In its 75-year history, the United Nations has played an indispensable role in resolving major international conflicts and crises, overseeing the distribution of humanitarian aid, and, more broadly, advocating for a more just and equitable world.
But the organization is sometimes criticized for the slow process of the reforms and perceived elitism. Now it is facing severe criticism over its failure to prevent Russia Ukraine conflict among others.
Shombi Sharp is the UN Resident Coordinator in India. In an exclusive interaction, he speaks with Manish Kumar Jha on a range of issues amid the ongoing conflict. Sharp has devoted more than 25 years of his career to promoting inclusive and sustainable development internationally.
How do you look at the essential expansion of permanent and non-permanent categories of the UN Security Council and what is the process to ensure that the voices of developing countries and unrepresented regions find their due place?
It’s very clear. Most member states agree and certainly, the UN Secretary-General agrees that the Security Council needs to be reformed to reflect the world of today. It was created in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the number of member states and the UN have sort of more than quadrupled since then. There is no representation, for example, from Africa, or from Latin America, and not enough representation clearly in other regions, Asia, for example. There is momentum on that and there is a working group process. It has been in place for some years now. But I do understand that there are more and more voices aligning for the Security Council to increase including the permanent members.
There is a realization within the P-5 in particular, that change has to come. The legitimacy of the organisation is dependent on that. And there are a handful of countries that have very strong arguments and resumes to be members of this permanent Security Council structure. And clearly, India is one of those.
Why such critical reforms are slow to implement?
There is a movement for reform and there is a growing realization that it has to happen. For example, the General Assembly recently put in place requirements that permanent members must explain to the General Assembly, whenever they use a veto. It doesn’t sound revolutionary, but it’s actually quite a big step in the direction of reform of the Security Council.
And I’m optimistic at some point in the not-too-distant future, reform will happen.
Critics point out: The founding principles of the UN as the world’s self-designated purveyor of international peace and security, are at stake in its ability to prevent and resolve violent conflict– the Russian-Ukraine war. Where is the hope?
The war in Ukraine is a major failure, a failure of the society of humanity. It’s a terrible tragedy and something that certainly everybody wishes could have and should have been avoided. The Secretary-General has been very clear on that, that there was absolutely no need and no purpose for this war, and that it should stop and cease immediately.
As Prime Minister Modi said– this is not an era for war. That’s exactly.
We see the challenges here as the Security Council members with veto power are engaged in conflict and it’s not possible for the UN itself to step in and take an active role without the agreement of the member states. And in particular, when it comes to complex Security Council.
UN chief Antonio Guterres was in India in October. And I know, he was constantly on the phone with UN negotiators in Moscow, trying to seek a resolution. But the ceasefire has been tragically elusive. However, the UN has managed to achieve very important breakthroughs, the black sea green initiative, for example, to open up the supply of Ukraine grain. This has made a big impact in terms of the availability of food to poor countries and the poor communities in the world have been able to bring down the price of a lot of the food suppliers, fertilizers fuel and these sorts of things.
However, we look at the broader picture. The UN has been attributed for much of the sort of 40% decline in conflicts that the world has seen since the early 90s. That’s through a range of different actions of peacekeeping of peace, and enforcing of peacebuilding. So, this international peace and security architecture also plays a very robust role in many different ways, and in many different forms. Peacekeeping, for example, we’ve got over 100,000 troops across the world right now in twelve different active peacekeeping missions.
What about the future potential conflict over Taiwan?
I wouldn’t speak specifically on any prognosticating, any specific future events. That’s the remit of the Security Council. The UN engages in many different levels with many different tools.
Several critics point out that because of the failure of the UN, as many as 34 regional and international groupings have come up across the world outside the world body ranging from the EU to G7, G20, NATO, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Association of South-East Asian Nations, and others. Is it good for the UN?
Just to echo the words of the UN Secretary-General, most of the smaller regional groupings of member states coming together to create platforms where they can discuss issues and iron out, maybe differences or, or agree on paths forward, are very much welcomed by the UN. So, we see that as a very positive development, because the UN is the big tent. Such regional groupings like the ASEAN, African Union and the EU are very much complementary to the efforts of the UN.
The largest number of the world’s poor people live in Sub-Saharan Africa (579 million) and South Asia (385 million). The SDG goal is based on greater funding. How does the UN plan to raise it?
The Sustainable Development Goals(SDGs) 2030 agenda, is a kind of lodestar. The Covid crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war have put a lot of stress on poor countries and poor communities just to put food on the table. And at the same time, the cost of capital is driving up interest rates. More than half of developing countries in the world now have been put into either debt distress or at high risk of debt distress. And that has also translated into nearly 100 million people that have been pushed into poverty because of this recent policy crisis. Progress on this goal has been pushed back by four years. So, essentially, we have lost four years in that regard. And the risk is great, even greater now that so many countries are at risk of debt default or debt distress. So, we have to realize that while the SDGs remain absolutely our single best agreed unified set of goals.
So, two things– capacity and financing– are the most important. This is the reason why the Secretary-General has launched the UN’s SDG stimulus plan. It calls for $500 billion a year of additional funding to achieve the SDGs. It also aligns well with the greatest existential threat of the climate crisis. So, it’s biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change. Now, this stimulus plan– $500 billion– also calls for a reform of the international financial architecture.
Here, India’s G20 presidency will essentially handshake with the SDG acceleration action plan that India is working on. It will be sort of perfectly positioned to drive the conversation at the global summit as well. Because India is in a way uniquely positioned to bring countries together across divides and disagreements.
A UNDP report says: India still has the world’s highest number of poor at 228.9 million. What is lacking in terms of policy response and economic growth?
What’s important to understand and to note is that in the last about 18 years or so, India has made significant achievements in terms of poverty reduction. So, according to the multi-dimensional poverty index (MPI), which is looking at not just income-based measures but looking at access to clean cooking fuels, housing, water, sanitation mobile connectivity and such, the number has been reduced dramatically from 55% to about 16%.
This has come on the back of major flagship programmes, missions, and government missions. We’re all very familiar with Jal Jeevan Mission, an important social safety net. The food security and food security law, which is a rights-based law, is quite progressive in the world. Digital payments in India have been an important factor to bring in marginalized populations and especially, women in particular.
However, there are still big challenges — nutrition and gender equality.
As I talk about the green transition in India, the private sector is investing huge amounts of resources, a couple of $100 billion dollars in renewable energy. Some of the cheapest solar energy in the world can be found here in India, with investments in renewable electric vehicles.
How do you address the challenges of Climate finance for the green energy transition for India is the most important element of the UN goal?
On this, the UN’s priorities and India’s priorities are very much aligned. UN Environment Programme is working together with Seva in Gujarat, to help train women workers to change their employment, and livelihoods, to upgrade their livelihoods, to become solar engineers to learn how to repair solar panels.
This is about the growth of the solar industry. But let me say in terms of financing, this is critically important. And this is where the high-income countries made a pledge of $400 billion a year. That still hasn’t materialized. Now we need a trillion dollars a year. So, it’s critically important for high-income countries to step in. And that links precisely to the SDG stimulus plan of the Secretary-General, which calls for the International financial architecture to be reformed.