Which Conflicts Should the UNGA Look at?

Which Conflicts Should the UNGA Look at?

A vital role, an uncertain future

World leaders are visiting the UN the week of 18 September for the annual high-level meeting of the General Assembly at a testing time for the organisation. Major-power divisions are shrinking the space for multilateral cooperation, and the organisation’s role in managing international peace and security crises is increasingly uncertain. 

While UN peace operations and humanitarian assistance are helping contain conflict and suffering in many countries, the organisation’s political influence is decreasing. Hamstrung by political divisions and resource gaps, the UN’s leadership and member states must develop new strategies for mobilising the organisation’s considerable strengths to meet peace and security challenges. 

As leaders consider how the UN can serve peace and security in the year ahead, their bywords should be flexibility and adaptability. The UN must be pragmatic. This may mean endorsing tools like blue helmet peacekeeping in some crises and ad hoc, regionally led responses in others. In still other cases the UN will be limited to delivering humanitarian aid and seeking modest political traction. UN platforms can also help address global threats and challenges like climate change and artificial intelligence. 

Thematic Challenges for the UN in 2023-2024

COP28 and climate change

COP28 will test whether delegates can shine the spotlight on conflict-affected countries and provide much-needed support to their climate adaptation efforts. Despite recent attention, efforts to make progress on the overlap between climate, peace and security at COP gatherings face huge constraints. Nonetheless, during a period in which Security Council divisions have impeded climate security conversations in New York, diplomats should use COP28 to advance the climate and peace agenda in the short- and long-term.

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An early meeting to prepare for COP28 in Bonn, Germany. UNFCCC / Flickr

Building Momentum for Women, Peace and Security

For weeks after the Secretary-General published the New Agenda for Peace in July, one of its most resonant phrases reverberated in UN corridors: a call to “dismantle the patriarchy”. But there is a pronounced gap – even in the very document where the Secretary-General made his call – between the UN’s rhetoric and its actual level of ambition. Given political divisions at the UN, efforts that match the full scale of the Secretary-General’s ambition may have to occur mainly at the member state level. But the fillip provided by the New Agenda should help boost morale and momentum among proponents of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda within the UN system. WPS supporters now need to work out how to use it to push for more concrete action to revitalise the concept.

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AI’s exponential growth is sharpening geopolitical competition

Security risks of artificial intelligence

Of all the areas examined in the UN’s New Agenda for Peace, AI – and its potential impact on international peace and security – is foremost among Secretary-General Guterres’ concerns. From the peace and security perspective, the attention is warranted, as AI’s exponential growth is sharpening geopolitical competition and raising tensions. Although a path toward truly responsible regulation may not yet be visible, the Secretary-General is right to encourage the UN to try to make itself the starting point.

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Looking Forward


Despite considerable pressures on the UN, and a bleak geopolitical picture, it still has an important role in maintaining international peace and security. For all its travails, the Security Council remains a rare space for the major powers to make compromises where their interests align. More broadly, the UN has in-house expertise on issues like mediation and peacekeeping that it can offer to international actors, even if big blue helmet missions are winding down. As the Secretary-General is usefully reminding member states, the UN also has a unique status as a facilitator on issues such as AI and climate change. The leaders that attend the annual General Assembly high-level week, which is itself an example of the UN’s convening power, should take the opportunity to signal their support for world organisation’s continuing relevance in dealing with current conflicts and emerging threats.

15 September 2023
This is a year when the countries of the Global South have set the agenda. Reuters

Richard Gowan

UN Director

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