Activities at the United Nations in New York this week may have looked like a celebration of internationalism and a recognition that territorial wars, terrorism, religious intolerance, climate change, ethnic violence and disease have been recognised as threats to all mankind, demanding collective action by every government.
The impression that internationalism had taken centre stage over narrow national motivations and objectives might also have been bolstered by the rare event of a meeting of the 15-member UN Security Council at which Heads of Government attended and participated, except for Russia and China.
But, unfortunately, any celebration that burning concern and action to address global issues in a collective and agreed way has arrived, would be misplaced. When the façade of noble words, lofty sentiments and easily-spoken promises are peeled away, the dingy slate of inaction and self-interest remains starkly revealed.
The person who described the state of the world with compelling clarity was the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Opening the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Ban painted a grim picture: “Not since the end of the Second World War have there been so many refugees, displaced people and asylum seekers.
Never before has the United Nations been asked to reach so many people with emergency food assistance and other life-saving supplies. Diplomacy is on the defensive, undermined by those who believe in violence. Diversity is under assault by extremists who insist that their way is the only way. Disarmament is viewed as a distant dream, sabotaged by profiteers of perpetual warfare”.
The Secretary-General may have been less realistic about the outcome of the special Summit on Climate Change that preceded the general assembly. He had earlier described Climate Change as “the defining issue of our age”. Yet, he cast a rosy hue on the Summit in his concluding remarks, largely because the meeting was replete with pledges by industrialized nations, including China and the US, to cut destructive carbon emissions and to limit the rise of global temperatures to less than 2 degrees.
The US and China – the two worst emitters in the world – committed to reduce their emissions. But, neither country will do anything until 2020 and how much they will do, even then, is very unclear.
The record shows that commitments have been easily made and just as easily broken causing persuasive complaints from leaders of small states, such as Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda, who told the Summit: “In small states, we live the reality of Climate Change. For us, this is not an academic discussion or statistical game. We have real economies at risk, and real lives at stake”.
On the issue of financing, the Green Climate Fund, launched three years ago to mobilise 100 billion dollars by 2020, is yet to receive any funds that can be disbursed to developing countries. At the summit, Germany and France pledged $1 billion each but the combined sum – even if it is delivered – hardly dents the needs of countries that not only face threats to their very existence but are being pressed to undertake climate actions by those who Prime Minister Browne described as the “culprits of Climate Change”.
The Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister termed as “immoral” the demand “that small states, such as mine, take on more commitments without any financial resources or technology transfer”.
Even in the European Union (EU), which has been a leader in the effort to provide resources to meet Climate Change, the issue has been demoted to satisfy national ambitions of coal-reliant countries such as Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary. Despite its record of providing €4.5 billion to developing countries between 2007 and 2013, and a proposed target of emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, the European Commission’s continuing commitment is being questioned.
This is not only because of the attitude of the coal-reliant countries but also because of the announced intention of the Commission’s new President, Jean-Claude Juncker, to join the portfolios of Climate Change with Energy. The fear is that energy security within some member states of the EU will be prioritised over climate change.
The proof of the pudding that has been baked at the UN Summit will be tasted in Lima later this year when negotiators meet to prepare a draft negotiating text to be ready for a definitive meeting in Paris early next year. Few environmental agencies and developing states, especially small islands, are holding out much hope.
One of their concerns is the insistence by industrialised countries on giving weight in the Climate Change discussions to the views of big multinational companies whose profits depend on exploiting more oil and gas reserves.
Small island states and developed countries with vulnerable coastlines cannot afford to be complacent about Climate Change and they cannot flinch from the unrelenting task of arguing their case in the international community. For many, an increase in temperatures and a consequent rise in sea levels would produce death and destruction that would ruin the economies of all and extinguish the viable existence of some.
Given this glaring reality, these countries, including those in the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) – all 15 of which are threatened – should escalate the issue in their external relations. The appointment of a single High Representative of CARICOM as a whole to undertake global promotion of the problem and to lead negotiations might be a bridge too far, but vigorous and harmonised action should be a minimum requirement.
In his address to the UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama lamented the vision of the world in which “might makes right”. He said that America believes “right makes might”. All persons who crave democracy in the international system would agree. So now we should work to make might of the right of small and vulnerable states.
(Sir Ronald Sanders is a Consultant, Senior Fellow at London University and former Caribbean diplomat)