Multilateralism in a fractured world
text size

Multilateralism in a fractured world


Members of the United Nations Security Council meet on the day of a vote on a Gaza resolution that demanded an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan as pretext to a permanent sustainable ceasefire, in New York on March 25. (Photo: Reuters)
Members of the United Nations Security Council meet on the day of a vote on a Gaza resolution that demanded an immediate ceasefire for the month of Ramadan as pretext to a permanent sustainable ceasefire, in New York on March 25. (Photo: Reuters)

Multilateralism lies at the heart of international relations as an enabler of states to converge in an ever-changing world. It is closely linked with the United Nations (UN), setting in motion a rules-based system, embracing international peace and security anchored on international law.

In today's world of adversity and precarity, it is mutating in a fractured world. The conflicts in Ukraine, Gaza, Myanmar, Syria and clashes in Africa, with a backdrop of divisions among the world's superpowers, heighten tensions, stultifying the space for confluence. Today's scenario might be described as various multi-polarities (or mini-polarities); the efficacy, legitimacy and credibility of the global order and related mechanisms are increasingly questioned.

Is there then some room for adaptation to offer a preferred way? Interestingly, in September there will be the Global Summit of the Future and a key outcome will be the Pact for the Future, coupled with the Declaration on Future Generations and the Global Digital Compact. It may offer a window to energise the notion of multilateralism through various windows.

Procedural multilateralism would mean more voice from developing countries in the voting and related processes in the operations of the UN. Substantive multilateralism would imply that international rules on such matters as climate change/global warming, human rights, peace/ security, democracy and sustainable development should be well adhered to and well implemented.

Institutional multilateralism would call for more streamlining of global financial institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization to be more efficient, accessible and cost-effective.

Stakeholder multilateralism should open the door to more participation by civil society in the UN system, which is still based excessively on bureaucrats and state representatives from the executive branch of government. Multi-pronged multilateralism would advocate not only cooperative programmes but also avenues to seek redress and remedies as part of remediation and reconciliation.

Multi-levelled multilateralism can certainly be bolstered by an alliance of middle-level world powers, drawn from various countries in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and down under. It can interlink well with regional organisations which commit to multilateralism, targeted to improving the UN's functioning and application of international law.

There are various pointers leading to the Summit of the Future. First and foremost, there is the issue of dysfunction facing the UN. At the pinnacle of the system, there is the UN Security Council with its five permanent members whose veto power at times stifles needed action of a multilateral nature. The call to reform this institution is longstanding, but there is no genuine political will yet for substantive reform.

However, the UN should not be seen as monolithic and at times, shared action is possible. The classic case is the decade-long war in Syria where the 15-member Security Council can agree sometimes on humanitarian access, without the veto being exercised by the Permanent Five. This is to allow humanitarian aid to affected civilians, even though there are blockages on other fronts.

Even if this is incremental, it is still important and deserves expansion. As a complement, the Pact for the Future aims to propose emergency platforms to bring together key actors expeditiously to address global crises, as well as access by youth groups.

On the other hand, the recent blockage in the SC refusing to renew the monitoring work of its Sanctions Committee vis a vis the nuclearisation of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is disappointing. Other avenues have to be explored. The task of monitoring the sanctions might be shifted to the UN General Assembly (GA), which is the most all-embracing of UN organs -- with over 190 member countries, to date.

On another front, the recent tripartite meeting between Japan, South Korea and China concerning the issue of the "North" as their Three Party Talks is welcome, even though a long while ago, there was another pressure gauge (now defunct) in the form of the Six Party Talks (US, Russia, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea). It can perhaps seek other partners, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), in a constructive "Three Party-Plus-A" or "3PPA" ("A" is for Asean) formula. Softer entry points to engage with the North -- such as on food security, medical assistance, and a return of UN agencies to that country, with other leverages to nurture needed changes in lieu of nuclearisation -- can be explored.

Intricately, under the UN charter, the GA has, at first glance, only persuasive power; its resolutions and declarations are not binding, thus having no enforcement power (beyond GA internal administration). Yet a more assertive role of the GA can be advocated and the Summit of the Future might reinforce this call.

For example, in recent decades, the GA has called for emergency sessions under its Uniting for Peace Resolution to leverage for multilateral action to address key crises where the SC is deficient or absent. The GA and the organ under its purview, the UN Human Rights Council, have set up investigative mechanisms to collect evidence for international crimes, such as crimes against humanity and war crimes in regard to Syria and Myanmar. This can be expanded, especially to access persons and groups affected by serious human rights violations in war and in peace.

The system needs to ensure that there is no protection gap, namely, gaps in protecting the environment, human security, sustainable development, human rights, and democracy. In the face of dwindling budget and overlapping mandate of various UN institutions, it should deal well with its "dissipation doldrum" by adjusting itself to "Act as One" rather than "Act as if One".

Since the UN does not have a single organ offering a permanent forum for members of civil society, the idea of a UN People's Forum needs traction. This can be complemented by various people's assemblies paralleling global gatherings such as those linked with the Conference of the Parties (COP) on environmental issues and this year's Summit of the Future. This would incentivise diversity and plurality in a spirit of universality.

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

Vitit Muntarbhorn

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Vitit Muntarbhorn is a Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Law, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He has helped the UN in a number of pro bono positions, including as the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography; the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea; and the first UN Independent Expert on Protection against Violence and Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity. He chaired the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and was a member of the UN COI on Syria. He is currently UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, under the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva (2021- ). He is the recipient of the 2004 UNESCO Human Rights Education Prize and was bestowed a Knighthood (KBE) in 2018. His latest book is “Challenges of International Law in the Asian Region”

Do you like the content of this article?