Crossroads Asia

Kazakhstan Wants to Move the UN to Asia

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Crossroads Asia

Kazakhstan Wants to Move the UN to Asia

President Nazarbayev wants the UN to know he’s full of ideas for modernizing the body.

Kazakhstan Wants to Move the UN to Asia
Credit: UN photo

Kazakhstan has been on an extended campaign to break into the circles of global power, and while this goal was on display in Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s address at the UN General Assembly debate today, it was wrapped within a rather dull speech that kept back from controversy. Kazakhstan is seeking a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council (you can read an op-ed on the bid from Kazakh Foreign Minister Idrissov here), and Nazarbayev peppered his speech with ideas for what the future of the UN should look like.

The last time Nazarbayev addressed the UN was in 2011. In the intervening years, Kazakhstan’s foreign ministers have delivered remarks at the general debate.

Nazarbayev got off to an awkward start. Either the Kazakhs had not notified the UN that Nazarbayev would be speaking in Kazakh, there was a technical glitch, or the interpreter was simply not prepared. Either way, Nazarbayev launched into his speech in Kazakh. About a minute into speaking, he was interrupted and asked to take a seat while the confusion was sorted out. After a few minutes, Nazarbayev was invited back to the podium to begin again.

The speech reads in part like an ode to the UN, but also in part as a veiled criticism of the institution and the global order that established it. Nazarbayev remarks both that 70 years have passed since a world war and that for 70 years the world has not found an effective way to resolve military conflict. He notes that the UN was established by 51 states at a time when the majority of the world were colonies. Now there are 193 independent states. Nazarbayev’s underlying message was that it’s time the UN reflect the world of today, rather that of 70 years ago.

Nazarbayev frames his ideas for the UN in familiar terms — that of a 30-year plan, which conveniently matches up with his ambitions for Kazakhstan to join the top 30 economies by 2050.

His five overarching points address economic issues, nuclear weapons, the erosion of international law and weakening of global institutions, terrorism, and lastly, sustainable energy. Surprisingly, perhaps, the final two only merited a single paragraph each, but the first three were elaborated at length.

Nazarbayev’s economic proposals include rebranding the UN Economic and Social Council as the Global Development Council to act as a global economic regulator promoting worldwide growth and stem the possibility of economic crises. He also spoke of creating a supranational currency.

With regard to nuclear weapons, Nazarbayev makes note of Kazakhstan’s continued commitment to a nuclear-free world. The country gave up the world’s fourth largest stockpile of nuclear weapons — which it had been left holding when the Soviet Union dissolved — and will be hosting a low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank on behalf of the IAEA, to provide LEU supply stability to countries using nuclear energy peacefully.

Nazarbayev’s comments on the erosion of international law and weakening of global institutions echoed remarks made earlier in the day by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin excoriated the West (not cited by name, but certainly understood), saying that “unilateral sanctions circumventing the UN Charter have become almost commonplace. In addition to pursuing political objectives, these sanctions serve as a means of eliminating competitors.”

Nazarbayev put it like this:

It is necessary to prevent the arbitrary imposition of sanctions, which contradicts both the UN Charter and international law. I am convinced that the right to impose international sanctions that can impact the well-being of millions of people should remain the exclusive prerogative of the Security Council and failure to comply with this principle undermines the foundation of the modern world order, and is a relic of the Cold War.

Then Nazarbayev played it safe in commenting on Ukraine. He simply said that the Ukrainian crisis should be solved peacefully via full implementation of the Minsk agreements, without noting which side was breaking them.

According to Nazarbayev, the world’s most serious challenges — terrorism, “the implosion of states” and migration — are the result of economic crisis, poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Noticeably, Nazarbayev doesn’t mention religious freedom or democracy, two areas his country is often criticized on.

In the end, Nazarbayev lobbied for the transfer of the UN headquarters from New York City to an unnamed location in Asia — citing the idea that 70 years ago the West was ascendant and now it is Asia’s time to shine.