World leaders gathered virtually yesterday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, reaffirming a commitment to international cooperation at a time when multilateralism is facing some of its biggest challenges since the organisation was formed.
With Covid-19 limiting international travel, one representative from each of the 193 member states met at the UN General Assembly on Monday, with at least 160 heads of state joining via video call to commemorate the anniversary.
Amidst the shadow of the pandemic and rising tensions between powerful nations, the overarching mantra was summarised in the joint statement: “Multilateralism is not an option: it is a necessity”.
What was discussed? Addressing the largely empty General Assembly hall in New York, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres spoke of the “immense suffering” the organisation was born out of following the Second World War, and referenced recent successes such as the support for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
But he also noted the significant challenges facing the UN today such as rising poverty, climate catastrophe and gender inequality, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has “laid bare the world’s fragilities”. In the face of these threats, the secretary-general called for greater international cooperation:
"Today we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions," Guterres said.
“No one wants a world government – but we must work together to improve world governance. In an interconnected world, we need a networked multilateralism, in which the United Nations family, international financial institutions, regional organizations, trading blocs and others work together more closely and more effectively.”
In a separate address, European Council President Charles Michel urged the international community to imagine what the future will look like if they do not rise to meet the current challenges, saying “intelligence and empathy” between nations can be a force of positive change.
"It is with solemnity that today I renew the vow of multilateralism on behalf of the European Union...Our speeches will not be enough."
A vow to “reinvigorate multilateralism”. Calls to reaffirm multilateralism were reiterated by heads of state in pre-recorded addresses.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel said the interests of individual member states had “too often” forced the United Nations to lag behind its ideals.
“Those who believe that they can get along better alone are mistaken. Our wellbeing is something that we share – our suffering too. We are one world,” she told the General Assembly.
“Our shared home is in disarray. Our foundations are crumbling,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “Our international system is held hostage by rivalries. It is being weakened by its inability to prosecute individuals responsible for these abuses."
Some of these “rivalries” were evident during the event. In his address, Russian Foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the “increasing discord” between nations was created by countries involving themselves in the affairs of other states and imposing sanctions - an apparent swipe at the US President Donald Trump.
President Trump had been expected to address the event, but was instead replaced by the US acting deputy representative to the UN Cherith Norman Chalet, who raised “concerns” about the organisation.
“The United Nations has for too long been resistant to meaningful reform, too often lacking in transparency, and too vulnerable to the agenda of autocratic regimes and dictatorships,” she said.
Back in July, the U.S withdrew from the WHO in the midst of the pandemic after accusing the organisation to be a puppet of China.
One million voices. To mark the 75th anniversary, the UN also released the results of its global consultation, which asked millions of people through surveys and conversations about their hopes and fears for the future. The responses provided insights into what the public wants and expects from the UN in the face of the challenges facing the world.
The UN published the five key findings of the consultation.
Better basic services. The immediate priority of most people was improved access to basic services including healthcare, water, sanitation, and education.
More international cooperation . 87 percent of respondents said international cooperation is vital to deal with global challenges such as Covid-19.
Climate action. The destruction of the natural world was an overwhelming concern.
More commitment. 74 percent said the UN is “essential” to tackle global challenges, but over half said they felt the organisation was “remote” from their lives.
Belief in a better future. Younger participants and people in developing countries tended to be more optimistic about the future than older people in developed countries.
Today marks the start of the week-long United Nations General Debate during which world leaders will address the assembly under the theme: "The Future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting Covid-19 through effective multilateral action". Speakers from countries including the US, China, Russia and Iran will open talks today.