Reinvigorating multilateralism has been a growing concern of the United Nations (UN) for many years. The maintenance of international peace and enhancing the global rules-based order are core responsibilities under the UN Charter. A major problem is that many Member States are no longer, if they ever fully were, practicing what they say they believe. Multilateral cooperation through the UN institutions has been eroded.
This comes at a time when the world is confronted by a complex of issues whose successful management is fundamentally dependent on strengthened international solidarity and cooperation. Pandemics, epidemics, global warming, increasing numbers of wars, historically high refugee, and displacement numbers, widening wealth disparities, loss of biodiversity, degraded oceans, and an increasingly poorly regulated and threatening cyberspace are among them.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has made it the mission of his second term in office to spearhead efforts to revitalise multilateral cooperation. These efforts must confront an increasingly complex and rapidly changing international system. Populism in the ascendancy in many countries has dampened enthusiasm for international cooperation. In such circumstances the big financial institutions, the business conglomerates and the energy companies, even powerful individuals, have a voice which often distorts policy.
Do these revolutions make the UN weak and ineffective? The Member States think not. During the 75th anniversary of the UN on 28 September 2020 the Member States unanimously agreed in the General Assembly to ask Guterres to develop recommendations to advance the common agenda and respond to current and future challenges. He undertook widespread consultations resulting in sweeping proposals reflecting a significant body of international thinking framed in uncharacteristically direct language.
Mainly eschewing the traditional qualifications, the options and suggestions are presented as necessary pathways, rather than the more usual menu of discretionary choices which facilitate opt-out by States. No other global institution has this credibility because no other has the legitimacy from a membership of all national governments. No other organisation can speak with as great authority as the UN General Assembly. When Member States agree they have unique global political weight.
Guterres’ report, Our Common Agenda, focuses on multilateralism spearheaded through the UN. Emphasis is placed on the UN at the centre of proposed initiatives with its universal convening power that gives all 193 Member States an equal voice – increasingly joined by representatives from the private sector, civil society, and academia – along with its unique role in safeguarding global values, ethics and norms, its global presence, and its technical expertise.
It builds on the September 2020 75th anniversary Declaration by which the General Assembly recognised the ‘achievements of the UN’ but also it’s ‘moments of disappointment’ and committed to an agenda of reinvigorated multilateralism, with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development as the frame.
The Agenda outlines a strikingly imaginative, ambitious strategy for how these objectives might be pursued to the end of ‘a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system,’ that would include new, crisis-ready ‘emergency platforms,’ more robust approaches to global issues, and a greater emphasis on youth and their role in the future.
The Agenda persuasively argues that:
States have at their disposal an organisation whose very purpose is to solve international problems through cooperation. The United Nations presence is global, its membership is universal, and its activities span the breadth of human need. Its fundamental values are … found in every culture and religion around the world: peace, justice, human dignity, equity, tolerance and of course, solidarity (p18).
These values alone inspire a serious examination of the policies proposed. How might they be received in the wider Australian community and by Governments? Several of the segments will inevitably raise eyebrows and attract controversy.
Proposals include a new agenda for peace, multi-stakeholder dialogues on outer space and a Global Digital Compact. These include global economic governance, taxation, climate change, and biodiversity.
Turning to the ‘infodemic’ plaguing our world, the Agenda has suggestions to end the ‘war on science,’ lending support ‘for a global code of conduct that promotes integrity in public information.’
Suggestions likely to garner widespread support include gender parity initiatives, more inclusive consultations to harness the voice of youth, a Futures Lab, and a Declaration on Future Generations. Questions might attach to the idea of a United Nations Special Envoy to ensure that policy and budget decisions by States factor in their impact on future generations.
The rights of peoples more broadly and the role of international law to secure them attract a range of recommendations, from the very concrete to the more aspirational. One of interest is the proposal for multi-stakeholder effort to reduce violence world-wide in all its forms, including violence from criminal groups and interpersonal violence in the home.
There are several recommendations that go to the heart of how the UN functions. Working towards a ‘UN 2.0’ able to offer ‘’system-wide solutions to 21st century challenges’, the Report envisages an institution more inclusive, responsive, and consultative and ‘a reliable guardian for our future’.
The necessity for strengthening global cooperation to address the existential crises facing humanity is increasingly clear. Our Common Agenda offers a wide ranging, integrated and compelling strategy of next major steps.
It is vital that they be implemented by the Albanese Labor Government. Strengthening the UN is both a way to reduce conflict and to effectively tackle global problems. The UN has been so disregarded by the conservative governments during the last decade that establishing a committee of public servants and experts to prepare a White Paper on Australia’s relations with the UN would be justified.
Copies of the whole strategy Our Common Agenda are readily available by Googling the title.
First published in Pursuit, University of Melbourne
John Langmore AM is a Professorial Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne to which he was appointed after seven years as a Divisional Director in the UN Secretariat. He was previously a Member of the Australian House of Representatives for 12 years. He began his career in public planning and university lecturing in Papua New Guinea. He was a member of the founding committee of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) which later won the Nobel Peace Prize; and has written, edited or co-edited seven books, 75 journal articles and book chapters. He received an AM ‘for significant service to the Parliament of Australia, to international relations and governance, and to education’.
Erika Feller AO has had a 40-year career in international law, humanitarian protection and diplomacy. She served in UNHCR for 26 years, the last seven as one of the two Assistant High Commissioners she exercised oversight for the Organisation’s global protection responsibilities. UNHCR was preceded by 14 years and three international diplomatic postings with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs. She is a widely acknowledged and published authority on refugee matters. She is currently a Professorial Fellow with the University of Melbourne where she participated in creation of the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness. In 2021 she received an AO ‘for distinguished service to the international community, to the recognition and protection of human rights, and to refugee law’.