What's In Blue

Posted Thu 6 May 2021

High-level Briefing on “Upholding Multilateralism and the UN-Centred International System”

Tomorrow (7 May) the Security Council will hold a high-level videoconference briefing on “Maintenance of international peace and security: Upholding multilateralism and the United Nations-centred international system”. This is one of the signature events of China’s presidency. Wang Yi, China’s State Councillor and Minister for Foreign Affairs, will chair the meeting. Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of St. Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves is the one head of government participating in the meeting. All other Council members are represented at ministerial level. Volkan Bozkir, the president of the General Assembly, is expected to brief.

The Security Council has met several times in the past to discuss the UN Charter and the multilateral system. On 9 January 2020, Viet Nam convened an open debate on “Upholding the United Nations Charter”. In a presidential statement adopted during that meeting, the Council reaffirmed its commitment to multilateralism and the UN’s central role.

China has also highlighted these themes through signature events in prior Council presidencies. It convened a ministerial-level open debate during its February 2015 presidency on the purposes and principles of the Charter in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the UN’s founding. China also initiated an open debate during its November 2018 presidency on “Strengthening multilateralism and the role of the United Nations”. At that meeting, Secretary-General António Guterres warned about the eroding effects of the decline in trust among nations while stressing that the “crises in Syria, in the Middle East peace process and elsewhere have shaken popular faith in the potential of the international community to deliver solutions”. He added that to strengthen multilateralism, the international community must reinforce its commitment to the UN Charter, and UN bodies should seek further cooperation with regional organisations and civil society.

While tomorrow’s meeting is expected to build on these past discussions, it comes at a time of significant reflection by member states on the future of the multilateral system. As noted in a concept note circulated by China ahead of the meeting, “the COVID-19 pandemic has once again reminded us that all countries are interconnected and share a common future”.

The meeting also comes shortly after the Group of Friends in Defense of the UN Charter—which was established in February 2019 and includes Council members China, Russia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines among its members—released a 10 March paper in which it described a “growing resort to unilateralism, marked by isolationist and arbitrary actions, including the imposition of unilateral coercive measures or the withdrawal from landmark agreements and multilateral institutions”. Several members of the Group of Friends in Defense of the UN Charter have been highly critical of US foreign policy; some members of the Group–such as the DPRK, Iran, and Syria–are on the Council’s agenda. While the new US administration has expressed a commitment to multilateral values that the previous administration did not, it remains to be seen whether and how this can be translated into progress on divisive issues on the Council’s agenda.

According to the concept note, possible issues that may be discussed at the meeting include ways to:

  • better consolidate the multilateral system and prevent the resurgence of unilateralism;
  • uphold the UN-centred international system and the basic norms of international relations in the Charter;
  • strengthen international solidarity and cooperation and use multilateralism to address the most pressing conventional or non-conventional security issues;
  • harmonise and regulate relations among countries through institutions and rules, and to persist in resolving differences through consultation and dialogue; and
  • strengthen the authority of the UN and promote the central role of the UN in international affairs.

At tomorrow’s meeting, Council members are likely to reiterate their commitment to the UN Charter and multilateralism. They may underscore that issues such as climate change, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mass migration, and the spread of diseases such as COVID-19 have consequences beyond the scope of one state and therefore can only be resolved through international cooperation and solidarity. During the November 2018 debate, member states referred to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and UN peacekeeping as positive examples of multilateral cooperation. Such examples may be noted again at tomorrow’s briefing. The importance of conflict prevention, mediation, and negotiation as tools to peacefully settle disputes—as described in Chapter VI of the Charter—will probably be discussed as well. The relationship between the Council and regional and sub-regional organizations, outlined in Chapter VIII of the Charter, may also be raised in the meeting, including ways in which the Council and these organisations can work together to resolve regional disputes and transnational threats.

Members may show different views on the key characteristics of multilateralism and the UN Charter. Some members, such as China and Russia, may underscore the importance of state sovereignty and non-intervention as key principles of the international order. At the same time, a number of members, including France, the UK and the US, might reiterate their well-established position that upholding state sovereignty should not be used as a pretext for member states to violate human rights within their own borders. Some members may also raise the issue of Security Council reform as a means to make this organ more representative of the international community’s composition.