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Doing the world’s ‘toughest job’

Doing the world’s ‘toughest job’

The United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG) is the world’s top diplomat. The UNSG’s job is often described as the “toughest job in the world,” a sentiment passed down from the inaugural Secretary-General to his successors. The incumbent UNSG Antonio Guterres is the ninth individual to hold this esteemed position. He formally took office on 1 Jan 2017. Currently in his second term, Secretary-General Guterres is upholding the longstanding tradition of visiting Nepal, including a visit to Lumbini—the birthplace of Gautam Buddha—enlightened son of Nepal. His predecessor Ban Ki-Moon visited Nepal in 2008 and addressed the Constituent Assembly, which was engaged with the task of drafting a constitution. The UN facilitated the peace process by providing technical and electoral support. The intergovernmental organization remains as a valuable development partner for Nepal. 

The present visit comes on the invitation of the Prime Minister of Nepal.  His visit from Oct 29 to Nov 1 signifies a continued commitment to fostering international cooperation and addressing global challenges. As per the press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Oct 27, the Secretary-General will address the joint session of the Federal Parliament on Oct 31. The first-hand observation of the impacts of climate change on the Himalayas and a brief conversation with the affected communities are also on his itinerary.  

Immediately after arrival on Oct 29, he had meetings with Minister for Foreign Affairs, Narayan Prakash Saud, and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal where he discussed matters, including Nepal’s ongoing peace process, graduation to the status of a developing country from the category of Least Developed Countries, advancement toward the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and the mitigation of climate change impact. Nepal faces the impact of climate change disproportionately. 

The Prime Minister assured the UNSG of Nepal’s commitment to bringing transitional justice process to a logical conclusion through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappeared Persons in accordance with the rulings and directives of the Supreme Court, related international conventions, and concerns and interests of the victims.  

The UNSG also had separate meetings with former Prime Minister and Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba, and opposition leader in the House of Representatives and Chair of the CPN-UML. The meetings reportedly centered on concluding the peace process and addressing the impacts of climate change.  

The UN Security Council (UNSC) picks up UNSG. It means all five permanent members of the UNSC have to agree on the candidate. Mainly the US and Russia have a great deal of sway over the selection. Guterres assumed the office of UN Secretary-General on 1 Jan 2017. He is a former Prime Minister of Portugal and has worked as the chief of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, one of the most essential UN bodies. As a matured and most experienced politician turned world’s top diplomat, he has a fair knowledge of the inner workings of the UN’s cumbersome bureaucracy. He is multilingual and articulate and is considered decent and able, pragmatic and principled.  

Secretary-General Guterres heads the UN at a time when the world body stands at a crossroads, facing the worst institutional crisis. The world body has been made feeble and bypassed in most of the cases. However, the UN, made up of 193 sovereign member-states, has the widest reach, heaviest weight, and global legitimacy. There is no substitute to the universality and unique legitimacy that comes from the United Nations. The UN incorporates the “collective will” of member-states.  Member-states exercise their rights of sovereign equality under the UN Charter, which also acts as the guardian of “inadmissibility of interference” in their internal affairs. 

The UN is a forum where every country presents its national policy, perspectives and positions on contemporary global issues.  It is where there is sovereign equality of nations. The UNSG draws attention to the plight of the poor, the sick and the victims of war. The UN is also a forum where 193 members are often found querulous and demanding on the organizations. Every member country is apparently determined to put national interests before the common good.  

There are institutional limitations to address all their concerns and demands. The UN and UNSG can only influence when permanent five-strong states cooperate, and allow the world body to perform. US President Harry Truman is quoted to have said, “No matter how great our strength, we must deny ourselves the license to always do as we please.” 

Great powers can make the UN work or frustrate all its efforts. If great powers see no economic value or strategic importance, they show callous indifference to the principles and purposes of the UN Charter. Rwanda is one such example. 

The UNSG, though the world’s top diplomat, is the servant of the politically powerful. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, delivering a series of high-profile speeches in his final days at the office, said, “America is not working better with other countries—sees it as a lament that might be seen as a sign of his own frustrations, (The Economist, 18 Dec 2006). When the UNSC did not endorse America and its allies for invasion of Iraq in 2003, hostility with the United Nations grew in Washington. Putting all shortcomings or non-performances of individual states at the doors of the UN and its Secretary-General, often referred to as a “scapegoat” (SG)—a phrase attributed to a former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, does no justice to the office of the UN Secretary-General. The crucial failure of political will on part of the member-states should not be attributed as the fault of UNSG. 

The three pillars

The United Nations has three pillars consisting of economic development, human rights and making and keeping peace. UNSG acts often as a cajoler and fixer, not a global boss. Acting as a neutral arbiter for stopping death and destruction and preventive diplomacy is what the UN does. 

Member-states work within the United Nations to project their positions and use their ability to attract and persuade others to accept their positions, which is often called “soft power.” The United Nations, with all imposed structural imperfections, has no hard or coercive power. But it is the UN that has the universality, legitimacy and acceptability where sovereign states come together, share burdens, address common problems and seize opportunities. 

It was within the vital framework of the principles and purposes of the UN Charter that G20 found a way out to bring warring countries  on board and agree on the most contentious issue—Ukraine. This shows it is up to the member-states what they want to make of the UN—an effective organization or incompetent or a prisoner of rivalries. 

Problems sans passports

The world is simultaneously confronting challenges on all fronts in an age of “problems without passports,” like climate crises, persistent poverty and inequality, pandemic, populism, communalism, growing intolerance and transnational crimes. The world confronted coronavirus and saw havoc with even great powers struggling with serious health problems of their people. The divides growing between the poor and rich, lower and middle-income countries were the most alarming signs.  

The world is burdened with several crises ranging from the Ukraine war to Hamas-Israel war to transnational challenges. There is a development crisis. Desertification is increasing, environmental degradation is staring at us amidst a scarcity of resources. The pervasiveness of poverty is often referred to as “bottom billion.” 

Global problems require global solutions. Complex problems must be dealt comprehensively, in their full economic, social and political dimensions. As no other institutions exist in pursuit of global commons and global good, the UN is the only institution to have global legitimacy. Unilateralism has proved ineffective. Multilateralism with the UN at the center seems to be the only way forward. 

The UN Charter long ago noted that peace and security depend on the social and economic advancement of people. It is often seen that the UN has tackled challenges rhetorically, contributing to its reputation as a talking shop. The UN should rediscover the principle of pragmatism, which is hard work for a real political pragmatism.  The theme chosen for the 78th UNGA this year has been “rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity” to accelerate action to speed up the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agenda has 17 goals ranging from combating climate change to eliminating hunger and poverty to achieving gender equality, and promoting social welfare. This set of goals was adopted in 2015 to realize them by 2030, after the MDGs (Millennium Development Goals), adopted in Sept 2000 at the UN Millennium Summit reached their deadline.  

The graduation plan

The UN website describes SDGs to be in deep peril, with more people in extreme poverty, development reversing under the combined impacts of climate disasters, conflict, economic downturns and lingering covid-19 effects. As the country plans to graduate to developing status from Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) status by 2026, the issue of how to make the graduation sustainable and irreversible should figure in discussions with the UNSG.   

Global power is making a historic transition to Asia based on the growth of Nepal’s neighbors—China followed by India. Geopolitical tensions and rivalries are rising to their prominence in Asia and Nepal’s neighborhood. There is a clear distraction from pressing problems, as politics has become explosive and populist, diplomacy, too, stands like a minefield.  Nepal has to be extraordinarily and exceptionally careful and show its wisdom in securing national space and ensuring a decent life for its people. 

Nepal formally joined the United Nations in 1955. Over the years, Nepal has shown unwavering commitment and support to the principles and purposes of the UN Charter and unflinching faith in multilateralism.  The foreign policy of Nepal, as Prime Minister BP Koirala said while addressing the 15th UNGA-1960, “is fully inspired by the principles and purposes of the United Nations’ Charter. We regard the United Nations not only as a bulwark of our independence and security, but also as the protector of our rights and freedom.” 

Nepal’s participation at the highest level at the UNGA and contributions to peacekeeping missions under the aegis of the UN for the cause of global peace and security is a part of this tradition.  Currently, 6308 Nepali peacekeepers are deployed in 13 missions in troubled spots around the world. Nepal ranks first in sending women peacekeepers and second as troops contributing country under the aegis of the UN. 

Time for a revamped UN

The structure of the world body including its main component UNSC does not reflect the existing geopolitical, demographic and economic realities. However, the UN is essential to the world in which we live. The only alternative is to have a more effective and functioning United Nations. 

There is no room for bullying tactics and confrontational style in the 21st century. Without support from 193 member-states, UNSG can do little, and “cut the mustard,” restore excellence, integrity and pride, and make the organization more relevant and effective to the present needs of its members. The job of the UNSG has been described by the inaugural incumbent as “the most impossible task on earth.” Some SGs have been more a doer than a communicator.  

The refugee crisis

As a UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the current Secretary-General facilitated the process of the third-country resettlement of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in Europe and America. Bhutan had forcibly evicted these people in the 1980s and 90s.  Resettlement process in different countries was carried out in consultations and coordination with the UN and concerned countries. There are over 6000 refugees remaining in the refugee camps. Either they should return home in dignity or resettled in third countries. It would not be out of place and context to raise the issue with the visiting dignitary, who is fully familiar with the crux of the problem. 

The author is a former Nepali ambassador/PR to the UN