UNGA: Business as usual or real plans to change the world?

Delegates at the opening session of the 73rd UN General Assembly in New York yesterday. Courtesy.

The United Nations General Assembly is well underway. Every September world leaders descend on New York City for this annual event. It is the only time so many political leaders gather in one city.

Sworn enemies and others that would be avoided like the plague, or as we would say in Rwanda, that one would rather set fire on the very soil they walk on, are all there. Of course, they studiously avoid each other.

Everyone wants to have their say on the state of their countries and that of the world, and will get it. Whether that makes any difference is another matter.

However, it is safe to say we know how it will go.

Some will restate positions that are already well-known and demand the rest of the world to accept them. They will bully smaller nations and threaten those they consider rivals with dire consequences, including all manner of sanctions.

We can, for instance, expect US President Donald Trump to bash Iran and other sponsors of terror. This time he is likely to go easy on North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-un seeing as the United States is keen on getting him to get rid of his nuclear weapon programme.

So no chance of hearing colourful names such as the “horrible little rocket man” or threats of fire and fury like there has never been before.

Others will make a reasoned and passionate plea for creating conditions for a better, fairer, and more just world. Our very own President Paul Kagame will make a strong argument for our country and the African continent in this regard.

He will make the case for technology and more active involvement of young people in the affairs of their countries.

More will mumble stuff to remind us that they and their countries exist.

That is how it has always been. But there have been some subtle changes in the recent past that are bound to reshape the way the UN works and how we view it.

For one, Africa is increasingly taking responsibility for matters concerning the continent and getting the right to be heard as it seeks to speak with one voice.

The continent is presenting itself as a single trading bloc and when the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) comes into force soon, it will indeed be a formidable one.

The African Union, for long a byword for inefficiency and incompetence, is changing. Africans, tired of this label, have embraced reforms to make their union more effective and efficient, able to respond to most of the continent’s challenges.

There is also a growing sense of optimism with recent of resolution of decades old conflicts. The cessation of hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea and restoration of normal relations and the growing warmth between them, done with little external prompting, does much to reduce the perception of Africa as a hopelessly conflict-prone continent.

All this means that Africa will be less open to external manipulation and thus be able to pursue its own agenda without interference.

Then there is the rising influence of China on the world stage. This is in part a reflection of its growing wealth and power, as well as a consequence of the withdrawal of the United States from the global system under President Donald Trump.

Already, China’s relations with Africa has been raising concern in some quarters as has been its growing military preparations in its own backyard where the United States used to hold sway.

Just as important is the resurgence of Russia and its staking an important role in world as has been evident in Syria.

All these are bound to redefine international relations and priorities of the future, and this new reality will increasingly be reflected at the United Nations.

The UN General Assembly, however, is not all about speeches and grandstanding. Beyond the podium performance, some real work gets done.

Leaders meet separately, away from the glamour and attention, and deal with various issues. The most influential among them are much sought after and their endorsement of various causes much valued.

Their delegations are very busy preparing for these or dealing with the issues themselves. In the process friendships are made and partnerships struck that prove invaluable in the conduct of world affairs. That’s how diplomacy works, away from the public glare.

In September, the UN General Assembly and the entire New York area becomes a huge market place where various causes are traded, haggled over and eventually the right place reached.

A lot of lobbying takes place – for the support of this or that cause, or even against it. And as in every marketplace transaction, some get short-changed and go back home grumbling while others get more value than the worth of their goods. Sounds purely transactional? No surprise; this is the Trump era.

At the end of this week, world leaders and their delegations will return home. Hopefully their participation at the UN General Assembly will have made a contribution towards a better world.

Twitter: @jrwagatare
The views expressed in this article are of the author.