UN celebrates 75th anniversary amidst global crisis

By Allison Pytlak
24 September 2020

On 21 September 2020, the United Nations (UN) commemorated its 75th anniversary with a high-level event. Its theme was “The Future We Want, the UN We Need: Reaffirming our Collective Commitment to Multilateralism”. While the event was in many ways a positive retrospective of the institution’s achievements to date, virtually all speakers stressed that this anniversary is taking place at time of great fragility. Most called for a dramatic shift in global and national priorities in order to survive the next 75 years.

The event featured opening plenary with remarks from UN Secretary-General (UNSG) Antonio Guterres, and the (all male) presidents of the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the International Court of Justice, as well as youth representatives from Ghana, Malaysia, The Bahamas, and France. It was presided over by Ambassador Volkan Bozkir, President of the General Assembly. The panel was then followed by pre-recorded video statements from heads of government and ministers of more than 100 countries.[1]

Significantly, states adopted a political declaration during the event, which had been mandated by a General Assembly resolution agreed to in June 2019. The declaration text was negotiated and informally agreed to by UN member states through an intergovernmental and largely virtual consultation process over the preceding months, facilitated by Qatar and Sweden.

The declaration includes a reaffirmation of the original goals of the United Nations while also identifying new priorities and pledging to advance progress in other areas. This includes placing women and girls at the centre of its work in all areas; protecting the planet; working with youth and increasing partnerships; “upgrading” the UN; digital cooperation; promoting peace and preventing conflict; and finally, leaving no one behind and “building back better” from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of those priorities were identified as part of an eight-month long global consultation, described by the UN as its “most ambitious effort to date to understand expectations of international cooperation and of the UN in particular. It is also the largest survey to date on priorities for recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.” Over one million people participated in UN-organised surveys and dialogues, the results of which were launched as part of the event through the UN75 Report and reflected in a video shown at the event 

Maintenance of peace and “security”

The United Nations was founded, as nearly all speakers reminded, “amid the ashes of World War II” and in the hope of preventing such destruction and conflict in the future. The maintenance of peace and security is one of the organisation’s three pillars, along with socio-economic development and the promotion of human rights. It is within the peace and security pillar that the UN’s work on disarmament, arms control, and non-proliferation has traditionally been based—although true security cannot be achieved through such an artificial siloing of needs and actions.   

It is this thinking that underpins Article 26 of the UN Charter, which calls for the “least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources”. In this vein, the video message from Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado Quesado, stated “The time has come to honor Article 26 of the Charter. [This is] a commitment that is breached year after year, as world military spending increased to $1.9 trillion in 2019, the highest level since the end of the Cold War.”

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will cost the world between $2 and $3 trillion more per year, as President Quesado pointed out. “Half of which would be available just by dispensing with absolutely unnecessary military spending forever. But unlike military spending, what is invested in these goals will help ensure security, human rights and the consolidation of just, peaceful and inclusive societies.”

Qatar, Peru, Kazakhstan, Liechtenstein, Austria, Cuba, Greece, and Russia on behalf of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) reinforced that disarmament or non-proliferation or arms control must continue to be priorities for the UN. Some made specific reference to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, while the president of the UNSC included illicit arms trafficking in his list of current challenges facing the global community. Italy and Kazakhstan described the dangers of the new arms race; Cuba referenced in particular the arms race that the United States has created. Egypt stated that it is committed to the complete elimination of weapons of mass destruction and the development of rules to ensure cyber and information security. Numerous statements highlighted concern about the growth of cybercrime and/or the importance of digital security, as well as digital inclusivity.

Others, like Cyprus and France, expressed that that UN has done well in the area of disarmament and non-proliferation. France spoke positively of how the UN has grappled with nuclear and chemical weapons challenges and in its dealing with the International Atomic Energy Agency, for example. The CSTO referenced chemical terrorism and urged safeguarding the peaceful uses of outer space. The Republic of Korea, on behalf of MIKTA Group (an informal partnership between Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia) highlighted the success of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT was also promoted as an achievement of the UN during the video shown at the event.

In the most positive disarmament-related announcement of the event, Malta stated that it had ratified the ground-breaking 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) earlier in the day. This makes Malta the 45th country to ratify the Treaty and means that only five more must do so for it to enter into force.

Palau cited the TPNW as an example of what diplomacy can achieve. Among other things, the TPNW is noteworthy for its recognition of the unacceptable suffering of and harm caused to the victims of the use of nuclear weapons as well as through nuclear weapons testing. The deadly legacy of nuclear testing was referenced by Marshall Islands as well as Vanuatu on behalf of the Pacific Islands Forum, which stated that despite the cessation of testing, its impacts have “left scars still visible today in the lives and livelihoods of the people of the Pacific.”

The scars of conflict and armed violence inflicted by other types of weapons were evident in the statements of countries such as Azerbaijan, South Sudan, Somalia, Turkey, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Ukraine, among others. Some of these countries used the opportunity of their video message to name specific aggressors that they face or where conflict persists today, and others to point out failure and inaction on the part of the UN in preventing conflict. Afghanistan emphasised the urgent need for a ceasefire, while Georgia noted that the UNSG’s call for a global ceasefire “has not been heard … yet.”

Shaping peace together

While there was not an especially high number of explicit references to weapons or disarmament in the video statements, their overwhelming plea for multilateralism, reprioritisation, and reform has direct bearing on work in this field.

In fact, the prevailing feeling from the 12+ hours’ worth of statements is that we are at a precipice. The converging crises of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and stalled progress on the 2030 Agenda are compounding the existing inequalities of a multilateral system that for too long has been dominated by the interests of a few, rather than the needs of many. “The cataclysmic crises of the pandemic and climate change, layered upon a bedrock of inequality and festering conflicts, are fast upon us,” noted Foreign Minister Elrington of Belize, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States. Indeed, the leaders of small island and/or developing states were explicit in describing not only the specific challenges they face, from rising oceans to lack of access to medical equipment, rising poverty, and economic hardship, but also in warning that change must happen—now. “When Brazil is in flames, when Sudan is underwater, when the largest iceberg has just broken off the Greenland shelf, what world are you leaving us?” asked Athan Méténier, an environmental and climate youth activist from France. “If action is not taken, a bleak 2020 will only be the beginning of tumultuous decades to come,” warned Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama, Prime Minister of Fiji. “Every nation, large and small, stands a better chance at our best future by acting in solidarity.”

These messages have direct bearing on peace, international security, and disarmament. Peace will not be possible when there is insecurity, and security cannot be had without peace—and neither are achievable amid the environmental, health, and economic challenges described in statements. Security must at last be redefined as health, safety, and human rights rather than about bombs, soldiers, and tanks. Yet multilateralism in many disarmament processes and forums is breaking down and being replaced by animosity, rivalry, and unilateral action. As already noted, global military expenditure is at a new high; multilateral disarmament agreements are being discarded or violated; technology is being weaponised; and nuclear weapons are on “hair trigger alert,” as UNSG Guterres described. “We have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions.”

The UN at 75 commemoration took place on the International Day of Peace, which this year took as its theme “shaping peace together.” Shaping peace will mean working together, in ways that are inclusive and equal, and transforming the structures in which cooperation occurs. Amid the many concerns raised in statements during the event were those relating to inequality and uneven representation within UN system, and calls for reform. Speaking on behalf of the Group of Least Developed Countries, the President of Malawi pointed out that the UN Charter begins with the phrase “we the peoples”—a reminder to the international community that people are the cornerstone of the organisation.

In its Peace Day blog, WILPF calls on global citizens to imagine a different way of pursuing peace that does not lean on “corrupt and corruptible” systems of government, such as community organising and creating unifying spaces for change. “If we can move beyond the systems and structures that are so prone to breakdown, exploitation, and lack of cooperation, if we can take back the power that’s been taken from us, we just might stand a chance of ‘shaping peace together’.” 

[1] The 12-hour event concluded due to time constraints with around 50 national video statements undelivered. It will be resumed at another date yet to be determined. The speaker’s list and more information is available at https://www.un.org/en/un75/commemoration.