75 years after the signing of the UN Charter and the creation of the UN, the world is coping with challenges that were unimaginable back in the day. Established to maintain international peace and security, safeguard human rights, and promote development, the present-day economic slowdown, inequalities, human rights abuses, and conflicts show that the three UN pillars remain out of reach for many.
Unlike in previous years, the heads of states and governments met online to address the ongoing pandemic and raise concerns on other shared challenges exacerbated by COVID-19.
Health as a global priority
Tackling the theme of ‘the future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism – confronting COVID-19 through effective multilateral action’, the delegates, as expected, emphasised the widespread impact of the Coronavirus. In this respect, much attention was dedicated to the global health system and its shortcomings. Noting that COVID-19 knows no borders and does not discriminate, it was agreed that neither treatments should be discriminatory. Referring to the global vaccine facility COVAX, world leaders stressed that the vaccine should be a global public good, accessible and affordable to everyone.
Falling behind on SDGs
The closure of borders and confinement measures have also led to economic slowdown. Acknowledging that the health crisis made the attainment of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) even more difficult, representatives highlighted some of the most pressing economic setbacks. In addition to noticeable declines in gross domestic product (GDP), countries have pointed to rising unemployment, the disruptions of supply chains and trade, and the obstacles to the free movement of migrant workers. Developing countries and small island states, such as Vanuatu and Cabo Verde, have also called on developed countries and international partners to support them in the provision of debt forgiveness and relief, and, through concessional resources, help them reshape their respective economies.
Moreover, the pandemic has led to the rise of social inequalities, discrimination, and gender-based violence. Despite the marking of the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights, the events of 2020 have reinforced the vulnerability of women and girls, in particular in conflict-affected areas, by hindering women’s and girls’ access to essential health services.
On conflicts and violence
Attention was also paid to ongoing violent conflicts and the way this health pandemic has either aggravated or overshadowed them. Regardless of the call of the UN secretary general for a ceasefire in all conflict areas that has received widespread support, speakers shed light on the ongoing conflicts, including the protracted violence in Mali and Sudan, the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, and ceasefire violations in Nagorno–Karabakh. Whereas questions on the future of warfare are increasingly gaining ground, it is noteworthy that only three delegations referred to lethal autonomous weapon systems (LAWS), commonly known as killer robots. The Austrian delegation, for instance, specifically highlighted ethical concerns and the applications of international humanitarian law to LAWS.
The digital remains on the agenda
Digital policy issues were, however, discussed from a different perspective. With around 80 delegations addressing digital issues, more than 15% referred to the notion of the digital divide that has been brought into focus with the transition to online education and teleworking. Developing countries such as Gambia, Tonga, and Nepal, see ending the digital gap as one of the urgent priorities for creating equal opportunities for accessing information and communication technologies (ICTs).
It is worth noting that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the public sector in many countries. To this end, delegations pointed to the provision of digital services and payments, and using digital platforms for conducting business, opportunities not to be missed by younger generations. That said, digitalisation also bears a number of risks, namely, cybercrime and privacy violations.
In this regard, several countries, such as Singapore and Slovenia, stressed the importance of a trusted, open, and inclusive cyberspace underpinned by international law, and norms of responsible state behaviour. Australia endorsed a similar position.
Building back better
The current health crisis emphasised the need for increased solidarity. It has shown, yet again, that ‘no one is safe until we are all safe’ and that the response to COVID-19 must not leave anyone behind.
As expected, climate action featured second on the agenda. Expressing commitment to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement, countries agreed to use the window of opportunity and build back better, greener, and bluer.
UN member states also called for the reinforcement of multilateralism, with some citing the need for the reform of the UN that is more representative of the current state of affairs. A number of member states agreed that the UN Security Council does not reflect the geopolitical realities of today, and called for an increase in the number of permanent and non-permanent members of the Council, especially from the African continent.