Multilateralism offers hope for a sea-change after COVID-19

Multilateralism offers hope for a sea-change after COVID-19
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COVID-19 knows no borders and pays no heed to national sovereignty. 

The pandemic has swept through every part of the world since the beginning of 2020, leaving a devastating cost; first and foremost in human lives, but also in terms of economic growth, political momentum and social and racial inequality.

The global wave of anti-racism protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the United States also illustrates how events in one country resonate far beyond its frontiers, especially given the historical legacies of colonialism and oppression that still influence contemporary geopolitics. 

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In these times of grief, anger and despair, it is critical that those of us who believe in the values of justice, human rights and the rule of law continue to make the case for global cooperation and solidarity. 

The best way to do this is to defend and strengthen the multilateral system that has been painstakingly built up over the past 75 years. This is why The Elders, the group of former leaders founded by Nelson Mandela of which I have the honor to chair, has issued a new report on the future of multilateralism.

We make five calls on global leaders: recommit to the values of the UN Charter; enable the UN to fulfill its mandate to solve collective problems; urgently strengthen global health systems; increase the ambition and pace of climate action; and live up to commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Yet the virus has struck at a time when multilateralism was already subject to a sustained and targeted assault. This has made it harder for leaders and institutions to respond effectively and save lives.

In recent years, the United States — the world’s leading superpower and the country hitherto regarded as a key guarantor of this global rules-based system — has deliberately weakened it across several fronts: from climate change and nuclear non-proliferation to respect for human rights, free trade and health security

This narrow nationalism betrays the interests of the people it purports to represent. COVID-19 will not be overcome unless states work together, pooling resources and expertise to strengthen health systems, support the vital work of the WHO and encourage a spirit of solidarity. 

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The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities and shown the intersectionality between poverty, gender, race, marginalization and disability. At the same time, many countries whose governments are led by women have been noted to manage the virus better, and the jobs which have been revealed to be essential during the pandemic — from health and social care to low-paid services — are predominantly held by women

It will be essential as we emerge from the crisis and “build back better,” that the recovery is aligned to the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Climate Agreement, and that the commitment to gender equality and parity of decision-making is at its core.

An effective, rules-based multilateral system is the world’s insurance policy against existential threats from pandemics to climate change and nuclear weapons, and we now know the awful cost of failing to provide comprehensive cover.

The network of international covenants and institutions agreed and constructed since the end of the Second World War, with the United Nations at its core, is far from perfect. But it has nevertheless decisively supported the pursuit of peace, security and the protection of human rights, as well as economic and social improvements, around the globe, for over seven decades. 

Effective multilateralism is in the national interest of all countries, regardless of size or strength. Cooperating by means of internationally-agreed mechanisms is less costly and more reliable than using unilateral force.

Actions that weaken multilateralism are damaging in themselves and embolden other leaders with isolationist or nationalistic leanings. We have already seen instances of leaders using the COVID-19 crisis to weaken democratic safeguards and human rights, in countries as diverse as Hungary, Israel and The Philippines

The hard months and years ahead will require determined and principled leadership. Multilateralism is not an option: it is the only path that can deliver a green, sustainable and equitable recovery. 

Today’s crisis reveals fundamental truths about what it is to be human, to live and to die, and to share our lives with others. The great Irish poet Seamus Heaney captured these truths in his reworking of Sophocles’ Greek myths, and I believe this spirit can guide us through our contemporary troubles and lead us to a brighter, fairer future:

“So hope for a great sea-change

On the far side of revenge.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here.”


Mary Robinson is a former president of Ireland (1990-97) and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997-2002). She is chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Nelson Mandela who work for peace, justice and human rights. Follow the organization on Twitter @TheElders.