UN’s flurry of new deals provides grounds for cautious optimism
On the side-lines of the Doha Forum last weekend, the Gulf state of Qatar signed a $3 million deal with the United Nations to provide refuge to more than 26,000 people displaced from Yemen. The agreement, designed to help the 2 million refugees and asylum seekers who have fled the country’s four-year-long conflict, is just one of several compacts signed by the emirate, which has pledged millions of dollars to various UN offices and agreed to allow four new UN offices in the country.
This wave of deals is the latest sign in recent weeks that, despite the constant stream of negative media coverage surrounding issues such as Brexit, climate change and political turmoil in the Middle East, countries are still trying to present a united front against global challenges. And, though flagship agreements like the recently signed COP24 deal may have their flaws, it must be acknowledged – it’s impossible to make progress without them.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out in his speech at the Forum, the agreements inked with Qatar follow a string of similar successes for the global peace-keeping body. Just a week before Doha, a gathering of more than 164 countries in Marrakesh agreed to adopt the UN’s Global Compact for Migration, designed to provide a roadmap to global cooperation on the treatment of migrants and prevent a repeat of the 2015 crisis which enveloped Europe. Its specific objectives include better cross-border data-sharing, as well as a strengthening of trans-national efforts to find missing migrants and curb human trafficking.
Just a day after the conclusion of discussions in Marrakesh, delegates at a separate UN summit in Poland agreed on a rulebook to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. The agreement was struck after two weeks of negotiations at the COP24 summit, and observers emphasized the fact that the deadlock was only broken after compromise from all sides. The developed world agreed to beef up its financial support to poorer states, which in turn committed to more stringent reporting requirements. Proponents were keen to stress that all parties are now bound together towards a common objective. In the words of Michal Kurtyka, the Polish COP24 President, “we will all have to give in order to gain.”
Even in Yemen itself, which has been battered by Saudi-led airstrikes, hopes of lasting peace have been kindled by landmark talks in Sweden. Another UN-brokered deal has brought a ceasefire between pro-government troops and their Houthi opponents, accompanied by the exchange of thousands of prisoners. The ceasefire is intended to facilitate the long-term withdrawal of military forces from the key port city of Hodeida, and enable aid to be rushed to the most pressing areas.
Yet the Yemeni deal illustrates, in microcosm, the difficulties the UN faces in sustaining its recent breakthroughs. The fact that the ceasefire was first delayed and then broken shows just how much hostility the peacekeepers need to cut through; the international community’s tardiness in intervening to stop Riyadh’s incursions has allowed the two sides to turn Yemen into an economic basket case, its banking system ruined, hospitals chronically over-crowded and millions of people gripped by famine. The warring parties have agreed to hold fresh talks in January in the hope of forging a lasting peace settlement, but it’s hard to see how they can solve the country’s chasmic problems.
On the wider issue of migrants, there is at least a sense that things are under control. After the huge influx of 2015, the latest data shows that the number of people crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has fallen to multiyear lows. Yet memories of the 2015 crisis remain fresh in the collective memory, and the nationalist forces unleashed by the migrant influx remain in power, impeding any attempt to forge a more coherent international policy on the issue.
Around 30 countries refused to attend in Marrakesh, and 20 have already declared they will reject the migration compact. As well as the U.S., the list includes several Eastern European countries governed, or heavy influenced, by right-wing parties that have sprung to prominence over the past three years. These hard-line nationalists have helped propagate a narrative that the agreement will establish a “human right to migration” and erode the sovereignty of individual countries. Although the compact’s advocates have rubbished these claims, the political debate rumbles on, even in countries such as Germany which have signed the accord.
Critics of the agreement struck in Poland will suggest, not without reason, that it’s just as flimsy. The fact that the parties took two weeks to reach agreement is hardly encouraging. Neither is the fact that both richer and poorer nations expressed serious concerns during the negotiations. Poorer countries felt the pact placed excessively lenient demands on their wealthier counterparts, while a group of four wealthy oil exporters – Saudi Arabia, Russia, Kuwait and the U.S. – blocked the full endorsement of a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which emphasized the need for drastic action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Environmental campaigners have condemned the deal as a wishy-washy compromise between the two sides, with Greenpeace describing it as “morally unacceptable.”
As Guterres said at the Doha Forum, in a nod to his remarks at the UN General Assembly, “our world is suffering from a bad case of trust deficit disorder”. This observation has proved sadly accurate, even in the recent flurry of deals. Yet the diplomat also underscored the importance of further dialogue as the first step to addressing these issues – noting that platforms like the Doha Forum, which nourish the exchange of ideas, are lacking in number but vital. In his words, such exchange is “perhaps the most precious – and increasingly scarce – resource in our world today.”
Indeed, the UN’s supporters will point out that the recent deals are a vital, and necessary, staging post to more lasting accords. They may suggest that by reaching out to countries such as Qatar, which remains under a blockade implemented by several Arab neighbours, Guterres and his colleagues are laying the groundwork for greater international harmony. As the migrant crisis slowly fades, and the world inches towards consensus on climate change, the raft of new agreements provide reason to hope that 2019 will see more substantial progress.