Multilateralism in the time of COVID-19

24 Apr 2020

Event report

The UN Office at Geneva organised a virtual conversation on multilateralism in the time of COVID-19 on the International Day of Multilateralism as part of the UN75 Initiative. In addition to the distinguished panellists from the UN and other international organisations, students and young professionals from the University of Geneva, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and Foraus participated in the online discussion.

While the world increasingly turns to unilateralism during the COVID-19 pandemic, the panellists emphasised that multilateral co-operations are more important than ever. We know from history that a global crisis leads to the strengthening of multilateralism. However, it is evident that multilateralism in the 21st century needs to transform from traditional multilateralism, given the backlash it is facing. Mr Guy Ryder (Director-General, the International Labour Organization [ILO]) underlined that the criticism campaigns against multilateralism is because efficiency and inclusivity have been limited; and the rise of populism brought a strong emphasis on national sovereignty back to international fora. Mr Fabrizio Hochschild-Drummond (Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Preparations for the Commemoration of the United Nations 75th Anniversary) pointed out that it does not make sense for multilateralism to be a government-dominated effort since transformations that we benefit from in the present digital era are overwhelmingly led by the private sector. Mr Hualin Zhao (Secretary-General, the International Telecommunication Union [ITU]) highlighted the ITU’s multistakeholder multilateralism in practice, and talked of how ITU membership includes not only member states, but also private enterprises and universities.

Whilst anyone, regardless of race, gender, and economic power, can get infected with the Coronavirus, socio-economic impacts of the global health crisis disproportionately affect vulnerable populations. Ryder said the ILO estimates a loss of 195 million full-time jobs, which consequently will lead to increased poverty, particularly in developing parts of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed that social protection needs to be guaranteed universally in order to achieve the sustainable development goals (SDGs) and leave no one behind. Moreover, the digital divide, particularly prevalent and serious in developing countries, became an even more pressing problem since access to information and to education in the time of COVID-19 largely depends on the Internet connectivity and digital literacy. All-encompassing issues, such as climate change and human rights, also became amplified during the pandemic. In response to a question posed by students from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Ms Tatiana Valovaya (Director-General, the UN at Geneva) emphasised that the pandemic is an opportunity for all stakeholders of the international community to renew their will and rethink ways to transform the global economy to a greener and cleaner one. As to human rights and individual freedoms, containment measures put in place by governments should not be extended after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Mr Martin Chungong (Secretary-General, the Inter-Parliamentary Union [IPU]) highlighted the role of parliaments to safeguard the rights of people and hold governments accountable. He elaborated that policies should be gender responsive given the majority of frontline healthcare workers are women.

Declared as ‘infodemic’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Coronavirus exposed our vulnerabilities to fake news, misinformation, and disinformation. Although fake news is not a new phenomenon, the proliferation of information communications technologies (ICTs) and social media drastically increased the spread and reach of fake news. Mr Noel Curran (Director-General, the European Broadcasting Union [EBU]) underlined that self-regulations by social media platforms are inadequate to tackle fake news. He called on the international community to develop a multifaceted and holistic regulation that improves transparency in social media platforms and in algorithms that they use in order to ensure public’s access to accurate and trusted information. As a trusted source of information, science is at the centre of the fight against the pandemic and infodemic. Explaining the universality and unifying ability of science, Ms Fabiola Gianotti (Director-General, the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN]) said that science has historically been recognised as a tool to enhance multilateralism. Some positive impacts that the pandemic had on science include that governments now turn to scientists for decision-making. Gianotti hopes to see the trend continue after the pandemic, as the involvement of scientists in policy-making of global challenges (e.g. climate change) is essential to make greater impacts.

The COVID-19 pandemic is an ultimate reminder of how interconnected and interdependent the world became through globalisation. Hochschild-Drummond stated that the world needs a global collaborative response and solidarity to come out of the crisis successfully. However, the international community also needs to reflect that skepticism against multilateralism originates from those who are left behind by globalisation. Enhancing inclusivity, diversity, equity, and efficiency in multilateral co-operations is a way to put an end to the pandemic as well as to restore trust in multilateralism as an approach to address the challenges of the 21st century.