by Thalif Deen
Bureau Chief and Regional Director IPS North America,
has been covering the U.N. since the late 1970s. A
former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News,
he was a senior editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily,
can be contacted at
A glass door at the Assembly Building
at the United Nations headquarters in New York,
September 18, 2015.
The United Nations will be hosting
six high level plenary meetings - unprecedented even by its own
standards - during the beginning of the 74th session of
the General Assembly in late September.
The meetings are being viewed primarily as an attempt at reviving
multilateral diplomacy at a time when a rash of hard-right
nationalist leaders, including,
President Jair Bolsonaro
Duterte of the Philippines
Viktor Orban of Hungary,
...are either rooting for
authoritarianism, abandoning international treaties or undermining
multilateralism - not necessarily in that order.
Regrettably, they are joined by a fistful of other demagogic leaders
both from the North and the South, including from,
The United Nations is expecting over 180 world leaders, including
foreign ministers and high-ranking government officials, to
participate in the six-day mega event.
The multilateral bodies - and international treaties - that have
taken a beating include,
Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)
the Human Rights
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
the World Trade
Trans Pacific Partnership
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
the Paris Climate
As one delegate puts it:
"It is either a
resurrection of multilateralism or a prelude to an obituary for
Scheduled to take place
September 23-27, the meetings will cover a wide range of political
and socio-economic issues on the UN agenda, including,
development goals (SDGs)
the survival of
small island developing states (SIDS) facing extinction from
rising sea levels...
Speaking to reporters
last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that
multilateralism is under attack from many different directions
precisely "when we need it most."
"In different areas
and for different reasons, the trust of people in their
political establishments, the trust of states among each other,
the trust of many people in international organizations has been
eroded and… multilateralism has been in the fire," he
On the upcoming six
summits, Guterres warned,
"the people of the
world do not want half measures or empty promises. They are
demanding transformative change that is fair and sustainable."
But will the talk-fest
produce concrete results or end up being another political exercise
In an interview with IPS,
Jayantha Dhanapala, a former
Sri Lankan Ambassador and UN Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament
"As we survey the
graveyard of multilateral security, environmental and economic
agreements underpinning the mutually beneficial liberal order,
fires burn 20% of the lungs of the world in the Amazon and even
the Arctic has its tundra burning."
"And the numbers of refugees fleeing violence and persecution
are the highest in recorded history."
With the unrivalled
super-power under the quixotic leadership of
Donald Trump, even developing
countries like the Philippines, Brazil and others have abandoned
global norms, Dhanapala told IPS.
"A rule based
international order is collapsing before our eyes and Britain is
on the brink of a messy Brexit while trade wars ruin Sino-US
trade and drive the world towards a ruinous recession and the
end of sustainable development."
Martin S. Edwards,
Associate Professor and Chair, School of Diplomacy and
International Relations at Seton Hall University told IPS:
"I think you're right
that the depth and breadth of the work that the UN is launching
is more than just symbolic."
Bolsonaro set to address the
General Assembly right before President Trump (on September 24),
their comments will mirror each other, and will be in stark contrast
to many of the other delegates, he added.
But the important thing, he pointed out, is that there's needed
"The US might well
sit out the Climate Action Summit, and that's fine. The work of
the UN and the member countries will go on without it".
As for the Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs), he said, this is a signature UN
initiative that needs more attention and focus.
"The world is not on
track to reach many of these goals, and without greater
commitment by member governments, they are not likely to be met
With the US
disengaged from many of these discussions, it falls to the
Secretary General to recommit leaders to these goals," Edwards
James Paul, a
former executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum,
"This is a time of
great international uncertainty and instability. What does this
mean for the UN as a cluster of high-profile meetings
approaches? And what can we expect from these events?"
"My sense is this:
enthusiasm is now waning at the popular level and posturing
leaders are under increasing pressure from below to deliver
more than rhetoric.
diplomacy may be headed for a much-needed revival, with a
stronger and more egalitarian agenda coming to the fore."
"As we have seen at the recent
G-7 meeting in Biarritz,
leaders are changing course and opting for more cooperation,
though still far less than what is required.
Above all, the
environmental crisis is serving to mobilize public attention and
energized youth are insisting that their voices be heard," said
Paul, author of the recently-released book titled 'Of
Foxes and Chickens - Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN
Greta Thunberg, the dynamic
young Swedish activist, he said, will be at the UN climate meeting
to dramatize the need for common action and to symbolize the
essential role that the UN can play.
Will the leaders act with the seriousness and determination that she
demands? It may be, as climate activists rightly say, our 'last
chance'. No politician will be excused for inaction in such a
The UN has much to offer at this moment in history, Paul declared.
Dhanapala told IPS a gloomy future lies ahead unless a new
leadership replaces the present.
The UN, he argued, has lost its moral influence and not even the
upcoming ritualistic General Assembly gathering of heads of state
can salvage sensible limits on nuclear weapons, conventional weapons
and a new generation of
Lethal Autonomous Weapons or
robotic weapons while negotiating an end to regional wars.
Next year, in 2020, he said, the UN will observe its 75th
anniversary when a new chapter rededicating this unique global body
to the ideals of the Charter opens.
agreements must be negotiated at the planned gatherings without
the charade of rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking Titanic.
The UN has the
creative minds to do this. Can its member states summon the
political will to do so?," he asked.
Edwards said one other
thing that is important to underscore is that these upcoming
meetings will be a real credit to Secretary General Guterres' quiet
He has responded to the President's call for a more minimal
multilateralism by going big, but doing so without the bombast that
is a hallmark of the Trump administration.
So, this might be an interesting inflection point.
The world has proven with
climate that it can move forward without the US.
The question is,
how much this happens
in other areas moving forward?, he asked.
"I like the
attention on Financing for Development (FfD), but
that meeting is probably not going to be a successful as
developing countries raise the issue of G20 broken promises
on foreign aid, and G20 countries are too cheap to admit
it," he declared.