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The future of international cooperation: Time to think big, urges Guterres

UN Secretary-General briefed the UN General-Assembly on his vision for the future of global cooperation (archive photo).
UN Secretary-General briefed the UN General-Assembly on his vision for the future of global cooperation (archive photo). UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Celebrating the UN’s 75th anniversary last year, prompted major internal discussion about its future, and a new direction away from the post-World War Two consensus of its early days. These reflections have resulted in Our Common Agenda, a landmark new report released on Friday by the UN Secretary-General, setting out his vision for the future of global cooperation.

Mr. Guterres launched the report at a meeting of the General Assembly on Friday, prefacing his remarks with a scathing overview of the parlous state of a world he described as being under enormous stress, and warning that the world risks a future of “serious instability and climate chaos”.

“From the climate crisis to our suicidal war on nature and the collapse of biodiversity, our global response is too little, too late”, declared the Secretary-General. “Unchecked inequality is undermining social cohesion, creating fragilities that affect us all. Technology is moving ahead without guard rails to protect us from its unforeseen consequences.”

The UN chief went on to describe the extensive consultations that fed into its development, a listening exercise that led the UN to the conclusion that enhanced multilateralism is seen as the way to deal with the world’s crises (see text box, below).

Breakdown or breakthrough?

Two contrasting futures are laid out in the report: one of breakdown and perpetual crisis, and another in which there is a breakthrough, to a greener, safer future.

The doomsday scenario describes a world in which COVID-19 is endlessly mutating, because rich countries hoard vaccines, and health systems are overwhelmed.

In that future, the planet becomes uninhabitable due to rising temperatures and extreme weather events, and a million species are on the brink of extinction.

This is coupled by a continuous erosion of human rights, a massive loss of jobs and income, and growing protests and unrest, which are met by violent repression.

Or, we could go the other way, sharing vaccines equitably, and sparking a sustainable recovery in which the global economy is retooled to be more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive.

By decarbonizing the economy, global temperature rises would be limited, countries heavily affected by climate change would be supported, and ecosystems would be preserved for future generations, the report says.

This approach would herald a new era for multilateralism, in which countries work together to solve global problems; the international system works fast to protect everyone in emergencies; and the UN is universally recognized as a trusted platform for collaboration.

A better future: Goals and solutions

To ensure that we get to live in a world in which the breakthrough scenario dominates, the report makes a series of key proposals.

The importance of protecting vulnerable groups is recognized in commitments to gender equality and leaving no-one behind, which include reinforcing social protections and promoting gender parity.

Ensuring a more sustainable global economy is identified as a goal, with support for the poorest, and a fairer international trading system. 

Climate action gets a special mention, with commitments to the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and end to fossil fuel subsidies, a transformation of food systems, and a package of support for developing countries. 

The perennial issues of peace and security are addressed, with the report calling for a “new agenda for peace”, involving more investment for peacebuilding, support for regional conflict prevention, a reduction of strategic risks such as nuclear weapons and cyberwarfare - and a dialogue on outer space to ensure that it is used peacefully and sustainably.

Linked to the security issue are commitments to international justice; the application of human rights online, as part of a Global Digital Compact, and a step up in the fight against corruption, in a bid to build trust in institutions.

UN upgrade

One of those institutions is, of course, the UN itself, which, says the report, is due an upgrade, with a more participatory and consultative approach, gender parity by 2028, the re-establishment of the Secretary-General’s Scientific Advisory Board, and a policy that puts people at the centre of the UN System, taking into account age, gender and diversity.

Other proposals concern the improved participation of youth in the political process and efforts to cut youth unemployment; better partnerships between governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector, and civil society; and an emergency platform to better prepare for global crises, with stronger global health security.

As the UN embarks on the Decade of Action – 10 years to make real progress to deliver the promise of a sustainable, fairer future by 2030 – there is an opportunity to reshape the world for the better, with multilateralism at the heart of the process. 

However, as the “breakdown scenario” shows, failure to work effectively together risks significant, irreversible damage to the planet and even, life itself: In his speech to the General Assembly, Mr. Guterres underlined that Our Common Agenda is driven by solidarity, “the principle of working together, recognizing that we are bound to each other and that no community or country, however powerful, can solve its challenges alone.”

Our Common Agenda: the context

  • The fact that the 75th anniversary came during a global health emergency, highlights the importance of multilateral thinking: 2020 saw the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, which came amid growing concern over the climate crisis, another urgent issue that does not respect national borders.
  • In early 2020, 1.5 million people took part in a year-long global UN initiative to listen to people’s priorities, and expectations of how international cooperation can impact the future.
  • They shared their hopes and fears, calling for a more transparent, inclusive UN, and identifying climate change and environmental issues as the number one long-term global challenge.
  • Our Common Agenda builds on the findings from that initiative – as well as input from thought leaders, eminent groups such as The Elders, diplomats and other partners – offering suggestions and solutions, ideas for action, and looking ahead to the next 25 years of the UN. 
  • The report calls for the core values of the UN to be reaffirmed, whilst acknowledging that the foundations of the Organization, need to be reshaped to better reflect today’s world.
  • It also recognized the urgent need for action: the climate crisis poses an existential crisis to all human life, and can only be solved if the international community works effective together, across borders, to end accelerated heating of the planet caused by human activity, and adapt to the damage it has already caused.

Source: UN News

Read more about Our Common Agenda here.