At the United Nations General Assembly’s annual “state of the world” address earlier this month, nearly 200 leaders of the world’s nations and organizations, armed with only the words of their presidencies, touted a stepped-up global agenda for dialogue and action to “deliver on our shared commitments.”
The General Assembly president set out this agenda in the same chilling terms President Trump used, invoking the specter of mass migration and the resurgence of fascism:
“As we look around the world, we see disturbing examples of either global malice or regional malice, of bigoted folly or old demons that are being reawakened.”
Given this grim political climate, it is no surprise many view the new agenda as a rather toothless effort at international cooperation. In fact, if the first step toward real international cooperation is starting from the premise that such cooperation is possible, then I think the agenda laid out by General Assembly President Peter Thomson for the UNGA’s annual ministerial meeting this month has a chance of being taken to heart, at least in terms of concrete pledges of international commitment. But if we are to know whether this is a realistic and concerted proposal from the UN system, we must examine just what the General Assembly chose to focus on.
Take the global agenda focus itself, a very specific body of the various UN multilateral institutions (the UN secretary general, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Economic and Social Council, the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and the UN Economic and Social Council for Social Development). Thomson chose to tout “the ongoing global importance of the UN pillars” for sustainable development, peace and security, human rights, international cooperation, and the environment, along with the interrelated work of international financial institutions and the United Nations Development Programme. In the end, there were 17 targets for medium- and long-term progress on each of these issues.
Thomson later pointed out that some of the targets included in the Agenda Report (meant for use at the ministerial gathering) can only be achieved over the next 20 years, while others can be achieved at many moments in the future. Nonetheless, the report’s overarching structure is that of an international climate change agreement or a global sustainable development agreement, as well as a path to peace and security, and human rights.
Of course, no one argues with any of this. We need commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a permanent end to violence against women and girls, and to promote human rights for all, within a framework of peace, democracy, and prosperity. We need to plan for the next few decades and bring all conflict prevention and peace building activities to international legal standards. And we need to share information more effectively and effectively to strengthen cooperative multilateral programs. In short, we need the success of the Agenda Report.
As to the fact that a sub-theme of the Agenda Report is “Rights and Reconciliation,” several things need to be weighed. More than any other UN program, the UN Human Rights Council is a champion for justice and accountability through a strong and flexible hybrid approach that includes mechanisms in conflict prevention, humanitarian assistance, and accountability, specifically in line with the letter and spirit of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. But is it an appropriate forum to focus on the legal basis of international criminal law when policies are being considered or implemented in conflict or near conflict-affected countries? Are such policies therefore appropriate or warranted in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, and Yemen?
After looking carefully at the international legal framework for war crimes and crimes against humanity and taking into account Thomson’s commitment that “one million people killed over the past 10 years,” let’s recognize that a strategy that includes diplomacy as the central element and multilateral action is far from fantasy. The broader question here, though, is whether we would want our actions to ultimately be legally defined by an exclusive bilateral agreement (like the proposed War Crimes Prosecution Framework) that excludes responsibility for international crimes and uses this treaty as an enabling framework for such actions? For this we will need to look closely at the UN and regional institutions it has created for the promotion of justice, accountability, and peace, as well as the way they both contribute to and constrain our foreign policy actions.
The new Agenda Report focuses on much more than where, when, and how we will agree to work together – which is already guaranteed by the tradition of the UN General Assembly taking matters of “decisive international importance” to its plenary meetings, major summits, and individual ministerial meetings. It addresses how we will work together in practice, especially on a