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Has the modernization of the multilateral system begun?

Amr Moussa

Published: Updated:

It was recently reported that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which is the main body concerned with maintaining international peace and security, began discussing the fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. These discussions are expected to address several related issues, namely, how to stop Northern countries (the rich) from hoarding the vaccine at the expense of Southern countries (the poor), and the role that the United Nations (UN) can play on this front.

This British initiative started a debate on whether public and global health issues fall under the mandate of the UNSC. The debate was also extended to a draft resolution presented by the UK, which I hope will be clear and detailed regarding the indiscriminate distribution of vaccines among the world’s countries, all of which were indiscriminately affected by the pandemic.

It is worth noting here that the European Union ambassador to the UN preceded the official debate with an important statement, emphasizing that Europe does not want a distribution system based on “apartheid”, i.e. a racial distinction between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, where the former has the vaccines while the latter cannot acquire them. This indicates a clear link between the mismanagement of vaccine distribution and its effects on the one hand, and the threats to international peace and security on the other.

I believe that this is what the UN Secretary-General António Guterres meant in his statements towards the end of 2020 regarding the need for the UNSC to consider new threats to peace and security, namely, the deadly intercontinental epidemics.

I fully support the approach of the Secretary-General, which also encompassed climate change issues and implications. This approach is further reinforced by the UNSC resolution last July that demanded a general and immediate cessation of hostilities in all situations to push for more effective cooperation against the threats posed by COVID-19.

It is therefore clear that there is a new movement seeking to activate the role of the UNSC in facing new challenges. It is important here to examine the impact of such a thing on the relationship between specialized agencies and the UNSC, such as the relationship between the UNSC and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding COVID-19 matters. In fact, I do not see this as an issue, since the roles of the two bodies are complementary, not contradictory. The WHO plays a technical and specialized role, whereas the UNSC plays a political, mobilizing, and security one. This was evident in the UNSC resolution last summer that called for the cessation of hostilities to enable cooperation in facing the pandemic. The UNSC can therefore play a supportive and even vital role for specialized bodies.

This is a first step that could lead to reviewing the entirety of the UNSC agenda and redefining threats to international peace and security. This will necessarily be followed by a review of the agenda and priorities of the UN General Assembly, which, as some expect, will lead to establishing new ties between the UN’s political and development apparatus and the various specialized agencies. If this comes to pass, it will mark the beginning of the modernization of the multilateral sector. However, I must remind everyone, myself included, that this is no easy feat, and it will require time. Moving the reform from the UNSC to the General Assembly is not something that simply happens automatically, even though the distance between the two halls is only several meters. The process may take years, which requires us to cooperate and work together to accelerate this reform.

The efficiency of the multilateral system, as it was agreed upon after the end of World War II, was affected by the Cold War, where the UN was one of the major battlefields. At the time, the Soviet and the American vetoes were among the main factors that affected the effectiveness of the UNSC, in addition to the following reasons:

* Years and decades without a real development of the multilateral system led to inertia, and not only on the political front as it also impacted the effectiveness of the specialized agencies (the true heart of success in the system), as we have witnessed with the problems that the UNESCO, the WHO, and others faced.

* The shaky policies of the US towards the UN and the multilateral system as a whole, whereas the US was the force that shaped its foundations, details, and various institutions. The behaviors of the Trump administration in particular were shocking, as it gave up on the system and even mocked it; thus, seriously threatening the effectiveness and credibility of the UN instead of leading it in the face of a dangerous and rapidly spreading pandemic that transcended international and geographical borders.

* Globalization retained its dynamic nature while the multilateral system, represented by the UN, was hit by inertia, which led to a great division in global thought and the international movement towards the future. This also led to the question, can this movement develop and succeed within the framework of globalization only? Or does it require, as I believe, an effective and balanced existence of the UN system, provided that it is developed, since the UN represents an international organization and a global platform where poor and rich countries are equally represented and the interests of both are put forward?

* Despite all of this, optimism is on the rise in this area after the old US administration left the White House. The new US president understands the responsibility of the US to reform and save the existing international system (returning to the climate agreement is a good indicator of this).

* Lastly, and while we are talking about the indicators for a new formulation of the international system, as well as critical reforms that are currently being studied, I believe that it is important for developing countries to realize their role in drafting a revised version of the international system and international relations.

The events of 1945 must not be repeated. Southern countries are critical partners in the international and global agenda, and thus, they must rise to the challenge and shift their roles from passive recipients to active partners and stakeholders. In this regard, we may also need a revised, 21st-century version of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 (G77).

This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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