The Blog

How the UN General Assembly Can Make Itself Relevant to the Key Challenges of the 21st Century

Unusually, the UN General Assembly (GA) has been in media headlines in recent days. In response to recent spying allegations, German and Brazilian diplomats formally presented a resolution on Thursday November 7 to the GA urging all countries to extend internationally guaranteed rights to privacy to the internet and other electronic communications. Meanwhile, the GA voted overwhelmingly late last month, for the 22nd year in a row, to condemn the US embargo against Cuba.

While this has temporarily brought the GA into the public eye, the institution unfortunately still lacks much relevance. Tragically, it has so far completely failed to live up to the original expectations of its mandate.

It is perhaps instructive here to imagine an alien travelling from outer space to visit planet earth. Having thoroughly studied the UN Charter, since almost all states are members of this organisation, said alien might look forward to witness the annual session of the GA.

Because based on what the Charter asserts, the GA is the central organ in the UN system; all member states are a member of the GA; it has the right of budget approval; it plays crucial roles in key-appointments and it can cover all major topics relating to the societal challenges of our times. And member-states almost continuously declare the GA to be the main deliberative, policy-making and representative organ of the UN.

The key question is therefore why the GA is not continuously at the centre of international debate of major societal challenges like poverty, development, food, water, energy, climate, environment, health, and urbanisation? From this prism, it is puzzling that only at irregular intervals does the GA address these issues in the form of a Summit or Special Session.

The explanation for this conundrum is at least three fold: cognition (culture and attitude), content (agenda setting), and constitution (organisational matters). Only if the GA tackles these issues will it become relevant to challenges of the twenty first century.

Firstly and foremostly, cognition (meaning the psychological result of perception) plays a role both at the state-level as well as the level of the individual UN-diplomat. At the state level, the UN still seems to be in a process of absorbing the outcomes of decolonisation. A lot of debate is inspired by mistrust against the Western world.

At the same time the West has not very well adapted its language and attitude in recent years to the recent realities of global shifts of power to emerging markets. Taken overall, the UN is thus still very much a stunted North-South platform.

Unfortunately, this psychology is supported by a similar type of cognition at the level of individual UN diplomats. Most senior UN-diplomats have served at the UN earlier in their careers and therefore their frame of reference tends to support conservatism regarding views and procedures.

Secondly, on the constitutional front, much of the Charter is devoted to keeping the GA in check vis a vis the Security Council. A 1-year GA presidency, very limited enforcement powers, and very little flexibility within the UN system limits the effectiveness of the GA.

Thirdly, content in the GA is to a large extent determined by a heavy agenda, loaded with repetitive issues, leaving little room and flexibility to take up new and urgent topics. One would expect the GA to shape an agenda utterly relevant for the kind of societal challenges which are key drivers for policy making, economic activity and scientific research.

The societal challenges of our time are by nature cross border and cannot all be solved by individual governments alone. To this end, international communities are being formed in all sorts of fora -- the scientific community being a very important one -- to generate facts, discuss and advise on courses to take. These trends will become increasingly influential, and even decisive sometimes, in the policy choices of governments going forward.

To be sure, there has been some reform and modest improvement of the GA over the last decade. Measures for smoother transition of presidencies have been introduced; the institutional memory of the Office of the President has been improved; the Security Council is reporting to the GA; and some streamlining in the agenda has been achieved.

But this is not enough. Hence it is increasingly urgent for the GA to overcome the legacy of the past and embrace the future more wholeheartedly.

A future agenda on content and constitution includes: more Summits and Special Sessions which specify an ambitious working agenda for the GA; the organisation of more thematic debates within the context of key societal challenges (and assigning a role to the General Committee on this), extending the tenure of the GA president from 1 to 3 years; funding the Office of the President at adequate levels; and eliminating the duplication in Committees and the GA.

However, such policy options will only have a limited effect if the issue of cognition is not addressed. That is, how to shape a genuinely and truly common interest in the success of the UN at large.

Ultimately, this fundamental issue will probably not be solved from within the UN system. Instead, it will be forced as a result of new trends in collective deliberation and decision making, especially Massive Open Online Deliberations (MOODs), outside the UN.

If these fora are embraced, they could be the decisive trigger that brings a much needed cognition change into the UN system. However, until this happens, the brutal reality is that physical meetings of diplomats in New York will increasingly fade into irrelevance.