#UN75: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic showed that multilateral institutions are essential’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to the UN advocacy lead of an international civil society organisation (CSO), who responded on condition of anonymity, about the opportunities and challenges faced by CSOs engaging with various UN bodies.

UN photo

In which ways do you think the UN has made a positive difference?

The UN has made many positive differences over its 75 years, and it’s making a difference now. From my perspective, a significant recent reaffirmation of the UN’s importance, which is a kind of inverse reflection of recent failures or shortcomings, is that the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has quickly responded to the human security aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of my longstanding critiques of the UN has been its lack of public leadership at the top. It’s been the approach of the current UNSG, who’s chosen backdoor diplomacy over outspoken advocacy. I won’t deny he’s in a difficult situation, but nonetheless he hasn't been forthright enough in holding major states to account for human rights violations.

I think the pandemic changed things in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. The UNSG finally did what he should have been doing as a general rule, which is to say that this is not about politics or having to tiptoe around the sensitivities of certain member states – this is about telling the world that the only way we will overcome this crisis is by coming together, and that this requires an immediate suspension of hostilities globally. That is aspirational and idealistic, but it’s also technically correct. 

Also the World Health Organization (WHO), despite obvious challenges, essentially showed what it’s there for and its relevance to the general public. Of course the UN Security Council (UNSC) let the UNSG down as a political body, but still the pandemic showed that UN agencies and multilateral institutions more generally are essential and that we need them, both in the context of a public health crisis and to organise a global response to any global crisis.

The obvious long-term success of the UN has been to build multilateralism and establish an international rules-based framework for human rights, sustainable development and the protection of civilians. The framework is there, and the challenge is its implementation. Not only are we currently not seeing implementation, but we are also seeing a steady erosion of these international norms and standards, which has taken place over the past few years. China and Russia are becoming more active in conflicts around the world, either directly or indirectly, and have become emboldened in eviscerating the UN or remoulding institutions to serve their visions, while those states that would traditionally protect and even champion these norms are either less willing or less empowered to do so. The UN made much progress over six or seven decades in building this framework, but now it’s under severe stress.

How have you engaged with the UN, and what challenges have you encountered?

Our work focuses on protecting civilians in armed conflicts, so our UN engagement is almost entirely in relation to the UNSC, and UN agencies with a focus on security and peacebuilding. We tend to engage with the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly (UNGA), mostly when we identify that the UNSC is completely paralysed, which unfortunately is happening increasingly often. But in previous roles I have worked across a wide range of UN agencies, including the UNHRC, the UNGA and other agencies that work on climate change and education, so I’m aware of the comparative opportunities available for civil society engagement.

The means of civil society engagement with the UNSC are much more informal than those with the UNHRC. And I think there are quite a few advantages to not having formal processes for civil society engagement, because the absence of a formal process can result in more effective engagement. At the UNHRC, there is an agenda item and 500 CSOs queue up to give a two-minute statement, which no policy-maker listens to, and you end up with this process of artificial participation that is not very productive. With the UNSC, many CSOs don’t see where the opportunities lie; they think it’s not for them. This means there are fewer CSOs looking for an entry point, so it’s a less crowded field.

Working at the UNSC requires you to build direct relationships with the states that are on the UNSC. You don’t maintain a high public profile. You build relations with the missions, and through that process you often end up having more direct and meaningful influence. So the absence of a formal process can often result in more effective CSO engagement. True, it may also be more difficult, although it varies depending on the composition of the UNSC when it comes to the elected members. Some of them don’t have a long history of engagement with civil society, are not very interested in listening, or have very little capacity. But there’s always some states that prioritise civil society engagement and recognise that the only way the UNSC has legitimacy is by reflecting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. I would emphasise that one of the successes of the UNSC in the past 20 years has been to open up space for civil society briefers, particularly on women, peace and security issues. Fewer speakers means they tend to have more weight: you get the 15 UNSC members to listen to this one person whose time is unlimited and who is very focused on the protection of civilians or other issues. In terms of public participation, that is a sign of progress.

Of course, there’s also the fact that we have to engage with the five permanent UNSC members whether we like it or not, because they are there to stay and they have the veto. And in that respect the situation is currently very bad. From our perspective, the current US administration is not on the right side of things and is not consistently championing accountability for war crimes. France and the UK are inconsistent across countries, and China and Russia are at least consistent in their positions, but for all the wrong reasons. China is opening up to international engagement with civil society, which I think is part of a wider strategy. Five or six years ago, China wouldn’t think it needed to engage with civil society and appeared not to recognise the legitimacy of international human rights CSOs, but now its ambassadors have started agreeing to meet with civil society groups collectively. It may be a public relations exercise, or China may have gained enough confidence to confront international CSOs directly. It’s a clear shift in its foreign policy. Russia, to its credit, has long done the same, and sees value in engagement to some extent, although the dynamic can be a difficult, adversarial one.

How have you managed these challenges?

Collective advocacy often works best with the UNSC. When civil society can form quick coalitions of humanitarian organisations, human rights organisations, local partners, faith leaders and youth representatives and present a few key asks that are consistent across these groups, it builds credibility with UNSC members and increases the chances that it will act promptly. There are about 30 CSOs that work consistently on the UNSC. They have different priorities and a variety of messages, so they certainly engage individually as well. But the message is more powerful when it’s expressed collectively. For instance, if something goes wrong in Yemen and the UK is the penholder it is way more powerful when 12 organisations engage the UK on the same points collectively than the 12 organisations complaining individually. 

What things are currently not working and would need to change?

The one thing that needs to be reformed fundamentally, which is the very core of the UN and has been a problem since day one, is the veto. The UNSC is clearly not fit for purpose in this regard; its composition and balance of power doesn’t reflect the world we now live in. There is no reason why France or the UK should have a veto – or any state for that matter. The inherent problem of the UN is that it was built as part of an agreement amongst the winning powers after the Second World War that they would hold the reins of power, and there is no way to dismantle that without their collective agreement. That is not going to happen with China, Russia, the USA or even the UK. France, to its credit, is at least openly supportive of voluntary processes to check misuse of the veto.

I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and I wouldn’t if I were speaking about other things, such as progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But the UNSC is power politics in its purest form and no amount of citizen participation will change it. The only way to circumvent the veto would be to dismantle the UN and start from scratch – unless somehow we found ourselves in a parallel world in which these five countries were led by enlightened leaders who at the same time realised they should give up that power for the sake of humanity. But that couldn’t be farther from our current reality, when the veto power is actually being misused, by China, Russia and the USA, as a weapon to discredit the UN.

Apart from this unsurmountable problem, other things have been changing for good. For instance, we are now seeing climate change and security on the UNSC agenda. While China, Russia and the USA seek to block use of the very words ‘climate change’, Germany, Niger and a number of other states went on to create an informal working group on climate change, although to place the issue on the UNSC agenda, they agreed to call it ‘environmental degradation’ instead. This obviously should have happened decades ago, but at least it’s happening now and it’s progress.

What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change so we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes?

During the pandemic, civil society supported and coordinated engagement towards an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire. The initial statement by the UNSG was highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic, but he was absolutely right both in terms of what should happen in the world and in taking that leadership and not consulting first with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, or anybody else. It was courageous and correct. It momentarily reinvigorated the role of the UNSG and the UN as a whole.

While the UN institutional response from the top down was good, the UNSC was an absolute failure. China and the USA and engaged in hostile and juvenile behaviour at a time when the world’s future rested on the UN being effective.

On the other hand, the UNGA responded reasonably well, taking the initiative despite not being able to meet physically. In early April it passed a resolution calling for international cooperation and multilateralism in the fight against COVID-19. Mexico was also very strategic in pushing a resolution on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19, adopted by consensus in late April. In view of the challenges that the UNGA experienced, however, I think one procedural lesson learned was the need for the UN be better prepared to work virtually in the event of another crisis.

An assessment of the performance of other multilateral institutions like the WHO lies outside my area of expertise, but we all read about the allegations that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive with China early on. This is currently under independent review, which suggests as least that basic checks and balances are in place.

 

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