Written by Ionel Zamfir,
Seventy-five years after the 24 October 1945 ratification of the United Nations (UN) Charter, the UN remains at the heart of the multilateral system. However, multilateralism today faces some serious challenges. To take stock of the UN’s current role as well as to discuss the way forward and the EU’s role in the organisation, EPRS organised a discussion on 23 September 2020, gathering diverse viewpoints in a virtual event under the title ‘The United Nations at 75: What has the multilateral system achieved and where is it going?’
The event took place shortly after the 75th UN General Assembly Session opened in New York on 21 September, in an unusual setting marked by the coronavirus crisis, as vividly reported directly from New York by Alexandre Stutzmann, special adviser to the President of the UN General Assembly and former European Parliament official. This year, pre-recorded interventions replaced the usual live speeches given in New York by numerous Heads of State each year in September. A high-level event took place on 21 September to mark the UN 75th anniversary and a forward-looking political declaration was adopted.
Soraya Rodríguez Ramos (Renew, Spain), Member of the European Parliament and Rapporteur for the future EP report on EU priorities at the 75th UN General Assembly, opened the discussion, stressing the importance of multilateralism in today’s hostile environment. According to Rodríguez Ramos, the coronavirus crisis has shown that a unilateral response is not the way forward; global governance and international solidary and cooperation are more needed than ever before. It is necessary to revitalise multilateralism, with the UN at its core. We need to find common solutions to tackle the new challenges of today that include, first of all, climate change, but also biodiversity loss, as well as persistent problems that have become more acute because of coronavirus crisis: poverty and hunger, lack of drinking water, violence and discrimination against women and girls.
European Parliament Vice-President Fabio Massimo Castaldo (NI, Italy) highlighted that, in its 75 years of history, the UN has shaped the world for the better, but the growing challenges of today are different from those envisaged by UN founders. More international cooperation is needed to tackle climate change, migration, poverty, inequality, and cybersecurity threats. Castaldo urged the UN to go back to the people, considering that reports of multilateralism’s demise are greatly exaggerated. He also highlighted the EU’s role in the UN: The Union has been able to make a difference through diplomacy and mediation for example.
Alexandre Stutzmann gave a detailed picture of the UN actions to mark its anniversary, stressing the efforts to reach out to ordinary people and particularly to young persons. He talked about the specificity of this year’s UN General Assembly Session, with much needed direct diplomatic interaction severely curtailed by the crisis. He detailed the high-level event marking the UN anniversary, outlining the complexities of the intergovernmental drafting process that ushered in the political declaration adopted on that occasion.
Barbara Pesce-Monteiro, director of the UN/UN Development Programme office in Brussels, also talked about the UN public campaign organised on its 75th anniversary and its results, which will feed into potential reforms. Pesce‑Monteiro further stressed that the current health crisis, with growing inequality and a particularly hard impact on women, illustrates the need for global solidarity, as does the climate crisis. In response to this, she stressed the need to continue to implement the Sustainable Development Goals as the only effective approach to tackle today’s strongly interrelated challenges. In common with the other speakers, Pesce‑Monteiro also acknowledged that the UN has to change, and welcomed EU support for the organisation.
Professor Jan Wouters reaffirmed the need to reform the UN, particularly its Security Council, which is not prepared to deal with the challenges of the future – in the next 25 or even 75 years. He warned that the current outlook for such reforms does not look at all promising: real drivers of reform are weak, and the vested interests of the current permanent members are a serious obstacle. He described the current crisis as the first global crisis without global leadership (a ‘G0 crisis’). This is due to the United States’ retreat from the global scene – the country whose leadership has traditionally been vital for shaping global institutions. A reinvigorated EU leadership with cross-regional support from like-minded countries can help fill this vacuum. Finally, Wouters encouraged reflection on the intergovernmental nature of the UN system in today’s globalised world, in which non-state actors, including regional international organisations, such as the European Union, play an increasingly powerful role.
To conclude, Ionel Zamfir, policy analyst at the EPRS, presented the findings of a recently published analysis on the EU’s role in the United Nations system, according to which the EU can be considered a credible, coherent and active player in the UN system. Its involvement is multidimensional, going beyond its observer role, including the EU’s participation in multilateral treaties and in the negotiations leading to these, its financial contributions, as well as the long-term, complex and mutually beneficial partnerships it has established with various entities in the UN system. Zamfir warned that one of the biggest challenges facing the UN today is to remain faithful to its fundamental principles, such as those enshrined in its founding documents, particularly with respect to universal human rights, which are under increasing threat with the rise of the authoritarianism in the world.