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U.N. Faces Threat of Irrelevancy Amid Big Power Politics

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 2010 (IPS) - The 192-member General Assembly began its 65th session under a perceived new threat: that the United Nations is being overshadowed by a more powerful body, the G20.

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly Thursday. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly Thursday. Credit: UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

Judging by remarks on opening day, there seems to be a lingering fear the world body may be steadily heading towards irrelevancy.

In his address to the General Assembly Thursday, U.S. President Barack Obama implicitly assigned four specific areas as most relevant to the United Nations: human rights, gender empowerment, good governance and peacekeeping.

The G20, he asserted, would be the “focal point for international coordination”.

Joseph Deiss, the president of the General Assembly, pointedly warned that “The United Nations is in danger of being marginalised by the emergence of other actors on the international stage.”

He said the world body has been criticised as being “too inefficient and ineffective”.

“The feeling is that a decision on urgent action can be taken more easily and quickly in a smaller forum,” said Deiss, a former president of the Swiss Confederation.

The “smaller forum” – namely the G20 – is currently one of the most powerful political bodies outside the United Nations.

“We must be clear,” said Deiss in a nod to the G20, “there is no question of challenging the role that bodies like the G20 can play. The economic and financial crisis has shown the importance of a fast coordinated response.”

The G20, founded in 1999, includes the former G8 most industrialised nations – namely the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada and Russia – as well as Australia, Mexico, South Korea, Turkey, and seven developing countries – Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa – plus the European Union.

Celso Amorim, the foreign minister of Brazil, one of the members of the G20, told the opening session of the General Assembly that the G20 was “a step forward”. Still, he decried the presence of only one African nation in the G20. “The Group must be adjusted to ensure greater African participation,” he added.

Amorim said the G20’s “relevance and legitimacy” can only be preserved if it maintains frank and permanent dialogue with all the 192 nations represented in the General Assembly.

As Brazilian President Lula da Silva has often stated, multilateralism is the international face of democracy, he added.

“And the United Nations,” Amorim declared, “must be at the main centre of decision-making in international politics.”

In his speech, Obama also reiterated the fact that the G20 is “the focal point for international coordination because in a world where prosperity is more diffuse, we must broaden our circle of cooperation to include emerging economies.”

But what Obama left unsaid was more significant than what he said about the world body.

The United Nations, he said, “can still play an indispensable role in the advance of human rights.”

“It’s time to welcome the efforts of U.N. Women to protect the rights of women around the globe. It’s time for every member state to open its elections to international monitors, and to increase the U.N. Democracy Fund,” Obama said.

He said it’s time to reinvigorate U.N. peacekeeping, “so that missions have the resources necessary to succeed, and so atrocities like sexual violence are prevented and justice is enforced – because neither dignity nor democracy can thrive without basic security.”

Responding to Obama’s statement, Phyllis Bennis, director of the New Internationalism Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, told IPS the U.S. president made clear his view that “the United Nations is no longer the major actor in the world”.

He made clear in his class assignment to the General Assembly that the U.N.’s subjects are transparency, corruption, support for civil society, and technology.

Grudgingly he acknowledged that the United Nations can still play a role in human rights but he would limit that role to U.N. Women, the U.N. Democracy Fund, and maybe U.N. peacekeeping, she pointed out.

“So it’s clear he sees no role for the U.N. as the fulcrum of multilateralism, nor does he see the U.N. Charter as the core of international law,” said Bennis, author of several books on the United Nations and on U.S. foreign policy, including the recently-released ‘Ending the US War in Afghanistan: A Primer.’

Bennis said while much of Obama’s speech focused on the Palestinian-Israeli crisis, including what various parties should do, he did not call for greater U.N. engagement at all.

“To the contrary, it was only in the context of Iran that he referred to international law, stating that it is not an empty promise, while making clear through omission that international law was indeed an empty promise when it comes to holding Israel accountable for its occupation and its other violations of international law,” Bennis noted.

She also warned there is indeed a huge danger looming in the political horizon.

Starting with the Kosovo crisis, the United States used the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to replace the Security Council’s charter-mandated role in approving war.

The G8 and to some degree the G20 indeed pose a threat to the U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) in making decisions for global development, she said.

Obama’s accord on climate change in Copenhagen certainly undermined the U.N.’s own climate crisis response process, Bennis asserted.

“Perhaps most egregiously, a decade ago the United States launched what has become a pattern of creating coalitions of the alleged willing (in fact, coalitions of the coerced) to legitimise thoroughly unilateral U.S. wars against Afghanistan and then Iraq,” she said.

There is a great danger of the United Nations being sidelined into irrelevancy by U.S.-controlled false multilateralism, Bennis declared.

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