UN can once again restore hope, rebuild planet with enhanced multilateralism: General Assembly president-elect Shahid

The pandemic may have put the world in crisis, but Shahid, the UNGA president-elect, felt it has also provided an opportunity for the governments and the UN to build a resilient and sustainable world, writes Sirshendu Panth for South Asia Monitor

Sirshendu Panth Jul 28, 2021
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Maldives foreign minister delivering ICWA lecture

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues its surge across the globe for the second straight year, an incidental casualty has been the erosion of trust in national and international public institutions. According to a United Nations policy brief, after an initial upswing in people’s trust in the first half of 2020 -  “as public opinion appeared to rally round the flag” - a recent survey of 28 developed and developing countries found that trust in national governments has reverted to its (low) pre-pandemic levels.

The study undertaken by the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) showed the governments relied on public trust to effectively address every stage of the Covid-19 pandemic response—from containment to mitigation, to vaccinations and there was early evidence that “higher levels of confidence in national public institutions is associated with lower national Covid-19 mortality rates”.

What is worrying is that the trust in all news sources, including scientific authorities, was seemingly at an all-time low. A recent survey of 140 countries by DESA brought out that distrust in scientists is particularly pronounced in developing countries—with 84 percent of people in high-income countries expressing trust in scientists, compared to 62 percent in low-income countries.

Fighting a grim battle against a completely unknown enemy,  Covid 19, with its propensity to mutate, again and again, long venerated institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) have flip-flopped from time to time in assessing the risks and nature of the coronavirus and in prescribing treatment protocols and preventive measures, with one set of pronouncements diametrically contradicting the earlier ones.

This sowed more confusion in the minds of the people, already in utter distress faced with the worst pandemic in about a century and the trail of death, economic and social destruction it is leaving behind. It is only logical to assume the level of trust deficit that has percolated to such institutions as well.

Rebuilding trust in UN

It is in this backdrop that a call for rebuilding trust in the United Nations for fighting the Covid 19 menace and also for devising plans for a post-Covid world has to be carefully assessed.  The call has come from Abdulla Shahid, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Maldives and President-Elect of 76th UN General Assembly (UNGA).

Delivering the 38th Sapru House Lecture “Presidency of Hope – 76th UNGA: Covid Pandemic and the Need for Reformed Multilateralism” organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) in New Delhi last week, Shahid pointed out that the UN has the expertise to assess situations on the ground, and deliver targeted interventions where necessary, hand-in-hand with local authorities.

“I believe this is the strength of the United Nations. This is where the United Nations can make its mark. And this important role can truly be realized through establishing trust in the United Nations,” said the 59-year-old international relations expert, who is scheduled to chair the UNGA session for one year beginning September 16. Shahid's election was strongly backed by India. 

According to Shahid – holder of a master's degree in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA -  the trust can be built by making the UN deliver for the people and the planet.
 
“Trust can be built by bringing the United Nations closer to the people. By increasing its efficiency, its effectiveness, By making the United Nations deliver! Deliver for people, for the planet, and for prosperity!” he said.

A survey in the first quarter of 2020 – in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in some countries and before it could reach many of the geographies – had revealed that half of the world population (47 percent) trusts the UN and only 29 percent do not have trust in the global institution.

The survey, conducted in 25 countries by international research agency Glocalities among 26,775 respondents, found the UN enjoyed a higher level of trust compared to other (inter)governmental institutions such as the European Union (38 percent) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (35 percent).

UN watchers would be eagerly looking forward to knowing the results of any new survey that may have been carried out to ascertain the extent of public trust that the body enjoys now.

Hope and opportunity

Apart from urging the global community to trust the UN, Shahid dwelt on a large gamut of issues including the havoc caused by the pandemic on lives and livelihood, but the highlight of his speech was the recurrent references to “hope”.

The pandemic may have put the world in crisis, but Shahid, the UNGA president-elect, felt it has also provided an opportunity for the governments and the UN to build a resilient and sustainable world.

“This could be an opportunity to enhance multilateralism, strengthen cooperation. This is an opportunity for the United Nations to once again, just like it did in the aftermath of the Great Wars, play a central role, in rebuilding communities, rescuing the planet, recovering economies, and above all, restoring hope!” said Shahid, promising that he would do all he can to make it a reality as UNGA president.

The concept of “reformed multilateralism” was put forward by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his statement at the General Debate of the 75th session of the UNGA.

Shahid underlined that helping the world recover from Covid, rebuilding sustainably, and reforming the UN would be among his priorities.

(The writer is Editor, South Asia Monitor. He can be contacted at s.panth@spsindia.in)

 

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