals are no more than carefully choreographed photo-ops for media consumption back home only to show how important and busy their leaders are on the global scene.
The world’s leaders when in New York are keen to get things done quickly, only to be seen discussing ‘serious’ matters with their counterparts. The only real UN-related official engagement of world leaders is the ‘general debate’ in which each participating leader delivers a prepared 10-15 minutes long

written statement from the podium of the General Assembly. These eloquent statements so made are only a rehash of the ‘words of wisdom’ that world leaders have been showering upon humanity for years on issues of global importance with little relevance to the clout or role of their own countries.
In these rhetorical deliveries, we hear a lot of good things about our future in terms of peace and prosperity, and about mankind’s freedom from all evils. High-sounding reaffirmations are made on the need to reshape the UN in conformity with the realities of the changed world to make it more effective and more representative universally. But once they return to their respective countries, all these ‘pearls of wisdom’ are consigned into the UN’s ever-swelling archives. They literally become history. The dictum ‘They came, they spoke and they left’ is what best describes this global talk-shop organised every year since the UN was created at the end of the Second World War as ‘mankind’s last best hope’.
Woefully, it’s not even the ‘least best hope’ for mankind today. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Neither the world nor the UN has shown any change for the better. Both are no different from what they have been since after the Second World War. The Iron Curtain is no longer there, but the poverty curtain still cuts cut across the face of this earth dividing humanity between two unequal halves – one embarrassingly rich and the other desperately poor. Global peace remains as elusive as ever. The world remains afflicted with the same old problems, perhaps in their acutest form. Injustice and oppression remain unabated.
Historical grievances and outstanding disputes remain unaddressed. Wars of aggression and attrition, invasions in the name of self-defence, military occupations, human tragedies and humanitarian catastrophes, and a culture of extremism and violence now define the ‘world disorder’.
What aggravates this bleak scenario is the growing inability of the international community to respond to these challenges with unity of purpose. The events of the last decade or so have immeasurably shaken the international system, which is no longer governed by the rule of law and basic norms of inter-state relations. Might, always considered wrong, has never been claimed to be so right.
The complacent world has never been so indifferent and so chaotic. The post-9/11 world has seen unprecedented erosion in the role, authority and credibility of the UN, which is no longer the sole meaningful arbiter on issues of global importance. Washington, not New York, is the focus of world attention for actual decision-making on major global issues.
The UN was meant to provide a moral edifice in the reordering of the global system, which was to be based on justice and equity and governed by rules, laws, values and cooperation. It has neither prevented wars nor resolved major outstanding disputes including the Palestine and Kashmir issues. They represent a glaring example of the UN’s helplessness.
Indeed, the UN today has lost its role and relevance on issues of global peace and security. It is no more than a debating club holding sessions and producing voluminous and repetitive resolutions without any follow-up action. The UN Security Council, responsible under the charter for maintenance of international peace and security, is also left with no role in preventing conflicts or resolving disputes. Its deliberations are conducted in a theatrical manner through stage-managed debates and choreographed scenarios.
The Security Council’s open meetings are merely a farce, a managed talk show in which member states are heard, not listened to. Transparency and legality are no longer the norm in the council’s proceedings. The overriding vested interests of the more influential and more powerful players limit the Security Council’s role in conflict prevention and dispute resolution. Decisions on critical issues are made among the Big Five behind closed doors in the council’s anterooms. No wonder, the people of Kashmir and Palestine are still languishing under military occupations in total breach of the UN resolutions and the cardinal principle of the right of self-determination enshrined in the UN Charter.
If the UN of the 21st Century has to be prevented from meeting the fate of its predecessor, the League of Nations, its structure and culture will have to be adapted to the realities and challenges of today’s changed world. This would require restoration of the primacy of the General Assembly as the UN’s chief policymaking organ, and restructuring of the Security Council to make it more representative and more effective. The UN must also shed its vestiges of power and privilege which are the remnants of World War II realpolitik. The democratic principle of sovereign equality must now be the basis of its strength and participatory character.
What is needed is an attitudinal change on the part of UN member-states. Instead of squandering resources and energies in ‘gala sessions’ or ‘special summits’ indulging in meaningless and ritualistic debates and churning out voluminous repetitive documents, they must join together in a genuine comprehensive reform process aimed at restoring the UN’s role and relevance as an effective instrument of international legality. Business as usual will not do.
The writer is a former foreign secretary.
Email: [email protected]

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