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Is the UN an imperfect and uncertain institution?

Is the UN an imperfect and uncertain institution? UNA NZ Post Conference Summary

UNA NZ 2017 Conference Summary
6 July 2017

Annual Conference, 29-30 June 2017

The 2017 National Conference of the United Nations Association of New Zealand focused on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, addressing the risks and opportunities of changing global geopolitical dynamics and the role of the United Nations in this context. The sold-out conference drew focus to New Zealand’s progress in advancing the social and political rights of Māori and refugee and migrant communities. A strong need for political will to advance the SDGs both at home and on the global stage emerged as a key theme of the two-day conference.

The conference’s opening discussion with the Rt Hon Helen Clark, which focused on her former role as the United Nations Development Programme Administrator, gave the conference insight into future challenges and opportunities facing the United Nations. The change in administration in the United States and subsequent lack of funding for key UN initiatives was described as a ‘crisis’ by Ms Clark. However, on the question of the UN’s future in the face of populist nationalism, she argued that the UN had increased in relevance as an intergovernmental institution following Brexit and that the United States also retains the same external economic and political dependencies it did prior to the 2016 election and its ideological shift inwards.

Both the discussion with Ms Clark, and Ms Carolyn Schwalger, recently Deputy Permanent Representative to the NZ Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York, highlighted the need for greater participation from civil society actors and the media in UN processes. As described by Ms Schwalger, strengthening a robust and inclusive approach within the UN, as well as being pragmatic in focusing on the issues as well as political relationships (‘we spoke truth to power’), was part of New Zealand’s contribution on the Security Council.

Progress in global responses to climate change were discussed with Ms Clark highlighting the pro-active leadership of California Governor, Jerry Brown, following the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Dr Kennedy Graham, MP and former UN official, warned of the risk of uncoordinated ‘atomisation’ in an increasingly bottom-up response to climate change. Whether or not this transition is understood as a risk or an opportunity, the importance of ‘hearts and minds’ in advancing the objectives of equality and environmental sustainability which underpin the SDGs, emerged as consensus at the conference.
In particular, the role of political will in transforming the objectives of UN frameworks into impact was identified as crucial to the advancement of social and political equality for Māori and migrant and refugee communities in New Zealand. A presentation on identity for rangatahi Māori and New Zealand’s recent colonial past was led by UNA NZ interns, Liletina Vaka and Kahu Kutia, and highlighted ongoing institutional inequalities and the need to ‘de colonise our minds’. As we face the 2017 election following only 54% voter turn-out for 18-24-year-old Māori in 2014, discussions on political participation of indigenous populations seem more relevant than ever.

The discussion on the rights and resettlement of refugees and migrants in 2017 followed from the previous day’s presentation on New Zealand’s formative years on the United Nations. This highlighted New Zealand’s response to the Cambodian refugee crisis from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, raising the question of New Zealand’s current and future role in responding to the Syrian refugee crisis and our migration policies more broadly.

Overall the conference cast the United Nations as an imperfect and uncertain institution, but one with objectives which are anything but irrelevant in 2017. Whilst the political will needed to back the advancement of the SDGs was evident in the room, engaging broader participation to support sustainable development and greater social and political equality emerged as a key future challenge for both the UNA of New Zealand and the United Nations.

Congratulations to Olivia Bennett from St Cuthbert’s College in Auckland who won the Secondary Schools Speech Finals at the conference on Friday, in which finalists addressed the topic “Is There a role for Nuclear Weapons in today’s World?’.

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