The assembly may seem irrelevant to ongoing world conflicts, but it is a gesture towards some kind of global democracy.
When thinking about the United Nations General Assembly on its 70th birthday it is hard not to be cynical and dismissive, yet it would still be wrong to join the chorus of detractors.
True, it seems irrelevant to the ongoing conflicts raging in the Middle East and Africa. It has failed to rid the world of nuclear weapons, solve the challenge of climate change, end the long ordeal of the Palestinian people, and seems to be little more than a talk shop where diplomats congregate.
It is painfully evident that the General Assembly lacks the political will to challenge any of the major states in the world, which even if challenged possess a right of veto in the Security Council, confirming the impression that the assembly’s role is limited to the issuance of recommendations that sovereign states are free to ignore.
It is useful to recall that the General Assembly is the only gesture made by the UN to the idea that every sovereign state is equal before the law. All 193 UN member states take part in it, and do so on the basis of formal equality. Vanuatu has the same vote as China or the United States, which helps to explain both its core strength and weakness.
The strength involves a gesture towards some kind of global democracy in which relative power, size, and wealth does not shape UN activities, with the pluralism of the General Assembly encompassing all stages of development and every world civilisation.
In this respect, the assembly can claim to represent the human and global interest as well the aggregation of national interests. The universal participation of all states in the recently concluded Paris Climate Change Conference was greatly helped by its UN auspices.
The UN is not only a club of states, it is geopolitically entity controlled by the most powerful of these states, and can only be effective when these dominant states agree to act together.
When we dwell on the weakness of the General Assembly or our disappointment that it does not live up to what a reading of the UN Charter would lead us to expect, we need to dig deeper to understand why this is so. A beginning of such understanding is an awareness that the UN as a whole can do no more or less than the P5 (or permanent members) of the Security Council want it to do.
In other words, the UN is not only a club of states, it is geopolitically entity controlled by the most powerful of these states, and can only be effective when these dominant states agree to act together, which they rarely do.
Revealingly, the General Assembly was not always as marginal as it now appears. There were two historical instances when it seemed that it would take the lead in shaping both global security and world economic policy.
The first instance occurred during the Korean War when the United States realised that it only was able to get authorisation for the use of force to defend South Korea because the Soviet Union was temporarily boycotting the Security Council due to its refusal to accept Communist China as the official UN representative of China.
The Soviet Union reacted to this procedural mishap by making it clear that it would never again allow the circumvention of its veto. The United States responded with the 1950 “Uniting for Peace Resolution (UNGA Res 377A)”, which declared that in a peace and security situation that was deadlocked in the Security Council, the General Assembly had a residual responsibility to act on behalf of the UN.
Given the Cold War rivalry, this upgrading of the General Assembly would have had great significance if implemented, which never happened. The US came to realise that it could no longer command an automatic majority in the assembly, and might find itself the target of an adverse UN initiative.
The Soviet Union never felt comfortable allowing an external body any authority to question its security initiatives. And so these two antagonistic superpowers found common ground by allowing the Uniting for Peace approach to die a quiet death.
There was a second occasion on which the General Assembly briefly captured centre stage. It occurred in the early 1970s when UN membership was greatly increased by former European colonies gaining political independence. These new states flexed their muscles though the medium of the Non-Aligned Movement.
These developments reached their climax in 1974 during the Sixth Special Session of the General Assembly when proposals for a New World Economic Order were put forward with great enthusiasm by consensus reached among this group of states then known as the “Third World”.
This effort to challenge the way in which the world economy favoured the developed countries when it came to trade and investment alarmed the West, especially the United States and Britain. It struck back, contending that the General Assembly was an arena where irresponsible majorities could come to conclusions that did not reflect the true power balance in the world.
Criticism of the General Assembly focused on the misleading effects of empowering tiny states by making them equal to the largest and most influential states. And so, this effort to spearhead world economic reform on the basis of UN authority faltered, and got nowhere.
Despite the failure of both moves, it would be a mistake to dismiss the importance of the General Assembly. It provides the world with its most authoritative meeting ground for world leaders. These political figures appreciate the assembly as a vital arena for the expression of views on leading issues of the day.
The universality of membership, inducing even states that are the targets of UN censure or sanctions to stay within the organisation, is the best evidence that its operations remain important. And if the right political will should emerge in the future, as is quite possible around climate change or regional security in the Middle East, then the potential for the General Assembly envisioned in the Charter might be quickly achieved.
We all need to remember that the final acts in the drama of the UN unfolding have yet to be written.
*Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of Global Studies. He is also former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.