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COVID-19: Multilateralism Matters

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 to “deal not with the rules of warfare but with practical proposals for international cooperation.” We still hold this vision today. We also see the challenges facing the multilateral system that has been created since then.

Image credit: WILPF
Ray Acheson
24 April 2020

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:

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.

Multilateral hope

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.

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Ray Acheson Speaking for Reaching Critical Will at a conference

Ray Acheson

Ray Acheson is the Director of WILPF’s Disarmament Programme, which provides analysis, research, and advocacy across a range of disarmament issues from an antimilitarist feminist perspective. Acheson represents WILPF on the steering committees of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, and the International Network on Explosive Weapons.

Melissa Torres

VICE-PRESIDENT

Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani

VICE-PRESIDENT

Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo

PRESIDENT

Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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Demilitarisation

WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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