INTERVIEW: UN General Assembly Resolutions Represent ‘the Conscience Of Humanity’, President Says
The recent General Assembly resolution calling for a humanitarian truce in Gaza is just one example of how the UN’s most representative body – comprising all 193 Member States - reflects the global conscience.
“We never get unanimity in resolutions but when you can command more than two-thirds of the votes in the house, that's a powerful symbol, a powerful message, of agreement, of consensus,” said General Assembly President Dennis Francis, reflecting on the adoption of the resolution last month.
Equal voting rights
As the UN’s main policy-making body, the General Assembly is where all Member States have an equal vote on the full spectrum of issues before it, including matters related to peace and security.
Although its resolutions are non-binding, “they make a political declaration on the part of the majority of members of the international community,” he said.
Mr. Francis assumed his presidency in September and will serve for a year. Since then, he has been spearheading meetings on topics that include rescuing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), preparing for the next global pandemic, ensuring health coverage for all people and reforming the UN Security Council.
The veteran diplomat from Trinidad and Tobago recently sat down with UN News to reflect on his priorities, the important role of the General Assembly, and why critics should engage with the UN.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UN News: In your first speech to the UN General Assembly, you reminded world leaders of your focus on four areas: peace, prosperity, progress, and sustainability. All of these are in peril to some degree, and sometimes for overlapping reasons. How are you ensuring that countries will unite to address them?
Dennis Francis: Well, they are united, primarily through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2030 because that is a broad unifying development agenda that brings the 193 Members of the United Nations together to take action in concert in order to lift people out of poverty, deprivation, hunger, malnutrition and to create the conditions to transform the world into a more sustainable way of operating. So, it's about the planet as much as it is about people.
But we are also united in other ways because when peace and security is disrupted, such as it has been in the last two or three years in particular, the impact is consequential for everyone.
It's in all our interest to promote and to secure peace because the lack of peace, the lack of harmony in the system, undermines the system and makes complicated all of the other great goals and objectives that we have.
UN News: You mentioned disruptions to peace and security, and we cannot go without talking about what is currently happening in the Middle East. Can the General Assembly exert any influence here?
Dennis Francis: Well, we have because two-and-a-half weeks ago the General Assembly successfully adopted what is the first resolution coming out of the United Nations system on the situation in Gaza, calling for a ceasefire, the unconditional release of all of the hostages, and for the provision of humanitarian aid and support.
Now, put into context the fact that at that time, the Security Council had met and tried to agree a resolution on four separate occasions and had failed. So, the General Assembly in fact was able to come up with a resolution for which there was a broad consensus: 121 countries, I believe, supported it.
That I think has been a big contribution made by the United Nations because in furtherance of the goals of the UN Charter, which is to save humanity from the scourge of war, we were able to bring forward this resolution as a way of stopping the war.
We've said plainly in that resolution that what the General Assembly requires, desires, is a ceasefire in order to save human lives - 11,000 people dead as a consequence of the action in Gaza is too much. It is unspeakable and it is unacceptable. And so, we've called for that, but also emphasizing the necessity for Hamas to return the hostages to their families unconditionally so.
UN News: As you have reminded us, the General Assembly unites all 193 UN Member States. Your resolutions, though non-binding, do carry moral weight.
Dennis Francis. Absolutely. They make a political declaration on the part of the majority of members of the international community. And in a sense, they create a sort of soft law because resolutions of the General Assembly represent, in a sense, the conscience of humanity, the dominant view of humanity.
We never get unanimity in resolutions but when you can command more than two-thirds of the votes in the house, that's a powerful symbol, a powerful message, of agreement of consensus. And that's what we were able to do. Our call on all the relevant players is that they would honour and implement that resolution alongside the resolution that was agreed on Wednesday in the Security Council.
UN News: I know you mentioned that this is a reflection of the conscience of the majority of UN Member States but is that enough? Some people might say that's kind of like the diplomatic version of “it's the thought that counts”.
Dennis Francis: But the thought does count! If you listen carefully to the positions and the views that are being reflected, the big debate is about principles and values, so the thought does count. The politics only arises insofar as there is a different point of view and differing points of view, so thoughts count and are powerful.
That is why a resolution passed in the General Assembly assumes a high degree of importance because it bears powerful political messages. That is why countries negotiate these resolutions with such energy and dedication because they appreciate the potential impact it's going to have publicly.
Most countries that I'm aware of are not comfortable feeling themselves politically isolated. Countries are like human beings. Human beings like to be appreciated, loved, they like to feel the respect and support of their friends, they want to engage, they want to have a conversation. We were meant to be that way.
Countries are no different because when you build those bridges of relationships, it widens the space within which you can act as a country, as a sovereign. When you do not have those supporting relationships, the options you have narrow significantly.
And so that is the import of a General Assembly resolution. It provides the messaging that can make a big difference politically. And since public opinion always plays a role in these matters, we must keep that in mind.
Dennis Francis (centre), President of the 78th session of the General Assembly, addresses the informal meeting of the General Assembly on the Secretary-General's “Our Common Agenda” report.
UN News: One of your concerns is the status of the so-called Least Developed Countries. Many are trapped in debt because of the structure of the current financial architecture. The UN Secretary-General has also said many times that it is outdated. Can you tell us what action the General Assembly can take in this regard?
Dennis Francis: Well, the global financial architecture is outdated. It was set up at a time in the late 1940s when most of the countries that exist now did not exist at all. The so-called Global South, the Group of 77 and China that I believe comprises approximately 140 countries, did not exist.
So, you have a global financial architecture that was designed at a different time with goals and objectives that did not take in to account the developmental needs and priorities nor peculiarities of developing countries.
Take for example landlocked States that are experiencing great difficulty. The cost of everything in a landlocked State is twice as high as in the average coastal State because they are isolated from the sea. Consumers who live in that country have to pay twice what the average consumer in a coastal State will pay. That constitutes hardship. It's the same thing in Small Island Developing States (SIDS), many of which are isolated because they are far away from global markets.
I've prioritized this group of what we refer to as countries in vulnerable situations because they are developmentally stretched.
The system has not really catered or been designed to take in to account the needs of those countries and to help and support them to move up the developmental ladder in a sustainable way.
UN News: I’d like to ask you about the General Assembly’s High-level Week in September. Of course, this was your first as President but you're no stranger to the UN. Was there anything special or anything different about this one?
Dennis Francis: It was enormously different because High-level Week consisted of a number of very important discrete components, one of which was the SDG Summit which was quite a success, and I congratulate the Secretary-General in that regard. But we also had adopted during that week, three important declarations on health issues.
As you know, the pandemic really revealed a lot about the way we are organized at present and there was a desire for us to reflect on what lessons have been learned about global preparedness in the event there should be another. Incidentally, climate scientists have kept warning us that because of the warming of the atmosphere, the likelihood is that there will be more frequent pandemics and they are likely to be more virulent.
So, pragmatism dictates that we prepare ourselves organizationally to cope better with future pandemics. Heads of State and Government agreed on a declaration regarding pandemic preparedness, prevention and response. They also agreed a document on universal healthcare and a declaration on tuberculosis, which has made a comeback.
UN News: Finally, there's criticism among some people that the United Nations is outdated and ineffective, and by extension they're also criticizing the General Assembly. How do you defend against such criticism?
Dennis Francis: Well, first of all, people have the right to their views. I would encourage them, however, to engage with us a little bit more because what people see in a one-minute news bite does not constitute the entirety of the work of the UN.
Having said that, I would also say that the UN itself is not insensitive to the fact that there's a kind of lethargy and disappointment out there with how the UN has been performing of late.
But let me say this: the UN does not exist out there on its own. It is comprised of 193 sovereign Governments. That word ‘sovereign’ is very important because it means that those Governments can and do make decisions based on their national interests and priorities.
What the UN does is create a platform for them to come together to try to agree common approaches to various global problems.
So, I'll ask this: If the UN is irrelevant, what would you replace it with? And so, I say to people thank God the UN exists because it creates a much-needed platform for coordination, consultation, and cooperation among 193 States that would otherwise have no means and no opportunity to meet, to coordinate, to solve global problems and issues.
That's a powerful and potentially groundbreaking, earth-shattering achievement that the UN has made over the years – and, besides, prevented World War Three.