The next three months will decide whether the UN is capable of discharging its mandate or whether it is unfit for purpose. The UN will be severely tested by sustainable development, Syria and climate change — failure will convince many that the UN is heading the way of the League of Nations.
In New York from today President Higgins will lead a large Irish delegation at the UN General Assembly to approve the Sustainable Development Goals. Every country in the world will commit to a new paradigm designed to promote economic development in a sustainable way.
It is appropriate to be skeptical about the New York gathering — the work is already done, the communiqués agreed and the session a mere echo-chamber of rhetoric and self-congratulation.
There is no danger of any dispute breaking out in NYC or that agreement won’t be reached. This makes me wonder how effective the agreement can be if everyone on the planet is in accord with it. The fact of the matter is that nothing in the SDGs is enforceable, directly applicable or justiciable. In other words, failure to comply carries no more consequences than some stern finger-wagging by the other states.
As one former Irish minister once said in reference to the relevance of Canon Law, the SDGs have no more direct effect than the rules of a golf club.
The UN at its best is life-saving, educating millions of children and reaching places no one else can reach.
To be fair to the New York meeting, arriving at an agreed text has been a gargantuan and hard-fought task drawing on meetings in every member state over many years. Ireland has played a key role through our ambassador to the UN, David Donoghue, who co-chaired much of the work over the last year. The universality of its ambition removes the north-south complexion that characterised the Millenium Development Goals.
By contrast, at the COP21 Climate Change meeting in Paris in December, agreement is far from guaranteed. There is a high possibility that there will be riots and walk-outs and meetings late into the night and caucuses trying to effect minor changes for domestic audiences.
But the critical difference is that the agreement made in Paris will be legally binding and, as such, there is a lot more at stake.
It would be a gross dereliction of my duty as CEO of GOAL, however, if I didn’t take the opportunity to juxtapose the unanimity in New York this week with the complete inaction of the UN and its member states over the last five years of the Syrian savagery.
The United Nations Charter, signed in October 1945 by the founding states, begins as follows: “We, the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war…”
An organisation founded to prevent a recurrence of the slaughter that had claimed millions of lives twice in preceding generations, has shown itself to be entirely incapable in the face of a conflict on the scale of Syria.
In March of 2011 Ban Ki Moon first condemned the actions of the Assad Regime as it suppressed demonstrations demanding regime change in their country.
By October of 2011, the situation had deteriorated so much as to warrant a motion at the Security Council condemning Assad’s actions. That motion was, of course, to be vetoed by Russia and China and so began a catalogue of disagreement, inaction and seeming helplessness on the part of the international community in the face of this conflict.
Since then 250,000 people have been killed. At least we think that’s the number, the UN stopped counting a number of years ago and it has been left to non-governmental actors to keep track of the slaughter as best they can.
Over half the pre-war population of Syria, more than 11m people, have been forced from their homes, with 4m of them seeking refuge beyond the country’s borders.
In the largest response in its history GOAL’s programmes within Syria will this year reach 1m people, bringing them food, shelter, water, sanitation and many of the other essentials of life. With the generosity of the Irish people we will be able to provide the fuel necessary to help many survive the winter, despite the many deprivations they suffer.
Lots of conflicts are complex and difficult to resolve — Bosnia was hard, Northern Ireland was hard, South Africa was hard.
Complexity shouldn’t be an excuse for inertia. We are told that there are no easy answers and I accept that.
No fly zones have been actively under consideration since at least 2012, but have been ruled out by the US government several times as too difficult to implement and ‘not a silver bullet’.
In the month of August a barrel bomb or missile was dropped every hour on the people of Idlib province in Northern Syria, an area the size of Co Galway.
Safe havens are also problematic we’re told, with many pointing to what was previously the darkest stain on UN history, the massacre at Srebrinica, as proof of the downside.
I accept it is hard, but if these things are ruled out, what is ruled in? What is being offered to the people of Syria who continue to endure so much?
Now, we need action.
The SDGs and the COP21 meetings represent the best and only hope for future development that is sustainable and for economic growth that is fair and that is tied in to tackling the world’s major social and environmental problems.
The founding principle of the UN however, the rock upon which the edifice of international co-operation was to be built, was peace.
The UN must, albeit belatedly, step up to the plate on Syria and it must do so now.