Article by Mauro Pace

The UN turns 75: what does the future hold for multilateralism?

"Whereas Fao is the Ministry of Agriculture of many countries, we are the fire brigade". This  telling   image by  Manoj Juneja, Deputy Director of the World Food Programme (Wfp), in the aftermath of the awarding of the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the World Food Programme,  effectively describes  the respective roles of the largest Organization and the most important UN Program for agricultural development and food security.

Today, Italy actively supports many development projects and programmes throughout the world through the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation (AICS) and the Directorate for Development Cooperation (DGCS). As president Sergio Mattarella recently pointed out, it should not be forgotten that the close association between Italy and the United Nations bodies for agri-food development has a long history.

Back in January 1905, the king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele III, wrote a letter to the then Prime Minister, Giovanni Giolitti, in which he acknowledged the plea by David Lubin, a visionary Californian businessman whose call for free distribution of agricultural surpluses to the indigent had remained unheard in Roosevelt’s United States, fully engaged in the febrile pursuit of industrial development. In the letter, the king stated "[...] It could be of considerable benefit to set up an international institute which, without any political aim, would propose to study the conditions of agriculture in the various countries of the world, and periodically report on the quantity and quality of crops [...]. The beneficial effects of such an institute, an instrument of solidarity between all farmers and therefore a powerful catalyst for peace, would certainly multiply [...]".

Peace and solidarity: a crucial link which – I cannot help noticing it - many sovereigntist movements today seem not to appreciate, but which was indeed originally formulated by a visionary sovereign, more than a century ago. A few months later, in June 1905, Italy signed, together with forty participating States, the establishment of the International Institute of Agriculture (IIA), considered by all means the Fao’s early seed.

Seventy years ago, on 31 October 1950, the Headquarters Agreement between Italy and Fao was signed in Washington. A few weeks later the headquarters of the Organization moved to Rome. About ten years later, in 1961, democratic senator George McGovern, at the time director of United States Food Aid Programme, submitted to the Fao Conference a proposal for the establishment of a Programme for the distribution of food aid. So, in 1962 the Wfp came into existence, initially on an experimental basis for three years, and then permanently Ratified by the General Assembly in Seventy years in which all the successive governments have never failed to provide logistical and institutional support to the activities of Fao, Wfp and Ifad (the International Fund for Agricultural Development, established in 1974), the three largest UN entities, all based in Rome, which have the noble mission of ensuring food security and eradicating the spectre of hunger in the  world.

The message from the Norwegian Nobel Committee is strong and unequivocal: “The need for international solidarity and multilateral cooperation is more conspicuous than ever” is the opening statement of the press release issued on October 9, 2020,  which assumes the role of a stentorian voice in defense of international cooperation, just at the time when multilateralism falters under the attacks of the many sovereign-populisms that are raising their heads, with peace of mind of the spirit that on October 24, 1945, the date of ratification of the United Nations Charter by fifty founding countries gathered in San Francisco, inspired the establishment of the United Nations.

The world then was emerging from the horrors of two World Wars, and indeed those wounds inspired the Preamble of the UN Charter:  “We, the peoples of the United Nations, to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, [...] do hereby establish an international organization to be known as the United Nations”.

Italy, despite being defeated in World War II, succeeded in carving out a role of a primary importance, especially thanks to the skillful diplomatic action conducted by eminent statesmen, such as Giovanni Gronchi and Antonio Segni,  at the time Italy’s President and Prime Minister, respectively.

The founding of the United Nations was an act of indisputable political foresight that nowadays is still showing its disconcerting actuality. Suffice to think of the magnitude of the many far-reaching emergencies that trespass national borders whose governance requires, or - better said - would require a holistic approach. I am not referring only  to  the many, more or less forgotten, armed conflicts , but also to those wider-scale questions addressed in the Sustainable Development Goals  (SDGs), ranging from the respect for human rights to migration,  food security and global warming issues, to name but a few. The social tensions caused by the escape from wars or famine are before everyone's eyes. Let alone the recent example of the pandemic, which brought the planet to its knees, demonstrating at the same time how a timely, shared approach could have contained – and indeed could still contain - its outbreak.

Talking about global governance, it is almost obvious ending up looking at the role of the UN and its specialized agencies. Back to the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, the recent criticisms to the World Health Organization  coming from many quarters  (which, in  the case of Trump, turned into accusations of collusion with China, resulting in the announcement of the withdrawal of the United States from the Organization last July) have been manifold, especially concerning the timing and certain contradictions in the information.

Tones have often been exasperated. However, the question arises as to whether some criticisms have merit, and whether the shortcomings highlighted by the pandemic are rather to be considered as paradigmatic of systemic problems afflicting the United Nations system, albeit to a different extent. In view of the multiplicity of actors and interests at stake, the discourse becomes rather complex.

In principle, it has to be considered that the UN and its organizations are nothing more than a reflection of what the Member States, their only real stakeholders, want them to be. Put simply, the global community gives itself the governance it deserves.

Even a cursory reading of the above-mentioned Preamble and the first few articles of the UN Charter would suffice to appreciate that a fundamental, macroscopic problem exists, i.e. the profound gap between the intention, or rather the solemn commitment signed off by the 193  Member States who have gradually joined it (practically the whole world), and  the  frequent prevalence of partisan  interests.  It is not infrequent for national or regional agendas to take precedence over the pursuit of common interests, resulting in an almost unmanageable fragmentation. And there is no shortage of examples here, especially in recent times, as the gradual emergence of the sovereigntist governments has further eroded the global commitment to an effective multilateralism.

Only a few weeks ago, on the occasion of the opening of the 75th General Assembly (still ongoing), the UN Secretary General of the Antonio Guterres declared: "[...] We face a foundational moment. 
Those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war. 
They knew the cost of discord and the value of unity. 
They fashioned a visionary response, embodied in our founding Charter, with people at the centre. Today, we face our own 1945 moment. [...] Populism and nationalism have failed. [...] In an interconnected world, it is time to recognize a simple truth: solidarity is self-interest. If we fail to grasp that fact, everyone loses  [...]".
And it is no coincidence that a major theme on the General Assembly’s agenda this year is “The United Nations Charter at 75: multilateralism in a fragmented world".

However, consistency between principles and action is only part of the problem. Another facet is the very governance of the UN, which has been debated for decades. The voting system, the so-called “one-country-one-vote”, is certainly not adequate to offset – or, at least, adequately compensate for  - the political and economic weight of the major geopolitical blocs (US, China,   Eu,  Russia  and the Brics), which can exert a substantial pressure on organizational budgets to steer programmes and targets.

Secondly, it should not be forgotten that the structure of the Security Council still reflects the post-World War II geopolitical scenario, despite countless proposals for reform have been put forward over the years, both by individual Member States and regional unions, including Italy and the EU, respectively. Suffice it to consider that only the five Permanent Members of the Security Council  (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA) can exercise their veto power, one can easily imagine how unequal is the distribution of powers within the only global body entrusted with the resolution of armed conflicts worldwide. This means that in a world that continues to be highly polarized, the UN's super partes action is often called into question, with the consequent loss of credibility. "Our world is suffering from a bad case of, Trust Deficit Disorder", Guterres declared, resorting - and not by chance - to the medical terminology.

Another macroscopic sign of inconsistency is the sparsity of global investment in development cooperation. All that is needed is a comparison between the global military expenditure and resources devoted to peacebuilding. According to the estimates by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), the most accredited independent research institute on this subject, in 2019 global military spending was 1.917 billion dollars, while the budget approved for the same year by the 73rd  General Assembly for peacekeeping operations was  6.5 billion dollars. The nearly 1:300 ratio is self-explanatory, and any comment would be redundant.

It follows from the above that, in most cases, the progressive reduction of the Member States' contributions to the respective budgets of the United Nations and its entities has gradually pushed the organizations towards alternative and creative forms of funding, including the search for voluntary contributions and partnerships with the private sector. Pecunia non olet, this is a fact, but one can easily figure out to what extent this approach may significantly reduce their independence, particularly when it comes to the decision-making.  This development says a lot about the Member States’ interest in the pursuit of the founding principles of the UN, which remains, for good or bad, the only structure potentially capable of offering global solutions to global problems. A "powerful catalyst for peace", recalling Vittorio Emanuele III’s words, which should be enabled to regain harmony with its ideals and the many realities, civil society and third sector included, which are pursuing the same ideals.

This long-awaited refoundation process cannot but take into account the huge changes that occurred in the meantime, including the role and scope of the international civil service,  which is now much more articulate than it was after the Yalta Conference, on the verge of the decolonization processes that reshaped the borders and the relations between States in the following decades. The approach to  solidarity, at that time almost exclusively based on relief operations, has gradually evolved into forms of partnership between peers, as new players entered the world of international cooperation, including new generations of researchers and aid workers animated by the desire to contribute to the development of their countries. The energy of the many actors from the civil society, such as the NGOs  and humanitarian associations, should therefore be channeled into a broader plan of systemic collaboration, which can only benefit from their motivation and their thorough knowledge of the realities on  the  ground. 

In this context, the operations of the humanitarian organizations (mainly Unhcr, Wfp and Who), tasked with the containment of the devastating effects of the many upstream unresolved problems, are indeed effective.  But  it is clear that the root causes of these tragedies, as well as the conflicts and the profound  inequalities that are fueling them, can indeed be eradicated only through the pursuit of common objectives, the allocation of increased resources to safeguard the operational independence of the organizations and, finally, the acceptance of some necessary derogations from national sovereignty that to-date seem almost impossible to achieve to date.

Recent events do not encourage optimism, but this is not a sufficient reason to give-up, given that it is indeed the legacy for next generations that is at stake. A legacy, however, destined to melt like snow in the sun, if the populism’s myopic vision is to prevail.

As mentioned, Italy historically has been consistently a reliable partner in development cooperation. However, a disquieting alarm bell recently rang: Italy’s failure to sign off the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an intergovernmental agreement negotiated under the aegis of the UN on the governance of internal and international migration, unfortunately set a worrying precedent. In facts, less than two years ago, on 19 December 2018, the UN General Assembly adopted the Global Compact  by 152 votes in favour, 12 abstentions (including  Italy’s one) and 5 votes against (Israel, Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Trump-led USA).  As in the case of other treaties, the Global Compact is not a legally binding agreement, but a framework that sets common objectives to inspire cooperation between states to deal with the tragedy of migration.

Without any doubt, Italy is one of the countries that would benefit most from shared management of migratory flows.  Yet, on 28 February 2019, Giorgia Meloni, after a sweltering intervention in which she feared an invasion of flatboats on our coasts if only we had adhered to the UN  agreement, managed to get Parliament to approve (with only 112 votes in favour and the abstention of the Lega and the M5S) a motion presented by Fratelli d'Italia to prevent this from happening. As we know, she succeeded in her attempt and Italy moved away from the agreement at the last moment. This made Italy look bad in front of its international partners, since only a few months earlier Giuseppe Conte (then head of the yellow-green government) had opened his address to the General Assembly promising Italian support for the Global Compact.

Such events can seriously undermine Italy's credibility, despite its proven commitment to multilateral cooperation. Let’s hope that the present government - and those that are to come – has learnt from the mistake made on the Compact and will not repeat it.

Just a few weeks ago, President Giuseppe Conte, this time on behalf of the second Cabinet bearing his name, nominated Italy to host the 2021 United Nations Summit on Food Systems, organized within the framework for implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The Summit’s main goal is the launching of a series of actions aimed at transforming the way the world produces and consumes food. The Summit represents an excellent opportunity for Italy to reaffirm its commitment to the ultimate goal of a sustainable development.