Event Summary: High-Level Dialogue on Reaffirming the Commitment to Multilateralism

Even though the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015 marked an unprecedented milestone in the history of international cooperation, multilateralism is currently facing strong headwinds, with many questioning its effectiveness. The threats of climate change and nationalism, along with new technologies and the increasing role of non-state actors, are also challenging the UN’s ability to adapt to new global expectations and to respond effectively to rapidly changing circumstances. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and combatting new and emerging threats and challenges will require a reinvigorated multilateral system and the restoration of trust in the UN system’s ability to deliver on its mandate. In the build-up to the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, the President of the United Nations General Assembly, along with the Presidents of the Economic and Social Council and the Security Council and the Secretary-General of the United Nations, convened to discuss the challenges facing multilateralism, and the role of the United Nations in preserving it.

(L-R): The panel consisted of H.E. Ms. Mona Juul; H.E. Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés; H.E. Mr. António Guterres, and H.E. Mr. Vassily A. Nebenzia, and was moderated by CIC Director Sarah Cliffe. (UN Photo/Loey Felipe)

 

The dialogue, “Reaffirming the Commitment to Multilateralism through the Strengthening of the International System and Institutions,” took place on September 10, 2019, in the ECOSOC Chamber of the UN Headquarters in New York. It was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Ecuador, Norway, and the Russian Federation, in association with the NYU Center on International Cooperation (CIC).  

This session focused on ways to reimagine the role of the United Nations in maintaining peace, reducing inequality, promoting sustainable development, and adapting the UN to respond to new challenges while ensuring that it remains the universal forum it was designed to be. A particular focus was how to use the occasion of the 75th anniversary to leverage renewed commitments to multilateralism. In addition, the value and challenges of implementing sustainable development, combating isolationism, and fostering greater collective action were emphasized throughout the dialogue. The dialogue highlighted three key areas, namely the need to:

  • Demonstrate the relevance of the work of the United Nations and its agencies in peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights;
  • Adapt to new global expectations, threats, and challenges; rapidly changing circumstances; and societies in transition;
  • Focus on delivery, thereby translating the United Nations’ work into tangible benefits at the national and local levels.

Participants

The dialogue brought together H.E. Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the General Assembly; H.E. Mr. António Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations; H.E. Ms. Mona Juul, Permanent Representative of Norway and President of ECOSOC; and H.E. Mr. Vassily A. Nebenzia, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation and President of the Security Council for the month of September 2019. The event was moderated by Ms. Sarah Cliffe, Director at CIC.

Following a short introduction by the moderator and statements by the three presidents and the Secretary-General, the conversation shifted towards a moderated interactive dialogue with representatives of member states from a wide geographical representation.

Multilateralism under threat

Speakers were united in highlighting the challenges facing multilateralism today, both as a concept and in practice. Statements focused on the dangers of increasing economic inequality and political polarization, and on the questions being raised regarding the effectiveness of multilateralism.

The President of the General Assembly noted that, despite the challenges that come with the rise of polarization and nationalism, the General Assembly is still the most representative forum for discussion on global topics, with the rule of law as its bedrock.  It is also the only one capable of dealing with new challenges which member states cannot face alone. She also referred to deficits the organization has in three key areas: in communications (providing meaningful answers to those who have lost faith in multilateralism); in inclusion (allowing stakeholders to take meaningful part in the decision-making processes); and in delivery and action (stating, “we must expend as much effort on implementation as we do on deliberation”). The President of the General Assembly also highlighted the importance of the 75th anniversary as an opportunity to bring about the necessary changes in the way the United Nations works, particularly on focusing on implementation just as much as it focuses on deliberation.

The Secretary-General focused on two major threats for multilateralism. The first is a decoupling of the two major world economies, which by adopting increasingly protectionist postures, have created further separation among Member States. The second threat is a recent trend towards a “variable geometry” that replaces universal institutions with small “coalitions of the willing,” groups of like-minded countries that act together and independently of formal multilateral deliberation, rather than complementing this with an investment in the universal institutions. Nevertheless, he concluded, the UN system remains high in the trust of the general public, which provides a space to prove the system’s willingness to adapt and modernize to respond to today’s most relevant issues.    

The President of the UN Security Council lamented that not everyone believes in the need for multilateralism, and that many seem to have forgotten the harm done by disunity historically, including in the build-up to the great wars of the 20th century.  He stressed that overcoming the present challenges to humanity will only be possible if all member states work together and base their actions on international law.  He noted the importance of the United Nations Charter as the “codification of multilateralism,” and the need to uphold its principles as a fundamental prerequisite for international stability. He said that even though we live in an increasingly multipolar world with serious threats to the international systems by self-interested groups, we still need to respect universal values, and to preserve the UN as the universal global forum for honest dialogue.

The President of ECOSOC noted the importance of remembering the positive role played by the United Nations at a time when the rise of nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism have led some to question the rule-based order of the current international system and the effectiveness of multilateralism. She cited the notable progress made by the UN system in fostering peace, sustainable development, and human rights, while also recognizing the challenges of not leaving anyone behind, addressing increasing inequality, and making countries less vulnerable to external shocks. She stressed that the 2030 Agenda “provides a blueprint to help better manage globalization,” and restated her commitment as ECOSOC President to working within the United Nations to break the silos among the UN organs so as to maximize delivery and impact.

Delegations who spoke agreed that no member state, no matter how powerful, can face the current challenges of climate change, rising inequalities, and violent conflict alone. Multilateralism, they stated, is not a dogma or ideology but rather an effective and proven method for achieving global solutions such as the Paris Agreement, the UNESCO conventions, or advances in the fight against AIDS.  These were but a few examples of key progress made thanks to international cooperation. Countering adversarial trends in maintaining respect for international law in areas like disarmament, climate change, and humanitarian law was emphasized as a priority, given the increasing threat of war and the lack of progress observed in implementing SDG16, as was made clear during the 2019 High-Level Policy Forum.

A concrete initiative for strengthening multilateralism was announced: the “Alliance for Multilateralism,” convened by France, which will to have its first meeting in New York on 26 September. Another proposal was made to convene a high-level dialogue between the P5 and the European Union to agree on future actions to stabilize the world.   

Updating the international system and its decision-making process

The Secretary-General highlighted the need to break the silos and develop a “network of multilateral institutions” including the UN, regional organizations, and international financial institutions, as well as to adapt to the new digital paradigm. He also pointed to the need address the decision-making process within these institutions. He expressed his concern that the current interpretation of consensus as unanimity, where one dissenting voice can effectively “veto” an agreement, is paralyzing international decision-making.

The President of the General Assembly called for seizing the opportunity of the UN’s 75th anniversary to “change the way we do business” and “refresh and reinvigorate” the system. The President of the Security Council stressed that “the world doesn’t stand still, and constructions based on human activity can also change,” to adapt to the needs of the time, as witnessed by the Peacebuilding Commissions and the Human Rights Council. Any change, however, must be rooted in international law, so it does not jeopardize our ability to respond and be effective.  

Many member states seconded the need to review and reform the decision-making process highlighted by the Secretary-General. The paralysis brought about by the narrow interpretation of consensus was also discussed, as was the need to distinguish between consensus and unanimity. Some proposals were made for updating the decision-making process, such as allowing member states to step away from decisions to avoid scenarios where a small number of countries (or one) can paralyze the international system and delay progress.

Interventions from the floor expressed support for change as a healthy component of an institution’s life cycle. 

Mechanisms for participation

A frequent subject in the discussion was what the President of the General Assembly described as a “communications deficit,” referring to the need for the UN to better communicate the real-life impact of its work. The President of the Security Council emphasized the importance of balancing current challenges, such as technological and climate change, with the needs of regular people, which should be the priority for the United Nations. The President of ECOSOC echoed messages from the floor stating that the challenge is “how...we make ordinary people feel and experience the need for multilateralism,” and communicating the benefits it brings. 

There was agreement that the UN not only had to better communicate about its work, but also find mechanisms to listen. The Secretary-General noted that even though public trust in most institutions has declined, trust in the United Nations remains high. Nevertheless, he remarked, “if we want the people to trust us, they need to have a chance to believe that what they say matters, and at the present those mechanisms do not exist.” He recommended using existing venues of communication such as the UN information centers throughout the world to not only communicate what the UN does, but also to bring to headquarters the concerns from the grassroots level.

Agreement over the obligation to develop better mechanisms for meaningful participation of stakeholders reflected an understanding that the reality of the UN system has changed substantially since its inception. The example of youth associating the UN with positive terms like “potential,” “connections,” “warmth,” and “channel,” but also with “big,” “bureaucratic,” and “underwhelming” reflected the need to ensure that young people, as well as women, civil society organizations, and other local and non-governmental actor,s can be seriously heard and participate meaningfully.     

Conclusion

In her conclusion, the moderator noted the strong views expressed by member states that the 75th anniversary presented a unique opportunity to renew the international community’s commitment to multilateralism.  She noted that the urgency is there, given the many serious world problems that need collective solutions such as climate change, migration, and growing international debt and inequality and pointed to the risks posed by what the Secretary-General referred to as the “decoupling” of the two major world economies and the increasing reliance on “variable geometry.” There was agreement on the need to better communicate the UN’s successes, to listen more, to focus on delivery, to update decision-making processes, and to ensure meaningful participation of stakeholders.

The President of the General Assembly focused on three topics in concluding. First, she echoed the Secretary-General’s remarks on the need to improve the organization’s ability to listen. She also restated the significance of multilateralism as the most effective mechanism for collective action, particularly with regards to the global commons. Finally, she called for building a multilateralism that delivers, and is accountable, relevant, and efficient.

In his concluding remarks, the Secretary-General said he hoped the 75th anniversary would be an opportunity to “communicate by listening” and to “make people believe that they can have an influence on the way we do business.” The President of ECOSOC commented on the implementation deficit and expressed Norway’s commitment to intensify the work on the SDGs, with a particular focus on financing for development. The President of the Security Council recalled the importance of making ordinary people experience the positive effects of the work of the United Nations. He expressed that any changes in what multilateralism means should be grounded in the UN Charter and its basic principles. He reminded the forum to accept the collective responsibility of continuing this dialogue, emphasizing that the United Nations is the sum of its member states—“we are all the United Nations.”

This meeting report was jointly prepared by the Permanent Missions of Ecuador, Norway, and the Russian Federation and the NYU Center on International Cooperation, and is being distributed by President of the UN General Assembly. 

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Multilateral Reform