Every year in late September, Africa’s diplomatic corps descend on the bars, embassies and hotels of Manhattan for a frenetic week of cheek-by-jowl activity.
For Maged Abdelaziz, special advisor to the UN Secretary General on Africa, a 32nd-floor office at the UN’s headquarters provides a rare moment of calm away from the chaos of the 70th General Assembly – but there is no escaping the fact that this is one of the busiest weeks on his calendar.
As Africa begins to chafe against the constraints on its development and its limited role in UN decision-making, part of the veteran Egyptian diplomat’s role is to help turn the continent’s ambitions within the UN into workable goals. Nowhere is that gap more evident than in Africa’s continued exclusion from the UN Security Council – a crucial talking point at this year’s General Assembly.
“The issue of the reform and enlargement of the Security Council is one of the major issues at the 70th session of the UN. Africa is the only region without permanent representation on the Security Council,” says Abdelaziz.
That frustration with the status quo – it is a council dominated by China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – was echoed throughout the General Assembly by leaders from across Africa.
In a trenchant speech reiterating his long-standing push for a South African presence on the Council, President Jacob Zuma argued that it was “unfair and unjustifiable” that one billion Africans were denied their say in attempts to mediate and resolve major international security disputes.
But Abdelaziz counters: “The differences are very wide…I don’t think it’s a matter related to Africa. It’s a matter related to the structure of the Security Council and the centres of power of the Council.”
Abdelaziz shows a formidable grasp of the thorny details that will have to be waded through before any progress can be made on African membership – including debates over the number of seats on the council, the power of the veto, and the question of whether African countries should represent only themselves or their wider regions.
And despite the glacial pace of progress, Abdelaziz stands by Africa’s demand for two permanent and five non-permanent seats on the council, which he says will provide a crucial voice for Africa’s five sub-regions. But there is evident dissatisfaction with a reform process that is decided at the whim of the very nations that have the most to gain under the existing order.
“I’m an optimist by nature, I believe that we have to continue doing our share and then we will see. Many African countries spoke about it because there is a growing frustration that we have been trying to reach this objective and we cannot,” he says.
It is not only at the Security Council where Africa’s goals are coming up against a hard-headed international order weary of vaulting ambition. The newly-launched UN Sustainable Development Goals – a set of targets intended to build on the Millennium Development Goals – in some respects fall short of existing targets set for the continent by the African Union.
“Africa is part of Agenda 2030, but at the same time Agenda 2063 has another level of commitment and ambition that is going beyond Agenda 2030…Not everything in the common African position has been reflected in Agenda 2030 but many of Africa’s aspirations and ambitions have been reflected,” he says.
Abdelaziz says that the African Union goes beyond the SDGs in its targets for youth unemployment, water security and tertiary education, among other areas.
“The African Union think that Agenda 2030 is a compromise document,” he says.
Despite the potential confusion of complying with competing development agendas, Abdelaziz believes Africa’s heightened ambitions on development and other issues are not simply laudable but necessary for focusing minds and achieving goals.
He is particularly supportive of the African Union’s Silencing the Gun by 2020 initiative, which hopes to make significant progress on settling Africa’s armed disputes in just five years.
For many long-standing Africanists, peace in five years may sound over-optimistic, but Abdelaziz believes that it may well have a real-world impact.
“Its good to have this kind of impetus and pressure, as long as it’s self-imposed, not imposed by the Security Council or the UN, but something that is built and operated within Africa.”
That view chimes with Abdelaziz’s strong belief that it is member states, not institutions like the UN Secretariat, which have the real power to change facts on the ground.
That conviction in the power of member states becomes evident when he talks about the challenges faced by the UN in Africa and beyond – particularly the much-discussed future of UN peacekeeping missions.
The future of the “blue hats” has come under increasing scrutiny after NGOs including Amnesty International revealed evidence of sexual abuse committed against civilians in the Central African Republic.
The UN has acted by removing the head of Central Africa’s peacekeeping mission, but Abdelaziz says that unless member states can agree on comprehensive changes, only limited reforms will be possible to a system which he says has become institutionalised in many countries.
“The UN according to the current system does not have the capability to intrude into a member’s military or police to know what are the measures being taken. This has to be discussed among member states because we do not decide things here in the Secretariat…but to have peacekeeping missions that are in place since the 60s, this is not realistic,” he says.
Abdelaziz says that as the UN reaches its milestone 70th year, the Secretariat will continue to provide support and bring African countries and the wider world together. But he argues that unless member states take the lead on issues from peacekeeping to the migration crisis, questions will be asked about the relevance of the UN.
“It casts a little bit of doubt, particularly as we reach 70, over what the UN is doing and how it is settling those kind of disputes,” he says.