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Nationalism and partisan politics make it harder to tackle the existential threats to humanity.

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Speaking online at the UN75 Virtual People's Forum on 14 May, Gro Harlem Brundtland discusses the new reality brought by COVID-19 and the attacks suffered by the multilateral system that have made the global fight against the pandemic even more difficult. 

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

It is a pleasure to be here with you for this “virtual” People’s Forum, at a moment when the principles of multilateral cooperation have never been more important and more in need of support.

The strange new reality of Covid-19 is forcing huge changes on all of us, some of which may become permanent features of how we live, work and organise our societies.

We are all being called upon to become more flexible, more adept with technology and more collaborative across borders and time zones.

I would like to commend the organisers of this Virtual People’s Forum, particularly the UN 2020 Partnership and Together First, for their ambition and dedication in bringing all of us speakers together.

2020 was always going to be an important year for those of us who are committed to the values and institutions of multilateralism. The year marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, the detonation of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the creation of the United Nations.

These interconnected anniversaries highlight the need for sustained vigilance to protect global peace, in the knowledge of the devastating consequences of tyranny, war and weapons of mass destruction.

But today the whole world faces a threat as deadly as any arsenal, and which makes a mockery of any pretentions to national “greatness” or superiority over others.

Covid-19 knows no borders and does not respect national sovereignty. The pandemic is leaving a devastating cost; first and foremost in human lives, but also in terms of economic growth, political momentum and social inequality.

It has exposed the interconnected nature of global risks, and the extent to which even well-resourced health systems can be rapidly overwhelmed when crises hit.

A global crisis demands a global response. Yet the virus has struck at a time when the multilateral system was already subject to a sustained and targeted assault. This has made it harder for leaders and institutions to respond effectively and save lives, as we can see with the failure thus far of the UN Security Council to agree a resolution in support of the Secretary-General’s call for a global Covid-19 ceasefire.

I served as the Director-General of the World Health Organisation during the SARS crisis in 2002-3. This means I am very conscious of the importance of multilateral cooperation in tackling pandemics, and of the difficulties that multilateral institutions, including the WHO, face in persuading member states to respond in the global interest to such threats.

It is essential that countries support the work of the WHO and provide it with the necessary funding to carry out its work, including through implementing the recommendations of the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board.

The WHO should be enabled to work on behalf of the entire world, acting solely on the best available scientific and medical evidence.

The virus will not be overcome unless states work together, pooling resources and expertise to strengthen health systems, develop an effective vaccine, protect health workers and provide the necessary care to all who need it in society, including vulnerable groups such as refugees, migrants, the elderly and infirm.

For developed countries, this responsibility extends to supporting poorer states with humanitarian aid, debt relief and political counsel via the mechanisms of the UN, G20, World Bank and other international fora.                                                                                               

This network of international covenants and institutions, agreed and constructed since the end of the Second World War with the United Nations at its core, is far from perfect.

There are strong arguments for reviewing and reforming institutions and processes, particularly so the multilateral system better reflects the diversity of the human family and gives a voice to women, young people and other marginalised groups in society.

But it has nevertheless decisively supported the pursuit of peace, security and the protection of human rights, as well as economic and social improvements, around the globe, for over seven decades.

This is why it is so important now, in the UN’s 75th anniversary year and in the face of this deadly pandemic, for member states and global citizens to recommit themselves to the values of the UN Charter.

The siren songs of isolationism and populist nationalism need to be countered with a strong global chorus in support of cooperation, justice and human rights.

Narrow nationalism and partisan politics not only hamper an effective response to Covid-19, they also make it harder for the world to collectively tackle the existential threats that will continue even after this pandemic abates, in particular climate change and nuclear weapons.

This is why I congratulate UN2020 and Together First for convening this Forum. At this momentous time, when multilateral cooperation is under serious threat, it is more important than ever that the voices of civil society are heard and listened to.

While we see severe divisions between member states undermining multilateral cooperation, from the Security Council Chamber to the WHO, we also have an opportunity for civil society to help fill this leadership gap.

Here, together, we can help put forward a bold vision for a stronger multilateral system to meet the challenges of the coming decades.

Thank you.

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