2019 UN General Assembly Held Amid Global Crises

Tess Brennan

The 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on September 17th, with the first session of high-level general debate starting on the following Tuesday, September 24th, 2019. This year’s theme is “Galvanizing multilateral efforts for poverty, eradication, quality education, climate action and inclusion”. The General Assembly will conclude on September 30th.

This year’s UNGA kicks off amid a number of pressing international issues. Recent attacks on a Saudi oil facility, the growing environmental crisis, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela are all topics that will make the stakes of this year’s UNGA that much higher.

On September 14th, Saudi Arabia sustained a major attack on one of the country’s oil facilities. According to the Wall Street Journal, the attacks knocked out half of the country’s oil production. Although Yemen’s Houthi rebel group first claimed the attack, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and France all blame Iran (Al Jazeera). U.S. President Donald Trump addressed tensions with Iran in his speech on Tuesday. Although he stated that there were no talks planned between Iran and the United States, he also said that the possibility of such talks was not off the table. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani spoke on Wednesday, attacking U.S. officials for imposing “merciless economic terrorism” on Iran (Al Jazeera). In a powerful statement, President Rouhani said that the gulf region is “on the edge of collapse” (Al Jazeera). These tensions will last much longer than the UNGA, but this forum has given each leader the opportunity to make their intentions and goals clear.

Another major issue in focus during this year’s General Assembly is the current global climate crisis. According to Associated Press, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that he wants climate change to be a central issue. The Climate Action Summit was held on Monday, September 23rd. Al Jazeera reports that more than 60 countries came together to discuss the issue. This summit came after millions of people participated in global climate marches on Friday, September 20th. Many of the marches around the world were led by youth, an effort to get leaders and lawmakers to pay greater attention to the future of our planet. In New York City, 1.1 million public school students were given permission to miss school to attend the march, reports CNN. The New York City march ended with a rally in Battery Park where a number of activists gave speeches. Among the activists was sixteen-year-old Great Thunberg. The Swedish national has gained international recognition for her climate activism and impassioned speeches on the topic. Greta also spoke at the Climate Action Summit on Monday. The first global leader to address the summit was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (Al Jazeera). Unfortunately, Brazil is not setting a global standard for climate action and environmental protections. As fires continue to rage in the Amazon, President Bolsonaro’s economic and environmental policies face constant criticism. According to Al Jazeera, President Bolsonaro used his time at the Climate Action Summit to urge global leaders to respect Brazil’s sovereignty. This was President Bolsonaro’s first appearance at the UNGA.

The humanitarian crisis in Venezuela has also shown to be an important topic for many member states. Sideline talks and meetings were dedicated to addressing this crisis. According to Al Jazeera, “the U.S. and more than a dozen Latin American countries agreed to investigate and arrest associates and senior officials of Maduro’s government who were suspected of crimes including drug trafficking”. Although diplomats did not approve military action, the decision to investigate and potentially arrest individuals is a significant development. President Nicolas Maduro still remains in control of the country’s main institutions, but is no longer considered a legitimate leader by many countries around the world. A number of countries instead recognize Juan Guaido, Maduro’s opposition, as the legitimate leader.

All 193 member states of the United Nations are represented at the UNGA. This year, however, a few notable leaders were missing. Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro are all skipping this year’s General Assembly (Al Jazeera). British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to cut his visit short after a U.K. high court ruled his suspension of Parliament was unlawful.

The United Nations was founded by 51 members countries after World War II. The United Nations has four main goals, established by the UN Charter. These are to (1) maintain international peace and security, (2) develop friendly relations among nations, (3) achieve international cooperation in solving international problems, and (4) be a center for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of these common ends (History.com). The General Assembly is one of six main bodies that make up the UN. The other five are the Security Council, Economic and Social Council, Trusteeship Council, International Court of Justice, and Secretariat.

The UN has, since its founding, been a pillar for multilateral cooperation. Despite this, the organization has also faced criticism. The most major criticism is the United Nation’s inability to exercise hard control over its member countries. When member states ratify UN treaties in their country, they are expected to comply with the terms of the given agreement. When states defect, it can be difficult to punish them. Although the UN has a military force, it is not used for punitive means. UN Peacekeepers are deployed after a Security Council resolution authorizes them. UN Peacekeepers do incredible work, but their purpose is to support missions already in process. Furthermore, no member state is obligated to ratify every treaty put forward by the UN. If a country does not agree with part of the treaty, they simply will not ratify it. This places that country completely out of the realm of UN control. Because many view the UN as an entity without any genuine power, they feel that it is ultimately an ineffective body.

Critics of the UN do not have a baseless argument. Their argument, however, does not hold strong enough reasoning to abandon the UN. The UN is still a strong body that allows for international cooperation. It provides a platform for discourse that can lead to actionable change. The UN also allows international leaders to signal their intentions for policy moving forward. This can produce more positive transnational relationships and partnerships in the future. It can also enable states to hold each other accountable if they default on their promises.

In his speech to the UNGA, President Trump stated that “the future does not belong to globalists, it belongs to patriots” (NPR). President Trump spent a great deal of his time at the podium espousing his “America first” doctrine. This is a worrying message to deliver to a body that works to bring nations together through peaceful means, rather than pull them apart. There are a number of crises today that individual states cannot handle alone. We are seeing a greater need for international cooperation to deal with refugees, the climate, humanitarian abuses, and growing tensions between states. It is in the best interest of global powers to see this year’s UNGA bring about positive change and resolutions. Looking to the future, positive change that comes out of this year’s UNGA can serve as a platform on which to continue building and progressing.