Fractures in the multilateralism order
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Fractures in the multilateralism order

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the opening of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, in New York City on Sept 18. Reuters
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during the opening of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Summit 2023, in New York City on Sept 18. Reuters

The recent global summit on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), coupled with the special focus on climate change, in New York was a timely barometer of the global temperature of international relations. "Fracture" was the incisive term used at the top of the UN system to describe a state of affairs both potentially and actually ominous in its implications.

Underlying that predicament is the divergence between multi-polarities and multilateralism. The word "multi-polarities" denotes the split between the various superpowers which enjoy the "veto" prerogative in the UN Security Council, together with their friends.

By contrast, multilateralism implies a rules-based international system where there is a platform for convergence between many countries, especially under the UN, enhanced by an approach based on cooperation and shared responsibility. The SDGs are living proof of this orientation, while the SDG targets themselves (between 2015-2030) are unlikely to be fulfilled unless there is a vigorous, shared commitment to do so.

The clearest evidence of the so-called fracture is the ongoing war in Ukraine which is now a regular dilemma in global negotiations. Nearby, there are persistent political traumas in several countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Myanmar, particularly in regard to the quest for peace and democracy. These are compounded by inequity and inequality with inter-sectional dimensions, including constraints on human rights and impediments concerning poverty, displacement and gender.

Yet the hope must be to propel more multilateralism of a creative and innovative kind. Two areas exemplify this orientation. First, the past year has witnessed the finalisation of a new treaty to protect the world's oceans.

This agreement is a key development from the older Law of the Sea Convention, with the innovative introduction of special protection zones for the high seas. These would cover areas beyond the traditional jurisdiction of states in the form of the coastal territorial sea and the adjacent exclusive economic zones for exploiting marine based resources.

The new "oceans' treaty" is much more favourable towards multilateral cooperation and views the oceans as areas for international stewardship. This is coupled with oversight from the global community, with due diligence provisions for those undertaking activities in such areas, especially the business sector, to take precautions against negative environmental impact and depletion of oceanic resources.

Second, there is the ongoing Conference of (States) Parties (COP) accompanying the Paris Accord on Climate Change which is the offspring of the older UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The next chapter -- COP 28 -- is due this year in Dubai. The New York setting provided a welcome push to make more transparent the situation of countries and to recognise more openly the record of those which have been taking real action rather than those more prone to talk.

COPs have not only set their sight on capping the rise of global temperature hopefully to not more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in the next phase but the most recent COP resulted also in agreement to address loss and damage; this will enable more financial and other support for developing countries which have suffered from the excesses of other countries in regard to carbon and other emissions harming the planet.

The various extreme natural disasters, such as wild fires, drought and flooding, exemplified by the recent catastrophic floods in Libya, are a critical reminder of the need for immediate, effective multilateral cooperation based on a precautionary approach to prepare for and to tackle cataclysmic happenings which may have transboundary implications.

Revamping the UN to make it more attuned to the times in the spirit of multilateralism is also essential, although replete with much bureaucratic baggage and political power-play.

The suggestion to reform the Bretton Woods institutions, especially the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, is nothing new and needs the global will to do so.

The current advocacy is for the former to release the unused tens-of-billions of dollars from its "special drawing rights" (SDR) to help developing countries; these SDR are managed by the institution derived from contributions from (primarily developed) States, as a kind of insurance pool for them to draw upon in times of economic need.

Yet this does not reply adequately to the more radical recommendation to streamline both institutions, to make them more grounded in terms of their accessibility and relevancy to local needs, and potentially to merge them altogether to save cost.

On another front, it is worth revisiting the now defunct Trusteeship Council which was one of the original major organs of the UN with the task to help with the post-World War II decolonisation process.

There is room for reviving this council to undertake one or more of these four innovative tasks. First, it could be a permanent forum to address environmental issues, including global warming and climate change. This is all the more opportune since the current advocacy is to envision an international stewardship, as a form of modern trusteeship of and for the planet.

Second, it can become an integrated portal for civil society to have a voice. Non-governmental actors are entitled to view themselves as trustees of global development and claim their right to participate in the UN systematically by means of a permanent platform, potentially through a revamped Trusteeship Council.

Third, the Trusteeship Council could also be adjusted to be a chamber for the parliamentarians of the world to be more involved in the UN system. This would help to rectify the current imbalance whereby most of the key seats in the major organs of the UN are filled by members of the executive branch from various countries rather than parliamentarians and other pillars from the national level.

Fourth, that entity could be revitalised to house a systematic forum for youth worldwide. This would complement the presence of the now-appointed UN youth envoy to help level the international playing field to ensure more access and inputs by young people to the international political and environmental architecture. Multilaterally, this would give substantive content to the now rather fashionable "inter-generational" approach and eschew the superficiality of "intergen-washing".

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at Chulalongkorn University. He has helped the UN as UN Special Rapporteur, UN Independent Expert and a member of UN Commissions of Inquiry on Human Rights.

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