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Most issues discussed at the UN are matters of life and death to residents of the global south, especially Africa. Yet beyond the long ceremonial speeches by African leaders at the General Assembly, African voices are marginalized at the UN’s top decision-making organ, the Security Council. There is a need for spirited advocacy for better representation of Africa and the global south.

The 71st Regular Session of the United Nations General Assembly opened on 13 September 2016 in New York. [1] The four main themes that have been addressed by the gathered heads of state and government this year ranged from the refugee and migrant crisis, assessment of Sustainable Development Goals, climate change, global health, to the concerns over the UN Secretary General’s peace building fund. [2] While these issues have been seen as the immediate threats to global peace and security, their impact is mostly in sync and felt by countries within the global south, specifically in Africa.

Refugee crisis

To begin with, the refuge and migrant crisis has been the highlight of this year’s UN General Assembly. It’s ironical that the refugee crisis has been chosen as the main theme for this year’s UN General Assembly in the wake of an influx of refugees and asylum seekers into Europe, yet for decades past developing countries, comprising mostly of African countries, have suffered the predicaments associated with the refugee problems. According to the UNHCR developing countries continue to bear the brunt of the refugee crisis as almost 80% of the world’s refugees are found in poor countries. [3]

The number seems to be increasing following violent conflicts, famine and political instability in the region. Just in the past few weeks the UNHCR reported that South Sudanese refugees had surpassed the one million mark, further compounding the refugee crisis across the sub-region. [4] According to Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the socio-economic and human cost of hosting these huge populations of refugees is borne by poor countries that are hardly able to afford the burden of hosting them. [5] This is despite the fact that richer countries, especially in Europe and the US, have continued to turn their backs on refugees in total disregard of international humanitarian law, refugee law and human rights law.

Climate change

In 2015, China and the US respectively contributed 28.03% and 15.9% of the global carbon dioxide emissions, while none of the African countries surfaced among the top ten emitters. [6] This shows that while developed countries, with some having permanent seats at the UN Security Council, greatly contribute towards global warming, it’s the developing countries that suffer most from the consequences, ranging from famine to rising sea levels. [7] Nevertheless, despite the grave risks that global warming continues to pose to the socio-economic, political and environmental well-being of developing countries in the global south, majority of huge carbon dioxide emitters, most being veto wielding powers, have shown less commitment in the signing and ratification of global environment regimes, such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, aimed at managing global warming. [8] This fact is reiterated by the UN record that shows that only 128 countries have so far signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, with China being the only big emitter amongst 28 countries that have ratified the treaty that requires ratification of 55 states so as to come into force. [9] The US, being the second largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and despite being vocal in campaigns for the reduction of global carbon emissions, has neither signed nor ratified the treaty.

Peace building fund

The UN Secretary-General’s peace building fund, set up in 2006, has also been up for deliberations during this year’s General Assembly. The fund  is a noble idea, especially due to its triple ripple effects that promote and support sustainable peace in fragile countries through local, national and international initiatives. However, the fund has continued to suffer from insufficient funding as a result of low levels of commitment by member states. This is evidenced by the fact out of the targeted $300 million for the 2017/2019 operations, only $137.6 million has so far been pledged. [10] This is likely to be a major blow to the African continent where 9 out of the current 16 active UN peacekeeping operations are ongoing. [11]

However, of major concern is the continued disregard of Africa’s views, especially by the UN Security Council, on the best approaches of tackling peace and security challenges on the continent. The negative implications of this disconnect is perhaps best illustrated by the current cynicism on the situation in Libya. In the wake of the Arab Spring that spread to Libya, the African Union persistently called for a peaceful political solution in resolving the Libyan crisis.[12] However, the UN Security Council in total disregard of the African Union unilaterally adopted Resolution 1973 in March 2011.[13] This rushed UN Security Council decision, under the aegis of responsibility to protect, sanctioned NATO air strikes on Libya without a clear understanding of political, religious, and ethnic undercurrents that defined Libya’s and by extension the region’s power balance. The consequence is destruction of Libya, in addition to creation of a protracted regional socio-economic and political crisis across the Sahel region and beyond.

Sustainable Development Goals

This year the UN General Assembly marks the first anniversary of the adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The Assembly’s main focus during this year’s forum was reviewing the successes and challenges in implementation of the SDGs that are projected to be attained by the year 2030. [14] The goals, however, are mainly of concern to developing countries in the global south. [15] In order for these radical and transformative measures to be effective, Africa needs to be well represented at the top echelons of UN decision-making organs and agencies. The African Union for instance needs to advocate for the integration of its Agenda 2063 with the UN’s blueprint on Sustainable Development Goals to spur economic, social and political growth across the continent, while taking into account the conservation of Africa’s biodiversity. 

Global health challenges

The other key agenda at the UN General Assembly involves discussion surrounding global health, with a specific focus on antimicrobial resistance. The increasing urgency to tackle global health challenges is typified by the fact that the 71st UN General Assembly is only the fourth Assembly in the UN’s history to discuss global health challenges. [16] The devastating impact of antimicrobial resistance on Africa and other developing countries was recently reiterated by Dr.Keiji Fukuda, the World Health Organizations specialist on antimicrobials, who projected that by 2050 the current rate of everyday infections is likely, due to antimicrobial resistance, to claim more lives than the current cases related to cancer. [17] This is likely to be a major blow to mostly developing countries, in particular Africa, which has inadequate health infrastructures and resources to combat widespread epidemics. This in effect requires closer collaboration and involvement of the continent’s leadership in key UN organs and agencies with African countries.

Way forward for permanent representation of Africa at the UN

The paradox with regard to the annual discussions at the UN is that while majority of issues discussed are more pressing to residents of the global south, especially across the African continent, African voices, other than the long and open speeches by African leaders in the General Assembly, are rarely heard behind the scenes at the UN’s top decision-making organ. It’s within this context that there is need for spirited advocacy for better representation of Africa and other regions of the global south in the UN Security Council.

However, the impetus for UN reforms, aimed at having an Africa permanent representative(s) at the Security Council, needs to be intrinsic. The African Union, especially as the representative of the continent, should be at the forefront advocating for Africa’s interest at the UN.  The AU should adopt a common foreign policy framework, with the backing of its member states, to ensure the continent is involved in the ultimate resolutions taken by the UN Security Council, which often have an impact on the continent. The ongoing campaign for the leadership of the World Health Organization, where Africa has rallied behind the candidature of Dr.Tedros Adhanon as their preferred candidate for Director General, is already a step in the right direction for the continent.

The UN on its part, especially the Security Council, should be more open and welcoming to reforms in a clear reflection of the shifting international balance of power. This is likely help the UN avoid repeating the mistakes that led to the collapse of its predecessor, the League of Nations. The contemporary leaders of the victorious countries in the post-war era, who were vanguard states at the time that the UN was formed, must understand that the world is steadily transitioning to a multipolar systemic balance of power, at least in the economic and cultural realm, and the UN Security Council, needs to reflect this changing world in order to be a truer representative of the emerging faces and voices of a contemporary “United Nations”.

* Sekou Toure Otondi is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi. His areas of interest includes: foreign policy analysis, and regional integration, with as specific focus on EAC integration process. He can be reached at [email protected]or Twitter: @SekouOtondi




















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