Urgent need for the world to reinvigorate rules-based multilateralism

Last year, the United Nations conducted a worldwide consultation involving more than one million people from 193 countries. The feedback pointed to some important facts. This year’s UN general assembly must respond by bolstering rules-based multilateralism.

For starters, the consultation found that the expectations and hopes of the world’s women, men, girls and boys are strikingly similar. People want better access to basic healthcare, sanitation and education. They also want to see more solidarity with those hit hardest by the pandemic and with those living in poverty. 

Respondents’ top concern over the longer term is the twin crisis of climate change and accelerating biodiversity loss. Almost 90% of participants agree that global cooperation is vital to deal with today’s challenges, and a majority believe that the pandemic has made international cooperation even more urgent. Especially encouraging is that young people worldwide clearly want more international cooperation.

Last year’s consultation was a call to action. Now, UN secretary general António Guterres has released Our Common Agenda, which follows on the UN75 Political Declaration adopted by all UN member heads of state and government one year ago. The new agenda sets out a bold plan for how we can tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow.

The threat of breakdown must be viewed as an opportunity for a breakthrough. That is why we are committing to step up our countries’ support for the secretary general’s efforts to translate the UN’s ambitious agenda into reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which we are still battling at the global level, has driven home the message that we live in an interconnected and interdependent world. Moreover, in the last few months, we have seen record numbers of people affected by heat waves, devastating floods and some of the largest wildfires in recent history, confirming once again the unparalleled threat posed by our changing climate.

The UN is the heart of the international system. The fact that the world came together 76 years ago to create an organisation to “achieve international cooperation in solving international problems” is extraordinary in itself. But even more striking is that this organisation, despite its challenges and shortcomings, has endured. It has shown that the path to a better, more peaceful, and sustainable future is paved with cooperation, not zero-sum competition.

However, the world’s international organisations were built primarily to resolve inter-state challenges, not problems that transcend borders, such as financial crises, pandemics, terrorism, crime networks, threats to our oceans or climate change. We therefore must modernise our multilateral institutions, making them fit for purpose and better equipped to deal with the global and cross-generational challenges we face. 

Having observed the stark differences between the world of the UN’s founding generation and the world of today, we decided last year to revive the debate about reforming the UN Security Council, to continue the work of revitalising the general assembly and to work on strengthening the economic and social council. In line with the joint statement that we signed on November 10, 2020, in Madrid, we see three areas of action that should be emphasised in order to advance our common goal of reinforcing multilateralism.

First, we need a renewed commitment to international cooperation. Multilateral organisations must be furnished with the means and the mandate to make a difference on the ground. Cooperation among the UN, regional organisations, and international financial institutions must improve at both the policy and the operational level. The multilateral system needs to be more open and inclusive to give young people, civil society, the private sector, academia, and others a spot at the table.

We are already putting this into practice. On the margins of this year’s general assembly, we have organised the virtual event Delivering the UN Common Agenda: Action to Achieve Equality and Inclusion in collaboration with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies initiative. We intend to ensure that all voices are heard. 

Second, we must act on the secretary general’s agenda of bold steps to revive and strengthen our capacity to tackle poverty and inequality; ensure inclusion, equal participation and justice; address the climate crisis and accelerating biodiversity loss; and equip ourselves for future threats of pandemics.

We have learned from the Covid-19 crisis that we need to strengthen our collective ability to anticipate, prevent and manage complex risks such as disease outbreaks, new wars, massive cyberattacks, environmental disasters or other unforeseen events. We therefore welcome the secretary general’s suggestions for how to strengthen global foresight and risk-management capacity, including the proposal for a new global emergency platform.

Lastly, we welcome the proposal for a Summit of the Future in 2023, and we should use that opportunity to step up our efforts to strengthen international cooperation. In today’s world, with so many issues reverberating across borders and generations, we must seize this moment to create a more agile, effective and accountable multilateral system that delivers for all citizens and enables us to tackle the global challenges we face.

We want to be at the forefront of this endeavour. Together, we can and must reinvigorate rules-based multilateralism, with a stronger and more inclusive UN at its core. This is the great political task of our times. — © Project Syndicate

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Carlos Alvarado Quesada
Carlos Alvarado Quesada is president of Costa Rica.
Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern is prime minister of New Zealand.
Stefan Löfven
Stefan Löfven is prime minister of Sweden.
Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramaphosa
Cyril Ramahosa is the president of South Africa.
President Macky Sall.
Macky Sall
Macky Sall is the president of Senegal.
Pedro Sánchez
Pedro Sánchez is prime minister of Spain.

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