12 March 2019, GENEVA - Multilateralism must be people-driven. The current rise of populism around the world is inextricably linked to a feeling of being excluded and kept out of decision-making processes broadly shared by ordinary people. These were the main conclusions of a joint event between the Geneva Centre for Human Rights Advancement and Global Dialogue and the UNOG Library entitled Leadership in Modern Multilateralism. The debate was held on 12 March 2019 at the United Nations Office in Geneva in the Library Events Room at Palais Des Nations.

At a time when the UN and other international organizations in Geneva are actively celebrating   “100 years Anniversary of Multilateral Diplomacy in Geneva” to mark the Centenary of the founding of the League of Nations, multilateralism is under important strain. The effectiveness of global institutions and of global policymaking is constantly questioned whilst alliances are fraying. Against this background, the timely debate co-organized by the UNOG Library and the Geneva Centre discussed multilateralism as the most logical approach to the challenges the world is facing in our time of fast-paced globalisation. The panellists explored the principles and ideas underpinning multilateralism against a complex background of climate change, the rise of technology and the future of the global economy.

Often, in times of transition, drawing lessons from the past is a good way to find solutions and inspiration for the way forward. In this vein, the Geneva Centre and UNOG Library proposed an interactive discussion in light of the legacy of two great figures of multilateralism - Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Maurice F. Strong, as depicted in two publications issued by the European Centre for Peace and Development (ECPD) in 2018, entitled Remembering Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Remembering Maurice F. Strong respectively. The panel underscored the role of these eminent persons who shaped international affairs and discussed the changes in the nature of leadership in the 21st century, with the rise of modern multilateralism.

A book signing with Mr Roberto Savio, coordinator of the publications, journalist; President Emeritus of Inter Press Service (IPS) and Chairman of IPS Board of Trustees, was arranged after the debate.

Mr. Michael Møller, Director-General of United Nations Geneva, delivered welcoming remarks, in which he highlighted that, despite enduring grave challenges like climate change, pervasive inequality, health issues and ongoing conflict, the world is however in an overall better situation today than at any time in history.

Mr. Møller underscored that multilateralism was at a crossroad today. According to the Director General of UNOG, it was imperative to address the crisis of confidence affecting international institutions, and to better define the roles of International Organizations, of Nation-States, of the private sector and of Civil Society Organizations in the leadership of multilateralism.

Mr. Møller conclude his welcoming remarks by quoting Kofi Annan: “Whether our task is fighting poverty, stemming the spread of disease or saving innocent lives from mass murder, we have seen that we cannot succeed without the leadership of the strong and the engagement of all.”

The discussion benefited from the participation of the following experts:

  • Mr. Roberto Savio, Author; Journalist, President Emeritus of Inter Press Service (IPS) and Chairman of IPS Board of Trustees;
  • Prof. Thomas Biersteker, Professor of International Security and Director of Policy Research, Graduate Institute;
  • H. E.  Ms. Hala Hameed, Ambassador & Permanent Representative of the Republic of Maldives to the United Nations Office and other international organisations in Geneva.

Ms. Corinne Momal-Vanian, Director of the Division of Conference Management at United Nations Office Geneva moderated the debate.

The Executive Director of the Geneva Centre, Ambassador Idriss Jazairy, delivered introductory remarks. Ambassador Jazairy reviewed the evolution of post-WWII multilateralism, taking the UN as an example. Ambassador Jazairy carried out this review through the prism of his own experience as an Algerian diplomat and Head of a UN specialized agency. In this regard he also paid special tribute to former Executive Director of UNICEF, Jim Grant, who designated his Ambassador Audrey Hepburn to read the outcome document of the World Summit on the Economic Advancement of Rural Women, which Ambassador Jazairy organized as President of IFAD in Geneva, in February 1992 in the presence of Boutros-Ghali, with the involvement of 64 First Ladies and 20 Cabinet Ministers. The Summit was chaired by Queen Fabiola of Belgium.

Ambassador Jazairy emphasized that, whilst the multilateral climate in the 1970s was dominated by a cooperative spirit, the climate changed significantly afterwards. The Director of the Geneva Centre further discussed the concept of “Responsibility to protect” or R2P and the misuses that led to this concept being manipulated into a tool for externally imposed regime change. In this regard, he underlined that the “weaponization of humanitarianism was a wanton outgrowth of the responsibility to protect.”

Finally, Ambassador Jazairy insisted on the importance of understanding that multilateralism had to be people-driven. He noted that the current rise of populism around the world was inextricably linked to a feeling of being excluded of decision-making processes shared by ordinary people.  As such, the Director of the Geneva Centre emphasized that the solutions for tomorrow’s multilateralism lay in, on the one hand,  “breaking the logjam on Security Council reform”, and on the other hand, in empowering citizens worldwide, by involving credible civil society actors headquartered in the South as well as in the North.

Mr. Roberto Savio echoed Ambassador Jazairy in saluting the three heroes of multilateralism, Jim Grant, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Maurice F Strong, that in the 1980s, multilateralism went into crisis. He spoke of the legacy of Jim Grant who had saved millions of children from death and remained, however, largely unknown. Furthermore, according to Mr. Savio, Maurice Strong had been, throughout his career, mixing his abilities of management of private enterprises and his visionary skills as a UN leader. He saluted his pioneering engagement for the environment and the climate, and his crucial role in the 1992 Rio Conference on Environment, which initiated an inclusive process on environment that continued in Kyoto and Paris.

Furthermore, Mr. Savio reiterated that it was imperative that all countries accepted other countries’ right to an equal voice in international fora. In this sense, he remarked that the multilateral climate had suffered a change of direction that exacerbated inequality and opened the way to nationalist, populist and extremist political movements. He noted that “The two engines of history are greed and fear”.

H. E. Ms. Hala Hameed remarked that for a small country like the Republic of Maldives, multilateralism is an essential tool to ensure cooperation, to work jointly on peace, security, economic partnerships, as well as to promote and to protect human rights. According to Ambassador Hameed, small countries could gain a voice in the international arena only through multilateral cooperation.

In this regard, the Ambassador & Permanent Representative of the Republic of Maldives remarked that the Maldives had been very involved in the work of the UN Human Rights Council and particularly in the creation of the mandate of Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment.

Ambassador Hameed remarked that the Maldives, immediately after obtaining independence in 1965, became a member of the UN. She further emphasized the importance of dialogue for leaders in multilateralism, particularly for small countries, who needed to be persistent and to use diplomatic channels, both formal and increasingly, informal ones, in order to bring to the agenda matters that concern them.

Prof. Thomas Biersteker presented multilateralism today as a crisscross of formal intergovernmental organizations, informal intergovernmental organizations and transnational or trans-governmental institutions, the latter having known an exponential rise over the years. Whilst formal governance was driven by member states, based on international treaties, and grounded in domestic law, the world was witnessing, according to Professor Biersteker, the emergence of a “new governance”.

Professor Biersteker concluded that, whilst the first type of formal multilateral structures remained crucial, as it lies at the very foundation of multilateralism, it was important to acknowledge and work with the emerging informal networks and forms of government.

Professor Biersteker remarked that the world today was not necessarily lacking good leaders. He noted that new leaders were emerging among pioneers such as Malala Yousafzai or the Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg. Referring to the characteristics that leaders today should have, he highlighted flexibility, including seeing the possibility of all forms of governance and operating simultaneously in formal and informal initiatives; as well as the capacity of listening to others.

During the ensuing Q&A session, a representative of UN Youth underlined the importance of participatory processes in multilateralism and of understanding the value of collective leadership versus traditional leadership, of connected networks instead of hierarchies, and of collaborative processes instead of top down approaches. Another member of the public underlined the importance of inclusive multilateralism and highlighted the need to bring more women leaders to the forefront of multilateral institutions and processes.

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