Multilateralism in crisis? - Global governance and human rights

9 March 2006

The European Policy Centre, with support of the Canadian Mission to the EU, held a Policy Dialogue on Multilateralism in crisis? - Global governance and human rights. The keynote speakers were David Malone, Assistant Deputy Minister (Global Issues), Foreign Affairs Department, Canada; and Robert Cooper, Director General for External and Politico-Military Affairs, European Council. The meeting was chaired by EPC Senior Advisor Fraser Cameron.

Multilateralism - past its “sell-by-date”?

In his opening remarks, David Malone expressed concern about the state of the United Nations-based multilateral system, saying that it was comprised of institutions most of which were in serious trouble, or “well beyond their sell-by date”.

As well as the United Nations itself, there are the two financial institutions: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These promised so much, but have delivered so little. While they monopolise large chunks of development aid, their failures are such that some countries, particularly in Latin America, prefer to stay away from them. Two sister organisations - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) - are also under considerable pressure.

These UN bodies have been supplemented by regional organisations, but Mr Malone did not see great cause for hope here either. While he praised the role played by the Organisation for American States (OAS) in democratising the region in the 1990s, he said the OAS was now changing course under leaders such as Hugo Chavez.

In Asia, the trend has been towards ‘forums’ such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rather than towards regional organisations. Unfortunately, ASEAN has not developed its role and its human rights agenda has been undermined by including countries such as Myanmar as members.

Turning to Africa, Mr Malone regretted that most governments had failed to live up to the ideals of the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

As for the UN, the anchor of the entire multilateral system, Mr Malone felt it was still suffering from the fall-out over Iraq. This had marginalised the Security Council, although the US had now starting using it again. However, Mr Malone was full of praise for Kofi Annan, the current UN Secretary General, for his strong stand on human rights.

The UN – credits and debits

In relation to UN activity, Mr Malone said that on the credit side, it had played a unique role in organising peace-keeping forces and had established a peace-building fund. He also praised its humanitarian actions, under the strong leadership of Jan Egeland, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

On the debit side, the UN had lost its focus on international development. In addition, the aim of raising Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) to 0.7% of GDP had been unclear and, at times, confused with the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDG). This had undermined public support for the UN, compounded by its inability to ‘broadcast’ its results.

There have been moves to reform the UN, but this is very difficult, given so many vested interests. It has sparked a bitter fight within the Security Council and little progress has been made, with the UN Special Summit in September 2005 producing very mixed results.

Mr Malone noted a more pragmatic attitude among countries towards the UN since the Iraq war, with the emergence of an “instrumental” multilateralism. Many countries now use the Security Council when it suits them. This new pragmatism is reflected in the individual deals being cut between countries, with the recent US-India nuclear energy deal being a good example of this. Mr Malone said it appeared that countries wished to retain their ideological purity within the UN while forging deals elsewhere.

All these crises in the UN system are worrying for countries which value multilateralism, and which are not powerful enough to go it alone, such as Canada. “The UN protects us, we respect its use of law, and it enables us to work with others,” said Mr Malone.

Crisis - what crisis?

Robert Cooper took a more benign view of multilateral relations. He saw much to praise, with progress in the globalisation, trade and investment arenas - all areas which depend on the multilateral system. Despite difficulties, the WTO was functioning, making judgements on contentious cases and getting members to abide by them.

Looking at the UN itself, he agreed that, despite having one of the most highly-respected Secretary Generals on record, it was clearly facing major problems. However, more technical international organisations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the Universal Postal Union (UPI) and International Civil Aviation Organisations (ICAO) continued to function well.

Mr Cooper agreed with Mr Malone that regional organisations were not in “fantastically good shape”, but was generally more upbeat. He strongly believed that in some areas of the world, regional organisations played an important role.

In Latin America, multilateral organisations are clearly needed, and Asia would be worse off without ASEAN. The African Union is a relatively new body and full of hope.

Mr Cooper added that over the last 15 years, the Union had proven the value of multilateralism.

Multilateralism - helping to solve human rights crises

Despite some drawbacks, Mr Cooper believed that multilateral intervention was the only way to solve many crises: for example, those in Sudan (Darfur), Myanmar, Chechnya, Nepal, Palestine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Balkans, Iran and Iraq.

Multilateralism can take many forms. In Palestine, the ‘Quartet’ and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNRA) have played a key role; in the Balkan conflict, the EU, the UN, NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) worked together to secure peace; and in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur, regional organisations were crucial.

Mr Cooper admitted that there were occasions where a multilateral approach had not succeeded, such as in Nepal and Myanmar. However, he also paid tribute to the role the private sector had played in solving human rights crises.

Finally, he said responses to crises were always devised within a multilateral framework. He also questioned whether it was multilateralism or the states it was trying to help that were in continual crisis. He preferred to look at the problem differently: the international system was groaning under the enormity of coping with these continual crises.

He then highlighted some of the key questions which had to be answered: what mechanisms can be used to cope with this and how do you bring erring states into line? Should pressure be used, or international sanctions, or military intervention? If these cannot be used, what other methods are there? “We have never been faced with such an array of problems before – how could we do it better?” he askeed.