Multilateral Systems Need to Be Retooled, Be Inclusive and Participatory

December 2021

The multilateral systems need a retooling to boost their legitimacy, accountability, and functionality in the future. For this, it is critical to engage with and strengthen the voices of civil society, local governments as well as the private sector. In this process, Germany could take a stronger leadership role.

Interview with María Fernanda Espinosa

UN Multilateralismus Maria Espinosa
Foto: UN Women / Ryan Brown

Henry Alt-Haaker: Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us about the changing international order and the needed reforms of multilateralism. This topic is of utmost importance for the Robert Bosch Stiftung as it is “the sea in which we swim” with our work. So, let's start with the big picture: What would you say are the top three changes that are required to legitimize international organizations and rebuild trust in them?

María Fernanda Espinosa: I see three main challenges in the capacity of international organizations to respond to the needs of our time. First is the legitimacy of decisions that are taken globally: namely who takes the decisions, how much social ownership is there, the mechanisms for oversight and accountability, and how societies feel the impact of a decision that is taken globally in their daily lives.

Second is an implementation deficit. We have developed a very sophisticated, complex architecture of international and multilateral decision making. There is a significant disconnect between norms and policies and implementation on the ground. When you ask people, everybody agrees that the UN has made the world a better place. We have prevented a third world war, kept its peacekeeping forces in critical places, improved global health and human rights, and crafted legal instruments, conventions on critical issues from climate change to biodiversity, from nuclear weapons to a profuse set of human rights conventions, just to cite a few. The UN has certainly made the world a better place, but people, public opinion also say that we need deeds, not words. That we need to go from words to action.

The third challenge is the inclusion deficit. We understand that the multilateral system relies on intergovernmental negotiations, agreements, and commitments. But we also understand that societies, citizens should be listened to and have a voice regarding decisions that are critical to their future and wellbeing. And in order to strengthen the legitimacy and effectiveness of international institutions, you need to make sure that the diverse voices of and actors in society are part and parcel of the decisions that are taken. And this is an enabling condition to overcome all three deficits. Co-responsibility and social ownership are the key words.

Where do you see the most pressing challenges to tackle in order to make a more inclusive and participatory multilateralism work?

When the UN and most multilateral institutions were created, we had a very different geopolitical world map than we have today. So first of all, the need to adapt and re-read reality. New geopolitical, economic and power relations, globalization, the communication’s revolution, greater interdependence etc. have led to redefine the public space, citizenship, and a myriad of actors in society that are extremely important. And when it comes to decision making at the global level, decisions that touch and have implications for people’s lives in society, these voices need to be heard and have a space. Civil society and their active engagement in public matters strengthen democracy and contribute to ensure that multilateral decisions become actionable.

Sometimes voices of civil society can be critical. But I think it brings co-responsibility, legitimacy, and the possibility of constructive oversight. However, we have to be mindful that “civil society” is not monolithic, homogenous, but rather represent a diversity of views, of agendas and perspectives.

How would you see the other side of that coin? Do you think that NGOs, umbrella networks, think tanks, experts, and companies are equipped to really take on this responsibility to help shape multilateralism and international rules-based order?

It’s a two-way learning process. It is about sharing the burden and the responsibility. And on the practical level, it is what I call a disconnect of times: political cycles are shorter than institutional change cycles. And sometimes the civic space is more predictable and sustained. However, the UN is fundamentally an intergovernmental space, which will be enriched and improved by establishing clear and predictable rules for the participation of civil society.

It is an incremental process of learning on how to work together. But I think it's absolutely critical that the rules of the game are clear. Because what happens when you draft a resolution or you prepare for a high-level event or a summit, the involvement for different stakeholders including academia, civil society, and the private sector is always like an afterthought. And the terms and conditions of participation have to be discussed and negotiated each time. We use already-made phrases about inclusion and participation. But structurally there are no predictable, built-in mechanisms that are in place to address with the participation and inclusion issue, except for the UN NGO Committee and a list of NGOs that have observer status at the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC).

Let me give you a concrete example: phasing out coal for climate stabilization. It happens that 80 percent of coal projects are private investments. It's either you have the private sector on board or you cannot go far. That's the reality. When you're speaking about sustainable infrastructure, low-carbon infrastructure, where do investment come from? Mostly from the private sector. So we need clear rules of the game.

When talking about retooling multilateralism and the UN, the reform of the Security Council always comes up. Some foreign policy experts say: ”Well, this is an illusion, why do we still talk about it knowing that it is not going to happen anyways?” What is your view on this issue? Is it a political move to always bring it up, fully knowing that it's probably the “hardest board to bore”, to quote Weber? Or is it actually within the realm of possibility to change something?

It's obvious that there is a need to rethink the way the Security Council is operating. And when you say Security Council reform, everybody immediately thinks about membership, permanent members, non-permanent members, and the veto power. But sometimes we forget other aspects that are perhaps not as appealing or contentious but are extremely important. Take, for example, the working methods of the Security Council, the issue of transparency, the issue of accountability, the issue of the implementation and oversight of its decisions. And the relationship of the Security Council with the other UN bodies: how to connect the agendas of the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the ECOSOC, which are the three main bodies of the UN.

These are issues of working methods, coordination, greater transparency. So these are important parts of the reform process that are completely left aside. I think that we have to bring all these pieces together. And of course, there is an ongoing discussion about expanding the number of permanent members that remains contentious and unresolved.

Let us move over to Europe and Germany. The European Union often likes itself in the role of the “honest broker” and moderator on the multilateral arena. Is this mediation role enough to take leadership in times of global power rivalries or should an actor like the EU not also have own strategic interests that go beyond being a neutral moderator between global powers? What do you think the EU should bring to those multilateral negotiations?

There are times when there’s a need for strong leadership, a stronger position, for sure. But it's not either-or situation. Let's take the examples of Covid-19 or climate change. We really need to see Europe delivering on the Green Deal and showing that it is possible and complying with its commitments on climate finance. And not only that, but in the case of the Covid-19 vaccine crisis show resolve and action with the countries in need and the most vulnerable countries. We also need to see a Europe standing up for a stronger and rejuvenated multilateral system.

Let me give you another example. There was a very contentious process to adopt the UN Compact on Migration. I was directly responsible for that, and I knew that there was no agreement within the EU. But we had very strong voices of support to reach a global agreement on how to go address the complex issue of migration. Migration is fundamentally a trans boundary issue that requires a global understanding and some common rules and policy. And Germany’s support and leadership at that moment, was decisive for the adoption of the Global Compact on Migration. At some point, we need countries like Germany to just take front stage and say, well, this is important and we are leading.

Germany has a new government with a new chancellor Olaf Scholz. What do you think is the new government’s main homework it has to take on from Our Common Agenda proposals or the broader discussion on reforms of international order? And as we are close to Christmas: what would you wish that the new government prioritized on the agenda?

I think that Germany can be an extremely important ally to strengthen the role and voice of civil society in the multilateral decision-making processes. And that has a prominent role in the recent report from the UN Secretary General: “Our Common Agenda”. I also see Germany having a role as we rethink the environmental global governance architecture. And that includes climate global governance. The issue of the ecological and global commons deserves closer attention. The fact that the Green Party is on board and there’s a foreign minister from the Green Party is good news. And I think the Global Pact for the Environment, the Stockholm +50 celebration next year, requires very strong leadership and voices to take seriously the rampant depletion of our ecological commons.

It is also very encouraging to see that Germany will have a of Feminist Foreign Policy as stated in the coalition agreement. There are few countries around the world that have feminist foreign policies. Sweden was one of the pioneers, but there are also countries in my own region with a feminist foreign policy, for example Mexico. It is critical that we transform the words into action. Perhaps a good way to do that is through the implementation of the commitments of the Generation Equality Forum, the Beijing +25 process. The Forum was a world movement of governments and organizations that came together in Mexico and Paris to reshape and boost the gender equality and women’s rights agenda. There's a lot of homework ahead. There is a new Executive Director in UN Women. There is a strong commitment from several governments and civil society. The conditions are all there.  

I was also pleased to see the Alliance for Multilateralism in the coalition agreement. It is a promising sign of the priority that the new government is giving to multilateralism and the much-needed reform of the United Nations.

Thank you very much for this wonderful conversation, María.

Maria Espinosa rund grau

María Fernanda Espinosa served as President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (2018/19), and as Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of cultural and natural heritage, and minister of defense. She is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

Henry Alt-Haaker rund grau 30p

Henry Alt-Haaker is Senior Vice President of the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

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