Global failure
FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa (The Philippine Star) - September 26, 2020 - 12:00am

For the 75th time the United Nations General Assembly convened last week but it was different this time – different and deeply disappointing.

This is a time of unprecedented crisis. “Today, we face our own 1945 moment,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in his opening address. He was speaking to a hall that was all but empty, unlike every previous session. This year’s GA was billed as the world’s worst Zoom meeting. COVID-19 denied the world’s political leaders the opportunity for the usual annual scrum, saved taxpayers a lot of money and saved the earth a whole lot of carbon emissions. All good things, but the inability of the so-called international community to deal with urgent international matters was all the more stark.

Guterres was referring to the moment 75 years ago when that generation of leaders who had survived the Second World War formed the United Nations in an effort to shape a new world after so much death and destruction. In referring to it, Guterres was making a call to action for nations to respond to the extraordinary crises of the day such as the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, but our leaders displayed their unwillingness to respond.

Consider these lines from the address made by then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the opening of the first UN General Assembly.

“The peoples of the world know that there can be no real peace unless it is peace with justice for all – justice for small nations and for large nations and justice for individuals without distinction as to race, creed or color – a peace that will advance, not retard, the attainment of the four freedoms… The highest obligation of this Assembly is to speak for all mankind in such a way as to promote the unity of all members in behalf of a peace that will be lasting because it is grounded upon justice.”

Fast forward to 2020 and this is part of what current US President Donald Trump had to say, via recorded video address (delivered inexplicably rapidly):

“Seventy-five years after the end of World War II and the founding of the United Nations, we are once again engaged in a great global struggle. We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy – the China virus – which has claimed countless lives in 188 countries… We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China…

“For decades, the same tired voices proposed the same failed solutions, pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people. But only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis for cooperation. As President, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That’s OK – that’s what you should be doing.”

This is some of China President Xi Jinping’s subsequent address :

“COVID-19 reminds us that we are living in an interconnected global village with a common stake. All countries are closely connected and we share a common future. No country can gain from others’ difficulties or maintain stability by taking advantage of others’ troubles. To pursue a beggar-thy-neighbor policy or just watch from a safe distance when others are in danger will eventually land one in the same trouble faced by others. This is why we should embrace the vision of a community with a shared future in which everyone is bound together. We should reject attempts to build blocs to keep others out and oppose a zero-sum approach. We should see each other as members of the same big family, pursue win-win cooperation and rise above ideological disputes and do not fall into the trap of ‘clash of civilizations’.”

The meeting is called the “General Debate” but COVID-19 prevented any real discussions or valuable opportunities for face-to-face diplomacy. The leaders’ speeches were introduced by their representative from their seat in the vast general assembly chamber, after which the leader’s talk was displayed on giant screens set up behind the green marble podium where the speeches would have been delivered, if not for the pandemic. The impression was of world leaders talking past each other, often playing to domestic concerns rather than getting to grips with the very real and difficult challenges. It all raises the question of whether the UN at 75 is fit for the purpose spelled out at its founding.

It is a profound failure that there is no global plan in response to a pandemic that does not respect borders and is laying waste to lives and livelihoods everywhere. As Guterres, and many others, pointed out, no one is safe until everyone is safe. He said the kind of coordinated effort the world saw in 1945 to recover from World War 2 would be needed to defeat COVID and the climate emergency. But Guterres also acknowledged the deep rift between the US and China that is preventing precisely that.

1945 was also the starting point of the cold war, and it is mirrored in 2020 by the rapidly escalating US-China rivalry that the UN Secretary General said is taking the world in “a very dangerous direction.”

I watched and listened to the General Assembly while on Zoom to New York City myself, because I was asked to host the first Global Impact Forum being held on the sidelines of the Assembly by the Global Compact. It showcased the UN’s programs in partnership with businesses around the world to achieve the internationally agreed Global Goals. Away from the big names in geopolitics, these were the big names in business, like the CEOs of Coca-Cola, 3M and Natura. It was extraordinary to hear these giants of capitalism, dedicated to the pursuit of profit, speak in such an engaged manner about the importance of working together to reach the goals seen as the blueprint for a better, sustainable future for the world such as no poverty; zero hunger; good health and well-being; and peace, justice and strong institutions.

If development, like power, abhors a vacuum, the private sector and civil society showed themselves as ready to fill the void but without political leadership it will take far longer, risking the lives and prospects of millions of humans unnecessarily.

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