Still, long-overdue reforms can no longer be raised in passing to cover up for issues that continue to plague the sole organisation for international governance
The world cannot afford not to have a UN
In two weeks, world leaders will be descending on Manhattan for 10 days of whirlwind diplomacy, speeches, press conferences and quite possibly, a few concrete agreements.
There are two ways to view the annual United Nations General Assembly, or UNGA, meetings.
One cynical, and increasingly prevalent, view is that this is one big "photo op". Leaders attend meetings today in a manner akin to speed dating, sparing 30 minutes here and an hour there on issues and topics as complex and diverse as climate change and nuclear arsenal.
As international conferences continue to grow and side events proliferate – including evening soirées at The Met and celebrities coming to champion the issues they handpick – the UNGA is losing the value that it can have in bringing together decision-makers to debate and agree on pressing issues.
However, the other more muted, and perhaps idealistic, view is that the UN General Assembly meetings provide an opportunity to take stock of international affairs and present the possibility of coming up with solutions for a troubled world.
Having international representation for countries around the world – a higher authority capable of making decisions at a senior level or at least giving a clear enough indication of the possibility of agreeing or disagreeing with a particular initiative – is greatly needed. This type of coordination is crucial as the world increasingly faces cross border challenges that cannot be solved by a single sovereign state alone.
The UN represents a global order at a time when nationalism reigns high. The UN requires closed door deliberations and compromise at a time when loud statements – or tweets – and stubborn positions are perceived as strength. The UN is built through collective work and is an umbrella wide enough for a confluence of positions in an age where institutions like the European Union are becomingly increasingly fragmented and calls for putting narrow-sighted national sentiment first (as we saw with the "America-first" mantra) have become national policies for two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
Defending the UN is not a popular stance to take – and there is much that can and should be criticised. The list is long, from the failure to implement UN security council resolutions dating back more than 50 years, to an inflated bureaucracy with an annual budget of US$2.5 billion (Dh9.2 billion).
However, with a population of 7.5 billion people, a figure that is expected to rise to 11.2 billion by 2100, how can the residents of the world find ways of living together? Can the world really afford no place for discussion and efforts to mediate solutions? Can we do without UN bodies like Unicef and the World Health Organisation, mandated with caring for all sides without agendas? With pressing issues, like the threat of nuclear proliferation and climate change, impacting all countries, the UN is the only avenue to seek solutions on a global level. And yet, larger countries, especially those that are members of the Security Council and those providing crucial funding to the international body, continue to dominate its agenda.
Read more on UN efforts
Every year, there are marginal discussions on the need to reform the UN, especially the unrepresentative Security Council that continues to give its permanent members exaggerated power over the rest of the 190 international members.
Reform is overdue and raising it as a passing issue in meetings cannot be accepted as a fig leaf to cover up for problems that continue to plague the sole organisation for international governance. Making the UN more reflective of the 21st century is the only guarantee for its relevance – and survival.
One such initiative to make the UN more relevant came with the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in January of last year. It was undertaken by the UN to be a benchmark for all countries, with 17 goals to "reset" the course that the world was on and to have a sustainable agenda by 2030.
Unlike the previous "millennium development goals" that were set by members of the "developed" world who dictated to the "developing" world, all countries still have some way to go to meet SDG goals, from equal pay at work to protecting natural resources.
However, the biggest challenge in implementing SDGs remains making the populations they are set for aware of their existence and relevance. They cannot be seen in terms of jargon or high-level meetings. Rather, they must be seen as tangible targets for charting a sustainable and more equitable world.
This year’s UNGA meeting will be the first to be chaired by newly-appointed UN secretary-general António Guterres. The outspoken Portuguese statesman presents a marked difference from his predecessor, the softly-spoken and often weak Ban Ki-moon. Mr Guterres has his work cut out for him and he intends to take it on fully. Having spent a decade at the aid of the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR), at the height of the worst refugee crisis since the Second World War, Mr Guterres is committed to representing the voiceless. When he took on his mission in January of this year, Mr Guterres committed to making this a "year of peace". With North Korea threatening nuclear war and battles to defeat ISIL raging on, nine months into the year, peace seems quite far. However, if peace is to be achieved, the UN is key to mediating it. This rests, in large part, on the will of member-states.
Read more on Antonio Guterres
Several high-level meetings have already been announced on the sidelines of this year’s General Assembly, from Turkey convening a meeting for the Rhoingya Muslims to UN special envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame calling an international meeting on Libya.
However, high level meetings rarely lead to resolutions. Last year’s UNGA had two high-level meetings on refugees and migrants – and yet no fundamental changes were implemented and the suffering of millions escaping conflict or poverty continues.
After all is said and done, the UN is a reflection of its members. World leaders, and especially those heading nations that are members of the UN Security Council, can choose either to empower the organisation or to weaken it. As we approach the 72nd General Debate at the UN, we must urge world leaders to live up to their responsibilities.
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