As it celebrated its 75th anniversary last year, the United Nations was at a crossroads. Hemmed in by legacy interests and the clamour for a more inclusive order, the world body, which for decades has been the closest thing to a global government, launched what it described as a global conversation on building a better future for all.
It was a timely initiative but it somehow managed to eskew some issues. In surveys that involved some 1.5 million people across its diverse global membership, the UN wanted the world community to contribute ideas to what they saw as the priority actions for the future. The results were predictable, coalescing around a 12-point agenda that it said could only be only be “addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism.”
“To achieve this, we must think big. We need to reset the foundations and reaffirm the core values that underpin collective action.”
Those values came into sharp focus this week as the UN General Assembly convened for its 76th sitting. Listening to leaders from the developing speak, it was palpable that little had changed in power relations at the world body. The “reinvigorated multilateralism,” that Secretary General Antonio Guterres was touting, appears to have been a euphemism for more convergence among the quintet of the UN’s permanent security members — the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China, on how to contain the rest of the world community.
More than anybody else outside that group, African leaders appear to understand their place in the global pecking order. Speaking in polite and largely conformist terms, none of them dared raise the need for a more equitable distribution of power at the UN Security Council; where outside the five permanent members, the rest of the world plays on the peripherals of a rotational presidency.
It is difficult to imagine how the UN can become more inclusive when the power to make major decisions remains in the hands of a select few. With the exception of China, the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council, account for less than 10 percent of the world population. India and Africa, which between them account for a fifth of global population are yet to find a seat at the high table.
Why is this important? Because the UN has often been used as a veil to sanction unilateral positions. Military intervention aside, the global West has over the years written the rules, hobbling the rise of emerging economies. The World Trade Organisation is one body that has been an instrument of Western hegemony. After practicing centuries of protectionist policies that helped their own economic consolidation, Western powers now want an open trading regime.
In the sustainability debate, t is indisputable that the global West has a monopoly over sustainable energy technologies and the new industrial revolution. Efforts by emerging world players such as China, have run into a barrage of obstacles,
The result is that emerging economies are perpetually trapped into a subordinate role, where they matter only when the feedstock to Western product innovation, is threatened. Until the UN gives emerging economies a say in world affairs, its touted drive for a more inclusive world, will not only sound self-serving but hollow.