In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brenden Varma, the spokesperson for the president of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák.
According to critics, the United Nations has largely failed to maintain international peace and security, promote self-determination and fundamental human rights, and protect fundamental freedoms. The UN has also been accused of having undermined its own goals with negligent interventions. During the 72nd Session of the General Assembly in September, more than 120 countries declared their support for reforming the UN to tackle the longstanding criticisms the organization receives, among them lack of transparency, efficiency and accountability. There is still a question, however, of whether or not this support is just an expression of intent or a firm commitment to real change.
The president of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, speaking recently about the effectiveness of the United Nations, admitted publicly that the organization “is not reaching its potential.”
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to the president’s spokesperson, Brenden Varma, about the major issues and challenges that Lajčák faces during his tenure, such as the ongoing refugee crisis and the need for reform within the institution.
Athanasios Dimadis: What has been Miroslav Lajčák’s primary goal as president of the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly?
Brenden Varma: President Lajčák has a number of key priorities for the 72nd session. Chief among them are peace building and sustaining peace. He believes that preventing conflict — as opposed to responding to it once it has already broken out — can save countless lives as well as billions of dollars for the international community. Another major goal of his is to finalize the first ever global compact on safe, orderly and regular migration. Right now the world is handling migration in a national and reactive fashion. But we need a global governance system. This is an urgent test for the United Nations.
Dimadis: In his opening remarks, the president pointed out that “the people who need the UN the most are not sitting in this hall today. They are not involved in the negotiation of resolutions.” Why did he feel the need to stress this statement?
Varma: The president’s focus for the 72nd session people. He strongly believes that the United Nations should never forget its primary aim, which is to serve the peoples of the world. He wanted to remind member states that their success will not be measured in numbers of conferences or resolutions, but rather in how much they have improved people’s lives.
Dimadis: Does the president agree with those suggesting that the gap between the United Nations’ political elites and decision makers and the real world outside of the UN microcosm has made people around the world skeptical about the UN’s role and its ability to resolve global problems?
Varma: The president has always believed in the United Nations. That’s why he wants to see it operating as effectively as possible. It’s also why he wants the United Nations to communicate as clearly as possible to the people it is meant to serve. People need to know that the United Nations, among other things, provides food and aid to 80 million people in 80 countries; assists some 67 countries a year with their elections; and supplies vaccines to 45% of the world’s children, helping save 3 million lives annually.
Dimadis: What are the most significant challenges that the 72nd UN Annual Assembly faced in regards to conflict prevention? Does the president recognize any failure on behalf of the United Nations in the process of peacemaking and preventing conflicts?
Varma: The United Nations Charter signatories envisioned a world in which disputes and differences are resolved in meeting rooms and not on battlefields — a world in which our main priority is to stop conflict before it starts, a world in which the United Nations is the global broker for peace. The president feels that not enough has been done to make this vision come true. That’s why he is looking forward to convening a high-level meeting on peace building and sustaining peace on 24 and 25 April in New York. This gathering will allow him to refocus the international community on the importance of conflict prevention. The event will be one of his legacies.
Dimadis: There is a current broader discussion about Security Council reform. How close are we to the goal of building a more efficient and democratic global institution?
Varma: The president has said that Security Council decisions can mean the difference between life or death, and the council’s work is seen as one of the major indicators of the UN’s role in the world. So if member states do not answer calls for change to the council, then the continued relevance and even the very survival of the United Nations is at stake. We are approaching the 10th year of Intergovernmental Negotiations on Security Council reform. The president believes that the time for trying is up. What is needed now is real dialogue, real listening and real interaction. Without that, this process will become nothing but a statement-reading exercise, and it will feature nothing but the repetition of well known and static positions.
The president wants to see a credible and meaningful progress, as well as transparency and inclusivity. He knows that some member states are standing on opposite ends of the spectrum. But he also knows it’s possible for them to make history. He will continue to do whatever the member states allow him to do to advance the process. For his part, he appointed the new co-chairs of the intergovernmental negotiations relatively early so that the process could get underway as soon as possible for the 72nd session. The process is in the hands of the member states. But the president will work to create the conditions for the process to advance. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the council is as efficient, representative and credible as possible.
Dimadis: Secretary-General António Guterres stated that “We all agree that the United Nations must do even more to adapt and deliver. That is the aim of the reform proposals that this Assembly will consider.” How much progress has achieved on that during the latest 72nd Annual Assembly?
Varma: On peace and security reform, the General Assembly has started an intergovernmental process and the president appointed co-chairs for negotiating the relevant resolution. Regarding development reform, member states are currently waiting for the secretary-general’s December report. Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee, which handles budgetary matters, will consider the secretary-general’s management reform proposal after receiving recommendations from the Advisory Committee on Administrative and Budgetary Questions.
Dimadis: Has the United Nations done what is needed in preventing or, at least, efficiently managing the current refugee crisis? What have been your priorities in this field since Mr. Lajčák assumed his presidency?
Varma: The General Assembly has been involved with Syria in a number of ways. One example is the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Persons Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM). The General Assembly established that body’s mandate. However, regarding migration in general, we are tackling it in a global manner. After all, migration is not a phenomenon that only affects certain countries or regions. This global issue requires a global response.
Regarding the migration compact, over the past few months, member states and other stakeholders have engaged in a series of thematic discussions to gain a better understanding of the complex dynamics at play. To conclude this phase, Mexico will host a stocktaking meeting in early December. This meeting will be an important step in identifying building blocks for the global compact. The compact will be negotiated in the General Assembly between February and July next year. It will be adopted at an international conference in Morocco in December 2018. It will be the first-ever comprehensive framework to address all dimensions of migration, including the human rights, humanitarian and development aspects. For the process to be successful, it should embrace a diversity of views. At the same time, it must also be based on facts. We need to move away from misperceptions that often surround the debate around migration. The president will work with all member states to ensure that the process yields a credible outcome.
Dimadis: The president has been speaking about making the General Assembly more effective. How can this happen?
Varma: There has been steady progress over the years in the work of the Open-Ended Group on Revitalization of the General Assembly. Most importantly, it’s an ongoing effort that continuously aims to make the organization run more efficiently. The transparent selection process of the UN secretary-general is among various positive steps that have been taken to improve the working methods. Additionally, there has been more interaction and coordination between the General Assembly and member states. The president meets regularly with the chairs of regional groups to brief them on his activities and listen to their views and inputs.
There is more regular coordination among the main organs, including the General Assembly, Security Council, Economic and Social Council and the Secretariat. The president has monthly meetings with the secretary-general and the heads of other organs to ensure effective coordination. In the president’s office, there has been a renewed commitment to transparency. His office practices full disclosure related to financing, staffing and travel. All such information is available on the office’s website. And President Lajčák will soon become the first president of the General Assembly to publish a summary of his financial disclosure statement online.
Dimadis: What are Mr. Lajčák major hopes and fears for the next year?
Varma: Throughout the coming year, the president hopes that member states will look beyond their national interests and engage in true dialogue, so that they can collaborate with each other effectively and find common solutions to the many challenges the world is facing. At the end of the 72nd session, the president will definitely want to know that his work in some way helped improve the lives of people across the globe.
*[Updated: December 11, 2017, at 17:25 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.