United Nations General Assembly (File) Image Credit: AP

World leaders are meeting this week at the UN General Assembly, marking the organisation’s 75th anniversary. The gatherings will be virtual but the challenges will remain, as they’ve always been, daunting.

Heaven knows, leaders of the 193 member states, gathering at a time of great disruption for the world, compounded by a virus that has severely impacted the global economy and upended social and cultural life worldwide, will have their work cut out for them.

And they have to do that while questions continue to be raised about the organisation’s effectiveness (How effective has it been?) and even relevance (How relevant has it been, say, in dealing recently with those legions of refugees escaping poverty, war and repression?).

When it comes to climate change and global warming, it’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, for the world’s top emitters of carbon dioxide, according Nasa charts, are, well, you guessed it, those permanent members of the Security Council

- Fawaz Turki

“The organisation is struggling like perhaps never before”, wrote the New York Times last week. “While it is the leading provider of humanitarian aid, and UN peacekeepers operate in more than a dozen unstable areas, the United Nations has been unable to bring an end to the protracted wars in Syria, Yemen and Libya, [and] the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is as old as the United Nations itself”.

UN principal organs
Founded in 1945, UN has six principal organs: the General Assembly; the Security Council; the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); the Trusteeship Council; the International Court of Justice; and the UN Secretariat

World’s most powerful diplomatic body

But the most glaring failure by the world’s most powerful diplomatic body most decidedly has been its inability to resolve what is without a doubt the most existentially pressing issue for humanity and for the global village that humanity collectively inhabits: Climate change and global warming, the phenomenon known as “the greenhouse effect”, that results when the atmosphere traps heat radiating from earth toward space, ultimately bringing about large-scale climate change, which in turn alters our ability — certainly the ability of poor countries, lacking as they do the resources, know-how and infrastructure to deal with calamity — to produce food, as it increases the number of fatalities from floods, storms, heatwaves and forest fires.

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Writing in Foreign Affairs’ May-June issue, Mohamed Adow, Founder and Director of Power Shift Africa, who grew up in a pastoral community in northern Kenya, explained how the way of life for well over five million pastoralist in the region, that had supported them for centuries — herding animals in the rangelands — is progressively evaporating, thanks to climate change, with droughts in recent years devastating livestock and forcing hundreds of thousands of herders to give up their traditional lives and move, as unskilled workers, to sprawling towns.

A century of emissions

I quote from him at length. “[Pastoralists in Kenya] are not alone”, he wrote. “Climate change has imperilled or disrupted the lives of millions of people around the world. Herders in Kenya, farmers in Bangladesh and fishermen in the Mekong River basin are not responsible for this crisis.

The rich countries are. Not only do these nations emit more carbon into the atmosphere per capita than poor countries do, but also their very wealth and stature rest on a century of emissions and environmental degradation. And yet it is the people in the developing world who disproportionately suffer”.

When the United Nations was established three quarters of a century ago, with 50 members, it was intended, ideally, as a forum where each country’s voice would carry equal weight. Ideally, yes, but not really. In the real world it is in the Security council, with its five permanent members (Russia, China, the United Kingdom France and the United States) and 10 rotating members, where the action is.

Thus, when it comes to climate change and global warming, it’s a case of the fox guarding the henhouse, for the world’s top emitters of carbon dioxide, according Nasa charts, are, well, you guessed it, those permanent, smug members of the Security Council — with the latter’s populist president pursuing a reckless, not to mention lawless fossil agenda while scaling back or eliminating reportedly as many as 150 environmental measures and expanding Arctic drilling, making that agenda, whose goal is to ensure “American energy dominance”, a threat to the planet.

Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat, is yet to convince me of the boast he made while serving as the seventh Secretary General of the UN from 1997 to 2006. “More than ever before in human history, we have a common destiny and we can master it only if we face it together”, he claimed. “And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations”.

Alas, since its founding in 1945, the United Nations remains like the proverbial dinosaur stuck in a tar pit, given the fact that its big power clubhouse in the Security Council calls the shots about how the destiny of our fragile planet is determined.

Not fair. Not right. Not an honourable way for the West to treat the rest.

— Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile