Multilateralism — the cornerstone of international relations for 75 years — is eroding under the weight of multiple challenges, from climate change and migration to ideological confrontation, terrorism and above all, the COVID-19 crisis, delegates said in the Security Council today.
They were discussing ideas for filling gaps in the credibility of multilateralism and for adapting structures created at the Organization’s founding to current realities, first and foremost at the United Nations itself.
“As imperfect as the multilateral system may be, we must acknowledge that we are at the helm,” said Volkan Bozkir (Turkey), President of the General Assembly, opening the Council’s high-level meeting on the subject. “The failures are our own,” he added. Noting that great enterprises should evolve “in sync” with the realities in which they operate, he said it is “incumbent on us to refine and update the system”, emphasizing that such efforts are indispensable.
To be sure, there are many examples of success, he continued, noting that from the Charter of the United Nations, a “web” of treaties and norms have developed to promote cooperation in areas as diverse as civil aviation, hazardous waste, health security and human rights. But the coronavirus pandemic has forced the world into the largest loss of income since 1870 and pushed 115 million people to the brink of extreme poverty, while millions are displaced due to conflict, persecution, hunger or climate change, he pointed out.
“Right or wrong, for millions of people around the world, the Security Council is the face and embodiment of the United Nations,” he said. Yet, on many occasions, it has been unable to rise to the challenge, due to differences among its members, he added, stressing that reform is needed in the core interest of the United Nations itself, since the Council’s paralysis goes to the heart of the Organization’s legitimacy. “We need a more representative, accountable, transparent Council,” he stressed.
He went on to list myriad issues on the agendas of both the Council and the Assembly, including the Israel-Palestine conflict, and humanitarian emergencies in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Myanmar. He pressed Council members to formulate rules and processes that expedite justice for human rights abusers and those who violate international humanitarian law. “These actions should be the baseline for the rules-based international order,” he said, adding that the lack of accountability amounts to collective failure.
Calling for COVID recovery plans built around human rights and the protection of civilians, he praised recent steps to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines, saying once approved by the World Trade Organization (WTO), they will enable the international community to save lives. With a mere 0.3 per cent of all vaccines given to low-income countries, however, “we must do better,” he said.
Cautioning that conventional approaches will not bring peace or shape a more resilient, equal or sustainable world, he called for reinforcing United Nations reforms that support an integrated approach to challenges. “This is the moment of reckoning to fulfil our commitments to our generation — to future generations — and to our planet,” he declared.
In the ensuing debate, foreign ministers and other senior officials offered their views on the state of global governance structures in place since the end of the Second World War, with several reaffirming the central role of the United Nations in confronting current threats. Its stature and credibility, however, have been tarnished by a failure to evolve, said others, a serious error that requires urgent correction, especially within the Security Council.
Wang Yi, State Counsellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs of China, Council President for May, spoke in his national capacity to emphasize that the United Nations is the “banner of multilateralism”. Its authority, stature and central role in international affairs must be upheld, he said, adding: “That is what it means to practise multilateralism.” Emphasizing that international rules must be grounded in international law, agreed by all and applicable to all countries, he affirmed: “There should be no room for exceptionalism or double standards.” Actions must always serve the common interests of all and meet both long- and short-term needs, he added, urging major countries to take the lead by providing global public goods. Each country has a unique history and charts a development path suited to its own realities, he continued. Peace, development, equity, justice and freedom will unleash the great power of multilateralism, while, on the other hand, splitting the world along ideological lines is a regression in history, he noted.
Describing the United Nations as a benchmark of whether multilateralism works well, he recalled that the Organization was founded with a mission to preserve peace. As such, countries must continue to focus on that primary responsibility, working to end conflicts through mediation and addressing hot-spot issues through political means, he said, asserting that sanctions should be imposed only after non-enforcement means are exhausted and for the purposes of pursuing political solutions. Moves that circumvent the Security Council must be abandoned, he added. He went on to outline national achievements, saying that, in its practice of multilateralism, his country has always committed to political settlement of hot-spot issues and has become the largest contributor of peacekeepers on the Security Council. China is fully implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and has launched its largest emergency humanitarian campaign by providing vaccines as a global public good, he said, pledging that it continue to hold high the banner of multilateralism.
Ralph E. Gonsalves, Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said the pandemic has laid bare the reality that renewing multilateralism remains an urgent moral, political and existential imperative, undergirded by the United Nations Charter principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence. Amid the severe health, socioeconomic, political and security implications of COVID-19, States are also required to contend with challenges ranging from the ever-intensifying hazards of climate change, the continued spread of terrorism and organized crime, to increased hunger and acute food insecurity, political polarization, disinformation and hate speech, he noted. Those contemporary challenges are inextricably interconnected and will not be successfully addressed by any short-sighted unilateral or military means, he said, emphasizing that, to the extent that many such issues stretch across borders, and more easily overwhelm the limited capacities of vulnerable States, effective and coordinated multilateral action is essential for any sustainable solution.
Only a comprehensive whole-of-system approach will suffice in addressing the peace and security, development, and humanitarian concerns of affected states, he continued. In the face of vast but continually expanding peace and security challenges experienced globally, the world must move quickly in a fresh direction. Bold and innovative steps are needed to alleviate human suffering, especially in conflict-affected settings. He called for scaling up capacity-building and development assistance, and for strengthening national ownership of peace and political processes. Practical, inclusive, people-centred and climate-sensitive solutions should be developed and implemented in accordance with national needs and priorities, and with the Sustainable Development Goals, he said, stressing that all States must work together. “We cannot remain separated by narrow interests or be divided in purpose,” he added. “We must work in comity even more, together, urgently and resolutely, to realize peace, security and development for all of humanity.”
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State of the United States, recalled the founding of the United Nations and the adoption of principles to uphold a system aimed at benefiting all, noting that, as daunting challenges unfold today, the overwhelming majority of nations agree with those founding notions. However, some question whether multilateralism is still possible in an era of rising nationalism and other challenges. Asserting that his country considers multilateralism an important tool in tackling COVID-19 and the climate crisis, he pointed out that the international system was, in fact, built to address such crises. The United States will work with any country on those issues, even those with which it has differences, he said, while cautioning that it will push back when nations do not abide by the international order. All nations must respect, among other things, international law, Security Council resolutions and the rules-based international order, he emphasized. In addition, human rights are essential and must be universal, he noted, asserting that domestic jurisdiction does not give any State permission to violate human rights.
Whereas the United Nations is based on the principle of sovereign equality of States, he noted, when its Member States, particularly Council members, flout its principles, that sends the message that the rules can be broken with impunity. Acknowledging that some actions by the United States have undermined the rules-based order and led some nations to question its intention, he asked for recognition of actions being taken now. He went on to outline some of the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts, citing its re-joining the Paris Agreement on climate change and United States contributions to the COVAX Facility. Stressing that the rules-based order must be improved and reinforced going forward, he said legitimate grievances around unfair trade agreements and emerging problems, including over new technologies, must be addressed by forging untraditional partnerships. Indeed, given the myriad challenges facing the world today, the international community must address them together, he pointed out.
Sergey Lavrov, Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, noted that the pandemic broke out in a far from ideal world in which regional conflicts and cross-border threats are sorely testing the governance architecture built after the Second World War. Emphasizing that effective international relations are linked to the Council’s ability to find solutions to common problems and its willingness to display genuine leadership, he said its work must be carried out exclusively on the basis of universally recognized norms of international law. Describing the United Nations as the “backbone” of the modern world order, he said its unique legitimacy and capabilities are in growing demand, but not all partners are guided by the imperative of “working honestly” to establish multilateral cooperation. Facing the impossibility of advancing unilateral or bloc priorities within the United Nations, leading Western countries are working to roll back the creation of a multipolar world and to restrain the course of history, including through the concept of a so-called rules-based order designed to replace international law, which itself is already made up of rules agreed at universal platforms and which reflect the broadest possible consent, he said.
Cautioning that the aim of the West is to pit those collegial joint efforts against other rules developed in closed, non-inclusive formats and then impose them on others, he said actions that circumvent the United Nations are harmful. He went on to warn that the proposed “summit of democracies” will cause further divisions in a world that needs a unifying agenda, as will the “alliance on multilateralism” proposed by Germany and France. “Multilateralism in the West is not produced by a universal format, but rather in terms of their claims of a system that all must agree to,” he noted, citing the imposition of unilateral sanctions without legal basis, with the aim of punishing countries, as another example. “They say the world should be the way they want it to be, otherwise they will punish.” If countries favour multilateralism, the Russian Federation calls for honest efforts to establish it in ways that do not undermine any country’s rights, he declared. Honest partnerships and cooperation among all States, on a depoliticized basis, are also required for resolving issues of terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, infectious diseases and human rights. He went on to draw attention to the proposed summit of the Council’s permanent members, initiated by the Russian Federation, stressing that the United Nations must keep pace with changes in the international arena and that any changes must respect the division of labour among the Charter organs of the United Nations and enjoy the support of all States.
Marcelo Ebrard Casaubon, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Mexico, noted that natural disasters, climate change, migration and pandemics all affect international peace and security, emphasizing: “We must learn the lessons of the pandemic.” Whereas science worked, international solidarity and justice did not, he said. Expressing support for the idea that multilateralism is not an option, but a need, he said that since no other organization has the legitimacy, convening power or impact of the United Nations, the Organization — and particularly, the Security Council — must be more open to hearing the voices of all countries and to placing people at the heart of all its actions. Peace, which is needed for sustainable development, can only be built through mutual understanding and solidarity, he continued, calling for larger channels for dialogue, open to all Council members, and more broadly for greater participation by women and young people.
“Any action leading to deadlock undermines the credibility of collective security mechanisms,” he stressed, recalling the time it took the Council to issue its first resolution on the pandemic as a clear example. The Council has a special responsibility and must be more active in promoting compliance with its decisions in the context of international law. He went on to call for reform of the Council to make it more transparent, effective and accountable, noting that his delegation has proposed discussing letters submitted under article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, a topic on which the Council has not taken action. Reiterating calls for permanent Council members to join the France-Mexico initiative to refrain from wielding the veto in cases of mass atrocity crimes, he urged States and international organizations to implement resolution 2565 (2021) and General Assembly resolution 74/274 on equitable access to vaccines and recognition of vaccines as global public goods.
Bui Thanh Son, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam, said that multilateralism, having asserted itself as the rightful course, has been embraced by States and remains indispensable in offering the most effective solutions for emerging and complex global challenges. The arms race, terrorism, transnational crimes, climate change and COVID-19 can only be addressed through vigorous and effective multilateral cooperation, he emphasized. The need to uphold international law and the Charter of the United Nations is increasingly urgent and important, he said, explaining that they lay a solid foundation for the consolidation and flourishing of an international order and multilateral system that serve the common interests of the international community. Regional organizations and the United Nations embody multilateralism at different levels that greatly complement each other in maintaining international and regional peace and security.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), he continued, has affirmed its centrality to the regional security architecture and in addressing regional and international issues, including the situation in Myanmar and the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea. He went on to stress that multilateral institutions must be reformed and work in synergy so they can function in an ever more effective and responsive manner, adapt to the evolving international environment and better serve the interests of Member States on the basis of equality, mutual benefit, inclusiveness and leaving no one behind. The Security Council is no exception, he added, underlining that, to fulfil its primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, it must be reformed to enhance transparency, democracy, representativeness and effectiveness while improving its working methods.
Hassoumi Massaoudou, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Niger, said the United Nations is the appropriate venue for maintaining multilateralism, pointing out that his country provides ongoing support to bolster the international system, with a focus on the critical role of the Organization. Noting that the pandemic has laid bare the inefficiencies of the existing system, making evident the need to strengthen multilateralism, he said the current instruments are no longer sufficient to battle such challenges as health crises, terrorism and cybercrime. He emphasized the need, above all, to restore trust in a system too often perceived as inequitable.
Pointing out that Africa, which participates fully in the United Nations, has no permanent seat on the Security Council, he expressed support for the Ezulwini Consensus, which calls for additional representation on the 15-member organ. Other international organizations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, must also institute reform, he said, stressing the need to strengthen partnerships between the United Nations and regional organizations. He went on to underline the need for lessons to be learned about the response to COVID-19, saying the pandemic represents a unique opportunity for the rebirth of multilateralism. Moreover, the pandemic underlines the need for States to strengthen bilateral and regional partnerships, he said.
Simon Coveney, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence of Ireland, recalled that, in February, the Council spoke in unison for working together to facilitate access to vaccines. “Collective multilateral engagement enhances our sovereignty, rather than diminishes it,” he said. “Without it, we would face a world ruled by might and zero-sum competition, rather than partnership and cooperation.” Multilateralism is essential to achieving the promise of the United Nations Charter, he noted, spotlighting the Council’s unique legitimacy in the maintenance of international peace and security. As peacekeepers face new challenges, it must ensure they are fully equipped to meet them, especially upon departure, when resources and plans must be in place to preserve the gains made, he said, emphasizing that no single “arm” of the multilateral system can craft the solutions needed.
Describing climate change as the defining challenge of a generation, which puts collective security very much at risk, he declared: “The future of the planet relies on facing up to that reality.” He called for a multilateral response involving all principal organs of the United Nations, including the Council, stressing that, just as climate change can drive conflict, effective climate action can build peace. To uphold the relevance of the United Nations, Ireland calls for institutional and political reform to address challenges that cut across each of its pillars: climate change, migration, fragility and inequality among them. While acknowledging the improved cohesion of the United Nations development system, he underlined the need to reform the Security Council, pointing out that Ireland has long argued for a larger, more representative Council that addresses Africa’s under-representation. The Council’s inaction must also be assessed, he said, adding that use of the veto, or the threat thereof, affects the legitimacy of the entire system.
Othman Jerandi, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Migration and Tunisians Abroad of Tunisia, said multilateralism is an urgent imperative, a universal challenge demonstrating that “our fate is a shared one”. Recalling that resolution 2532 (2020), expressing support for a global ceasefire during the pandemic, was adopted after an initiative by France and Tunisia, he said that while the progress made has been significant, the required efforts are not in line with the scale of the challenge. More must be done to bolster resilience in the face of the coronavirus, he emphasized. Pointing out that “our world today is not in the best state”, he said COVID-19 is inextricably linked to armed conflict, backsliding on development gains, human rights violations, climate change and the spread of terrorism and violent extremism.
Stressing the need to tackle challenges through coordinated international approaches that place the United Nations at the centre, led by the General Assembly and the Security Council, he said the only choice is to commit to international law and refrain from unilateral acts. Urging States to implement the Council’s resolutions, and thereby strengthen its credibility, he underlined the importance of demonstrating commitment to multilateralism, first and foremost, by ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines as well as universal health coverage, notably for the most vulnerable countries. Tunisia, he said, demonstrated its own commitment to the Charter as “a reference framework for universal values and international law”. He went on to underscore the need to reform the Council in order to make it more democratic, representative, effective and transparent, and, importantly, to strengthen the trust placed in its members.
Raychelle Omamo, Cabinet Secretary for Foreign Affairs of Kenya, said the pandemic has dramatically showcased the world’s interconnectedness, exposing State vulnerabilities, revealing stark inequalities and unveiling latent weaknesses within international institutions. Despite regular calls for global solidarity, responses to the pandemic have, paradoxically in many instances, spawned increased isolationism, nationalism and protectionism, thereby diluting State cooperation and depleting the potency of multilateral agencies, she noted. In fact, the absence of widely accepted rules, norms and principles to guide the international system through the present crisis has become apparent. For that reason, Kenya has joined other States in appealing for a pandemic treaty domiciled within the World Health Organization (WHO) framework, she said, encouraging all to embrace that noble cause so as to enhance rules-based multilateralism.
Citing several challenges facing multilateralism, she said access to and distribution of vaccines has become one of the greatest tests, posing an existential threat to global peace and security. The Council must affirm that reality in light of the real and present danger that many States in the South will remain excluded and neglected in the face of growing vaccine nationalism and vaccine hoarding, she emphasized. At the same time, collaboration and unity are needed to tackle terrorism and violent extremism, especially in Africa, and to recognize the nexus between international peace and security and climate change. It is no longer tenable to underestimate the devastating effects of climate change as both an underlying cause and multiplier of conflict and insecurity throughout the world, she said, stressing that the Council ought to pronounce itself unequivocally on the matter and offer the required leadership. She went on to underline that the success of the United Nations depends largely on its cooperation with regional and subregional organizations, adding that intensifying that inextricable interdependence, especially in relation to peace and security in Africa, is imperative. While building back better amid the pandemic, there is urgent need to expand the Council’s permanent membership to reflect the world’s diversity, as multilateralism without inclusion is unsatisfactory and limited, she said.
Ine Eriksen Søreide, Minister for Foreign Affair of Norway, said States would be best served by a world order in which small and large nations cooperate to find common solutions, major Powers are prevented from acting unilaterally and right prevails over might. Conflicts have become increasingly protracted in nature, with a devastating effect on civilians and civilian infrastructure, posing a threat to international peace and security, she noted, pointing to such root causes as the absence of inclusive democracy, marginalization of minorities, authoritarian rule and repression. She recalled that the Security Council has played a key role for 75 years, preventing, de-escalating and resolving conflicts, saying that while some Council-mandated peace operations have been successful — illustrated by the United Nations being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1988 — other missions have failed. The international community must learn from those failures, she emphasized, calling for a focus on achieving concrete results for people affected by conflict, with the protection of civilians at the core.
In addition, States must combat sexual and gender-based violence, which is not a side-effect of conflict but a weapon of war, she stressed. “We need to turn commitments into compliance, and resolutions into results,” she added, underlining that including women in peace efforts will be crucial to success. She also called for building upon the legacy of the United Nations to confront new challenges, including inter-ethnic or inter-religious conflicts, pandemics, cybercrime, climate-related conflicts and the rise of non-State armed actors. Climate change has been recognized as a threat multiplier that will aggravate existing conflicts and can also lead to new ones, she said, underlining the vital need for the Council to have access to fact-based information on climate-related security risks in specific country contexts when it takes its decisions. Describing piracy, robbery at sea and related maritime crime as other threats deserving wider attention, she said the Council can and should authorize more robust action to make the world’s oceans safer and more secure. States must create a more inclusive multilateralism, drawing on the contributions of civil society, business, academia and other sectors, she added. “We must recognize, once again, that no State alone, no matter how powerful, can resolve all the challenges that are before us.”
Eva-Maria Liimets, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Estonia, said her country has always been a firm supporter of the rules-based international order, based on its respect for international law and the fight against impunity. “The pandemic has only highlighted why we need this method of diplomacy,” she added. Emphasizing that promoting and protecting human rights is among the most efficient means to prevent conflict, she expressed full support for the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights. Exchange between the Security Council and the Human Rights Council, its special procedures and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), is crucial, she said, stressing Estonia’s strong commitment to human rights and to the universal periodic review as a useful element.
“We must remain committed to the rules-based international order,” including in cyberspace, she continued, noting with concern violations against the Charter in Europe, Ukraine and Georgia. Cautioning that multilateral diplomacy cannot hold without incorporating a wide range of actors, she said including civil society in the Council’s discussions is vital to ensuring effective policymaking. On new and emerging challenges, she said the coronavirus has amplified the digital divide, adding that global partnerships and cooperation are needed to close the gap, and that her country is contributing to the Secretary-General’s digital cooperation process. On the climate front, she said Estonia has established a timeline for phasing out fossil fuels by 2040 and launched the Data for the Environment Alliance, which she invited all to join.
Harsh Vardhan Shringla, Foreign Secretary of India, said terrorism, radicalism, pandemics, climate change, asymmetric threats and intensifying geopolitical competition all require a robust multilateral response. While the United Nations has addressed most of those issues “somewhat partially and intermittently”, the collective effort has nonetheless fallen short, he noted, citing “infirmities” within the multilateral system as the cause, while pointing out that the lack of a coordinated global response to COVID-19 exposed the need for comprehensive reform. A reimagined post-pandemic world will make profoundly different demands to be fit for purpose, he said.
Reform of the Security Council must be at the centre, he continued, saying the Council currently reflects a bygone era. It must be made more representative of developing countries if it is to engender trust and deliver effective solutions, he added, asking: “How can we explain the contradiction of Africa not being represented in the Security Council in the permanent category?” Similarly, he asked how long his country will be kept out of the United Nations decision-making structures. As a founding member, India has consistently upheld the rules-based international order, underpinned by international law, he said. It is a leading contributor of troops to peacekeeping missions and has fostered global development through demand-driven partnerships, he pointed out. India also is one of the few countries on track to meet its mitigation commitments under the Paris Agreement, he said, stressing that “India has always sought to strengthen the forces of cooperative multilateralism”.
Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, Minister of State for Tourism, French Nationals Abroad and La Francophonie, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of France, recalled his country’s recent joint effort with Germany to create the Alliance for Multilateralism. Emphasizing the need to work together, he said the spirit of cooperation is essential in achieving such successes as the Paris Agreement and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on Iran’s nuclear programme. Turning to Security Council reform, he called upon all members to join the initiative to end veto use in relation to atrocity crimes. More broadly, international organizations must be able to conduct their work in a transparent fashion, with the United Nations playing its indispensable role, he said.
Multilateralism must also be inclusive, he said, noting that when women participate in peace processes, agreements reached last longer. He went on to cite the pandemic as an example of where multilateralism is critical to overcoming widespread devasting effects. In terms of climate change, the Council must be active in addressing related threats and take the necessary preventive measures, he said. Stressing that multilateralism can only be effective with reform of various institutions, he cited the Secretary-General’s related efforts with regard to peace operations. France, for its part, cooperates with its European partners to improve responses to crises, he said, adding that his country aims to be a constructive actor in advancing and strengthening multilateralism.
Tariq Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, the United Nations and South Asia of the United Kingdom, recalled the role of the United Nations as the cornerstone of the international system, noting that the world is now facing new and complex challenges that do not recognize borders. They include climate change, pandemics, famine, organized crime and terrorism, he said, adding that they require responses that also cross borders. In crafting such responses, States must remain true to the founding principles of the United Nations and the Security Council, he emphasized. At the same time, the Organization must adapt and reform in order to respond, as its coherence is being tested by existing and new global threats and challenges, from global health to artificial intelligence. To provide a truly effective response, areas of expertise must join with humanitarian, development and human rights efforts across the system, he said. Encouraging all States to support the Secretary-General’s system-wide reform efforts, he said the United Nations human rights system also has a key role to play. In an international order fragmented and characterized by intensifying competition over interests, norms and values, the United Kingdom will continue to place the promotion and protection of human rights at the top of its international priorities, he pledged.
Calling for a coordinated approach to addressing those transnational challenges, which threaten the prosperity and resilience of all nations, he said United Nations peacekeeping exemplifies it. The United Kingdom, for its part, will aim to boost international cooperation and global climate finance, having pledged $15 billion to cover the next five years, he said, adding that, like climate change, COVID-19 continues to require an inclusive, global response. Turning to sanctions, he said the United Kingdom is proud of its independent sanctions measures, which advance national security and foreign policy priorities, holding to account those responsible for such crimes as corruption and human rights violations. The measures are legally robust and carefully targeted in scope to minimize any wider impact, he explained. Where Council members have been unable to agree on issues, the United Kingdom has imposed sanctions on the likes of the Syrian regime and the Myanmar junta, perpetrators of sexual violence in Libya or those working to support the nuclear programme of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he noted. Upholding the values of the United Nations Charter is the key to effective, united responses to the extraordinary challenges all nations share, he said, stressing the importance of working together collaboratively and inclusively.