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A test of diplomatic maturity

By Ioan Voicu - posted Wednesday, 16 September 2020


In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), on behalf of 193 member states, decided that the 75th anniversary of the United Nations (UN) shall be commemorated in 2020 under the theme "The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism".

The UNGA further decided to convene in New York, on 21 September 2020, a high-level meeting to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the UN , with the participation of Heads of State and Government.

It was also decided to adopt by consensus at the high-level meeting on 21 September 2020 a concise, substantive, forward-looking and unifying declaration that captures the collective commitment of member states to multilateralism and to the UN and their shared vision for a common future.

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Earlier, in 2018,under an agenda item entitled "Global health and foreign policy", the UNGA requested the UN Secretary-General, with the support of the World Health Organization (WHO), to provide a progress report on the matter in 2020.

In 2019, the UNGA decided to convene a high-level meeting on universal health coverage in 2023 in New York in order to identify gaps and solutions to accelerate progress towards the achievement of universal health coverage by 2030.It was also decided that the scope and modalities of this objective should be decided no later than the 75th session of the UNGA in 2020, taking into consideration the outcomes of other existing health-related processes.

At the same time, in 2019, the UNGA requested the UN Secretary-General, in close collaboration with the Director General of the WHO, to address, inter alia, the challenges and opportunities of inclusive approaches to strengthening health systems.

It should be reminded that on 12 December 2019 France, on behalf of the seven members of the Foreign Policy and Global Health Initiative - Brazil, France, Indonesia, Norway, Senegal, South Africa and Thailand introduced the draft resolution entitled "Global health and foreign policy: an inclusive approach to strengthening health systems". Several paragraphs of the draft were approved by vote, while the resolution as a whole was adopted by consensus.

There was no reference to COVID-19 in all diplomatic deliberations about the above 2019 resolution, in spite of the fact that, as announced by BBC, on 1 December 2019 the first onset of symptoms of this virus were observed, according to the Lancet medical journal.

What happened meanwhile ?

For a balanced answer we will refer to the Report of the UN Secretary-General on the work of the Organization, circulated in August 2020, a text of 31 pages in which COVID-19 is mentioned 29 times.The second section of the report quasi --ignored for the time-being by the mainstream media - is entitled The United Nations response to COVID-19 .Its first paragraph says : "The COVID-19 pandemic has swiftly taken hundreds of thousands of lives, infected millions of people, upended economies and disrupted every aspect of modern life. It is more than a health crisis: it is an economic crisis, a humanitarian crisis, a security crisis and a human rights crisis. The global response requires reimagining the structures of societies and how we cooperate for the common good".

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What was the first collective reaction of the UN faced with the COVID -19 pandemic ?

The UNGA adopted in April 2020 two resolutions which are self- explanatory by their official titles : "Global solidarity to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)" and "International cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19".

In May 2020, on the proposal of 130 co-sponsors, including Thailand and Australia, as well as the European Union and its members,the WHO adopted a comprehensive resolution.In its first operative paragraph,the World Health Assembly

"Calls for , in the spirit of unity and solidarity, the intensification of cooperation and collaboration at all levels in order to contain and control the COVID-19 pandemic and mitigate its impact."

All the above mentioned reports and resolutions will be on the table of the 75th session of the UNGA. All of them recommend action-oriented measures to combat COVID-19 pandemic .

Legitimate expectations

In the light of a challenging unprecedented reality, diplomats from all countries of the world will have the imperative duty to cooperate in order to give a collective practical response to the COVID-19 pandemic.In this regard,they have to perform a cardinal function in accordance with the Vienna Convention on the Representation of States in their Relations with International Organizations of a Universal Character (1975)which recognizedexpressis verbis theincreasingly important role of multilateral diplomacy in relations between states and the responsibilities of the UN, its specialized agencies and other international organizations of a universal character within the international community.

The UN and the WHO documents have the great merit of strongly emphasising the full potential of multilateralism during the current times of global vulnerabilities, perplexities and discontinuities, as dramatically enhanced by COVID-19 pandemic

Indeed, robust multilateralism can effectively contribute to solving planetary problems. That's why the Alliance for Multilateralism established in 2019 could have a positive role in giving tangibility to a vital universal objective of promoting vibrant international cooperation and worldwide solidarity in dealing with COVID-19.

More recently, on 4 September 2020 the G20 Foreign Ministers held an extraordinary meeting to discuss enhancing international cooperation to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic, as well as strengthening preparedness for future pandemics.

The participants in this significant online diplomatic event discussed the importance of coordinating precautionary measures on cross-border management to protect lives and livelihoods.

During the meeting, foreign ministers acknowledged the importance of opening borders, uniting families, and promoting measures to allow the economy to thrive in light of the protective measures adopted by health organizations and by national regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 75th session of the UNGA will offer to the G20 members the chance to demonstrate their diplomatic maturity by helping all UN members to reach a consensus for a genuine strategy for promoting and defending global health.

While history teaches us that diplomatic maturity is a rare phenomenon at the global level, there is no doubt that, at present, worldwide solidarity in fighting COVID -19 will remain just a pure aspiration if diplomatic maturity does not become a mobilizing force able to overcome national egoisms in searching for universal solutions.

What diplomats participants in multilateral diplomacy under the auspices of the UN and WHO are expected to do is to give nations they represent a perspective of what is possible to accomplish , help them to win the battle with an invisible enemy.

Academics in many countries emphasize the fact that multilateral diplomacy should be able to motivate, catalyse, inspire, instruct, facilitate, encourage, support, assist in finding consensus solutions.However, insufficient diplomatic maturity can be detrimental in this highly complex and responsible process. Advance responsible preparation is an imperative prerequisite in order to succeed with any diplomatic initiative.That is why some recent inter-regional proposals deserve full attention.

The representatives of Canada, Denmark, Qatar, the Republic of Korea and Sierra Leone to the UN informed the UN Secretary-General about the creation of the Group of Friends of Solidarity for Global Health Security, which includes 43 states and the European Union.

This Group,- insufficiently publicized by mainstream media,- aims to complement ongoing global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and other threats to global health security by providing an informal platform for UN member states to share their experiences, including best practices and lessons learned from responding to COVID-19 and past health crises.

The Group will primarily focus its discussions on the impact of COVID-19 and other health crises on peace and security, development, human rights and humanitarian aspects, and on how to respond to these challenges. It will take a comprehensive approach and discuss topics that address the wide-ranging and multifaceted impact of COVID-19 and other health crises.

The Group of Friends reaffirmed its shared commitment to multilateralism and collective action in the face of these challenges and will encourage enhanced political will and solidarity among member states, the UN, academia, civil society and other actors.

Legitimate expectations can be expressed about the long-term success of the activities of the describedGroup of Friends of Solidarity for Global Health Security.

Unavoidable responsibility

On 19 February 2000 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) adopted by consensus a document entitled "Bangkok Declaration: Global Dialogue and Dynamic Engagement" which contains relevant provisions fully applicable during COVID-19 times.

I was in the conference room when this first programmatic document of the 21st Century was enthusiastically welcomed by all delegations. It says inter alia that "Solidarity and a strong sense of moral responsibility must be the guiding light of national and international policy. They are not only ethical imperatives, but also prerequisites for a prosperous, peaceful and secure world based on true partnership."

After 20 years,the full implementation of these objectives is still on the waiting list.The UN Secretary-General recognized it in clear terms.In his remarks on September 4 2020 ,at the G20 extraordinary meeting of the ministers of foreign affairs, he said :"we still lack effective international solidarity to respond to the economic and social impacts and the underlying fragilities exposed by the pandemic."

Can the 75th session of the UNGA lead to significant solutions ?

There are doubts that the declaration to be adopted by the high -level segment of the UNGA session will contain specific solutions. More results can be expected from the substantive deliberations in the UNGA plenary about global health and foreign policy.

In this regard,Indonesia has already officially announced that during its chairmanship of the Foreign Policy and Global Health Initiative in 2020, it has chosen "Affordable health care for all" as the central theme. Every year, the Initiative member countries have pioneered, and succeeded in mainstreaming health issues within the global health and foreign policy agenda at the UNGA and at the World Health Assembly. Since promoting global health involves and requires concerted efforts on the part of multiple stakeholders, Indonesia would like to revitalize the Initiative to translate this specific cooperation into more concrete actions and results and affordable care for all.

It is in this organizational framework that a new comprehensive resolution could be adopted after serious consideration of the WHO report on the relevant agenda item. In this framework an authentic test of diplomatic maturity can take place. Yet,such a maturity cannot emerge spontaneously without a strong stimulus from national leaders who need themselves a true political maturity as decision-making actors.

In the opinion of some academics,leadership maturity may be the most overlooked factor in the global political arena. This is a paradox, because almost every meaningful decision of national leaders has multi-systemic and sometimes local, national, regional and even global implications affecting diplomacy. In such circumstances, in order to be able to pass the test of diplomatic maturity it is necessary to take advantage of the most mature transformative leadership capacities at the national level.

From this perspective, an interesting concept launched by Princeton University (USA) Professor Richard Falk, one of the world's leading authorities on international politics, might be considered during the forthcoming UN deliberations on global health. Professor Richard Falk used the expression "medical solidarity"in an article and in a recent interview while pleading for "a rule-governed geopolitics, anchored in respect for the UN Charter and embodying commitments to promote a more peaceful, just, and ecologically responsible world ".

While UN future resolutions are expected to contain appeals for developing global solidarity in fighting COVID-19, it can be anticipated that, irrespective of their substance, they will contain only recommendations. A resolution is an invitation to act which may not be implemented by some member states. This is a valid reason for robust diplomatic efforts to start preparing an international convention dedicated at least to "medical solidarity", a legal instrument which once adopted, ratified and entered into force would oblige states parties to it to act and to report periodically about the implementation of its provisions.

In the process of such efforts, diplomats might be inspired by the wisdom of Edmund Burke (1727-1797 according to whom "Society…. becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are (yet) to be born".This truth is valid for all human beings , including the actors of multilateral diplomacy who are expected to successfully pass in the near future the test of diplomatic maturity.

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About the Author

Dr Ioan Voicu is a Visiting Professor at Assumption University in Bangkok

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