Rt Hon Helen Clark: “Multilteralism: Time for a Revamp?”. Annual Peter Fraser Lecture, Wellington, 12 August 2019.

With Hon Grant Robertson, New Zealand Finance Minister and MP for Wellington Central.

This month I gave the annual lecture in the name of Rt Hon Peter Fraser, New Zealand Prime Minister 1940-1949, who attended and played an active role in the San Francisco conference where the United Nations Charter was negotiated in 1945. In the lecture, I spoke about the current state of multilateralism and the importance of staying engaged with it, seeking improved performance, and exploring more inclusive forms of it. The text of my lecture follows here:

Right Honourable Helen Clark

“Multilateralism: Time for a Revamp?”

Peter Fraser Lecture

Wellington, New Zealand, 12 August 2019.

In 2010, I delivered the second in this series of Peter Fraser lectures held in honour of New Zealand’s second Labour Prime Minister, Rt Hon Peter Fraser who served from 1940 to 1949. My topic was “The United Nations and New Zealand: Peter Fraser’s legacy”.

I spoke then of Peter Fraser’s role at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 in San Francisco. There, his was a strong voice for the interests of small states and against the veto being given to the Permanent Members of the Security Council.

Peter Fraser was one of many principled participants who had a significant influence on the shaping of the post-World War Two world order. The Charter which resulted from the talks did not reflect everything he argued for – the veto, after all, is with us to this day. But, without question, the world has been the beneficiary of those who negotiated the UN Charter, and, following that, the design of other great multilateral institutions, declarations, treaties, conventions and agreements.

Let us not forget in this respect the role of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was chair of the UN Human Rights Committee which approved the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Her presence in that process was in itself an indication of how vested the United States was in the multilateral system at that time – a level of interest to which many of us hope it will return. Isolationist sentiment after World War One had kept the USA out of the League of Nations. A multilateral system to which major powers are not committed will struggle for relevance.

That brings me to my hypothesis in tonight’s lecture – which is that the multilateral system is indeed struggling for relevance. The world it seeks to function in is not that of 1945, and its core institutions, like the UN Security Council, have been unable to adapt.

In my address tonight I will talk about:

– the successes the multilateral system has had,

– the pressures it is now under, and

– the importance of continuing to engage constructively with it.

– I will also point to examples of the development of more inclusive forms of multilateralism.

My comments will for the most part address the core UN system, but I note for the record that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is struggling. It has been unable to conclude its Doha Development Round, launched in 2001. The fact that no trade round has been completed since the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) in 1994 means that a growing proportion of world trade is inadequately covered by multilateral rules. The WTO Dispute Settlement Body is also close to collapse because of a failure of Member States to agree to appointments to its Appellate Body.

  1. On the successes:

From the United Nations system has come a substantial body of international law and norms across many fields, and much practical development and humanitarian work. We could say that its reason for existence is to contribute to global public goods and, in doing so, also to contribute to the protection and management of the global commons.

The UN has been credited by the UN Intellectual History Project as having been an incubator of new and powerful ideas which have shaped policies at all levels. Three standout areas for me are:

  1. On human rights

– promoting gender equality, and advancing human rights more broadly. The human rights mandate continues to be very challenging, but successive UN High Commissioners for Human Rights have spoken truth to power on issues across the human rights spectrum, and at the country level UN organisations have worked to support adherence to the global norms, standards, and processes.

b. In the development sphere

– promoting the human development paradigm as an alternative to using GDP per capita as the sole measure of development progress. The first global Human Development Report was issued in 1990 – 29 years ahead of New Zealand’s very own Wellbeing Budget which has similar principles. Since 1990, around 140 countries have published some 600 human development reports, and countless more have been issued at the sub-national level. India is particularly known for embracing this form of reporting as a way of informing policy.

– launching the Millennium Development Goals which caught the world’s imagination, had considerable success, and paved the way for adoption of the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.

2015 also saw huge progress on tackling climate change with the Paris Agreement; a new global disaster risk reduction framework agreed in Sendai, Japan; and the Addis Ababa Action Agenda which updates the international Financing for Development framework.

Then, in 2016, the World Humanitarian Summit outcomes promoted more effective ways of co-ordinating humanitarian and development efforts; HABITAT 111 in Quito adopted the New Urban Agenda; and new commitments were made at the first ever Global Sustainable Transport Conference convened by the UN Secretary-General in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.

The record in the peace and security realm, however, is more mixed. It is of course true that throughout the Cold War period with the buildup of substantial nuclear arsenals, war between major powers did not occur. Given that the UN was established with the objective of preventing another world war, not having one on its watch is an achievement.

The UN also played a significant role in supporting decolonisation, which in turn led to the expansion of its membership from the 51 Member States present at its founding to the 193 of today.

Overall, I judge the achievements of the UN system to have been considerable. That is not to say that its record has been without blemish. The genocide in Rwanda and the massacre in Srebrenica – also called a genocide by many – where peacekeepers were present and did not act to save lives, will always be a stain on its reputation. Ongoing issues of sexual and gender-based violence by peacekeepers and in individual UN organisations are a disgrace. The neoliberalism of the Bretton Woods institutions arguably set many developing countries progress back for years.

  • The pressures on the multilateral system now.

The Chair of the US Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haas, has described our world as being in disarray – and probably most people would agree with him.

A relentless tide of bad news makes today’s world look like a dystopia – with protracted conflicts; record numbers of forcibly displaced people – now standing at over seventy million people; severe pressure on our climate and other ecosystems; rising inequality; the persistence of high levels of extreme poverty and hunger; epidemics of disease; ricochet effects for all in the highly globalised economy from political and other shocks and trade wars; and the unknown, but likely sizeable, impact of what is known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Add to those the rise of unilateralism, isolationism, populism, and protectionism, and the persistence of authoritarianism – this adds up to a troubled world which needs the multilateral system more than ever, but where that very system struggles for relevance. For example:

  1. On peace and security:

From around 2011, the world has witnessed a spike in the numbers of deadly conflicts. Uprisings and protracted conflicts in the Arab States region account for some of the deadliest; conflict continues to rage in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

Elsewhere, newly independent South Sudan lapsed back into violent conflict in 2013; the Central African Republic descended into deadly conflict in 2012; and Mali experienced a secession in the north and a military coup in 2012 – despite the return to constitutional government there, many conflict-related deaths of civilians and of UN peacekeepers continue, and insurgent groups have spread out to other countries in the Sahel.

Afghanistan and Somalia continue to experience major insurgencies, also with spillover impacts on their neighbourhoods. Deadly conflict continues in the east of Ukraine. Well over one million Rohingya have fled their homes in Myanmar. The long list of troubled countries could go on….and that is without counting those brought to their knees by violent crime, as in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

For a variety of reasons, the UN has found it hard to address these new waves of conflict. Its older response of dispatching peacekeepers when there was a peace to be kept is often inadequate – peacekeepers may be sent where there is no peace to keep, and they may be neither equipped to act nor have a mandate to act to stem the violence. In a number of the currently raging conflicts, there is no mandate for UN peacekeepers to be present in at all.

The UN has had little success in mediating an end to any of these conflicts, despite the dedication of its envoys – whether that be in the Yemeni, Syrian, Libyan, or any number of other theatres. A number of these conflicts are in effect proxy wars, with the powerful patrons who back warring parties having little interest in international mediation. In a number of cases, others have stepped in constructively where countries are in distress – one thinks, for example, of the role of ECOWAS, the organisation of West African States, in resolving the crisis in The Gambia, and now of the African Union in mediating in Sudan where there has been implicit support for its efforts from the United States, the Gulf States, and key neighbours.

The UN is also a bystander as key parts of the nuclear weapons control architecture is dismantled. The most egregious example is that of the Iran nuclear deal which was endorsed by the Security Council. The US withdrawal from the agreement was a direct challenge to the authority of the Council which all Member States are bound to uphold. The expiry of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and what is now Russia is a major threat to peace and security, but one the multilateral system in its current state is not equipped to address.

  • On sustainable development and climate action

On reflection, the major international agreements reached in these areas in 2015 could not have been concluded today, such is the impact of political changes since then in key capitals from Washington DC to Brasilia and beyond.

But it is not only those capitals which show scant interest in -and in the case of the Paris Agreement outright hostility to -these global agendas.

Progress on both the SDGs and the Paris Agreement is woeful, calling into question the seriousness of the Member States which committed themselves to them. If solemnly reached agreements are followed by little action, what, many will ask, is the point?

The World Meteorological Organisation tells us we are on track for a three- to five-degree Celsius temperature increase by the end of this century – far above the 1.5 and two per cent levels agreed in Paris. That takes the world’s climate into uncharted and very dangerous territory.

A Special report on Climate Change and Land was released last week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It warns that the rising global temperature and increasing pressures on fertile land risk jeopardizing food security. Five hundred million people are already living in areas experiencing desertification.

The Sustainable Development Goals targets to be reached by 2030 include:

  • Poverty eradication – yet current trends will see some six per cent of the world’s people living in extreme poverty – from 400 to 475 million people.
  • Hunger eradication – yet trends are negative with the World Food Programme reporting increases in the absolute numbers of hungry people for each of the last three years. The total stands at around 820 million people, or one in every nine people on earth.
  • Every 6-17-year-old to have twelve years education – yet on current trends, one in six will not receive that.

The SDGs were always an aspirational agenda – but to fall so far short of their targets not only makes a mockery of them, but also calls the credibility of the international system into question. The same is true of the woeful underperformance on implementing the Paris Agreement.

Massive investment is needed in sustainable development and climate action. For the world’s poorest countries, that requires development partners, like New Zealand, to step up. Yet the high level of forced displacement caused by conflict and the high level of need generated by extreme climate, seismic, and other adverse events diverts resources from medium- and long-term development and climate action. Many low- and middle-income countries are in significant debt stress and struggling to provide for their citizens. Those which have significant citizen insecurity, and/or lack of good governance and rule of law, find it hard to attract quality investment.

Next month’s High-level Segment of the UN General Assembly will include leader-level summits on climate, the SDGs, universal healthcare, the Small Islands Developing States Samoa Pathway Agenda, and progress on the Financing for Development Agenda. It remains to be seen whether any of these will galvanise more commitment to action, or whether the international community will continue to fall short. Convening power which produces nothing more than convening is ineffective.

  • The Importance of Staying Engaged

Challenging as the outlook for the multilateral system is, it would be wrong to walk away from it. It is always easier to tear something down than it is to build a replacement anew. Yet, not all parts of the system are useful – some, like the international drug control architecture are perverse, counterproductive, and need a fundamental overhaul and reorientation. Some entities barely continue on life support and would be better absorbed into others or eliminated altogether. Others need radical improvements to their efficiency and effectiveness.

The larger challenge, however, to the multilateral system comes not primarily from its organisational shortcomings, but rather from geopolitical developments – not least from a United States which prefers to act unilaterally and has withdrawn from a number of important entities and agreements. Then there is the phenomenon of a rising China which has its own strategies of global reach like Belt and Road and the lending power to finance them. According to The Economist last month, “China is now the world’s largest official creditor, more than twice as big as the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund combined”.

Neither the UN nor the Bretton Woods Institutions have been able to revisit the essentials of the post war settlement when their governance was established. For the Security Council, that settlement locked in permanent membership for five countries – that configuration does not reflect today’s geopolitics. For the World Bank, when one American citizen stepped down as President this year, there was no serious questioning of another succeeding him. Likewise, the Managing Director of the IMF who succeeds Christine Lagarde is preordained to be European. Can we be surprised that China moved to set up an institution it could host and shape in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)….?

For small countries like New Zealand, what matters is staying engaged across the key multilateral institutions, and to continue to be part of a range of groupings around issues which matter to us and to the global community. Our rhetoric should not be hollow – we must walk the talk on climate action, as increasingly we are doing. On sustainable development, we need to do more at home (in effect, we don’t have an SDGs strategy) and through our aid budget – the latter falls well short of the internationally agreed target of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income.

New Zealand’s voice must continue to be one of support overall for the multilateral system and its efforts to build peace, promote human rights, and advocate for sustainable development. The institutions need to be maintained for times when the geopolitics may be more conducive to making them effective. Disengaging only contributes to their further decline in relevance.

At this time, it seems to me that perhaps the most valuable function the multilateral system performs is to produce credible reports on the challenges we face and how they should be addressed.

The annual reporting on trends in the world’s climate, on hunger, and on forced displacement is invaluable. So too are the annual reports on the state of the world’s children, the global population, world health statistics, the annual Global Education Monitoring Report, and the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

As well, one must applaud the efforts of the Office of the High Commission on Human Rights and the human rights mechanisms in upholding the wide range of human rights declarations, conventions and protocols. Their investigative powers shed light on human rights abuses, review processes – from the Universal Periodic Reviews to those relating to individual conventions – advance accountability, and their voices often speak truth to power when few others will. The most recent striking example of that was the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings who found that Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was the victim of a premeditated extrajudicial killing and that that constitutes “an international crime over which other States should claim universal jurisdiction”. In contrast, many countries have chosen to tiptoe around the horror of that killing.

And, finally, commendation must go to the tireless efforts of all the UN agencies, peacekeepers, and diplomats who make a difference for people and planet around the world – supporting refugees and others forcibly displaced, feeding the hungry, immunising children, mobilising funding for development across the board, working for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights, and much more – this practical work makes a difference to hundreds of millions of people.

  • Could more inclusive multilateralism be a way forward?

A pioneer in more inclusive forms of multilateralism was the ILO (International Labour Organisation) which celebrates its centenary this year. From its inception, the ILO has had a tripartite membership consisting of governments, unions, and employer organisations.

Since UN AIDS was established in 1994, its structure has included a Programme Co-ordinating Board with members drawn from governments, UN co-sponsor organisations, and civil society.

The early 2000s saw a number of other such initiatives in broader governance, particularly in the health field:

  • The Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis has Board members from governments, non-governmental organisations, affected communities, the private sector, and private foundations. There are also non-voting members from the multilateral system.
  • GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, also has such multiple constituencies on its board, and includes representatives of research and technical institutions.
  • The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health, of which I am chair, has ten constituencies making it broadly inclusive of all with an interest in co-ordination of effort and advocacy in the areas it covers.

Beyond the health field, there is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) which has a global board, which I chair, representing governments, civil society, and the private sector. multi-stakeholder groups drawn from each constituency. At the national level in each country which is implementing the EITI Standard, there are multi-stakeholder groups drawn from each of the three constituencies.

It is a challenge for the UN and its core institutions to broaden their governance – they remain very much Member State-based organisations. They do have processes for engaging civil society – over 4,000 groups have consultative status with ECOSOC (the Economic and Social Council), and through the nine Major Groups which participate in processes related to sustainable development. There is the UN Global Compact which engages with businesses whi chcommit to its ten principles. The World Bank and IMF Spring Meetings, the annual Conference of Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and many other processes also allow for substantial engagement with the non-government sectors.

Those organisations which have developed inclusive governance do so because it is important for discharging their mandate. In the case of EITI, for example, trying to drive transparency in the extractives sector and to force corruption out of it needs willing governments and companies and vigilant and engaged civil society. Thus, having all three engaged in its governance is fundamental to the EITI’s effectiveness. Maybe there are lessons in this for UN organisations?

In conclusion

I have spoken tonight of some of the multilateral system’s successes, and of some of the challenges it now faces in maintaining its relevance.

I have said that it shouldn’t be deserted – rather it’s important to engage for the long term in the hope that a more conducive geopolitical environment will emerge for finding solutions to our common problems. That, after all, was always the point of multilateralism – that every country faces challenges which it cannot resolve on its own and, those problems need mechanisms through which they can be addressed and hopefully resolved.

I have spoken of more inclusive multilateralism. I do suggest that experimenting more with that in the governance of the core multilateral system could be useful in getting broader engagement in global affairs.

I hope that countries like New Zealand will continue to be a voice for global co-operation and for supporting the institutions which are the key vehicles for that.

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