UN General Debate Underway
Sep. 21, 2016
The UN's general debate, an annual event held before the General Assembly, is underway in New York City. Representatives from the UN's member states are taking turns at the podium, outlining their countries' foreign policies.
Hearing their speeches reveals a lot about the issues that preoccupy the member states and the challenges they face. In addition, this year, the civil war in Syria and turmoil in the Middle East are high on the agenda, as well as North Korea's nuclear development program.
Much attention was focused on the speeches of 2 outgoing leaders.
The debate opened with an address by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Reflecting on his 10-year term, Ban expressed regret over the fact that the UN had repeatedly failed to confront pressing issues. He called for united action.
"Far too often, I have seen widely-supported proposals blocked, in the name of consensus, by a few or sometimes even just one country," Ban said.
Referring to Syria, he expressed displeasure about the deteriorating situation.
"Many groups have killed many innocents -- but none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel-bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees. Powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands," he said.
The UN audience paid special attention to what US President Barack Obama had to say in his last speech to the General Assembly.
"In a place like Syria, where there is no ultimate military victory to be won, we are goanna have to peruse the hard work of diplomacy that aims to stop the violence and deliver aid to those in need and support those who pursue political settlement, and can see those who are not like themselves as worthy of dignity and respect," Obama said.
Obama pointed out that the world faces various problems, including terrorism and refugees fleeing conflict. He warned that aggressive nationalism, religious fundamentalism and populism are gathering strength.
"We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion," he said.
Struggle to Stay Relevant
Much of the general debate has been focused on the civil war in Syria. As world leaders were outlining their countries' foreign policies in their speeches, the situation in the war-torn country was worsening.
The latest ceasefire, which began about a week ago between government and rebel forces was on the verge of collapse. The US and Russian foreign ministers met in New York on Monday but failed to agree on measures to enforce the ceasefire. Concerns are growing that it will collapse just like an earlier ceasefire in February.
The United Nations suspended all aid deliveries in Syria after a deadly attack on a humanitarian convoy near Aleppo on Monday. The trucks were carrying desperately needed supplies to people in besieged areas.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon strongly criticized the 2 sides in the conflict, and the countries that support them. He didn't hesitate to say that those who supported the opposing sides in the conflict had "blood on their hands" -- unusually harsh words from the world's top diplomat.
The war in Syria has been raging for 5 years and the UN Security Council has been powerless to do anything meaningful to stop it.
Western countries accused the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of targeting civilians. But Russia, which supports him, blocked resolutions condemning and sanctioning the regime.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State group took advantage of the confusion to expand its territory in Syria. Militants aligned with the group have been carrying out terrorist attacks in many countries.
The UN has tried to negotiate an end to the Syrian conflict and prevent further terrorist attacks.
The world body sent its envoy, Staffan de Mistura, to try to broker a deal between Russia and the US. Throughout his long career he has worked in many trouble spots, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last November, de Mistura invited the foreign ministers from several countries to Vienna to discuss the conflict. They hammered out draft agreements for a ceasefire and a new government. De Mistura's hard work paid off when the US and Russia signed on.
"The clear intention is to have a political process and negotiation connected with the ceasefire, the sooner the better," de Mistura said.
The Security Council was able for the first time to unanimously pass a resolution aimed at ending the Syrian civil war.
"People in Syria have suffered enough. I call for you to show vision, a leadership and overcoming your differences," said UN Secretary-General
In January, the Assad regime and the rebels began peace talks for the first time in 2 years and de Mistura shuttled tirelessly between the sides.
The US and Russia eventually helped cobble together a ceasefire in February, but fierce fighting soon broke out again around the northern city of Aleppo.
As the UN peace talks stalled, deadly attacks in a new form heightened around the world. Bomb blasts and shootings at a Turkish airport in June killed over 40 people. The following month, militants targeted foreigners in a deadly attack in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. In the south of France, a man used a truck to mow down crowds celebrating Bastille Day, and scores were killed.
The UN has not been able to do much to fight these militants.
Security Council Reform Needed
The crisis in Syria is seen as another example of the ineffectiveness of the United Nations, notably the Security Council. It's only natural for someone to wonder how the world body -- that was established to maintain peace -- can allow such a tragedy to continue for years.
Because of these examples, and more so because the world has changed so much since the UN was founded 71 years ago, there is a growing understanding for a need to reshape the Security Council to reflect the reality of the current world.
Up until now, conflicting interests of the member states have blocked many proposals aimed at Security Council reform. In fact, in order to amend the UN charter, it requires approval from more than two-thirds of the UN member states and from all the permanent members of the Security Council.
Japan has been one of the most vocal voices for Security Council reform. Since the country joined the UN 60 years ago, it has been elected as a non-permanent member 11 times, more than any other country, and it has long sought to become a permanent member.
We spoke with a former Japanese diplomat to find out what's behind Japan’s bid. Kiyotaka Akasaka is a former Japanese diplomat who worked as the head of the UN Department of Public Information under the secretary general. He believes reforming the Security Council membership is a crucial matter for both the UN and Japan.
"I believe that the Security Council reform is overdue," he says. "It’s urgent for Japan to take a bolder initiative right now."
Calls for reform began to intensify just before the UN celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2005. It was a time when the world body, under then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, was seen as losing its significance. Two years earlier, the UN had come under criticism for failing to stop the US invasion of Iraq.
"My hope is that world leaders when they arrive here in September, will be ready to take the decisions that are needed," Annan said.
Japan teamed up with 3 other nations aspiring for permanent membership -- Germany, India, and Brazil. The so-called G4 group demanded that, for permanent membership, 6 more seats be added to the current 5. The 2 additional seats would go to African countries. But, the group stopped short of requiring veto power for the 6 new seats, at least for a while.
However, countries neighboring the G4 countries strongly opposed the idea. They didn't want permanent seats going to their regional rivals. Instead, they proposed an expansion of non-permanent seats.
The G4 hoped to win the support of African nations that make up a quarter of UN members. But the African countries brought their own proposal that was different from that of the G4. They wanted the new permanent members to have veto power, as do the original 5.
Some of the permanent members were highly critical of the G4’s move to gain the support of African nations. In the end, the G4 motion failed to be put to the vote by the end of the 2005 General Assembly.
"Of course there are a small number of groups, a small number of countries which are not in favor of that idea," Akasaka says. "And consensus is very difficult to reach on all of them."
But the discussions continued and last year, Japanese Prime Minister Abe met with the leaders of the other countries that form the G4 group and pushed for progress by the end of the year's session.
"I would like to see Security Council reform realized. I want to start sending our message to the world that Japan is determined to change the UN so that it is better suited for the 21st century," Abe said.
But China and other countries remain critical of these moves.
"These discussions are not constructive and are only deepening the gap between nations," said China's Ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi.
Akasaka thinks Japan should consider an alternative proposal to the original G4 plan. He supports the idea to extend terms for non-permanent members. The period is currently set at 2 years. It's renewable -- with a minimum one-year break in between.
By extending the term and making it possible for a country to be elected without a break, non-permanent members could continue to participate in the discussions on international security issues.
"We have been aiming at getting the first-class position as the permanent member of the Security Council. We may have to be content with being able to sit in the business-class seat. If not, economy class," Akasaka says.
He says that if the discussions do not conclude soon, Japan will have lost its chance to become a permanent council member.
"Japanese financial contribution to the UN used to be more than 20 percent, but now less than 10 percent," Akasaka says. "Right now, still Japan enjoys quite large support of many countries for the idea of Japan should become a permanent member of the Security Council. But as we are becoming smaller, our influence decline. In 10 or 15 years, or 20 years for that matter, Japan may not be able to be seen as a country which can be a permanent member."