The pandemic has been a stress test for multilateralism, while reinforcing humanity’s shared vulnerability and a sense of global solidarity.
We can take advantage of this time of creativity and reinvention to build the political momentum and willingness for a profound re-tooling of the United Nations.
We need not only heads of state, but a whole-of-society leadership and co-responsibility, where young people and civil society play prominent roles.
By María Fernanda Espinosa
When I was President of the UN General Assembly and we took the decision to start a process to commemorate the Organization’s 75th anniversary, we had in mind something more than a simple commemoration, a birthday party that would merely look back on past achievements. Rather, the idea was to unleash a global conversation on the future of the UN, to involve “We the Peoples” in the process of re-imagining the UN we need, and of course have UN Member States engaged in producing a strong Political Declaration.
The UN Secretary-General was excited about the idea from the outset. He appointed a first-rate team, led by Fabrizio Hochschild and Natalie Samarasinghe, to launch the Secretariat’s UN75 Global Dialogues. Civil society also responded. Over 60,000 organizations contributed to UN75 Global Dialogue events. Global networks like UN2020 and Together First assembled a comprehensive People’s Declaration and Plan for Global Action. And the powerful UN75 Political Declaration adopted by Member States on 21 September 2020 provides 12 agreed commitments. These are guideposts by which we can all assess progress on the organization’s priorities, from climate, the SDGs and peace and security, to issues of digital inclusion, partnerships, and trust in our institutions.
We can take advantage of this time of creativity and reinvention to build political momentum for transformation.
Of course, when the UN75 process began we weren’t even thinking about the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis, which has caused so much loss and suffering, has also been a stress test for multilateralism. While reinforcing humanity’s shared vulnerability and a sense of global solidarity, the pandemic has further illuminated so many problems – the reasons why global cooperation is needed in the first place. To name just a few: inequalities and growing poverty, the pandemic’s disproportionate impacts on women and girls, and vaccine nationalism.
And then there are the direct impacts that the necessary pandemic responses have had on the day-to-day operations of the UN system. Diplomacy by videoconference is a poor substitute for the real thing. Without the meetings, negotiations, stakeholder engagement, and all the other trappings of normal work at the UN, the international community has pressed “pause” on too many important multilateral processes. It is therefore no surprise that rejuvenating the multilateral system has become a central ask of citizens, organizations and a large majority of Member States.
Significantly, the UN75 Political Declaration calls upon the Secretary-General to report back before the end of the current session of the General Assembly, by September 2021, with recommendations “to advance our common agenda and to respond to current and future challenges.”
I am delighted to learn that, in preparation for this important report, his office will undertake far-reaching consultations, not only with Member States but also with “thought leaders,” youth, and civil society.
Why are these additional consultations important? While the UN75 Global Dialogues in 2020 illustrated “the what” – what kind of future we want and what we need to do – it is now up to the Secretary-General to deliver on “the how” of getting there.
Here I see two converging processes. I would call them the shell and the kernel of the same fruit. The shell is the institutional re-tooling of the UN, and it must deliver a well-functioning and well-funded organization, including built-in mechanisms for civil society participation. The kernel, meanwhile, is made up of our shared agendas, priorities, and platforms on all the global issues where the UN can and must deliver, including inequalities, poverty, the climate crisis, and women’s rights.
To highlight one of these priorities, 2021 is a crucial year for humanity’s much-needed reconciliation with nature. We need strong, coherent outcomes from the upcoming COPs on climate, biodiversity, and desertification, as well as the high-level conferences on oceans and food systems. And of course we have the Generation Equality Forum, a very important moment that will revamp the course of action on women’s rights and equality. These are just some of the defining moments on the international agenda this year. And we need to make sure that we truly make it a Decade of Action for the 2030 Agenda.
We have the opportunity and responsibility to take advantage of this time of creativity, of re-invention, to help build the political momentum and the willingness to see transformation happen. We need a profound re-tooling of the United Nations. And for that we need leadership. But not messianic political leaders. And not only heads of state, but a whole-of-society leadership and co-responsibility, where young people and civil society play prominent roles.
With the successful development of COVID-19 vaccines and the promise of an eventual end to this very painful pandemic, many of our public institutions can look to a brighter future. So should the United Nations. We must overcome “vaccine nationalism” and deploy fair, equitable, affordable, and accessible immunization through existing multilateral means. We need to build back better, build back greener, build back more equal. We need to collectively craft a new culture and machinery of multilateralism that is inclusive, that is networked, that responds to the needs of people and planet, and that is accountable and delivers for all.
The author of this guest article, María Fernanda Espinosa, is a former Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador, and served as President of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.
This article is based on her remarks during an online event organized by The Coalition for the UN We Need (formerly the UN2020 Campaign), on 13 January 2021.