The 70th Session of the UN General Assembly: Summing up the General Debate

In the 70 years of its existence, the UN has greatly contributed to fighting hunger and poverty, pandemics and aftermath of disasters. However, it has been less effective in preventing regional armed conflicts and maintaining peace.

The 70th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly has so far been the most representative and significant international event in 2015. Over 140 heads of state and government took part in the general debate. Were its results predictable? What will be on the international agenda in the future? 

During the session, participants discussed a wide range of issues, from security matters to humanitarian cooperation. Many speakers voiced misgivings over the growing number of global challenges caused by human activities. President of Uruguay Tabaré Vázquez went as far as to compare the current developments in the world with a mental hospital taken over by the patients. A lot of attention went to the sustainable development agenda until 2030, which was adopted right before the General Assembly session to facilitate a transition to sustainable production and consumption models.

However, the issue that received the most attention was related to coordinating international efforts to combat the Islamic State, which has relegated the main threats since the last session – the spread of the deadly Ebola virus and the Ukraine conflict – to the background. It is true that combatting international terrorism is a priority in the current international environment. Spain and Romania even came forward with an initiative to establish an ad hoc International Tribunal for members of terrorist organizations. But while they were united in calling for ridding Syria and Iraq of terrorist groups, world leaders were not on the same page as to how this should be done. In fact, two antiterrorist alliances have started to take shape, with the US, France, Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other.

As it turns out, the differences among nations are rooted in defining the source of the terrorist threat, as well as ways to neutralize it and restore state authority. For example, the Emir of Qatar said that the spread of terrorism in Syria was a response to the brutal suppression of popular discontent, thereby insinuating that Bashar al-Assad was responsible for the current difficult situation in the country, who, therefore, should no longer remain in power. French President François Hollande took a similar stand, accusing Assad of using barrel bombs against civilians in Syria and questioning the viability of a settlement approach whereby the current Syrian president would contribute to post-war settlement. US President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also came down on the same side of the idea that it was impossible to return to the pre-war status quo between the Syrian government and the opposition. The leaders of Russia and Iran went the opposite way, stressing the need to help the current Syrian authorities. For them, terrorism has resulted from external armed interference into the domestic affairs of a sovereign country, as was the case with the US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although these tentative alliances both have great potential, they will find it extremely challenging to defeat the Islamic State and bring lasting peace to Syria and Iraq without combining their efforts.

The compromise on the Iranian nuclear program was another hotly debated topic at the UN General Assembly. The overwhelming majority of countries approved and supported the deal, praising the agreement as proof that diplomacy actually works. But Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded a dissenting note in his eloquent and emotional statement, calling the deal with Iran a mistake that would lead to dire consequences. Instead of gradually easing economic and trade sanctions against Teheran, the Israeli leader called on the international community to continue pressuring Iran until it fully met its obligations to the IAEA, and, until this happened, not to remove the sanctions. The implementation of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 is expected to continue despite this criticism, with Israel acting as a zealous onlooker.

The issue of economic sanctions was raised quite often by world leaders whose countries were or still are facing restrictive measures. For instance, the Assembly welcomed the US decision to ease trade and economic restrictions against Cuba and restore diplomatic relations. However, both Washington and Havana interpreted the first step in lifting the sanctions and the compromises they had reached to their advantage. In fact, sanctions have been emerging as an increasingly popular foreign policy tool, offering an alternative to military conflicts and hybrid warfare ever since the end of the Second World War. Today, countries like Iran, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Sudan, Russia and Belarus, and a number of others, still face various economic restrictions. Speaking at the General Assembly, representatives of these countries called them illegal and groundless. Presidents Putin and Lukashenko sought to counter this narrative by promoting the idea of “integration of integrations,” i.e. harmonizing regional economic projects. However, this idea failed to resonate in the Assembly.

What do countries like Switzerland, Norway, India, Pakistan and Sierra Leone have in common? Their representatives, along with a number of other countries, during the General Assembly called for far-reaching reform of the UN Security Council. In fact, the future of the UN and its ability to respond to today’s challenges were the key topics of this session. There is no doubt that in the 70 years of its existence, the UN has greatly contributed to fighting hunger and poverty, pandemics and aftermath of disasters. However, it has been less effective in preventing regional armed conflicts and maintaining peace. Every time a permanent member of the UN Security Council was involved in a conflict in one way or another, the whole body proved powerless. France’s proposal to limit the veto right in the UN Security Council when a threat to peace or crimes are at stake, and expand the number of permanent members, has been quite popular with the Assembly. Reforming the UN this way would make its decision-making mechanism more flexible. It would also mean a complete departure from the Yalta-Potsdam system of international relations, for which the veto right and the unchanging composition of UN Security Council were the only remaining pillars. The Security Council reform has been already launched, so it would be a safe bet to predict that by the next anniversary, the UN Security Council will look completely different.
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.