The UN and International Affairs: Some Aspects of the Year in Review for 2017 and Some Expectations for 2018

World in Turmoil

“The UN and International Affairs: Some Aspects of the Year in Review for 2017 and Some Expectations for 2018” by Curtis FJ Doebbler[1]


The year 2017 was an odd year in international affairs by almost any account. It was a year of surprises and where the impossible became reality and reality seemed clouded by “False News” and other competing claims. History will likely look back sympathetically on the confused observer who is not sure what really happened in 2017. Despite the apparent confusion, it is nevertheless valuable to recount some of the most remarkable events remembering Niccolo Machiavelli’s 16th century advice in De Principatibus or The Prince, that “[w]hoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times.” The following are some end-of-year thoughts of an international lawyer and observer of international affairs in 2017 and expectations for 2018.

The year started with a murky omen hanging over the world with the United States of America, perhaps the most powerful country in the world, posed to inaugurate a president who had admitted sexually abusing women, regularly communicates his policy via social media, and regularly voices unorthodoxly undiplomatic opinions about world affairs, other world leaders and other countries. President Donald Trump had about three million fewer votes than his opponent Hillary Clinton, but still triumphed over the woman who would have been the first female President in the history of the United States. Despite Clinton’s millions-vote-advantage through out the US, the election was decided by 106,000 voters in three of the US’s fifty States. Considering the surprising results, many international observers are wondering should there be some minimum ethical standards with which world leaders must comply. Others are wondering if the Electoral College, which functions as a proxy for the American people, is a fair and democratic means for allowing people to participate in their own government. The latter being a minimum legal standard, a human right that most States have agreed to abide by, for example, in accepting article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United States has also ratified this treaty. In 2018, American voters might avenge their faux pas by handing Democrats a majority in both houses of Congress in the November elections.

Because American voters will not be able to recall or impeach American President Donald Trump during his four-year term despite his past and constant missteps, some of which appear to cross the line to be unlawful, the tenure of President Trump makes for an uncertain global future in 2018. While the US economy has boomed—but much less than bitcoin (see below)—it appears to have been at the expense of most Americans, or at least the poorest, and much of the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the impetuous rhetorical exchanges between the North Korean leader and his American counterpart made the Doomsday Clock ( tick a half minute closer to the last midnight for all of us. As a result, 2018 holds the threat of Trump starting a war with North Korea, the threat that Americans may be less safe around the world because of the animosity their President has attracted while further isolating the United States from its friends.

For the optimistic, 2018 could hold the unlikely surprise that both the US and North Korea, of course with all other nuclear powers, completely change course and ratify the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty that was adopted and opened for ratification in 2017. This treaty offers the best, and perhaps only, chance to mitigate the threat of nuclear war. For this to happen would mean a shift in political positions has occurred that required more courage than anything we have seen in recent history.

As nuclear-armed States bickered threatening each other, the cryptocurrency Bitcoin went from about 1000 CHF to over 19,000 CHF and then somewhat back again. All the while investments in the speculative currency continued to rise. At the same time, few people seem to understand how the speculative currency transactions actually work and especially the risk involved. Did this reflect distrust in governments? Maybe, because cryptocurrencies depend on trusting one’s own internet security and that of others, while traditionally currencies depend on a government’s central bank or currency trading gurus who earn profits on trades whether or not the investor does. Rather than being a barometer of cryptocurrency values, the rollercoaster ride of Bitcoin might continue to reflect peoples’ concern about governments’ credibility.

While government’s change, we all continue to live on the same planet. In 2017, the governments of the world that had agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 continued to discuss taking action to prevent the destruction of the atmosphere of our planet. Once again however, not much progress was made. At the same time, the scientific imperative of our destruction of the planet, became dangerously closer to becoming a reality. Ironically, the 23rd Conference of the Parties (COP23) to the UNFCCC was hosted by Fiji, but took place in Bonn, Germany, as natural disaster torn Fiji was not considered to be desirable place to hosting it. But the mere conference facility is not the only thing that Fiji was ‘gifted’. Fiji also received Baker and McKenzie advisors who allegedly advised the COP223 Presidency that loss and damage was not to be a priority. They did this despite knowing that inadequate action from previous COPs, including the de minimus Paris Agreement, had created a situation where countries like Fiji were going to suffer significant unavoidable damage from climate change and needed loss and damages to protect themselves. While the talks will keep going observers must increasingly be wondering if anything can really be accomplished in this forum. The annual forum that will take place from 3 to 14 December 2018 in fossil fuel prompter Poland is unlikely to provide an answer. There is an outside chance that COP24 could however be the stick—or piece of coal—that breaks the back of the annual UNFCCC jamboree. But if this happens, what will happen?

The United Nations itself seemed not to be sure of its own value or mandate. Its Secretary-General Antonio Guterres first appointed a retail and manufacturing executive to head its children’s agency, UNICEF, apparently just because the US told him to do so, passing over several more qualified candidates who were apparently recommended by his staff that interviewed candidates. The new Executive Director, Henrietta Holsman Fore, is the Chief Executive Officer of Holsman International, an shadowy manufacturing, consulting and/or investment company that appears to be family or government owned; on the Board of the fossil fuel company, the ExxonMobil Corporation; on the board of a company plagued by dishonest false labeling lawsuits, General Mills; and on the board of a pharmaceutical company with a single approved product for adults and none for children, Theravance Biopharma. The closest she appears to have come to working on children’s rights or protection was as an US government employee that headed the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Deputy Secretary of State responsible for US foreign assistance. Most embarrassing for the Secretary-General, however, may have been the fact that NGOs nominated at least three eminently more qualified candidates, but he had passed over them apparently despite the advice of several of his Under-Secretary-Generals due to US pressure. Indeed, the whole matter made the UN Secretary-General and the entire UN system look like the Portuguese equivalent of the proverbial “poodle” being dragged around on leash by an US President who is often referred to as “The Donald.”

By the time the UNICEF announcement was made in his name, Guterres had flown the coupe for his European holiday apparently so embarrassed by his capitulation to American pressure that he didn’t even stay to see the UN budget through its bumpy process of adoption by the General Assembly. In his absence, which several States expressly noted during the budget process, the UN’s budget was adopted but with a 285 million CHF cut. The US took credit for this pyrrhic victory. A weary observer at the UN’s early morning budget session wondered how the US has so much influence on the world body despite the fact that it treats it so badly. Others pointed out on Tweeter that while the US earns more hard currency from the UN in New York than it contributes, it still complains about the world organization.

The last month of 2017 saw an apparent accumulation of significant disgust with the way the UN system was functioning, including from senior people within the UN itself. Apparently fed-up with UN politics and apparently frustrated by the Secretary-General’s unwillingness to sufficiently support him, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Under-Secretary-General Jordanian Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein, announced he would not seek a second term as High Commissioner. The first Arab High Commissioner cited lack of a political environment conducive to this work. This inside hit, came just months after the Secretary-General had unexpectedly lost another key member of his senior management team, when the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA), Nigerian Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin, died suddenly.

Not only the Secretary-General, but neither his spokesperson and his Under-Secretary-General for Communications seemed unwilling to discuss UN affairs at the end of December. Final week press conferences were cancelled, cut-short, or just not held. And the only journalist that remained at the New York City Headquarters to cover the late-night sessions of the United Nations General Assembly on 23 and 24 December ended the year still fighting to recover his rights as an accredited resident journalist after his small office at the UN was given away to an Egyptian State-media company that hardly attend ever attends the United Nations. This apparent punishment had been levied after the journalist, Matthew Lee of Inner City Press, had reported on corruption with in the UN.

The Deputy-Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, the former Environment Minister of Nigeria, also came under attack shortly after taking up her post. Allegedly she authorized the sale of protected natural Rosewood to China without proper authority and in violation of existing laws and then allegedly claimed she did not know what she was doing at the time. UN Observers asked is this the ‘UN We Want’ (using the phrase associated with the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 Agenda)? At the same, time the Secretary-General seemed to be delegating more and more responsibility to his Deputy, while reserving peace and security issues to himself, but with few successes to show in 2017.

As a consequence, the UN will likely start 2018 on the defensive and face even more seriously tests of its integrity than it did in 2017. It will likely be challenged to achieve more with less and to confront the fact that the host of its global headquarters really does not want it. Will the Secretary-General have to courage to move the UN out of the US? Will be able to deal with the US without looking even more subservient?

The UN family had its own up and downs. The High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, struggled with a so-called ‘refugee crisis’ that rolled into the second year of his five-year mandate with little respite in sight. Despite the fact that his native Italy and all the other relatively wealthy European States combined took in fewer refugees than many of the world’s poorest countries—Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia, for example, were caring for an estimated almost 2 million refugees in 2017—Grandi found himself focusing on the Europeans’ problems.

Ethiopia did provide a bright hope in the UN landscape as is native son, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was elected the first African Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in its 72-year history. Dr. Tedros, the name by which he is widely known, had been his country’s minister of health and then foreign affairs. His first six months in office at WHO were however marred by controversies arising from a series of political and administrative blunders. These included naming the then-Zimbabwe sitting head of State as a special envoy, enlisting people still representing their private non-State actors to write WHO policy papers and influence WHO policy, appointing twice as many senior staff to the financially strapped Specialized Agency as his predecessor and mainly on the basis of politics and not merit, and reneging on a growing list of campaign promises. His campaign promises to make climate change, the right to health, and children’s health priorities, essentially disappeared from his General Programme of Action. This left his supporters mainly from developing countries wondering if they had indeed elected someone who would finally prioritize their interests or merely a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

In 2018, both Dr. Tedros and Mr. Grandi may have much to answer for respectively at the WHO Executive Board in January and the UNHCR Executive Committee in October. Whether they will be able to weather the storms that are brewing so early in their tenures will be a test of their abilities to do the jobs for which they were hired.

The principal judicial organ of the UN, the International Court of Justice, was not spared from the usual events unfolding across the globe. In December elections, for the first time in the Court’s more than seven decades of existence there was no British judge elected to the court. A British judge was up for election, in fact one who was already on the court and had been put forward for re-election. This time, however, the British candidate was challenged by an Indian candidate. In the first rounds of voting by the Security Council and the General Assembly, both of which must approve a judge, the British had a majority of up to six Security Council Member States, while the Indian had had majorities in the dozens in the General Assembly. In the tenth and penultimate round of General Assembly voting, Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari secured 121 votes to British judge Christopher Greenwood, who then conceded defeat. With 3 cases under deliberation and 17 cases pending, 2018 will likely be a busy year for the Court. 2018 will also be a busy, and difficult year of the European Union, which is likely to cost the British economy dearly.

The European Union itself bounced back somewhat in 2017 successfully confronting the threat of a European break-up with strong Pro-Europe candidates triumphing over skeptics in France and to a lesser extend in Germany. At year’s end most polls showed that a convincing majority of British citizens were already regretting their decision to leave the European Union. With economies growing and enjoying increasingly rosy prognoses in comparison to the tenuous American economy, the European is likely to be able to continue its winning ways into the new year.

Economically, the American isolation is also being interpreted as a concession to its economic leadership around the world. While well-established, often through long-standing exploitative relationships, the United States economic superiority appeared to show clear signs of decline. Significant among these signs were the unfettered moves by China, Russia, and India to assert their influence around the world. China followed the US tradition in some respects by latching military might in the China South Sea to its rapidly expanding economic strength. India, which seemed deadlocked with Pakistan in a military conflict on its Northern border, exercised a more liberal economic policy that boosted growth. 2018 however may accent differences between China and India’s growth. The principle separating factor is the greater inequality and exclusion of women in India. Russia, whose economy suffered in the last few years due to a mix of market factors and sanctions, seemed to be returning to growth by the end of 2017 and likely into the new year.

Despite a global economic upturn, developing countries appeared to fail further behind the economic development of their richer neighbors largely due to the international community’s unwillingness to adequately address the adverse consequence of climate change, a contraction of development finance, and unfavourable foreign investment trends. In the latter case it is not so much a shrinking of foreign investment as it is the failure of much of this investment to benefit the developing country. Instead, foreign investment too often results in profit-taking that benefits a developed country or it citizens. One factor in changing the mindset of developing countries might be the arrival of government figures willing to put their country first and to realize foreign investors are doing the same for their own countries.

There events by no means constitute a summary of the most important happenings across the globe, although any observer of international affairs would be hard pressed to deny the inclusion of most of them in their own list of significant occurrences in 2017.

[1] Research Professor of Law, University of Makeni, Visiting Professor of Law, Webster University (Geneva), member International-Lawyers.Org.

Photo credit: AFP.


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