Joseph Deiss

Interview with Joseph Deiss, former President of the 65th session of the General Assembly

Imagine that your organization did not exist and you were asked to invent it. What would you do? How would it be fundamentally different from what exists? What would be the differences regarding mandate, resources and objectives?

If I were asked to invent the United Nations, its intergovernmental bodies, and in particular the General Assembly, I would definitely agree to do it with great enthusiasm. When the United Nations was created, more than 60 years ago, it resulted from the strong commitment of world leaders to never let the atrocities of the Second World War happen again. The world of today looks different –a demographic, political and economic power shift is taking place– but the need for an organization such as the United Nations, the need for a universal moral power, is more acute than ever.

Indeed we are increasingly faced with issues that require global strategies and collective answers. While we live in a world of sovereign states and there is no such thing as a world government, what we need is a system to organize decisionmaking at the global level and to address these global challenges. I am convinced that the United Nations with its General Assembly is the main element of a global governance system, which combines leadership, legitimacy and expertise.

In contrast with informal groupings like the G20, the United Nations enjoys unique legitimacy. It is a charter-based organization, with purposes and principles, membership, organs and budget that are clearly defined. It thus offers a stable institutional framework to its Member States. The Charter addresses the most fundamental issues for humanity –peace, security and prosperity– and the General Assembly is entitled to discuss any matters within the scope of the Charter. The General Assembly provides a unique forum for multilateral discussions and, with its 193 Member States, is a near-universal body reflecting the full diversity of situations and interests at stake. With its system of ‘one country, one vote’, it ensures that even the smallest voices are heard. Therefore, I would not change much in the General Assembly from what it is today. For sure, improvements in its efficiency –setting priorities and reviewing some of its working methods– are needed, but this does not touch on its fundamentals.

More urgent reforms are needed as regards other intergovernmental bodies of the United Nations. Here, I’m thinking in particular of the Security Council, which needs to adapt to the realities of the 21st century and become more representative and more inclusive. I’m also thinking of the economic entities of the United Nations, such as the Economic and Social Council, which has been sidelined by informal groupings like the G20. The mandate of the ECOSOC must be refocused on economic topics. Then, if you turn to the specialized agencies and programs of the wider UN system, which contain the technical expertise, and are the ones with sufficient worldwide presence to make a concrete difference on the ground, there is certainly room for avoiding overlaps in mandates. The creation of UN Women in January 2011, which resulted from the merger of several programs and funds addressing gender equality and women rights, is a great example.

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