By Ray Acheson
Today is the little celebrated International Day for Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace. Commitment to the ideal of multilateralism goes back to the origins of WILPF in 1915, when our founders urged the creation of an organisation for the “society of nations” to “deal not with the rules of warfare but with practical proposals for international cooperation.” The women who gathered in the midst of the First World War had a vision of permanent peace constituted through cooperation, equity, justice, and nonviolence.
We still hold this vision today. We also see the challenges facing the multilateral system that has been created since then. And in these challenges, we see opportunities for restructuring the way the world operates. It has, until now, been run by a “might-makes-right” mentality, privileging those with the biggest bombs who can act as the biggest bullies. Our multilateral world order has been deliberately constructed on the principles of militarised security and hence to encourage investments in weapons and war instead of the well-being of people and planet. This is a truism tragically exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We must change this. And, as global responses to the pandemic have shown, we can change this.
Multilateralism is about alliances and cooperation in the pursuit of a common goal. The actions not just of governments, but also of people and organisations, are an essential part of the multilateral landscape—especially now when some governments and established structures are not only failing to help people survive, but have created the systems that are leading to increased suffering during this time.
UN Security Council on lockdown
Months into the COVID-19 crisis, the UN Security Council (UNSC) remains in its own lockdown. The US and Russian delegations have been actively blocking the adoption of a resolution that would support the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire during the pandemic. They are reportedly concerned that it would impact their self-described “counterterrorism” military operations around the world.
At least 70 countries (including two UNSC permanent members), several non-state armed groups, hundreds of non-governmental organisations, and individuals around the world have supported the call for a ceasefire. Reportedly the ceasefire has taken hold in 11 countries, though fighting continues in many other conflict zones. WILPF has been also advocating for the cessation of the production and sale of weapons, arguing that we cannot put out the fires while fueling them. Based on this call, the UK-based group SCRAP Weapons has initiated a petition for a global weapons freeze during the pandemic.
But rather than embrace such a plan in the interests of providing necessary resources for medical equipment and other health care and economic relief for the citizens of their own countries, the UN Security Council members are now apparently considering a watered-down resolution in relation to the ceasefire. The revised draft reportedly does not endorse the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire but instead promotes “limited ceasefires” in certain conflict zones and will include an exemption for states to continue violence against those they deem “terrorists”. Nowhere in the considerations is an echo of the Secretary-General’s call to address domestic violence as the shadow pandemic exacerbating femicide. Whose peace, whose security, do they consider important?
Meanwhile, discussions on another UNSC resolution that would address the broader impact of the pandemic on international security are reportedly still languishing. Earlier reports indicated these had been stalemated by the US government’s instance that the resolution refer to the “Chinese virus”; now it is also objecting to references to the World Health Organisation. These discussions began after the UNSC was “missing in action” for several weeks after the outbreak began; since then has held a few closed meetings and informal consultations.
While the world burns
While the UNSC flounders under the weight of its most militarised members’ commitment to committing violence regardless of what else is happening in the world, the world is under grave strain on multiple fronts. Not only are the death tolls from COVID-19 mounting while many governments struggle to provide basic protective equipment to health care workers or medical devices like ventilators to patients, but other global crises are converging as well.
Conflict is continuing around the world. Refugees are still fleeing the destruction of their towns and cities from bombs, or their land from climate change. Famine is on the way, with at least 265 million people being pushed to the brink of starvation. 1.5 billion children are out of school, interrupting education and in many cases nutrition, while the threat of polio, measles, and other childhood diseases are on the rise because of disruptions to vaccination programmes.
Gender-based violence is also on the rise. Countries around the world are reporting increased levels of domestic violence, femicide, and demands for emergency shelter.
These are all threats to international peace and security: coronavirus, conflict, displacement, detention, disease, domestic violence, famine, rampant unemployment, increasing rates of homelessness and poverty—all of these make our world less secure, more vulnerable to the myths of militarism, to xenophobia, hate, and violence. To build a world of peace and security we need equity, justice, and solidarity. We need international cooperation and multilateral action.
Multilateral actions for survival
Not only has it become patently obvious that the UN Security Council is not up to the task of dealing with these crises, but that it is actually exacerbating them, as described above and elsewhere.
But the failure of the UNSC does not mean a death to multilateralism or the multilateral system. On the contrary, this is the time for the rest of the UN system, international organisations, and activists around the world to step up and take charge.
Efforts are already underway:
- The UN General Assembly has adopted a resolution tabled by Mexico and co-sponsored by 179 states that calls for “international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19.”
- The government of Ireland is continuing to lead on a political process against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, which will help support any ceasefires.
- The UN World Food Programme has asked for the dispersal of $2 billion aid already pledged (and for countries to pledge more) to prevent the impending famine.
- UN Women, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, the UN Population Fund, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, and the UN General Assembly’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee have made recommendations for governments and others to prevent and respond to gender-based violence during the pandemic and to ensure responses are gender-inclusive.
- UNICEF is working to provide information and advice to families, as well as to continue vaccinations and other programmes in the face of the coronavirus.
- The UN Office for Disarmament Affairs is also continuing its work to advance the UN Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament and other mandates.
These are but a few examples of how UN agencies and member states are engaging in multilateral action during the pandemic to promote human security and well-being. Around the world, activists are also upholding multilateralism in their efforts to prevent human suffering during this crisis and beyond, in regards to encouraging and mapping ceasefires; demanding a freeze to the use, production, and sale of weapons; preventing and responding to gender-based violence and domestic violence; acting in solidarity to mitigate against the economic, physical, and psychological fallout; and championing the rights of those displaced, detained, and made destitute by this crisis and the ones leading up to it.
These are but a few examples. There are countless more, addressing the myriad of challenges that our world is currently facing. It is within these actions that hope lies. This is why multilateralism matters.
Former UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld said in 1954 that the “United Nations was not created in order to bring us to heaven, but in order to save us from hell.” If left to the UN Security Council alone, we would already be in hell. But through true cooperation, justice, and peace, the rest of us—UN agencies, member states, international organisations, non-governmental groups, and activists—have the hope of not only surviving this crisis and all of its “shadow pandemics,” but also of reconstructing a better world emerging from the ashes.
Thanks to Madeleine Rees for inputs to this article.