Can a Virtual U.N. General Assembly Deliver on Real World Problems?

Can a Virtual U.N. General Assembly Deliver on Real World Problems?
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres attends a Security Council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York, Feb. 11, 2020 (AP photo by Seth Wenig).

Expectations will be low this week as the United Nations kicks off its first General Assembly by Zoom. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has come up with a catchy theme—“The Future We Want, the UN We Need”—but don’t expect any breakthroughs. The most significant accomplishment will be a general Declaration of Principles issued on Sept. 21, in which member states recommit themselves to multilateralism. Beyond that, the world body is in a holding pattern, awaiting the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election and the eventual passing of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s a pity, because the U.N.’s 75th anniversary finds the world racked not only by a deadly new pathogen, but by a global economic slump, growing geopolitical rivalries and a climate emergency. The moment demands something bigger from the U.N. than its members are prepared to deliver.

Unlike normal years, there will be no parade of statesmen and women to the U.N. dais to address the world’s annual town hall meeting—just a series of prerecorded speeches, so that bored online viewers can rate the speakers’ rooms. World leaders will have no opportunity to kibbitz on the margins of formal events in the typical General Assembly frenzy of “diplomatic speed dating.” The shift to Zoom will also frustrate the larger U.N.-industrial complex, comprised of countless NGOs, philanthropies, companies and academics that descend on New York each September to attend panels and lend their expertise to trying to solve global problems. Lacking the serendipity and spontaneity that only in-person events can provide, this year’s General Assembly promises to be a stilted affair.

Despite these limitations, the U.N. will still sponsor a few notable events and initiatives. The most significant will focus on advancing sustainable development, arresting biodiversity collapse and promoting gender equality.

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