PolicyMic editors Chris Miles and Emily Dobler met with United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) President Dr. Joseph Deiss, a Swiss career politician who helped lead Switzerland’s accession into the UN in 2002. The presidency of the GA rotates among the regional groups of the UN. Deiss was presented by the West European and Others Group (representing the regional UN bloc of North America and Europe) and elected by the GA last June. The mandate of the UNGA president lasts for one year.
Over this term, Deiss has presided over the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative organ of the UN during the Arab Spring movements, the international intervention in Libya, and the on-going Millennium Development Goals (MDG) campaign to eradicate global poverty.
In this interview, Deiss reflects on the past year, highlighting how international intervention became possible in Libya through the UN and underlining the tension between respect of a member state’s national sovereignty and civilian protection. He outlines what more needs to be done with regards to the MDG campaign, and reform of the UN.
Could you give your main impressions on your term as president?
Joseph Deiss (JD): "It has been stimulating. Every time I am in the plenary hall, I am impressed that the UNGA really is a meeting of the whole world. It is impressive that the 192 member states all come together to decide on matters which can have historical importance for humanity.
There is huge difficulty in bringing all members together on a common ground. Still, the fact remains that members are here every day. They may not agree easily, but they see the value of debating and interacting to find solutions in the best interest of all.
The frustrations many people have – that the UN isn’t acting rapidly or effectively enough – are understood, and we would like to make it easier. But, bureaucracy has always been the way [of the UN], so we must work within our system."
What was the biggest decision you made during your term?
JD: "One of the biggest actually came a few days ago, on June 21. We had to reappoint Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for another mandate of five years.
This may seem like it is unimportant, but this is a fundamental element at the UN which helps shape our organization. It shows that we believe in a leader who takes a stand and makes important decisions, providing consistency in our system.
A very big moment was when we suspended Libya from the Human Rights Council. We’ve only suspended a member state one other time — South Africa under apartheid. This was an important moment. In consensus, the UN gave a clear message to a member state to make clear that we do not accept regimes that fight against and kill their people. The resolution for suspending Libya from the council was presented by an Arab country, and the fact that there was unanimity on this decision is very important."
What was the UN’s role during the international intervention in Libya?
JD: "Several UN intergovernmental bodies have been involved to address the situation in Libya. The Human Rights Council and the General Assembly deliberated on the issue of Libya being a member of this Council and in March, the Security Council passed its resolution against Libya.
It is important to understand that there is division of labor between the General Assembly and the Security Council. The Assembly can consider any issue within the UN Charter, but it cannot take decisions on issues that are considered by the Security Council. The Security Council has primary responsibility for international peace and security issues.
This decision of the Security Council on resolution 1973 was remarkable in two respects: The region, with the Arab League, has been instrumental. The Security Council decision refers to the principle drafted in 2005 titled “Responsibility to Protect,” stating that it is the primary responsibility of a government to protect its own people. This was not happening in Libya. Within this principle, there is a further responsibility from the region to protect citizens within the region. If the region cannot help, it becomes the responsibility of the international community. This resolution thus provided the basis for intervention in Libya by the United States and other countries."
Have UN member states made enough progress toward the Millennium Development Goals? On which key indicators have you been most pleased with progress and on which must the UN make a harder push before the 2015 deadline?
"We have done a great amount. Poverty has been significantly reduced over the last years and for many countries, the MDGs are within reach. We should remember that the MDGs are the most important initiative ever launched to fight poverty and to improve well being in the world. This is an ambitious and challenging undertaking.
There are regions, like Sub Saharan Africa, and sectors, like maternal health or child mortality, where significantly more has to be done if we want to succeed.
But we will reach the MDG indicators by 2015, as we have promised. The point is that we must eradicate all poverty, not only half of it, so we have to think now about the UN agenda for development after 2015."
If given the authority, what are the top three structural changes you would make to the Security Council or UNGA to make the bodies more accountable, representative, and functional?
JD: "Security Council reform is driven by the member states and my role is only to facilitate progress, not to give the solution.
That said, there is no question that to be more representative, the Security Council should be expanded. In reforming it, I believe that we should consider basic values that the UN always stands for: inclusiveness, democracy, accountability, transparency, and simplicity.
With regards to the General Assembly, it is a representative system in which one country gets one vote. There is no need for reform on this aspect. We usually speak about “revitalization,” making it more effective, more relevant. There are practical measures to be taken, such as setting priorities in the agenda."
If you could, would you take another term as UNGA president?
JD: "I would certainly be happy to start over again, from scratch, but I would not like to extend my term for a second year. I think that one important aspect of the job is that it is just for one year; this gives you a lot of energy to make the most of the year from the beginning on, there is no time to lose, and you can make bold decisions, because you do not need to be reelected!"
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons