Bloc Party or Bloc’d Out? : Navigating Bloc Politics at the United Nations

On a cold Chicago Monday, the representatives for Eritrea in the United Nations Environment Assembly sip their extra large coffee and ready themselves for a long day. The Assembly began their initial work and wrote a number of resolutions on protection of the environment in areas affected by armed conflict during the first few days. On Sunday, the focus shifted to sound management of chemicals and waste. With limited time remaining in the conference, the representatives for Eritrea stayed up late Sunday night drafting content for a resolution with some others in the African Union bloc. Soon, they begin taking notes on the current speeches and passing notes to their colleagues in the bloc African Union as well as those in the Mediterranian bloc on how the speech by the Russian Federation may impact their efforts.

While the African Union has been largely in agreement on the importance of discussing corporate responsibility, they have been making slow progress on getting other blocs to negotiate on holding government-funded entities accountable for incidents. They would  like to hold major companies accountable for past oil spills but really would be happy just to get some more information sharing for establishing future collaboration and discussions.

The main points of contention have been around state and corporate sovereignty, where oil-producing states prefer that oil companies only be prosecuted by national governments and not the international community. To counter this, the African Union bloc has tried to sway their opinions with passionate speeches about the effects on wildlife and coastal regions when these companies have unclear accountability. Unfortunately, these speeches have not been able to move the conversation much. Considering the relative influence of the African Union, if they manage to get the bloc of oil producing states to  be open to some information-sharing following an investigation of an oil spill, they would consider it a victory. 

As the day rolls on, the representatives for Eritrea take advantage of the next informal caucus to split up so one can continue working with the African Union, while the other representative speaks with a newly-formed bloc: The largest oil purchasing states. This bloc was formed within the context of the committee during conference, and consists of some of the same members of the oil-producing states, but has a few others as well. They haven’t said much during official speeches yet, but have been open to having small group discussions during the suspensions of the meeting. As they do, they’ve noted that they are open to supporting more protective measures, but are worried that their governments may face backlash if they are too forceful.

Over the next few hours, the representatives from Eritrea continue meeting with the different blocs on moving the conversation towards their goal. Eventually, they are able to come to a compromise. With the influence of the largest purchasers of oil, the oil-producing states agree to a pilot program for information sharing of findings from a post-spill investigation. All of this work contributes to a resolution which passes by consensus later that night. Thus, while not perfect, the representatives from Eritrea are proud to see that they were able to make a positive impact. 

Let’s debrief for a moment here. As you saw in the above scenario, there are quite a few players involved in getting anything done at the United Nations. First off, lets define just what a bloc is. In essence, blocs are Member States with mutual interests and similar political, historical or cultural backgrounds and are often, but not exclusively, formed on a geographical basis. By organizing themselves with other Member States that hold similar interests, bloc members hope to increase their influence above the level that they would have as a single Member State in the General Assembly. (AMUN Handbook, 2019). The first regionally based blocs were formed with an endorsement by the General Assembly in 1957 and consisted of regional alignment. Later they also  formed as a result of other global trends, such as the Cold War which spawned the Non-Aligned movement, which consisted of Member States wishing to be outside of the East vs West lines drawn during the Cold War. Blocs typically seeks consensus and may be long standing and bear very clear coherence, or may be more new, temporary, and ad hoc in nature. At AMUN, blocs are not officially recognized as particular entities, but are a very common element in simulating the United Nations and often will form around the context and conversation of the events that unfold during a conference.  

In this particular example, we saw that Eritrea tended to associate themselves with a bloc of their regional neighbors (African Union). However, there are a number of other geographic blocs that they could have been a part of in addition to the  Mediterrian states or coastal states. How these particular blocs form will usually depend on who is present in a particular committee, and the topics at hand. In this case, when discussing oil spills, the North Aftrican States bloc may have formed when discussing the first topic. However, when the focus shifted to the second topic, this bloc wasn’t as related to the issue at hand. This is why we saw Eritrea emphasize their coastal status after considering how the issue affects them, and who may have power to influence it (oil producing states). Understandably, they ran into some pushback from this bloc, which was focused on economic concerns and they had little negotiating power there.

Eventually, Eritrea found some success by helping form and work with a bloc of oil-purchasing states. While they were not personally part of this new bloc, they were still able to speak with them and lobby for their help. From there, they made progress acting as a go-between while still helping advance work on their issues as well. Ultimately, through working within and across various blocs on this issue, they managed to coordinate priorities and get to a point where all parties could agree.

As you prepare to participate at the conference in November, think about this example and how things may go in your simulation, and how it relates to the State and body you’ll be representing. In your research, you’ll likely find some well established blocs that you can expect to be part of. At the same time, you may want to think about what other blocs may form and how they might be able l to help you advance your Member State’s own agenda and how you might join their working groups. Finally, as you are actually going through the committee process, be open to how you can participate, with whom, and how flow and organization of work may shift.

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