UN General Assembly President: “Multilateralism Is Strengthening, Not Fraying During the Pandemic”

The Honorable Kevin Rudd AC, 26th Prime Minister of Australia, President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, and Chair of IPI’s Board of Directors and H.E. Mr. Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, President of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly

Virtual Event Video: 

In an IPI virtual event on April 24th, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, the President of the 74th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, said that while the COVID-19 pandemic was the most “urgent” challenge the 193-nation body had ever faced, it could be best addressed through the global “interconnectedness” represented by the UN.

“What is playing out, as I see it, is really the pooling of resources and ideas, the recognition that multilateralism is the way out,” he said. “We do not have a national solution for COVID-19. What is playing out now is really proof that we get the point of interconnectedness.” Despite the enormity of the challenge, he asserted, “I think that multilateralism is strengthening, not fraying during the pandemic.”

Mr. Muhammad-Bande made his remarks in an address during a virtual event co-sponsored by IPI, the Office of the President of the UN General Assembly, and the Asia Society Policy Institute, and in conversation with Kevin Rudd, Chair of IPI’s Board of Directors and President of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Mr. Rudd introduced the discussion noting that “pandemics are the very essence of the reason why we have a multilateral system of global governments, and we know the reason for that is because epidemics and pandemics have no respect for international borders.” A former Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Rudd added, “This has tested not just our institutions of national government around the world, but it has truly tested our system of global governance.” He observed that the creation of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948 and the International Health Regulations in 2005 had been “anchored” in the UN Charter.

Mr. Muhammad-Bande said that “combating COVID-19 is a collective responsibility,” and he urged everyone to follow the guidelines laid down by the WHO. “We must adhere to social distancing, wash our hands and look out for one another. That is how we show solidarity and uphold multilateralism.” He also implored all parties to observe the global ceasefire called for by Secretary-General António Guterres.

Africa has had valuable experience combatting epidemics and pandemics but presents a particular problem because of its fragile health systems and many countries’ dependence upon commodities at a time when world prices are collapsing, said Mr. Muhammad-Bande, who also serves as Nigeria’s Permanent Representative to the UN. Nevertheless, he argued, the continent had demonstrated great resilience through multilateral institutions like the African Union and various subregional bodies. “The real hope is that Africa understands, like the rest of the world, that this is not an African problem, this is truly a global problem which means we’re able to learn from others as we’re able to teach others.”

He hailed the urgent global effort underway to find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus but warned that the international community would have to be vigilant in assuring universal access to it. “We must remind others that vaccines when developed are not for some countries alone, but they are for all of us. They must be affordable and available to all. This is important.” Mr. Rudd agreed, stating, “Vaccines should be seen as a global public good rather than a piece of singular national property. What we do not want to see is this becoming an issue of national rivalry.”

On taking office as President of the General Assembly last September, Mr. Muhammad-Bande dedicated his term to UN reform, and he said that the onset of the COVID-19 crisis had changed but not diminished the emphasis he would place on that ambition now. “Our immediate focus should be to get over the situation as it is, and we have to reserve our energy to focus on the immediate danger. Now, reform in relation to the UN relates to our ability to continue to be legitimate. Without legitimacy, nothing else will work, and all organs of the UN system enhance that legitimacy but not just to be legitimate, they must also deliver because there must be delivery for the legitimacy to continue.”

He cited as an example the World Health Organization. “We have to have a body that is nimble enough, legitimate enough, and resourced enough to do not just the work of now but to continue to scan the horizon to have protocols that work in all regions of the world and are connected,” he said. “It is important that we resource whatever body that looks after our health, and this is central to multilateralism.”

The UN should build on its recent accomplishments, he said, and suggested the two major ones were the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) five years ago. “The achievements of 2015 in terms of the Paris accords and the SDGs are really monumental achievements in multilateralism. I think we should focus on these two, give it 20 years, and I bet we’ll have a much different world. There would be less conflict, less hate, and there would be more respect for the rule of law. There would be more certainty of healthier lives for coming generations.”

Among the listeners who submitted questions were Kenyan and South African students from the King’s College African Leadership Centre in London, an Indian student from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, and a director of the Technology Center for Youth at Risk in Guatemala.

Addressing the audience in general, Mr. Muhammad-Bande acknowledged that the UN needed to communicate its mission better so that people better understand how it is relevant to their lives. “I want you as a listener to have more faith in the system, just to give it the oxygen it needs to move on. And this oxygen also includes, of course, constructive criticism, without which we simply cannot make progress.”