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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 January 2019

UN under attack? World body hit hard after US pullback

Some UN watchers question whether the organisation is facing a slow demise

The US name plate reading Etats-Unis in French is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council. EPA
The US name plate reading Etats-Unis in French is photographed one day after the United States announced its withdrawal at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council. EPA

The year 2019 started off at the United Nations with Somalia brazenly kicking out the UN envoy, followed soon after by Guatemala ditching a UN-sponsored anti-corruption commission.

After a tough year that saw the United States, the UN's top financial backer, cut funding, pull out of the Human Rights Council and scrap UN-backed agreements, the United Nations is taking more hard hits.

Some UN watchers are questioning whether the global organisation created at the end of World War II to safeguard world peace is facing a slow demise, increasingly under attack by governments with nationalist agendas.

Nearing the half-way mark in his five-year tenure, UN chief Antonio Guterres has warned that multilateralism is under fire at a time when the world needs it most.

Leading the anti-UN charge is President Donald Trump whose America-First approach to foreign policy has emboldened other governments to thumb their noses at the United Nations, analysts say.

"The UN is having a nerve-wracking start to 2019," said Richard Gowan, senior policy fellow at UN University.

While the United Nations may not be on the brink of total collapse, "the Trump administration's attitude encourages others to defy the UN," he said.

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On Monday, the new envoy for Syria, Geir Petersen of Norway, took up his post as the UN's fourth peace broker, but the United Nations has been sidelined by Russia and Iran in its efforts to end nearly eight years of war.

Peacekeeping — at the heart of the UN's security approach — is under serious financial strain after the United States announced plans in late December to further cut back its budget contribution.

Meanwhile, the Security Council is divided over how to respond to the elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Both Somalia and Guatemala have cited UN interference to justify their decisions.

UN envoy to Somalia Nicholas Haysom was declared persona non grata last week after he questioned the Mogadishu government's decision to arrest an Al Shabaab defector who ran for election.

Guatemala announced it was unilaterally ending the mandate of a UN-backed anti-corruption commission that had been looking into President Jimmy Morales' election campaign finances.

Jeffrey Feltman, the UN's former political chief who stepped down last year, worries that the United States and European powers no longer have the UN's back when disagreements like those with Guatemala or Somalia arise.

"What concerns me is that there no longer seems to be effective push-back against such decisions," said Mr Feltman, now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Member states who would normally be expected to defend the principles have "abandoned traditional positions," he said, citing the United States, or been consumed with political turmoil such as Britain with Brexit and EU countries with populism.

"The UN secretariat, fearful of losing essential member state support, will not speak out forcefully, in the absence of sufficient member state backing," he added.

A potential bright spot is Yemen, where the United Nations has succeeded in bringing the warring sides to the table for negotiations on ending a horrific war — but UN diplomats caution that peace process is fragile.

"The UN is being tested like perhaps never before," said Louis Charbonneau, UN director for Human Rights Watch, who argues that stronger UN leadership is needed to help the world body survive this difficult moment.

"The secretary-general should use his bully pulpit to call out abusers by name, no matter how powerful. We need him to be more of a general than a secretary."

Faced with setbacks, Mr Guterres counters that people continue to see the UN as the best platform to address global problems, such as climate change.

A major UN climate summit planned for September is shaping up as a key test of the UN's relevance.

Updated: January 9, 2019 11:19 AM

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