73rd UN General Assembly: a revival of UK-UN relations?

Last week, world leaders gathered at the 73rd UN General Assembly session (UNGA). This session was by no means just ‘keeping up appearances ’ for the UK delegation. Far from it, this was about re-enforcing the UK’s international reputation – especially following Theresa May’s bad headlines at the Salzburg summit, –  as much as it was about concealing UK’s major political parties’ bipolarity on Brexit. This was a crucial moment for the UK to live up to the government’s Global Britain vision.

So, did they deliver? The UK made a series of important commitments on ending gender-based violence in conflict zones, climate change, human rights, providing research and funds to tackle curable diseases, and on upholding the rules based international system. Commitments were also made to curtail the impact of rogue states and non-state actors, who undermine the core principles of the UN Charter. The question remains, given the challenges that the UK faces both domestically and internationally what signs are there that UK will be able to utilise its position within the UN to deliver on the commitments it made?

In order to answer this question, we need to understand why UN diplomacy matters for UK foreign policy post Brexit. On 24th September, the world’s leaders gathered at the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in New York to reaffirm the values of the late human rights legend. Minister of State Harriet Baldwin re-affirmed the UK’s commitment to the UN’s 2030 Agenda, as well as to the UN Secretary General’s Sustaining Peace agenda. Usually, it is easy to overlook minister’s statements in an era of Brexit. But such pledges of commitment are important given that more countries are experiencing violent conflict now than at any time in the past 30 years, and people’s faith in international institutions is being undermined. More alarming than this perhaps is the fact that 40% of the UK feel that peace and security will decline over the next five years. In this context then, ensuring a strong and effective UN is critical if the UK is to promote a strong international system of global governance that is also better equipped to managing the growing challenges of forced migration and human trafficking that we are seeing around the world. So how did the UK delegation fare in tackling the root causes of this discontent, and why were their efforts important?

The importance of restoring human rights diplomacy at the UN for stronger relations with the UK.

Jeremy Hunt and French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian co-chaired a High-Level event on the Rohingya crisis. Their mission: to bring the international community together to hold Burmese generals to account for human rights violations. Such collaboration between the UK and France come during times of deep divisions over the UK’s future relationship with Europe, and that is why such partnerships are crucial to the UK. The outcome of the partnership resulted in three main areas in which the international community can work together to deliver justice to the Rohingya community: The Burma UNDP – UNHCHR MoU, A credible accountability and remedy process, and concrete implementation of the Rakhine Advisory Commission recommendations.

This was important because following the UK’s decision to leave the EU there have been fears that the UK may choose to prioritise its economic interests over protecting and upholding human rights across the world. Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has been held up as a prime example of this. This impression is not helped by a recent history of patchy UK institutional engagement with Human Rights issues through the UN –  picked up by a recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee which suggested that the UK should be doing more to ensure it is properly represented in UN structures in order to deal effectively with Human Rights atrocities. Jeremy Hunt’s decision to prioritise Human Rights diplomacy at the UN is therefore, sending an important signal that the governments’ Global Britain agenda is more than a trade initiative. Moreover, the Foreign Secretary’s decision to respond to twitter users’ questions on human rights issues in Burma, Syria and Yemen demonstrated a timely recognition that he understands the importance of engaging with the British public in order have constructive informed conversations about the UK’s place in the world post Brexit.

The need to maintain solidarity against rogue states and non-state actors.

Meanwhile International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt announced that the UK would set up women’s aid centres across Myanmar’s borders in an effort to end gender-based violence in conflict zones, along with a commitment to donating £10 million to UNICEF in order to tackle human trafficking across Africa. Such steps are important given the rise in security threats caused by non-state actors such as human trafficking gangs capitalising on conflict induced mass migration. Theresa May also shared her concerns with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani over the incarceration of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Regardless of the contentious issues at hand, the UK delegation did indeed seem committed to resolving tough global issues despite the difficult position that the UK currently faces with regard to Brexit.

As the 73rd UNGA showed, UN diplomacy matters and is crucial for the UK’s success post Brexit. In order for the UK to be an outward looking ‘Global Britain’, the UK needs to work harder with the international community to uphold human rights and international norms now. Moving forward, in an era of globalisation, cultural sensitivity and humility are essential if the UK wants to revive genuine long-lasting ties with states that it has neglected.

There are of course other challenges that the UK will have to contend with in the UN. One of these being, how the UK balances its special relationship with the US against the commitment it made to other states on issues around human rights, developmental, climate change. Certainly from his speech it appears that President Trump sees organs of international governance such as the UN as in many ways the antithesis to his  America First.

Ultimately the reinvigoration of UN relations is contingent upon the UK governments’ willingness to increase expenditure on foreign policy. One possible way that the UK can achieve this goal would be through a Commitment to a 3% GDP target so that the UK can live up to its promise of upholding a rule based international system. In a world of America first, rogue states, increasing non-traditional security threats, and Brexit, the UK simply cannot afford to overlook the value of the UN and other global organisations in helping it to work with other states to encourage multilateralism to respond to the key global challenges of our time.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the BFPG. The BFPG is an independent not for profit organisation that encourages constructive, informed and considered opinions without taking an institutional position on any issue.
BFPG Admin