The UN needs some (tough) love

The 64th session of the UN General Assembly started today, with diplomats and leaders from every country in the world travelling to New York to once again try to put the world to rights. As ever, the annual fanfare that marks the beginning of what will be a long season of talks, meetings and committee sessions will begin with a short(ish) speech from the Secretary-General, following by a silent meditation, followed by speeches. A lot of speeches. And from next week, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Chairpersons and other leaders of numerous titles will take to the podium, each voicing their opinions on what should be top of the UN’s agenda.

However, most people won’t be aware of this. News coverage so far has been virtually non-existent, and when it does ramp up, it is of course more likely to focus on what’s bound to be a controversial speech from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than it is on the plight of smaller nations like the Maldives, who come back every year screaming (as loudly as the UN protocol will allow) that climate change threatens their very existence.

Having said that, I’m not surprised or even too concerned about this lack of public awareness of the General Debate. Within the international walls of the UN itself, every speech will play out to a packed out GA, and the issues on the table will be well known and understood by those that are in a position to make the decisions. Also, a lot of the speeches are very boring. Realistically, there are only going to be a few moments that will say something new, and therefore be deemed newsworthy.

What the lack of media coverage does indicate however is how little we seem to care about what goes on in the Glass Building on New York’s 1st Avenue. And why would we? Bureaucracy and political will (or lack of it) hamper the UN’s ability to take meaningful action time and again. Virtual deadlock on the Security Council, where at least one of the P5 (USA, UK, China, Russia or France) vetoes nearly every resolution that could actually make a difference, makes the UN’s main chamber little more than a frustrated talking shop.

But I do love it. It’s a kind of tough love. I genuinely believe that it is an incredible institution and a force for good in the world. The very fact that somewhere like it exists, somewhere which invites people from every corner of the globe to work on making the world a better place, well, it really gives me hope. Where else are the major global issues – climate change, poverty, disease, human rights – going to be tackled? And tackled jointly, meaningfully, and with true international consensus? For these reasons the UN is deserving of our attention if not our support.

But it definitely a prime candidate for some tough love. And with Obama primed to take the stage – it just might get it. My big hope for the General Debate is for the USA to demonstrate that they think the UN is worthwhile. Eight years of a hostile Republican Government has marginalised the UN in the minds of the world’s only super-power, and therefore for the rest of the world. Obama offers a chance for some real commitment to making the UN work, and with the weight of the US behind it, it just might happen. No doubt Obama will have some harsh words for the UN community about reform but I, like everyone else who has worked in the Glass Building, will be hoping those words are under-pinned with a spirit of commitment, vision and hope. God knows the world needs it.

Watch the General Assembly and the General Debate on the UN webcast

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