On 16-17 September, North South University (NSU) Bangladesh and the United Nations (UN) in Bangladesh co-hosted an international webinar titled, "The UN in Times of People's Needs: Rethinking Multilateralism".
In commemoration of its 75th anniversary, the UN is calling for a global conversation. The views expressed in the summary are those of the participants in the international webinar hosted by NSU, Bangladesh and United Nations in Bangladesh and do not necessarily represent the views of the United Nations, says a press release.
The aim of the webinar was to identify the successes of and challenges faced by the UN since its founding, with a view to draw lessons learned over the last 75 years and provide recommendations on the way forward. In particular, the webinar focused on the achievements of the UN and its Member States in serving people in times of need. The webinar also provided an opportunity for the UN to hear directly from people.
Inaugurating the webinar, Under-Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild emphasized the difficult situation multilateralism faces today for a variety of reasons, including great power politics. He noted that the UN's 75th anniversary should serve as a global reality check rather than a celebration. Referring to the worldwide survey launched in February 2020, he noted that the majority of the respondents reaffirmed their trust in the UN system. M.A. Kashem, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at NSU, went on to note that "in a crisis period, we look to the UN to bring countries together, not only to respond to the pandemic but also to address the pressing issues of our time".
The general view that emerged from the webinar was that the UN has made notable contributions toward fulfilling its Charter obligations, particularly in regard to helping people achieve larger freedoms. Participants also remarked that despite many achievements of the UN, much still needs to be done for the global population, notably in the areas of conflict prevention and the prevention of gross human rights violations and genocide.
Participants also raised questions about the UN's effectiveness in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. It was noted that the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses and fragilities of the UN system and its Member States, but has also created a number of opportunities to build a more equal and sustainable world. There was a strong consensus that the role of youth in UN reform is critical for ensuring an inclusive multilateral system that effectively serves the global population. There was also a call for the development of a more people-centred system -- a "People's UN" -- to help break away from a UN that some perceive to be a 'club' that does not represent the majority.
Participants further noted that the UN is the embodiment of a rule-based, open multilateral system and that its effectiveness and usefulness is determined by those who make it -- the UN is what its member states wish it to be.
Outcome of Session Deliberations
The webinar consisted of five substantive sessions focusing on different themes relating to the UN's areas of work and function, including the sustainable development goals (SDGs) in the context of COVID-19; human rights in times of crises; peacekeeping and peacebuilding, humanitarian action; as well as a colloquium on civil society's perspectives on the UN. A brief summary of deliberations from each of these sessions is provided below.
First thematic area: Global Architecture of Sustainable Development Goals and Its Implementation in the Context of the Pandemic
This session reflected on global progress in implementation of the UN SDGs, which were adopted by all Member States in 2015 as part of the transformative 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Participants of this session suggested that the SDGs serve as a road map for humanity and a plan of action for a better future that puts people, planet, and prosperity at its core. They highlighted that the international system has failed in managing the COVID-19 pandemic and in helping vulnerable populations suffering as a result of environmental crises. It was also noted that the time has come for the developing world and its people to come together to address and respond to the challenges they face based on their own values, experiences, and practices. Further, participants remarked that growing protectionist tendencies and ultra-nationalist sentiments will negatively impact international cooperation and achievement of the SDGs. In fact, the 2030 Agenda offers a course of action for "We the People," highlighting the critical role of multilateral cooperation in achieving a sustainable, just, and inclusive future.
The following key points emerged from the session:
A. The COVID-19 pandemic has already negatively impacted implementation of the
SDGs in all Member States to varying degrees;
B. Asian countries, particularly Bangladesh, have done relatively better in advancing the SDGs than non-Asia countries;
C. Availability of data and resources remain a major obstacle to implementation of the SDGs globally;
D. Countries should implement six 'transformers' in order to minimize the adverse impacts of COVID-19. These six transformers, identified in the UN's SDG Report 2020, are: education, gender and equality; health well-being and demography; energy decarbonization for sustainable industry; sustainable food, land, water and oceans; sustainable cities and communities, and; harnessing the digital revolution;
E. The world must unite to overcome the challenges of achieving the SDGs by increasing resource availability and strengthening solidarity and partnerships among societies, economies, and countries.
Second thematic area: United Nations in Peacekeeping and Peacebuilding
This session reflected on the UN's legitimacy and role in global peacekeeping and peacebuilding efforts. Panelists noted their appreciation for the UN Secretary General's focus on preventing conflict and building sustainable peace, particularly his recent call for a global ceasefire to help combat COVID-19.
Participants recognized the leading role of Bangladesh in peacekeeping and peacebuilding, highlighting the fact that Bangladesh is currently the largest troop-contributing country to UN
peacekeeping missions, which includes a high number of female peacekeepers. Participants also recognized Bangladesh's support for UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security—a watershed resolution that recognizes the importance of women's full, equal, and meaningful participation in conflict resolution as well as the need to increase women's participation at all levels of decision-making in peace processes. Participants also expressed desire for the concept of "Human Security" to be further emphasized in peacekeeping mandates and practices.
The following key points emerged from the discussion:
A. Bangladesh, undaunted by the fatalities of peacekeepers, remains committed to supporting UN peacekeeping operations. Bangladesh is ready to deploy its peacekeepers at short notice to the most difficult contexts;
B. Member States must continue to extend political, financial, and operational support to the
UN to help prevent conflict and achieve lasting peace as enshrined in the UN Charter;
C. The UN system can play a catalytic role in strengthening peacekeeping and peacebuilding processes by ensuring transparency, accountability, and equal participation. Women experience conflict differently from men due to the gendered social norms and roles. Female perspectives and participation at all levels is therefore necessary to help build a sustainable peace;
D. Over 80 Member States have adopted National Action Plans on Women Peace and Security, including Bangladesh. It is critical that these plans are implemented effectively through proper resource allocation and monitoring to ensure women's participation at all levels of decision-making in conflict prevention, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping processes;
E. Peacekeepers must continue to demonstrate and uphold the highest standards of integrity, courage, professionalism, and respect for diversity;
F. There should be a stronger emphasis going forward on conflict prevention and peacebuilding, not just peacekeeping.
Third Thematic Area: United Nations' Role in Human Rights
Panelists recalled the historic adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948
and stated that Bangladesh remains committed to fulfilling its duties under Constitutional and international law to respect and uphold human rights.
Despite human rights being one of the fundamental pillars of the UN Charter, it was noted that their protection remains a major challenge for the UN system and Member States. Considering the fact that all countries, big and small, have human rights issues—including democracies—participants remarked that the human rights system of the UN, and the UN as a whole, can only be as effective and as relevant as its Member States make it.
Participants also noted that strong support is needed for supranationalism over bilateralism, and that regular budget allocations for human rights should be increased, as voluntary contributions can affect transparency and discourage multilateral action. One of the panelists remarked that human rights standards are Western-centric and often fail to take into consideration the Global South's view and practices. It was also noted that given the current state of the world, the UN's human rights system should redirect its focus toward issues relating to development, as these require increased cooperation and partnerships.
Participants noted that the UN should also focus on addressing inequalities and preventing violence in pursuit of the protection of democracy and human rights. In order to ensure that the UN upholds its commitments to human rights, participants also noted that the UN should ensure equality of people, as well as between Member States. Participants further remarked that the protection of human rights is critical for sustaining peace and achieving sustainable development.
The main highlights from the session are as follows:
A. The UN is the largest multilateral organization with a unique human rights system that covers all countries; there is no alternative other than to make it work. Member States must therefore live up to their commitments and support the UN to help realize the UN Secretary-General's recent "Call to Action for Human Rights", including in pandemic situations, in a manner that reinforces supranationalism, discourages politicization and bilateralism, and ensures regular budgetary contributions to the human rights system;
B. Addressing inequality and violence must be a priority of the UN system; discrimination on the grounds of civil, cultural, economic, political and/or social status poses a threat to societies, as discrimination causes gender inequalities. With this in mind, the UN should give greater attention to economic, social, and cultural rights as well as the right to sustainable development—all of which should be pursued through a human rights-based approach;
C. Climate change adversely impacts human rights, including the right to life, and the livelihoods of the most vulnerable groups of society including communities already living in poverty. The protection of rights during times of crisis (including pandemics and humanitarian crises) should therefore be given priority, as should climate justice given the impact of climate change on the rights of future generations;
D. Human rights monitoring and enforcement mechanisms should be strengthened, while equality, non-discrimination, and inclusiveness in addressing human rights violations should be a central focus of the UN. The Human Rights Council's Universal Periodic Review is a positive step in this direction, however, stronger legally-binding action is needed to help improve the human rights situation globally. At the same time, the UN and Member States should become more people-centred to create a more inclusive environment in which civil society can meaningfully engage in human rights work. Moreover, attempts to shrink civic space must be counteracted and the voices of young people must be heard;
E. As the COVID-19 crisis develops, the UN should work towards ensuring access to future vaccines for the global population, particularly those in least developed countries (LDCs). At the grassroots and national levels, the UN should also work to help demystify the debates around the virus and ensure communities are well-informed and sensitized to the risks it poses to human health. Further, attempts to undermine the World Health Organization (WHO) should be counteracted. Lastly, the right to education should be prioritized in COVID-19 responses and recovery efforts, as it is a cross-cutting, fundamental social rights. In line with this, there should be zero tolerance for discrimination along social, economic, or gender lines for children or adults in pursuit of education.
Fourth thematic area: United Nations in Humanitarian Agenda for a Subtle and Self- reinforcing Humanitarian-Development Nexus
In this session, panelists noted that the outbreak of COVID-19 has exacerbated humanitarian crises worldwide. Participants reaffirmed their commitment to the UN "Framework for the Immediate Socio-Economic response to COVID-19", which highlights the importance of linking and ensuring coherence between humanitarian and development responses to help save lives, protect people, and rebuild societies and economies.
Participants observed that multilateral organizations, particularly WHO, should not be undermined as they work to help ensure global health security. Participants also voiced their appreciation for the active role that the UN plays in addressing humanitarian crises, noting that climate change has exacerbated the humanitarian situation in various contexts around the world. In this context, the forced displacement of the Rohingya population in Myanmar was raised as a point of discussion, with participants recognizing the critical role that Bangladesh has played in the humanitarian response to the Rohingya crisis.
Attention was also drawn to Bangladesh's disaster risk reduction policies and various programs aimed at tackling humanitarian disasters. Participants also discussed the "Agenda for Humanity" and the Five-Point Plan adopted at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in 2016. In this context, it was noted that the reform of the UN development system is expected to have positive impacts, particularly for humanitarian-development nexus programming. It was also noted that UN reform is taking root in Bangladesh, which has helped ensure that the UN's COVID-19 response, though imperfect, has been cohesive.
The following takeaways were noted from the session:
A. The Secretary-General's call for increased humanitarian assistance to lift vulnerable people out of crises situations is appreciated;
B. States should work together to implement the "Agenda for Humanity";
C. The Humanitarian-Development divide should be bridged through strengthened actions by all stakeholders;
D. People must change their way of life as well as their production and consumption patterns to help prevent future environmental disasters;
E. A people-centred approach must be at the heart of humanitarian actions, decision-making, and processes;
F. China's approach to humanitarianism does not intend to challenge that of the West, but intends to counterbalance it— upholding the multilateral spirit of the UN.
Fifth thematic area: Colloquium on Civil Society Perspectives on the Future of the United Nations
"If we did not have the UN today, we would have to invent it"
President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Churchill, and Premier Stalin (along with other leaders of the Allied powers during World War Two) aspired to bring permanent peace and to protect people in establishing the UN system. Over the last 75 years, the role of civil society has evolved and continues to be significant in the pursuit of global peace.
Panelists of this session highlighted various contributions of the UN, including its work in making the world better, with one participant echoing the words of UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld when he said that the "UN was not created to take mankind to heaven but to save humanity from hell". Participants noted that the UN continues to remain at the center of a rule-based multilateral world.
Participants further noted that the world currently faces multiple crises, with weakened multilateralism and declining faith in the UN system. Reflecting on the UN's achievements, failures, challenges, and potential, panelists of this session underlined the critical role of civil society alongside Member States in designing the future course for the UN. In particular, it was highlighted that women and youth must have an equal voice in building the inclusive future and UN system that the world wants and needs.
It was suggested by some that the UN was at a major crossroads, facing a make-it-or-break-it situation. By the end of the discussion, there was a general consensus that there is no alternative but to make the UN function more efficiently and effectively to fulfill its Charter mandates and make a positive difference in the lives of people. Participants also noted that Asia needs stronger multilateralism. In discussing the impact of geopolitics in today's world, participants articulated and demanded reorienting geopolitics to make it more pro-people. In the deliberations, the following was highlighted:
A. The UN is increasingly challenged in its ability to prevent armed conflict, genocide, geopolitical rivalries, and inequality, both within and among states;
B. The UN should work to mobilize political will and resources to revitalize global cooperation for the common good. This would help restore the hope and trust of people in the UN system;
C. The Secretary-General's reform of the UN system must continue to bring deep and real changes in order to make the UN more functional, people-centric, transparent and accountable;
D. In the process of invigorating a fair and inclusive multilateralism, the French and German-led "Alliance for Multilateralism" could be a good platform;
E. The UN Secretary-General can play a critical role in helping ensure a smooth transition from an increasingly polarized world to one that is more unified. At the same time, the Secretary-General should lead the process to strengthen the UN's ability to prevent chaos and conflict, and to assist vulnerable people, communities, and economies around the world;
F. The UN system should undergo further reforms to ensure it truly serves the people;
G. Join and support global civil society initiatives including to "Together First" and Accountability, Coherence, and Transparency (ACT) and the Global Governance Forum to make UN effective
H. The future of the UN lies in the hands of youth; therefore, they must be included in making the "Future UN", which could be facilitated through the establishment of a permanent platform within the UN system.
There were a number of critical takeaways from the thematic discussion, including the following:
A. Despite pandemic-driven uneasiness, the majority of the people continue to pin their hopes on the UN and international cooperation;
B. Government and Civil Society collaboration is the call of the day to rescue the UN from becoming irrelevant. In this context, an office for civil society may be established in UN;
C. The UN should remain active in preventing conflict between and among the great powers;
D. The UN must continue and further deepen reform of all its three branches;
E. States must actively engage in the preparatory process for the 2023 Global Summit on
Inclusive Governance to establish a fair and inclusive multilateralism.
The seminar concluded by recalling the statements of commitment of two visionary leaders.
First, Honorable Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina: "For us multilateralism remains the strongest panacea for resolving the global problems and create global goods. The UN is the symbol of hope for peace, stability and prosperity." – at the 74th UNGA, 27th September, 2019
Second, UN Secretary General António Guterres: "This is the beginning of a new dynamic of relationships between the UN and 'We the Peoples', and this relationship will hopefully be able to shape a new kind of multilateralism – a multilateralism that is inclusive, in which not only the governments, but also civil society, academia, and local communities have a voice and have influence." – at the Graduate Institute in Geneva, 25th February, 2020