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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Challenging times for UN but General Assembly forum remains vital

By Kerry Boyd Anderson

At this year’s UN General Assembly, delegates will face both old and new challenges. Since last year’s meeting, the world has entered a different phase of the COVID-19 pandemic and has felt the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. While the list of threats and problems facing the UN is long, a few global trends and developments pose particularly pressing short and long-term challenges.

Climate change is already having serious impacts around the world. In addition to the immediate problems, climate change also presents the longest-term risks, as it will shape the world for thousands of years. Furthermore, climate change is a threat multiplier, increasing political, health, social, economic and security risks around the world. The severe and lasting nature of climate change’s direct and indirect consequences must place it at the top of the UN agenda.

Intensifying geostrategic competition between the US, Russia and China is another trend that will shape global security, economics and politics for decades. The US played a crucial role in creating the UN and many of the international system’s norms. However, Beijing seeks to remake the system and Moscow attempts to break it. China’s growing assertiveness on the international stage and the increasingly strained relations between Washington and Beijing will have global repercussions, which will also play out in the halls of the UN.

Russia’s invasion this year represents both increased aggressiveness in Russian foreign policy and a direct threat to the principle of state sovereignty. The UN Charter is based on the fundamental idea of state sovereignty and calls on UN members “to respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of other states.” The war in Ukraine is a direct shot at the heart of that concept. Not only did Russia invade a fellow UN member state, which has happened multiple times since the UN’s creation, but Moscow has actively denied Ukraine’s legitimacy as its own state with its own identity. While Russian-US rivalry has long created problems for the UN, Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine poses a different type of threat to the fundamentals of the UN as an institution, as well as practical problems for global cooperation.

Another huge challenge for the UN stems from the intertwined issues related to human migration, refugees and global demographic imbalance. Many advanced economies are experiencing aging and even shrinking populations, while many developing countries have young and growing populations. For the next two to three decades, the world will see a widening disparity between declining populations in wealthier countries and growing populations in developing countries.

In the longer term, Africa will play a key role as population growth slows in much of the world; the UN has projected that “more than half of global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa.” These imbalances will continue to drive large flows of migration, as people seek out economic and other opportunities — mostly flowing from the Global South to the Global North. While developed countries will need the labor, they will struggle with the inherent political and social changes.

War will continue to drive refugee flows, as people flee places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine in search of safety. Furthermore, climate change will increasingly force people to leave their homes, driving flows within countries and across borders. These trends will increase the need for UN humanitarian aid. Also, as many people flee combinations of violence, natural disasters and poverty, the traditional distinctions between refugees and migrants often break down. The UN has been working to address these shifting realities, but it is a challenging task.

The UN is the primary institution that is capable of promoting the type of cooperation that is necessary to successfully manage global movements of people, with agencies such as the International Organization for Migration, the UN Refugee Agency and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, as well as key international agreements on refugees and migrants. However, these issues touch on very deep identities, as well as economic and political issues, which will make finding solutions very difficult.

Sustainable funding is another massive challenge for the UN. The US is the largest donor to the organization. During Donald Trump’s presidency, his administration cut significant funding for the UN, particularly targeting peacekeeping operations and specific agencies. While President Joe Biden has restored much of that funding and is asking Congress to restore more, the UN cannot assume ongoing US support at traditional funding levels. Furthermore, uncertainty over US funding is not the only challenge, and UN officials have warned of potential future budgetary shortfalls in general, while some specific agencies face more acute shortages. Fundamentally, UN resources are failing to keep pace with growing challenges and needs.

While climate change, great power competition, migration and funding are top challenges facing the UN today, many other global concerns demand attention. These include the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of future pandemics; the pandemic’s impacts, including setbacks in progress for women and girls; multiple conflicts around the world; nuclear weapons proliferation; food insecurity; and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Delegates at the UNGA will discuss these issues and more. Of course, they will not be able to solve all the world’s problems or even its most pressing ones. However, the UN remains the only institution that is capable of bringing the countries of the world together to discuss problems and solutions, giving a voice to countries that do not dominate the global stage and encouraging diplomacy between hostile rivals.(Courtesy Arab NEWS)

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