Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko | Credit: IISD Reporting Services - Photo: 2020

Multilateralism, The Covid-19 Pandemic and The NPT Review Conference

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

Ambassador, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) – On April 24, the International Day of Multilateralism and Diplomacy for Peace was observed at the United Nations. At the occasion, Secretary-general António Guterres called for a “networked multilateralism, strengthening coordination among all global multilateral organizations” with the regional multilateral organizations making their vital contributions. His advice is both warranted and timely.

Over the centuries since the affirmation of the principle of sovereign equality, states have jointly developed norms, objectives and institutions aimed not only at confronting common threats but also at seizing common opportunities. The Charter of the United Nations, adopted in 1945, gave legal expression to the commitment of all states to the maintenance of international peace and security and the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples.

The adjective “multilateral” is often used to characterize the agreements reached through negotiations involving a large number of nations in the fulfilment of that fundamental commitment, which is shared by all signatory states as sovereign members of the international community.

The obligations derived from such legally binding agreements are not imposed on states and their peoples by some artificial supra-national authority but are freely accepted by each in the common search for lasting security and stability and hence a better world for all. The concept of “multilateralism”, as used and understood in the international context, simply designates a generally accepted mode of cooperation among sovereign equals to produce results for the benefit of all.

Since the inception of the UN, the community of states has worked together to achieve the objectives defined by the principles and purposes inscribed in the Charter. Throughout the 75 years of its existence, the world organization has evolved to a highly complex system that today comprises several agencies, programs and instruments established by member states to address specific issues. The development of new forms of interaction among the different parts and elements of this system has led to more effective cooperation and synergy.

Despite rivalries between states and groups of countries, as well as occasional divergences about priorities and governance that have in some cases hindered its effectiveness, by and large, this system has succeeded in promoting solidarity and constructive cooperation, besides achieving generally accepted results based on shared objectives, attitudes and action. 

During the past few decades, old and new challenges were brought to the fore. A growing concern with issues like climate change, the enduring existence and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, economic and social inequality, food security, human rights, population movements and others gave rise to the need to perfect or devise common tools to deal with them.

Because such issues are to some extent interconnected and their effects do not remain confined to national boundaries, they are often referred to as “global”. The exponential increase in the speed and range of communications, access to information and development of scientific research and knowledge allowed for them to be addressed in more informed, multilateral and holistic ways that command the support of vast majorities of states.

Prominent among the global challenges currently facing humankind is the continued existence of weapons of mass destruction. An overwhelming majority of States believes these weapons pose an existential threat to mankind and are contrary to international humanitarian law.

Several instruments were developed multilaterally to reduce and eventually eliminate the risk of the use of such weapons, including the 1972 Bacteriological (Biological) Weapons Convention (BWC) and the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In 1968 the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was opened for the signature of states and entered into force two years later. Although those treaties may fall short of universality, they are among the most widely adhered-to instruments in any area.

Additional norms in that direction were negotiated and adopted multilaterally over the decades, including the 1996 Comprehensive Test-ban Treaty (CTBT). More recently, in 2017, a large number of states, strongly supported by civil society organizations, succeeded in concluding the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), aimed at the elimination of nuclear weapons – an objective which not just NPT or CTBT parties, but all nations, profess to support. Although not yet fully in force, the latter two treaties already have set critical new standards in the field of international security.

Moreover, regional arrangements that established zones free of such weapons now encompass 114 nations in five continents, besides the Antarctic, outer space and celestial bodies, plus the seabed and its subsoil. At the same time, the possessors of nuclear weapons have sought to reduce or limit the size of their arsenals either through bilateral arrangements or unilateral decisions yet remain reluctant to adopt effective measures according to their obligation under Article VI of the NPT.

Despite the value and contribution of multilateral approaches to a more stable world, in recent years some leaders have expressed doubt, if not outright derision at such agreed solutions, all the while extolling the purported virtues of placing the interests of their own country above those of all. In some cases, particularly in the field of disarmament and non-proliferation, unilateral abandonment of existing commitments and agreed objectives have shaken the confidence in the ability of existing institutions and instruments to deal effectively with current realities.

Such attitudes contribute to no less assertive postures from other quarters, as well as to a recrudescence of the arms race and renewed ambitions for even more technologically advanced weapons, seeking to obtain a decisive – yet elusive – advantage over perceived threats and prospective adversaries. Regrettably, the net result of all this has been, more than anything else, an increase in rivalry and mistrust among the major powers and increased insecurity and risks for all.

The need to uphold international law and strengthen support for a system based on rules, dialogue and cooperation were highlighted last September at the United Nations during the High-Level Dialogue on Renewing the Commitment to Multilateralism. As the President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly pointedly asserted at the occasion, “the search for unilateral solutions for universal challenges would only aggravate the risks of isolation and confrontation”.

These proved to be prescient words, in light not only of continued tensions around the world but also of the unexpected appearance, early this year, of the new coronavirus.

The pressure of the ensuing pandemic on available public and private health facilities as well as on medical, scientific and human resources made clear that the world was not prepared to deal effectively with the rapid spread of the virus, not least with the severity of its economic, social and humanitarian implications.

Political motivations notwithstanding, the blame now levelled at the World Health Organization also highlights how certain prevention failures may have resulted precisely from inadequate or insufficient multilateral cooperation. The dimension and urgency of the health emergency underlined that international cooperative scientific research is a powerful instrument to develop innovative medication and an effective vaccine against the virus.

In the current climate of fear, uncertainty and helplessness, one can easily extrapolate and imagine what it would be like to have to deal with an even more ominous emergency resulting not from another pandemic, but from a conflagration with the use of nuclear weapons.

In 2014, a Conference held in Vienna built on two previous similar gatherings of governments, civil society movements and academics. It warned that the large-scale catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapon detonations would moreover be potentially irreversible. Such forebodings are as disturbing as they are recurrent ever since nuclear weapons came into being. Humanity must not be made to carry on living under the unending shadow of these weapons and the military doctrines predicated in their use.

In the face of such high stakes, overemphasizing national views and belittling multilateral agreements does not help to find reliable solutions to common problems. Just like public health or the environment, the nuclear dimension of security is a matter addressed by numerous multilateral treaties precisely because it does not pertain exclusively to nuclear-armed countries and their allies.

Multilaterally agreed norms cannot be seen as jeopardizing the exercise of national sovereignty. On the contrary, they are indispensable to deal effectively with global threats like disease-causing viruses, just as much as with the existential menace posed by nuclear weapons.

Last March we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the entry into force of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, widely considered as the cornerstone of the non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, its Review Conference had to be postponed to 2021 but a final date has not yet been set.

In the meantime, parties to the Treaty have been encouraged to take advantage of this interregnum and work together, with the participation of civil society, to move closer to realizing the admirable promise of the NPT: a world free of nuclear weapons. Enlightened leadership, not entrenched recalcitrance, particularly from the possessors of the largest arsenals, is absolutely necessary to ensure progress on all the Treaty’s fronts. Insistence on unbalanced, partisan approaches will only exacerbate the stress this major instrument is already under.

Fifty years after the NPT’s inception, it is high time for nuclear-weapon States to show unmitigated compliance with the obligation contained in its Article VI, contracted in the exercise of national sovereignty for the benefit of all – themselves included. When dealing with nuclear weapons, as with viruses, containment may be good, but is not enough. The only true protection is complete eradication. [IDN-InDepthNews – 28 May 2020]

Collage: Images from Internet of multilateralism, coronavirus and nuclear testing.

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