3 September 2020
Will Multilateralism Get an Action Plan?
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The UN's high-level commemoration of its 75th anniversary has the potential to advance the ongoing dialogue on multilateralism – beyond expressions of commitment and into a more precise vision.

However, this is a tall order this year, when multilateralism finds itself at a “historic low point”.

The high-level meeting to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary will be the culmination of a year’s discussions on multilateralism. It has the potential to take the dialogue further – beyond expressions of commitment to solidarity and cooperation, and into a more precise vision for revitalizing the multilateral system.

However, this is a tall order this year, when multilateralism finds itself at a “historic low point” as observed by IISD’s Earth Negotiations Bulletin.

At the July 2020 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), governments considered drafts of the Ministerial Declaration that had been negotiated in the preceding months. Governments consulted on the draft through remote means, and continue to do so several weeks after the close of the HLPF. (They were unable to vote during the HLPF, which was held virtually, because online voting procedures were not in place.)

In the latest draft, the ministers “reaffirm our commitment to international cooperation and multilateralism” in the context of the UN’s 75th anniversary. They also recognize the UN’s role in “catalysing and coordinating a global response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, based on unity, solidarity, multilateralism and international cooperation.”

COVID-19 has, justifiably, required a large share of the world’s attention in 2020. By its nature, a pandemic and its resulting social, economic, and environmental crises epitomize the need for multilateral cooperation. These interlocking problems have also focused global attention on areas where SDG progress has slowed down and even reversed course. As a result, the draft HLPF declaration notes, “Strengthening multilateralism, international cooperation and global partnership is more important than ever.”

Statements during the HLPF aligned with this view: multilateralism is a top priority for surviving the global pandemic and shifting more resources to SDG achievement. Many countries stressed that the only way out of this crisis is through global solidarity.

However, the Earth Negotiations Bulletin’s analysis of the HLPF poses the question, “Will multilateralism survive the pandemic?” The ENB suggests that discussions at the HLPF fell short of providing a “clear vision of exactly how multilateralism and the 2030 Agenda can be revived and strengthened.” Instead, speakers belied “an underlying nervousness and recognition that multilateralism is at a historic low point at this time of greatest need.”

The analysis continues,

Some delegates echoed Nepal’s concerns that countries may be too busy saving themselves to show solidarity with others. It is true that the pandemic has evoked nationalistic, beggar-thy-neighbor responses from some countries which, for instance, have diverted shipments of limited supplies of personal protection equipment meant for other countries in “an act of modern piracy;” bought up almost the entire global supply of remdesivir, the anti-viral drug that can speed the recovery of coronavirus patients; or have been accused of “vaccine nationalism” for trying to secure priority access to a potential COVID-19 vaccine. 

Among the action areas for reviving and strengthening multilateralism, the ENB reports that participants highlighted:

  • promoting solidarity and partnerships;
  • working together to produce a “people’s vaccine;”
  • using non-GDP related measures of progress;
  • reform of international financial institutions;
  • broadening of the causes and measures of vulnerability;
  • fair and open global trade;
  • protection of the rules-based international order; and
  • more social security and protection.

The high-level commemoration of UN75 on 21 September 2020 could serve to organize actions like these into a set of concrete priorities to rebuild trust in institutions and reignite cooperation that serves all partners, equally. 

The UN2020 initiative, a coalition of civil society representatives, has crafted a “people’s declaration” for the UN’s 75th anniversary. It calls for a process to design a coherent strategy to fill global governance gaps. It also contains a plan for global action with three priority recommendations for the UN and Member States:

  • Establish a Member-State-mandated post-2020 follow-up mechanism to enhance global governance, ushering in a new compact for more equitable and effective global governance and rebuilding confidence in global institutions;
  • Reliably and increasingly fund the UN including by addressing the challenge of unfulfilled Member States’ annual dues and financial commitments, streamlining “archaic” UN budgetary processes, and considering global taxation on fossil fuel, carbon or other commodities; and
  • Enhance participation modalities for civil society and other stakeholders with: a dedicated civil society focal point in the UN Secretariat at the level of Under-Secretary-General; a system-wide review of stakeholder participation in UN processes and adoption of a few well-designed reform proposals; increased use of communications technology to mitigate the digital divide; and a global petition mechanism to surface issues of concern for a critical mass of individuals.

The plan for global action also contains an annex of additional proposals generated through the civil society consultations leading up to the People’s Forum.

Whether leaders take forward these recommendations or others that may emerge through the UN75 commemoration and related global conversation, there is certainly space for a “clear vision” and plan of action to strengthen multilateralism and ensure the world moves closer to the 2030 Agenda, not ever further from the future we want.

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