66th U.N. General Assembly a Chance for Common Action

08/25/2011 09:03 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2011

The 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly begins Sept. 13, when leaders from around the world will gather to discuss and deliberate the key issues of our planet. This session will have 193 members represented, given the recent addition of South Sudan in July of this year. The agenda, discussions and decisions from these few weeks will then guide the work of the U.N. General Assembly's plenary and main committees for the following year.

Each member, regardless of its stature among other nations, is permitted to address the main assembly. While most leaders provide stately accounts of the intersection between their national and global interests, more colorful performances in the past have been provided by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hugo Chavez and Muammar Gaddafi.

For better or worse, the United Nations is the world's main forum for this kind of dialogue. Whatever our views about the U.N., it is a dialogue that matters and one we should pay attention to and even try to shape. The U.N. and the member states that compose it must continually be reminded of their moral responsibilities, contained in the U.N. Charter, to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and "promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples."

To be sure, this world body has its critics. Nor is it free from abuse and waste, as has been demonstrated repeatedly in recent years. In many ways, it is a reflection of the world itself -- the same problems that plague national governments also find their way into the U.N.

There is a saying that people get the government they deserve. I don't subscribe to that view, as authoritarian rulers, armed with their monopoly on force and enriched by self-serving and exploitive policies, can sometimes maintain a grip on power far longer than their populations might like. But I do think that the international community gets the U.N. it deserves. The U.N. is not yet greater than the sum of its parts, perhaps because the world itself has not yet found the right way to work together.

I briefly worked in the U.N. Security Council during a time that was focused heavily on the simmering conflict in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon. Small steps in a positive direction were easily undone by events that reinforced the notion that national interest was sacrosanct and must be preserved above all else -- even when it meant we were all worse off in the end. Though the Security Council could not broker a lasting resolution to the conflict, it still acted like the world counted on it to do so, which made the result even more disappointing.

Despite all the criticism levied at the U.N., few informed observers doubt that it still plays an essential role in the conduct of international relations. Even if it were dismantled, a similar institution would rise in its place, simply to respond to the need for a permanent forum where the complex and challenging problems of our day can be discussed between countries.

Yet, I would wager that few people, particularly New Yorkers among them, will tune in with serious interest to the deliberations in the coming weeks. But beyond the diplomatic formalities and the litany of similarly sounding speeches, there are millions of people around the world who feel the consequence of this system working well or poorly. Addressing their plight is too often discussed in terms of dollars and cents, and not enough in terms of spiritual principles that can inform our decisions, such as upholding justice, protecting the weak or oppressed and preserving basic human dignity.

For instance, a notable fraction of the world's inhabitants at some point in their lives have seen U.N. peacekeepers deployed in their country. The number of soldiers deployed under a U.N. flag has increased more than five-fold in the past 10 years to 120,000 troops in 15 missions.

These soldiers, who are contributed from 115 member states, fall under a U.N. command and must be a credible force on the ground to enforce peace and preserve justice. Anything less undermines a political process the missions are designed to support, disappoints the trust of vulnerable populations and falls short of the 2005 World Summit agreement to "take collective action" when a state "manifestly fails" to protect its population. An inadequate response is also a failure to heed exhortations common to a number of world religions to protect the weak and oppressed, even by force if needed.

An even larger share of the earth's population are affected by constraints on their basic human rights to speak freely, practice the religion they prefer and participate in some way in the formation of rules that govern their lives. Serious human rights abuses continue in many countries around the world, so much that this year it took the NGO Human Rights Watch 668 pages to present a chronicled summary.

At the same time, however, there has been a marked decline in recent years in the international community's tendency to shine the harsh light of public condemnation upon it. The U.N. Human Rights Council has often refrained from issuing resolutions or sending fact-finding missions to alleged violating countries, preferring instead "cooperation, not condemnation." But when truth is concealed in favor of tactful diplomacy, violating governments feel emboldened, domestic rights activists lose a critical advocate in the international community and victims themselves feel abandoned. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a reminder that real leaders never forget their obligation to speak out for the oppressed, even while being open to dialogue.

And none of us can escape the consequences of the pace of development and how we treat our shared ecosystem. With many countries focused on job creation and raising living standards amidst troubled economic times, natural resources are being consumed at a voracious rate, particularly in developing countries. This has resulted, for the most part, in a widening of inequality between the ultra-rich and the super-poor. Sustainable development is an urgent issue the U.N. must address, particularly for countries with a considerable youth bulge.

In that regard, the General Assembly must decide if it is serious about trying to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. Achieving these targets, which have been 15 years in the making, are important not just for their practical value, but also to demonstrate that governments can act in concert as the earth's custodians. "Know ye that the poor are the trust of God in your midst," wrote Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, in a tablet addressed to the kings and rulers of the world in the late 19th century.

Despite the urgency of the issues mentioned above, the unsettled condition of the international financial system may crowd out this discussion. But that is not a waste either, as focus on the stability of the global economy reinforces the notion that we are indeed living in an interconnected world, whose common progress depends on each other. We would do well to pay attention to whether the 193 member states are moving in that direction.