Every now and then an event comes along that’s so existentially pressing, so apocalyptically spectacular that it requires the finest minds in New York traffic-jamology. Manhattan hosted the jam of jams last week as leaders and dignitaries made their way to the 71st United Nations summit, the crème de la crème for jamology’s talking heads. “There is not a week that’s worse than this week,” one bumper-to-bumper fetishist said.
Motorcade herding aside, last week was of significance for, not just nerds like me or John Key, but also for the 34,000 people that are displaced from their homes every day and for Syria, a country traumatised and bloodied for the last five years. The youngest country in the world, South Sudan, has been pillaged by its own leaders. Powerful democracies are pumping arms into Yemen.
The UN, the international organisation that in 1945 pledged to end “the scourge of war” and champion “faith in fundamental human rights”, has a lot on its hands.
As the world's leaders head home from New York, let's look at the challenges facing the UN, the greater international community and New Zealand.
New Zealand, trade & the Asia-Pacificbalance of power
John Key had a grinning ol' time in New York by the looks of things. He promoted New Zealand as a free trade crusader at the prestigious Council for Foreign Relations, one of the most influential think-tanks in the world. It was a classic moment in cultural cringe, seeing Key talking up New Zealand among the American professors and journalists. Luckily, the audience reminded him about the Auckland housing bubble and criticisms of the TPP. On the TPP, Key said the argument that the deal's investor-state dispute resolution (ISDS) will damage a signatory country's sovereignty and legal rights was "nonsense".
The Prime Minister also disagreed with the thinking that the controversial Pacific Rim trade deal is a containment mechanism against China. "China is growing. It’s rapidly emerging as an economic superpower," Key said, "So if it’s solely about containment, then I don’t think that will work." Basically, New Zealand doesn't need to factor into the Asia-Pacific balance of power game as long as it's integrated into the best markets. Someone like Key doesn't care who dominates the region, as long as they'll consider slashing trade tariffs, labour rights, and regulations.
"We always believe in New Zealand that countries that trade together, you know, for the most part largely remain peaceful together," he said, referring to the miracle that has been relative peace in East Asia over the last twenty years. This is flawed thinking. Yes, states aren't going to war with other states in the region, largely due to economic interdependence. But what is the nature of this peace? In China, Vietnam and Indonesia, especially, workers lack basic rights, officials award permits and contracts to their dodgy mates and union leaders and other activists are disappeared. I'm not advocating for full noise Cold War-esque containment of China, but are the governments behind these corrupt and authoritarian norms really who we want to cooperate with and have dominate the Asia-Pacific?
The displaced millions
An unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have left their homes because of violence, poverty and persecution, the highest level since World War II. The six richest countries in the world host less than nine percent of refugees. Meanwhile, one in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. The fourth largest city in Jordan is the Zaatari refugee camp.
On the margins of the UN meeting, US President Barack Obama hosted the Leaders Summit on Refugees in an effort to increase funding for humanitarian organisations and call on countries to admit more refugees through resettlement. The UN says they were US$15 billion short on their refugee budget last year. More than 30 countries attending Obama’s summit raised US$4.5 billion and collectively agreed to take in an extra 360,000 refugees next year. Details are sketchy, but apparently the coalition also agreed to provide one million refugees with education and another million with improved legal access. Vague, I know, but in the grand scheme of things it's a pretty concrete success.
Refugee advocates said it's a start. “The political inertia has finally been broken and now it needs to be turned into genuine momentum through effective implementation of each pledge,” said David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee.
The UN General Assembly (UNGA) meetings itself finished with a more disappointing effort to tackle the refugee emergency. UN member states signed on to a non-binding declaration on the need to help refugees, but it had little in terms of solid commitments.
Obama's last UN bash & Latin America
Last week was Obama's final appearance at the UN as US President. He gave an overview assessment of the world order and criticised the world's "strongmen."
“There appears to be a growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now," Obama told the General Assembly, "and I want everybody to understand—I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order."
“So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully.”
Obama touted some significant diplomatic victories, saying “We opened relations with Cuba, helped Colombia end Latin America’s longest war, and we welcome a democratically elected leader of Myanmar to this assembly.” He also cited the multilateral deal reached with Iran over its nuclear program.
Indeed, and this is a comment that my Leftist friends will get salty over, US influence and diplomacy has opened up potentials for democracy and peace in Latin America. During the Cold War, the US certainly fuelled civil strife in the Americas. However, now the torn country of Colombia is mending after seventy years of conflict between the government and the guerrilla group, FARC.
Cuba's another story. A thawing of Cuba-US relations can and probably will go two ways: Cuba will slowly integrate into a arguably detrimental global financial system, with a capitalist class that is hungry for investment and exploitation; however, on the bright side, the Castro dictatorship could crumble.
Ban Ki-moon's damning farewell & Syria
The failures of the international community in regards to the Syrian civil war are by far the most depressing and horrifically consequential of issues covered last week and, while Obama may leave a positive legacy behind in some areas, Syria outweighs them all.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose position Helen Clark is trying to wrangle, used his last address to the General Assembly to deliver a clear and full-throated message to the world, especially on Syria.
“Many groups have killed many innocents—but none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighbourhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees,” he said.
Ban's speech came as the UN halted all aid deliveries to Syria after a Red Crescent humanitarian convoy near Aleppo was bombed by either Syrian regime or Russian warplanes—a blatant war crime.
“Powerful patrons that keep feeding the war machine also have blood on their hands,” Ban said. “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all side.”