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Breathing life into the UN’s ‘Common Agenda’

Breathing life into the UN’s ‘Common Agenda’
November 30
09:50 2021

It is heartwarming to read through the 2021 Report of the United Nations Secretary General titled “Our Common Agenda,” and to see his assertion that the world is at the inflection point. According to him, “[i]n our biggest shared test since the Second World War, humanity faces a stark and urgent choice: a breakdown or a breakthrough.” A breakdown or a breakthrough has a great impact on the future of the world. This is the honest opinion of an honest individual and I share this opinion having researched for sometime how to create a new world order rooted in equity and established for the common good.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore the stark realities of inequality, power dynamics, and injustice across the civil, political, and socio-economic spectrums of society. Climate change threatens our existence and conflicts rage daily from Syria to Ethiopia, Afghanistan to the long-forgotten war in Eastern Congo. At the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the United Nations, world leaders recognized that “our challenges are interconnected, across borders and all other divides,” and addressing these challenges requires an “equally interconnected response, through reinvigorated multilateralism and the United Nations at the centre of our efforts.” Once again, an honest reflection from an honest individual.

For a breakthrough to happen we must be bold enough to recognize and condemn the continuing effects of imperialism in the world and in the very institutions designed to respond to our collective challenges. Though the UN Secretary General’s report is not so explicit, it is apparent that the challenges he itemized are rooted in the legacies of colonization, the militarization of the international peace and security agenda, indirect imperialism disguised in the form of democratic regimes, and global trade inequalities, to name a few. With the United Nations at the “centre of our efforts” to forge an “equally interconnected response,” much self-reflection is needed to see where and how the United Nations has contributed to the status quo. A breakthrough is possible through honest reflection and action, but a breakdown is guaranteed if we fail to conduct the self-reflection needed to ensure equity prevails.

As the UN Secretary General stated, we are all interconnected in the challenges we face with some as creators of these very challenges. For instance, reports show that rich countries including Canada, the United States, and much of Western Europe are “responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years.”

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Unfortunately, in the current world order, we do not all have an equal seat at the table to forge the remedies we need. However, we all have a voice and a part to play. As a global citizen and with a belief that we can set up egalitarian societies for the peoples of the world, I lay down five sets of observations, comments, and suggestions.

1. RESTRUCTURE THE UNITED NATIONS

The United Nations was established in 1945 to maintain international peace and security, develop friendly relations among nations and promote social progress, better living standards and human rights. Yet, its effectiveness in achieving these goals has been severely hampered by its structural power imbalances, bureaucracy, internal inequality, and the legacies of colonialism that remain despite the institution’s best efforts. Lest we forget, at its creation, nearly a third of the world’s population lived in territories under colonization. The very structure of the United Nations, with the Security Council at its helm, reinforces global power imbalances. While we celebrate the UN’s involvement in peacekeeping missions and the provision of developmental aid to isolated communities, we cannot ignore areas where the institution has fallen short. Such as its refusal to accept legal responsibility and pay compensation for the 2010 cholera epidemic in Haiti caused by UN peacekeepers which claimed 10,000 lives. Such as the scandal of UN peacekeepers engaging in sexual abuse and exploitation of the very people they are sent to protect. Such as the UN’s complicity in the failure of the responsibility to protect doctrine in failing to respond at all, or in a timely manner, to conflicts. We cannot forget the slow and ineffective response to the Rwandan genocide that allowed almost a million people to be killed within 100 days. Due to its structure which permits the national interests of particular states, the permanent members of the Security Council, to govern the institution’s actions, the United Nations is long overdue for restructuring.

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One suggestion is to re-conceptualize the organization as the United Peoples Organization. The Charter of the United Nations commences with the phrase “We the people […].” The people – not the politically created States – ought to be at the centre of this institution. Rather than perceiving the people of the world as beneficiaries of UN handouts, the people are the custodians of global power and their rights to self-determination should not be hampered by a State’s national interest. The reconceptualization I propose is people-centred. Whether it takes the form of a formal organizational name change or simply rethinking its approach to justice, governance and world peace, the United Nations would do well to reflect on the ill-effects of the current dynamics and veto powers vested in self-serving States. If people are central to the institution’s governance, we would see scrutiny by the institutions of foreign policies that perpetuate imperialism. Action towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and eliminating climate change will be generated and concretized by global citizens and not governments that do not always represent the interests of their people. Power to the people not power to the nations – however such nations are constructed.

2. MAKE REPARATIONS FOR HISTORICAL WRONGS

A second suggestion is to revisit the activities of world powers and ensure reparations for the destabilization of global peace and security both now and in the past. It is pleasing to see the return of artefacts looted by former colonial powers but disappointing to know that such returns are few and far between and only the result of decades of lobbying and shaming. It is good to hear of apologies for historical genocides such as the 1904 massacre by German soldiers of the Herero and Nama people in Namibia. However, it is disappointing to see that the amount proposed in no way correlates to the gravity of the crimes committed nor was it in direct reparations for these offences. It is interesting to note the regrets of the last Apartheid President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk before his death on November 11, 2021. In his words, “It was as if I had a conversion. And in my heart of hearts, realized that apartheid was wrong. I realized that we had arrived at a place that was morally unjustifiable.”

The African war captives and those kidnapped by slave merchants, the European war captives and the Irish people who were kidnapped for forced labour share the same history as slaves in America. The Irish slave trade history and the massacre of the Irish people are not myths. The Irish slaves served the English masters for centuries before the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade began, the Portuguese slave trade in Japan, the sale of Europeans as slaves in North Africa to Arabs (the Mediterranean Slave Trade), and exporting Chinese slaves as replacement of Africans are all part of historical wrongs. The United Nations has a role to play in ensuring reparations for international crimes. Any silence from the organization on these matters may be construed as complicity in systems that sustain inequality. The United Nations should actively take up the cause of African and Caribbean peoples, for example, who have been calling for reparations for the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism for decades.

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Today, people are made to believe that slavery and colonization have stopped. The payment of slave wage to workers, the marginalisation of people in the land of their birth and ethnic cleansing without consequences to the perpetrators are structures of slavery. The interference of powerful nations in the economic and political affairs of other nations through threats, assassinations of leaders of conscience, ‘slave loans’, grants for elections, the continued sale and gifts of weapons of destruction and destability, the prison tag of people as ‘white, black, and people of colour’ showing disrespect to certain people of the world, and stealing of peoples commonwealth are structures of colonization or imperialism. Where is our claim to civilization when atrocities in the 100 BC and through the 20th Century are still perpetrated today? As noted in the 2019 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, and racial intolerance, “reparations for slavery and colonialism include not only justice and accountability for historic wrongs, but also the eradication of persisting structures of racial inequality, subordination and discrimination that were built under slavery and colonialism[.]

3. ADDRESS THE LEGACIES OF FORCED STATEHOOD AND ENSURE GREATER REPRESENTATION OF THE MARGINALIZED

A third and related point concerns the amalgamation of heterogenous nations into one state that has brought untold hardship to the peoples of such nations forced to co-exist in statehoods they did not choose. We see the effects of this globally – various forms of intra-state conflicts including conflicts over resources. The result is that such forced states do not prosper, and the peoples forced to co-exist suffer. We must learn the lessons and these lessons are not far from home. The United Nations has a role to play in ensuring acknowledgment of the continued violation of the civil and political, social, and economic rights directly connected to the scramble for, and partition of, Africa – for instance. Protection of the rights of indigenous people, such as the Kalinago in Dominica or Native Americans in the United States and Canada, should be mainstreamed across UN initiatives and accountability efforts. While efforts to deconstruct the artificial territorial boundaries should be the focus of UN in the next 25 years as nations who are ready present themselves, in the meantime more representation of the historically oppressed and marginalized in systems of power is necessary. Ample resources must be allocated at the international, regional, and national levels to preserve languages and culture at the brink of extinction.

4. RECONCEPTUALIZE LEADERSHIP AND ENSURE TRUE DEMOCRACY

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Not every President or Prime Minister or Head of State is a leader. Who then is a leader? A leader is someone who serves a nation or an organization in an efficient manner, without hidden agenda, obey the laws, adhere to the tenets of the Constitution, and does not engage in terrorism, imperialism, the theft or and looting of the commonwealth of the people. A leader seeks the greater good not his/her personal interest. His or her achievements are characterised by good governance in all its ramifications. This is who a leader is and the dividends of their good governance will be apparent both during and after holding public office. The United Nations has a role in cultivating such leaders to hold public office and not simply entertain world leaders who assumed power through undemocratic means. A related point is the practice of democracy. Global protests we witnessed in recent times arose to address systemic inequality, and political, social, and economic injustices. These protests demonstrate that just because a country is democratic in name or on paper does not mean it is democratic in practice. Democracy in its purest form is governance by the people and for the people. Governance is not by the people where votes are bought or manipulated. Governance is not for the people where laws and policies are put in place that further entrench marginalization and inequality. A politician is defined as a person who is active in party politics and/or holds political office. Unfortunately, party politics globally in the 21st century has come to symbolize some of the very issues that cause the challenges listed in the UN Secretary General’s report. From political parties that deny climate change and perpetuate harmful practices to political parties that promote right-wing beliefs and xenophobia. In some countries, the title politician has become synonymous with corruption which is sad.

Political parties in many nations are business ventures owned by few people. Citizens no longer trust their politicians to act in their interest and political parties no longer adequately represent a vehicle for democracy. Finally, party politics are expensive. Running for office is expensive and managing public administration through political parties is expensive and a burden on the people. The result? Parties that are run by the elite and for the elite. Parties that cater to the interests of big corporations and lobbyists with fat cheques at the expense of the everyday man and woman. This is a global phenomenon and one that greatly undermines democracy, and the United Nations has a role to play in righting this wrong. The Constitution which is the key instrument for democracy must be one that is written by the people themselves and acceptable to all. It must not be a ‘gift’ for the continuation of colonization, militarization or slavery. The Constitution must be seen to have allocated enough resources for the Sustainable Development Goals and which no political office holder can evade. SDG 1 – 11 out of these 17 SDGs can be achieved effortlessly when we allocate and distribute resources to families and communities. The development of families and communities is critical to world development.

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5. THE COMMONWEALTH OF NATIONS

Oftentimes when we consider wealth we think in financial terms. But our commonwealth includes the natural resources, the environment, and the shared heritage of the people. Unfortunately, the abundance of wealth created by nature has been strategically looted for the interests of certain nations through colonialism and neocolonialism. No amount of UN developmental aid can rectify the damage caused. In the wake of decolonization, governments were pressured into bad deals that thrust their countries into debt, economic policies that were designed to keep poor countries poor were promoted by institutions created to end world poverty, and even today we observe trade and infrastructure deals that leave the citizens wondering whether their country has been sold to another country. In 1985, the late Tanzanian President, Julius Nyerere, gave an interview in which he asked: “where is the example of an economy booming in the Third World because they have accepted the conditions of the IMF?” We can still ask that question today.

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To date, former colonies are still dependent on colonial powers in ways that strip the people of these nations of their commonwealth. From West African countries whose currency is still regulated by France, to Caribbean countries whose economies are heavily dependent on tourism from the former colonial powers, to raw materials exported at unfair rates and finished products imported at exorbitant rates, and to the production of crops for export that do not serve the needs of the people. IMF for over 35 years continously asked Nigeria to devalue its currency, today IMF has made Nigeria currency worthless when compared to neighbouring countries. The World Bank and IMF are tools of imperialism and they need to be abolished or given other assignments. A people-centred approach will focus on going the respect of the people to economic development on their own terms. A simple arrangement of valuation of natural resources and exchanging same in a fair and peaceful manner; and the disengagement of imperialistic tools in the valuation of nations currency will give the world the breakthrough we need not the breakdown that is inevitable with the status quo.

CONCLUSION

The common enemies of the world lie in the tools of imperialism. Addressing imperialism in all its forms and manifestations including bad journalism should be at the core of the United Nation’s Common Agenda. The United Nations must address structural inequalities, actively work towards reparations for historical wrongs, and promote true democracies and political leadership. In other words, if the UN is serious about creating lasting and positive global solutions then it must start with self-reflection and restructuring. The solutions to our shared problems lie not with leaders representing their political parties and States’ interests, but rather with the people. Every nation without a monarch must have established a People’s Council consisting of men and women of proven integrity selected to supervise the activities of government and the maintenance of the Constitution. A people-centred approach is consonant with the UN Charter, the UN’s mission, and its goals. Such an approach ensures we can create an enabling environment for the people to pursue economic, political, and social activities, and the realization of shared prosperity. We the people can build a new world free of oppression and the United Nations has a role in helping us reach a breakthrough or facilitating a breakdown. That’s the stark and urgent choice the organization faces.

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