Professor Tijjani Muhammad-Bande is the President of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He visited Nigeria recently and spoke to Daily Trust about the challenges he met in office three months after his election, how the UN envisions ending conflicts across the world and the problem of out-of-school children in Nigeria.
You have been President of UNGA for the past three months. What are your challenges?
I was elected in June, 2019, and the first issue was the formation of a cabinet. It is the very first element and a challenge because we have to get people from all parts of the world in the cabinet. We got that sorted out with the support of colleagues.
The challenge of course is that you preside over a meeting and the setting is not easy because of imagined differences between countries and regions. Your task is to narrow the differences and achieve consensus as much as possible on matters that are important. That has been the challenge; but not a unique one, because every assembly will have challenges and every general assembly will face issues of its time.
Today, there are issues that we thought we had overcome, but that are still with us. Therefore, negotiations between countries on resolutions are a bit more difficult, and while these are going on, global challenges are increasing. Terrorism has ravaged societies and communities, climate change is an existential threat to us, and in some regions, it has become one of the major drivers of conflict or even terror. So, this is one challenge.
Of course, we are not also as an assembly unmindful of matters that do with nuclear weapons. Some of the agreements are being questioned. These agreements are important to our world. Therefore, we are working for people to stay on the non-proliferation treaty and lessen the rush to modernise weapons, and instead of that, to give space and resources for development.
There are also issues concerning human rights in terms of increase in hate speeches and in planting stories that incite people to violence. There is a rise in some countries of nationalism of the type that can create problems among people and countries. So these are the challenges globally that affect the work of representatives of countries in the UN, especially in the general assembly.
Speaking of the nuclear treaty, Iran has become a huge question mark for reneging on the nuclear treaty it signed. How do you think this issue can be resolved?
The issue is not about Iran, the issue is about the tendency to continue to modernise weapons. The issue is a deepening mistrust between Iran and some countries and the implications for the region and the world. I think the UN Security Council has met to work on that issue, but it also has to be done in the context of broader understanding in respect to the necessity of creating a world in which nuclear weapons of all kinds are banned. It is a tall order, but it is an agreement to have a world without nuclear weapons as a guarantor of peace because of the consequences of nuclear detonation; whether deliberate or accidental.
When you were elected, you promised multilateralism and rules-based engagement as the major pillar of your policy. Does the rest of the world share these ideas?
What I stated was the basic function of the UN as a primary multilateral body with the point being, it is difficult to see how you address global challenges outside effort to work with others. You mentioned something important – multilateralism. We cannot have a world where might is right. We have come far from that. The creation of the UN, out of the problems of World War II, is a good lesson learnt; to respect others and operate within the laws, and these laws must be fair and well understood internationally, rather than the idea of might is right. That kind of world is very unstable. With new technologies and knowledge of technologies available broadly, I think we are all advised to live within the laws; the powerful and not so powerful. That is the goal.
One of the principal tools of achieving these goals at UNGA is the resolutions, which some countries have regularly disregarded. How do you plan to reposition UNGA so that this is no longer the case?
I think you are right. There have been many well-intentioned resolutions that have been negotiated, but the implementations have fallen far short, either because we have been unable to, or we are partial to implement them. This is an issue of consultation with members; to remind them of the necessity of doing what is agreed on.
Considering that you have a year on your tenure, how do you think it is possible for you to do this?
I have 10 months now before my tenure expires. I think that is the way the system was structured, but what we can do is to work with colleagues and organisations within the ambit of the UN to focus on implementing something, even if it is in the area of empowerment, sharing information and sharing ideas across the world.
Example, we have a committee wherein countries report on the state of their implementation of the SDGs so that other countries can learn from the challenges and how to overcome them and also to mobilise both financial and technical support to advance those goals. There are lots of efforts around the world – there is a technical aid corps that helps countries in the (global) South and there is also North South Cooperation, and triangular cooperation where North and South help other countries. It is not only in words, but in action.
Speaking of the SDGs, Nigeria has 13 million children out of school, and this is something you are quite passionate about. How do you propose to help address the situation?
I am not entirely sure of the figure. Some say nine, others say 13, but even if it is one million, it is a burden, and I think through strengthening UBEC, through strengthening local governments, we should be able to get the number to zero. A commitment should be made to have no child out of school. Some countries have succeeded. When you look at the numbers that have made progress, you should make more progress as a country; not only Nigeria. Some countries have larger numbers by proportion.
As a global leader, you are aware that faith-based violence driven by extreme religious ideologies is a major problem in Nigeria and in many African countries. What is your advice to leaders of these countries?
Again, I have difficulty classifying some conflicts as faith-based. Whatever the bases of conflicts in which someone can take human life, it is condemnable. At times, people hide behind faith to do the opposite, but every time someone hides behind faith to attack someone because he is Muslim or Christian, others will come out to say that every human life should be valued, and that this person is not representing us. I think what we should do is to punish anybody who, on any basis, perpetrates violence on others. It is not an issue of faith. Criminals should be treated as criminals. I always like to remind of a few things in the dynamics of this situation. Education is a factor, communication is a factor, but ultimately, law and order should take precedence over all.
There has been increasing tension in the Middle East with the US reversing its policy on Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. How can UNGA douse these tensions and end this conflict?
I think the UN is very clear about the two-state solution, as it is about invading countries and occupying territories, or taking territories by force. There is no dispute about that. Policy reversals are what they are, but relative to what I said earlier. I think it is important to stand by what is right and work towards a solution. This conflict has fed into other conflicts around the world, and I do not think anybody has benefited, and should benefit from this conflict. Every human being should have living space. I think we should work hard to assist those countries affected by conflict to find solutions and bring peace between the Israelis and their neighbours.
Is the UN a toothless bulldog?
It is not a toothless bulldog. Even those who want to disparage it want a sanction against or in support of a cause. It is still a moral force, and I cannot imagine a world without its contributions, because it will be chaos.