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Coronavirus Crisis and the International System

Coronavirus Crisis and the International System

Tuesday, 7 April, 2020 - 10:15
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

The international system has been in transition since the abrupt fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For the past 30 years we have been experiencing periods of turmoil, anxiety, stress and, above all, uncertainty about the future.


During this period, we have witnessed conflicting trends: globalization and insular nationalism; liberal economic policies and increased state intervention; open and free trade and increased protectionism; increased movement of peoples across international borders and erection of barriers, both physical and institutional, to stop the flow; free flow of information and the malicious manipulation of such information; unprecedented wealth coupled with what could possibly be the most skewed income distribution in history. During this process the international system shifted from a bipolar, to a unipolar and, now, a fragmented one.


The question is: when will this transition end and what international system will ultimately emerge?


World War I ended a century of relative stability and economic progress. It took 30 more years and another world war for the international community to agree to establish a new world order by creating the United Nations on the basis of the human rights, sovereign equality, collective security and multilateral cooperation. The UN Charter remains the vision that meets the common interests and the aspirations of humanity. Regrettably, this vision has yet to be fully realized.


During the course of this transition, initial hope gave way to the politics of fear and uncertainty at all levels: internationally, regionally and domestically. Fear and uncertainty from the wanton use of force, whether through endless conflicts and terrorism, economic and political marginalization, environmental degradation and now, pandemics.


We are now in a situation in which the usual and accepted way of doing or thinking about things must change completely. In that sense we may be experiencing the paradigm shift that may be required to bring about the necessary change.


Crises leading to paradigm shifts often begin with new discoveries. The coronavirus has affected relationships amongst individuals, between individuals and governments and also between governments themselves. Moreover, coronavirus has, more than anything, further blurred the line between national and international security. I believe it has now become an inescapable conclusion that there is a crisis in governance at the international, regional and national levels.


While it is understandable that the immediate focus of national and international efforts is on fighting coronavirus, we need to look at the broader picture. We need to examine the reasons that have stalled the full realization of the international system enshrined in the UN Charter. We need to seize the opportunity to take a further step towards fulfilling this vision.


The crisis we face today, as Yuval Harari said, has challenged us in making one of two choices: The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity. We do not have to make the choice. We have already made it when we adopted the UN Charter: human dignity that comes with citizen empowerment and global cooperation.


There have been numerous national, regional and international initiatives to address the immediate consequences of present crisis. The G7 and G20 are not sufficiently representative, nor have a wide enough mandate.


The UN on the other hand, has widest representation and, the broadest and most comprehensive mandate. It is true that the UN has taken initiatives in specific areas: a call for a ceasefire in all conflicts, launching an appeal for humanitarian assistance, calling for the removal of sanctions and addressing the socio-economic effects of the coronavirus. While they are certainly laudable initiatives, they do not address the underlying obstacles that have impeded the fulfilment of the vision of the founding fathers of the UN, the core of which is the well-being and security of the human being.


One cannot overlook the fact that the present crisis has serious consequences for international peace and security, not least of which is to exacerbate ongoing conflicts. The divisions that plagued the Security Council and the scarcity of resources will further weaken the role of the UN in the maintenance of international peace and security, in particular in the areas of mediation, peacekeeping and peace building. No one is better placed than the UN Secretary General to take the initiative. He has the moral authority and the responsibility under the UN Charter to take action.


The Secretary General should consider convening a teleconference of the Security Council for the heads of state and government. He may also consider inviting the heads of regional organizations. This will provide the opportunity for to propose a global plan of action that deals with both the socio- economic and the politico-security dimensions of the crisis and provides the necessary remedies in an integrated fashion.


The plan needs to be based on the concept of strengthening international solidarity through deepened multilateral cooperation. It needs to accelerate previous endeavors. It can set priorities that would lay the basis for future international efforts in the following fields, among others:


. Equality by protecting the most vulnerable in our societies through achieving universal health care and increased development aid.


. Security by taking concrete steps to end military conflicts such as: arresting flow of arms, enhancing UN mediation, peacekeeping and peace building capacities and preserving arms control and non- proliferation regimes.


. Strengthening international organizations by accelerating the reform of the Security Council, the IMF and the World Bank to better reflect the emerging international power structure.


. Ensuring increased accountability and transparency of governments towards their own citizens and in particular combatting corruption.


Such an approach may be considered too ambitious and impractical. It will, no doubt, face resistance from those who want to preserve the status quo. But confronting the present crisis needs vision and daring. It is an opportunity that should not be squandered on the road to creating a more equitable, just and humane international system. After all, was that not the goal of the UN after the tragedy of two world wars?


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