By Owei Lakemfa
The United Nations, UN, commenced activities marking its 75th Anniversary on Monday, September 21, buoyed with floods of mainly congratulatory speeches in a world drenched in increasing despair and cynicism.
Its predecessor, the League of Nations had been born on June 28, 1919 under the Versailles Peace Treaty which ended World War I. Thirteen of the 15 parts of the Treaty, punished defeated Germany. The Treaty forced the disarmament of Germany, imposed on it heavy reparations, seized some of its territories and gave them to Poland, Czechoslovakia and Belgium.
They also confiscated (instead of granting independence) to Germany’s colonies in China, the Pacific and Africa. These included Togo, Cameroun, Namibia and Tanganyika( Now part of Tanzania) and Botswana.
However, the League of Nations was consumed in the hellfire-like flames of the second European conflagration in 22 years which the conquerors styled the Second World War.
In truth, it was not the world that was at war; rather, the Europeans with their American cousins who had conquered the world as colonialists were settling their final scores in a bestial war in which they dragged the rest of humanity.
We in Africa fought on both sides of that war as objects of our various colonial masters and some of the hottest battles took place in colonies like Myanmar (The Burma War).
Some of the fiercest battles were fought in North Africa where the Germans led by the colourful “Desert Fox”, Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, locked horns with the British led by Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery.
After the Second World War in 1945, some countries met to sign the UN Charter in San Francisco, United States, based on the principles of equality, human rights for all, peace, security and development in a shared world. Ironically, for the first time in its history, the UN could not gather in New York this year for its annual General Assembly due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Immediate Past President of the Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria explained that: “World leaders cannot come to New York because they cannot come simply as individuals. A President doesn’t travel alone, leaders don’t travel alone” and it is impossible to bring large delegations to New York.
World leaders were, therefore, enjoined to make pre-recorded video speeches for virtual meetings based on the theme: ‘The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism’.
The UN is about nations uniting for universal good, but to borrow a phrase the Nigerian Presidency used for a former president, American President Donald Trump rather than work for global unity, is playing the role of ‘Divider-in-Chief’.
On Monday, Trump failed to deliver the expected American video speech; Vice President Mike Pence did not, neither did Secretary of State Michael Pompeo nor the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft. Rather, Pompeo and Craft chose that day to hold a press conference attacking Iran, announcing new sanctions and generally putting the world on notice that America is ready for war.
Iran dismissed the American address. The acting Deputy United States ambassador, Cherith Norman Chalet had to address the ceremony live from UN headquarters.
However, the next day when the American COVID-19 deaths topped 200,000, Trump sent an address pronouncing China guilty of having “unleashed this plague onto the world” and asking that it be punished.
Some countries in their speeches verbally attacked the US. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, denounced “the world of hegemony, the world of imperialism” declaring that:
“Venezuela supports a multipolar world, a renewed UN system, a system that knows how to enforce international law and protect the people of the world.” In his speech, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said: “It seems that (the US) is at war with the planet… and its inhabitants”.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan , whose country assumed the UN General Assembly Presidency, lamented that 820 million people in the world are hungry, 170 million people are in urgent need of aid and protection, while more than 70 million people had to flee their homes due to conflicts and oppression.
He argued that: “Despite the ideals that have been set out, the United Nations system can neither prevent conflicts nor end those that have already begun.” In reference to the UN Security Council, he argued that:
“A Council with a structure that leaves the fate of seven billion people at the mercy of five countries is not fair, and it is not sustainable either… The world is greater than five.”
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari agrees, saying: “The demand for the reform of the United Nations Security Council is just and a place for Africa in the very strategic organ of the organisation is long overdue.” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Eygpt concurred, with the latter demanding two permanent seats for Africa with full powers, including the Veto.
The European Union, EU, said its commitment is preserving and strengthening multilateral relations with its partners across the globe, with the United Nations at its core. The UN General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir, focused on the body’s achievements which he said includes arms control to prevent nuclear conflict, peacekeeping and electoral assistance.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told members: “It is now time to mobilise your resources, strengthen your efforts and show unprecedented political will and leadership, to ensure the future we want and the United Nations we need”.
The President of the UN Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, Munir Akram, said humanity is drifting towards erosion of structures that have been built to preserve peace and promote prosperity, and risking a “tragedy of epic proportions for all mankind”. He called for a reversal.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s focus was on COVID-19 which has infected at least 31 million persons and killing about one million. The pandemic, he said, is a grave test for the entire world. Russian President Vladimir Putin supported China on the issue that the world puts up a united fight against COVID-19.
President Emmanuel Macron of France said: “The world today cannot be reduced to the rivalry between China and the United States, irrespective of the global weight of these great powers.”
One of the most touching speeches came from Lebanon, the fractious, economically devastated, fire-ravaged but proud country. Its President, Michel Aoun, said despite all its suffering, Lebanon stands for multilateralism. This is in contrast to Trump’s insistence on unilateralism. He had told the UN: “Only when you take care of your own citizens, will you find a true basis for cooperation.”
The UN depends on multilateralism, so the American insistence on unilateralism including exiting the UNESCO, defunding the WHO, rejecting the Paris Climate Change Agreement and repudiating the Iran international nuclear deal, is a grave threat to its existence.