Reshaping Multilateralism in Times of Crises
By Jens Martens
The world is in permanent crisis mode. In addition to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, the war in Ukraine and other violent conflicts, a worldwide cost of living crisis and an intensified debt crisis in more and more countries of the global South are affecting large parts of humanity.
Scientists are now even warning of the risk of a global polycrisis, “a single, macro-crisis of interconnected, runaway failures of Earth’s vital natural and social systems that irreversibly degrades humanity’s prospects”.
Human rights, and especially women’s rights, are under attack in many countries. Nationalism, sometimes coupled with increasing authoritarianism, has been on the rise worldwide. Rich countries of the global North continue to practice inhumane migration policies toward refugees.
At the same time, they pursue self-serving and short-sighted “my country first” policies, whether in hoarding vaccines and subsidizing their domestic pharmaceutical industries, or in the race for global natural gas reserves. This has undermined multilateral solutions and lead to a growing atmosphere of mistrust between countries.
“Trust is in short supply”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council in August 2022. Consequently, Member States defined one of the main purposes of the Summit of the Future in September 2024 to be “restoring trust among Member States”.
António Guterres had proposed to hold such a Summit of the Future, which he described as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvigorate global action, recommit to fundamental principles, and further develop the frameworks of multilateralism so they are fit for the future”.
The Summit offers an opportunity, at least in theory, to respond to the current crises with far-reaching political agreements and institutional reforms. However, this presupposes that the governments do not limit themselves to symbolic action and voluntary commitments but take binding decisions – also and above all on the provision of (financial) resources for their implementation.
In this context, the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) remains absolutely valid. Without such decisions, it will hardly be possible to regain trust between countries.
The G77 emphasized in a statement on 20 April 2023, “since the Summit of the Future is meant to turbo-charge the SDGs, it must address comprehensively the issue of Means of Implementation for the 2030 Agenda, which includes, but is not limited to, financing, technology transfer and capacity building.”
Of course, it would be naive to believe that the risk of a global polycrisis could be overcome with a single summit meeting. But the series of upcoming global summits, from the SDG Summit 2023 and the Summit of the Future 2024 to the 4th Financing for Development Conference and the second World Social Summit 2025, can certainly contribute to shaping the political discourse on the question of which structural changes are necessary to respond to the global crises and to foster multilateral cooperation based on solidarity.
Our new report Spotlight on Global Multilateralism aims to contribute to this process. It offers critical analyses and presents recommendations for strengthening democratic multilateral structures and policies.
The report covers a broad range of issue areas, from peace and common security, reforms of the global financial architecture, calls for a New Social Contract and inclusive digital future, to the rights of future generations, and the transformation of education systems.
The report also identifies some of the built-in deficiencies and weaknesses of current multilateral structures and approaches. This applies, inter alia, to concepts of corporate-influenced multistakeholderism, for instance in the area of digital cooperation.
On the other hand, the report explores alternatives to purely intergovernmental multilateralism, such as the increased role of local and regional governments and their workers and trade unions at the international level.
Seventy-five years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a key challenge is to create mechanisms to ensure that human rights – as well as the rights of future generations and the rights of nature – are no longer subordinated to the vested interests of powerful economic elites in multilateral decision-making.
Timid steps and the constant repetition of the agreed language of the past will not be enough. More fundamental and systemic changes in policies, governance and mindsets are necessary to regain trust and to foster multilateral cooperation based on solidarity and international law.
Jens Martens is Executive Director of Global Policy Forum Europe
This post first appeared on IPS News.