As if anyone needed a reminder of the importance of international cooperation in today’s hyperconnected world, the coronavirus pandemic has made abundantly clear just how crucial multilateralism is for humanity. Trying to cope with the immediate devastating effects of the virus, nations initially imposed unprecedented executive measures, including closing borders. A virus, however, knows no borders: all countries are affected. The fight against this global pandemic, which is taking so many lives and challenging our societies, is a stark reminder that the world needs more, not less multilateral cooperation and global solidarity.

Seventy-five years after the founding of the United Nations, the rules-based international order is under pressure, perhaps as never before. Nationalism and protectionism have returned to the international agenda. Many countries believe that they will be better off by going it alone than by sharing and striking often cumbersome compromises with others. This comes precisely at a time when a set of unprecedented global challenges, including climate change, the protection of biodiversity, keeping trade routes open and preserving world health, necessitates effective multilateral cooperation.

To meet these daunting challenges, multilateral organizations must be protected and, where needed, reformed or modified to cover hitherto unregulated terrain. This, in a nutshell, is the mission of the Alliance for Multilateralism, which German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas first started promoting in summer 2018.

The Alliance is not intended to be a new institution; it aims to support and strengthen existing organizations, in particular the United Nations.

This novel Alliance is an informal network of countries and non-State actors united in their conviction that a rules-based multilateral order is the only reliable guarantee for international stability, peace and prosperity. The Alliance is not intended to be a new institution; it aims to support and strengthen existing organizations, in particular the United Nations. It is open to all who share its mission and are willing to work towards its stated goals to defend, reform or adapt the international order. The Alliance reaches out to non-State actors as key stakeholders and partners allowing flexible, issue-based coalitions to form around specific projects. Engagement in a specific initiative does not entail automatic participation in other projects pursued by the Alliance. Since its high-level meeting in September 2019 in New York, the Alliance has launched and promoted concrete initiatives in the fields of human rights, international humanitarian law, cyberspace, future technologies, disarmament and arms control, global public goods and strengthening international institutions.

The Alliance’s value added stems from its flexible, cross-regional and multi-stakeholder composition, which enables it to drum up worldwide support on issues of common concern. A somewhat similar setup, the Human Security Network, created two decades ago by Canada and other nations, has made critical contributions to multilateralism by advancing, for instance, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the International Criminal Court and United Nations General Assembly resolution 63/308 on the responsibility to protect. While still in its infancy, the Alliance for Multilateralism has already shown its potential by generating a strong dynamic to further a catalogue of guiding principles on the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems, now supported by more than 120 States.

The Alliance can also play an important role in the fight against COVID-19. A recent virtual meeting brought together Foreign Ministers from almost 30 countries to initiate a collective answer to the pandemic. The Foreign Ministers emphasized the value of multilateralism and, through the adoption of a joint declaration, sent a strong signal of support to the United Nations, including the World Health Organization as the backbone of the global response to COVID-19. They highlighted the need for more and enhanced international coordination, cooperation and solidarity, and underlined their commitment to contribute to those efforts.

There are multiple areas in which the Alliance can be helpful. The focus must now be on the most immediate medical, political and economic challenges raised by the pandemic. The Alliance will seek to ensure sufficient financing to address the COVID-19 crisis, including funds aimed at strengthening health systems globally, and just distribution and universal access to treatment and vaccines, when they are ready. Immunization against COVID-19 should be recognized as a global public good. The Alliance will also work to support the global ceasefire called for by United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, and to combat disinformation and hate speech, which put peoples’ lives at risk and are an obstacle to effective public health responses.

Immunization against COVID-19 should be recognized as a global public good.

The Alliance has also committed itself to addressing the long-term consequences of this crisis. The world must prepare better for the next pandemic. COVID-19 should be an opportunity to strengthen the global health security system and enhance pandemic preparedness, prevention and response. The multilateral system needs to adapt and reform to “recover better”.

At the same time, the Alliance will work to minimize disruptions to cross-border trade and global supply chains, and to taking only targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary emergency measures that are consistent with World Trade Organization obligations. The continued efficient flow of medical supplies, agricultural products and other goods and services across borders will be critical for effective crisis response, to help minimize global supply and demand shocks, and to enable timely economic recovery.

Nobody can tell how dire the consequences of the pandemic will be. At worst, COVID-19 will claim many more lives and throw the world into a deep and protracted recession. At best, coordinated international efforts will lead to a V-shaped recovery, and the crisis will act as a wake-up call for multilateralism, revitalizing multilateral cooperation in global health governance and eventually in other areas. Germany and the countries participating in the Alliance for Multilateralism will do their best to contribute to such a development. They remain firmly committed to strong and effective multilateral cooperation, based on the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law and justice as the indispensable foundations for securing peace, stability and prosperity.

#MultilateralismMatters

30 April 2020 

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