By almost every measure, this year will be monumental for the United Nations. The organization will be 70 years old and that will inspire, as anniversaries always do, a lot of stocktaking, analysis and, of course, criticism. Past stumbles will get attention and an army of “reformers” will offer prescriptions for the future.
In 2015, the Millennium Development Goals will come to the end of their 15-year life, with achievements and disappointments to assess. What will replace them will be negotiated — or fought over — well into the summer. The process of creating the new Sustainable Development Goals is already controversial and the outcome uncertain, since a working group has proposed replacing the eight MDGs with an ambitious and perhaps unwieldy 17 goals and 169 targets.
Peacekeeping is also due for a makeover in 2015, as a high-level panel begins to review all peace operations for the first time in 15 years, while the world is still reeling from a year of deaths in conflict and terrorism, as well as the displacement and physical suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in makeshift refugee settlements. Both military and humanitarian resources are under severe strain.
There is clamor for a review of another 2014 catastrophe: the explosive outbreak of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the performance of both the World Health Organization and three national governments — in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — in not meeting the threat in time to save thousands of lives.
In 2015, the Security Council and member governments will begin the search for the next secretary-general to replace Ban Ki-moon when his second term expires at the end of 2016. This time, there appears to be more public interest in forcing the process, which is usually conducted out of sight in back rooms in national capitals, to be more transparent and the candidates to undergo more and wider scrutiny.
Ironically for Ban, who had hoped to make a movement to stop or mitigate climate change his signature achievement, but who has had to confront one distracting crisis after another in office, a critical meeting on setting emissions cuts and limiting temperature rise with more than 190 countries will not take place until December in Paris, with divisions still apparent between the global North and South over which nations should bear the largest burden.
The sense that climate change is real and imminent — and caused largely by human activity — is just beginning to gain traction in the general public, nearly eight years after Ban first staked his legacy on the issue.
The coming 70th General Assembly session will also mark 10 years since the 2005 world summit that produced the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect,” which has yet to be truly or widely tested as it was intended. That was the same General Assembly session that mustered the courage in March 2006 — despite American obstructions — to create the Human Rights Council from the ashes of the discredited Human Right Commission. The council has been a success generally, as its constructive sessions and special reports have demonstrated, though concerns remain about the shady reputations of some members.
This is the year when the UN marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth International Conference on Women, held in Beijing. The conference and its parallel nongovernment organizations’ forum attracted an unprecedented diversity of women from around the world, not a few of them poor women who had spent months raising money or drawing down meager savings to attend. Many pathbreaking promises to women made in Beijing, and in Cairo in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development, are still to be fulfilled.
The rights of women, most crucially the right to control their own reproductive systems and health, free of coercion and supported by strong family planning services, have fallen far short of the hopes and demands of women globally. Yet the rights of women, and even more so the rights and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT), are in contention in the discussions surrounding the UN’s new development policy, which will ostensibly be built around the Sustainable Development Goals. LGBT issues have apparently been taken off the table, even as violations of these human rights increase, often through government policies.
Tensions have surfaced among governments, some more eager to roll back the promises of Cairo and Beijing than to recognize that central to development is the freeing of women’s productivity by removing barriers to making fundamental choices about their lives.
There are also considerable differences of opinion about a proposed goal promoting peace and good governance, which has been criticized by some industrial nations as immeasurable, too difficult to finance and too vague to be realistic.
A comprehensive argument for the peace and governance goal has recently been published by the World Federation of United Nations Associations, which groups citizens’ organizations around the world interested in the work of the UN. But the publication, “Peaceful Societies: An Essential Element of Sustainable Development,” goes well beyond that one goal to explain how the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole were cobbled together and where they go from here as countries line up to defend or reject parts of the large package. The number of goals and targets may be the root of the problem.
“One of the most underappreciated qualities of the MDGs was their ability to be easily and effectively branded,” the World Federation publication said. “Eight short and well defined goals with an associated recognizable icon allowed the MDGs to be featured on posters, flyers, shopping bags and various other paraphernalia.
“Keeping with 17 goals — and 169 targets — would pose considerable difficulties to emulate such a formula,” it added. “However, if the SDGs are to be truly universal and transformative, they need to be known and they need to resonate in every corner of the globe.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.