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Has the Process of Modernizing the Multilateral System Started?

Has the Process of Modernizing the Multilateral System Started?

Thursday, 18 February, 2021 - 12:30
Amr Moussa
Amr Moussa is a former Arab League Secretary General and former Foreign Minister of Egypt

It has recently been reported that the Security Council, the central body concerned with maintaining international peace and security at the United Nations, started discussions on the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The discussions are expected to address several related issues, primarily the issue of preventing countries in the Global North (the rich) of having the privilege to receive the vaccine before countries in the Global South (the poor), in addition to the UN’s role regarding this issue.


The British-launched initiative sparked a debate on whether public and global health issues fall within the Security Council’s jurisdiction and opened the door to discussions on a draft resolution presented by Britain. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the entire world’s nations and communities, and I hope that vaccines are distributed transparently and without any form of discrimination on a global level.


It is worth noting that the EU’s ambassador to the UN issued a vital statement emphasizing that Europe does not want a distribution system based on “apartheid” before the official debate began. That is, it does not want for there to be racial distinctions whereby the North has vaccines and the South cannot obtain them. It is clear that there is a link between the mismanagement of vaccine distribution and its consequence on the one hand and threats to international peace and security on the other.


I believe this is what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres intended to convey through his statements at the end of 2020, that he wanted to say that the Security Council needs to address the issues that present new threats to peace and security, on top of which is the threat of deadly epidemics that cut across borders and continents.


I fully support the Secretary-General’s approach, which also emphasizes the threats and implications of climate change. This orientation is reinforced further when we recall the Security Council resolution issued last July, which called for an end to hostilities in various parts of the world to push for more effective cooperation in facing the threats posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.


It is clear, then, that there is a new push to revitalize the Security Council’s role in facing novel challenges. The crucial thing here is that we examine the extent to which this affects the relationship between specialized agencies and the United Nations, as well as the issue at hand, the relationship between the Council and the World Health Organization. In truth, I don’t see that there is a real problem here. The two roles are complementary to one another, not conflicting. Agencies’ roles are technical and specialized, while the Security Council deals with tactics, politics and security. The latter’s role was evident last summer, when the Security Council demanded a cessation of hostilities aimed at strengthening cooperation in the fight against the pandemic… It is a role, then, which is helpful to the specialized agencies, indeed crucial for their success.


This is possibly a new beginning that could lead to a review of the Security Council’s agenda and to redefining threats to civil and international peace, which would necessarily imply a revision of the United Nations General Assembly’s role and priorities. This could be followed- as some predict- by a modern “networking” process between the UN’s political and developmental apparatuses and the other specialized agencies. If this materializes, the process of modernizing the multilateral sector would have begun. However, I warn myself, my readers, observers and scholars that this is no easy matter, and it will take time and that the reform process’s transition from the Security Council to the General Assembly will not be automatic. Although no more than ten meters separate the two halls, this transition may require several years, and therefore we must work together to ensure that the reform moves as quickly as possible.


The fact is that the system is multilateral, as had been agreed upon after the Second World War ended. Its effectiveness was undermined by the Cold War, as the UN was one of its primary arenas. The Soviet’s use of the veto during the war and the US vetoes after it ended are among the many factors behind undermining the Security Council’s effectiveness. But the following could also be added:


* Years and decades without real development of a multilateral system have not only led to political paralysis but also threatened the effectiveness of the specialized international agencies (the backbone of the international system’s success). We have witnessed the problems encountered by UNESCO, the World Health Organization, and other international agencies.


* The United States’ UN policy, or rather the whole multilateral system, has been shaky, while it had been the force behind shaping the foundations of the UN and its various institutions. The manner in which the Trump administration dealt with the UN was particularly shocking. Trump’s administration abandoned, and even belittled, the UN, seriously threatening the effectiveness and credibility of the multilateral system as a whole instead of leading the battle against a dangerous pandemic that was spreading rapidly across the world.


* Globalization was characterized by dynamism, while stagnation struck the multilateral system with the UN at its core, which led to a great schism at the level of global thought and the international movement toward the future. Can the international movement develop and succeed exclusively within the framework of globalization, or does it require, as I believe it does, an effective and weighty presence on the part of an evolved UN, with all that it represents as an international organization and a global platform in which poor countries participate on par with developed countries and the interests of both are put forward?


*With that, there is a sense of optimism, however, after a change in the US administration, as the new administration is taking steps to reform the existing international system and save it from failure. The return of the US to the Paris Agreement after it had withdrawn is an indication of that.


*To conclude, as new reforms are being proposed to change the international system, I believe that it’s of paramount importance that the developing countries are aware that they have a hand in drafting the updated version.


What happened in 1945 must not reoccur. The countries of the global South are an important partner on the international and global scene. They must rise to the challenge and transition from being bystanders to becoming partners and stakeholders. Perhaps, we need a revised formula for non-aligned camp, a 21st-century model, and this also applies to the Group of 77.


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