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Experts Say UN Still Vital for African Nations to Get Global Attention

FILE —South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023.
FILE —South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the 78th Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 19, 2023.

WASHINGTON — As world leaders gathered in New York for the 78th United Nations General Assembly, there were renewed calls to reform and modernize the world body. African leaders, including the presidents of South Africa, Senegal and Kenya, reiterated the need for global political and financial institutions to be more inclusive, diverse and democratic.

In his opening remarks, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged the U.N. has no alternative but to "reform or rupture," pointing out that while the world has evolved, international institutions have not kept pace, potentially making them part of the problem rather than the solution.

Michael Walsh, senior fellow at a Philadelphia-based think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA much of what is happening can be attributed to diverging priorities among countries, as well as a proliferation of international platforms — outside of the U.N.— where leaders can promote their interests and make decisions.

"If you ask a small island state, obviously, sea level rise is a key issue for them. It's an existential issue. For the United States, Ukraine is the main issue. So, now there's a debate not only on what the issues should be, but where you should actually debate those issues, and where the decisions should be made," Walsh told VOA.

"We saw the BRICS summit, we see the G7 and the G20 — we see all these institutions. So now there's another question about where we should be having these discussions," he added.

On September 9, the African Union made headlines and history when it was granted permanent member status in the Group of 20 top world economies. The move was widely hailed as a powerful acknowledgment of Africa's global importance, although some critics saw it as a symbolic move.

African countries have long campaigned for a more significant role in international bodies, including a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council.

The 15-member council, the U.N. which has primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security, has been gridlocked over Russia's war in Ukraine. Critics say this kind of logjam underscores one of the council’s most fundamental problems: its membership rules.

Only permanent members — the U.S., France, Russia, China, and the United Kingdom — have the power to veto any council decisions. African nations are among 10 non-permanent members elected for two-year terms, without veto power. Under the U.N. charter, all member states must agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the U.N. Security Council.

Critics say the U.N. has long faced questions about its relevance and whether it truly reflects a world that has emerged since its founding in 1945. Global tensions and divisions regularly play out in the U.N.’s 193-member General Assembly, where African countries have been under pressure to choose sides in Russia's war on Ukraine.

The international body has also been criticized for inaction, at times, especially in times of need. That sentiment was echoed by Kenyan President William Ruto during his speech at the U.N. General Assembly Thursday.

"If any confirmation was ever needed that the United Nations Security Council is dysfunctional, undemocratic, non-inclusive, un-representative, and therefore incapable of delivering progress in our world as presently constituted, the rampant impunity of certain actors on the global scene settles the matter," said Ruto.

Frannie Leautier, a development finance expert and CEO of advisory firm, SouthBridge Investments says Africa's call for greater representation in global decision-making predates the war in Ukraine.

"With the COVID-19 crisis there was a huge demand for global cooperation in order to get to solutions. And some of the pressures for Africa to be better represented also come from that time where the access to vaccines was quite limited for Africa because it was not present in those conversations and decision making," Leautier told VOA’s Straight Talk Africa.

Leautier said in spite of its limitations, the U.N. remains a vital, strategic platform for Africa to lead and build bridges on the global stage, especially in the fight against climate change. For that, she said, the importance of the U.N. to help countries address global challenges cannot be over-emphasized.

"Africa says, 'Yes, we are not the ones who have been responsible for generating all of these emissions, but we are going to be the ones responsible to actually seek solutions that help the whole world decarbonize,' and that's a decision by Africa to cooperate with the rest of the world," Leautier said.

"The same thing can be said about security and development issues because, without development, we cannot have trade. And without trade, we don’t have the ability to maintain the quality of life in all countries, whether more advanced economies or developing countries," he added.

Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Walsh said the U.N. presents an opportunity for smaller nations to get global attention.

"For states that aren’t parties to the G20 or some of these other institutions, removing U.N. General Assembly as a central convening moment every year, would take their political agency away from them," Walsh said, adding that the high-level meeting gives those countries a chance to tell the world what matters to their people.

While U.N. Security Council reforms seem unlikely in the short term, Walsh said the fight for expansion only raises Africa's profile.

"Whether it is security or finance reform, or whatever we're talking about across the board, African states and their leaders are speaking and advocating for change. And every time they are able to actually achieve a result from that change, it adds more data points to be able to say, ‘we’re making progress," Walsh said.

"It's symbolic and it actually is pragmatically important because it does give an opportunity to be able to elevate these issues to a stage where Africa hasn’t had a voice yet," he added.