UN work in the shadow of the pandemic

Published 20 July 2020 in:

Anna Karin Eneström in the empty General Assembly Hall.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an impact on everything, and the UN’s 75th anniversary celebrations are no exception. Sweden’s Ambassador to the UN Anna Karin Eneström sees the anniversary as a time for reflection.

“The anniversary is an opportunity to think about where we stand on multilateral cooperation and how we want to shape our common future. The pandemic has revealed a number of weaknesses in the international system that we need to reflect on,” she says.

In New York there have been no physical meetings since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the UN’s activities have not ground to a halt. On the contrary, this has been an unusually active period with lots of meetings that in one way or another have addressed different aspects of the pandemic, both in terms of managing the ongoing crisis and building a stronger system for the long term. Handling the increased activity in combination with enforced isolation has required both a readjustment and a new way of thinking.

“We’ve been deprived of one of our most important tools – the physical meeting, opportunities to talk to people in the margins. This means that everything takes much longer, but we’re making it work nonetheless. It’s up to us to harness the willingness to change that is there,” says Anna Karin.

The UN’s 75th anniversary – a time for reflection
This year, the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary. Instead of calling it a celebration, Anna Karin describes it as a time for reflection on where we stand on multilateral cooperation and how we want to shape our future.

“We are at a crossroads: do we choose the multilateral path of more cooperation, or the national path in which each country tries to solve its own problems?” she asks.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has taken the initiative for a global dialogue in which people from all corners of the globe have had the opportunity to state their views on the future through various dialogues and a digital one-minute-survey. The results are unambiguous – people worry most about the climate and the environment. Health issues are also a growing concern due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Other issues raised included human rights, conflict prevention and non-discrimination.

“We can’t solve these challenges without a strong multilateral system. It’s pleasing to see that 95 per cent of those surveyed said that we need more international cooperation,” says Anna Karin.

Anna Karin stresses trust and inclusion as key future issues to be able to strengthen the multilateral system and make it sustainable in the long term. By including civil society, business, academia and other voices, it will be possible to make the most of the strong engagement for solving future challenges.
Led the work for a political declaration Sweden and Qatar had the task of drawing up a political declaration to be adopted by the UN heads of state and government on 21 September at the high-level meeting to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary. The objective was to formulate a concise, substantive and forward-looking text that is unifying and strengthens multilateralism. Writing a text that all countries can adopt by consensus and that is still meaningful has not been easy, especially not at a time when multilateralism is being questioned in different parts of the world. Anna Karin says that the challenge has been to balance the issues on which countries have differing views. The declaration is not intended to solve all the issues that exist within the UN system; it is more a way of demonstrating the UN Member States’ capacity to act at a challenging time.

“As always, there are many different wills, but both my Qatari colleague and I felt strong support and back-up from several Member States in this process, not least when it comes to the language about a strong UN,” she explains.

Anna Karin says that the language was itself an important aspect. Of course, it would be easier to build on agreed language from previous resolutions and documents. But they tried to avoid that kind of language.

“We tried to write in a way that meant the declaration could be read by people outside the ‘UN bubble’ in New York, as a response to the global dialogue that’s under way. We’re diplomats and schooled in a certain way of expressing ourselves. It’s been a useful exercise for us to move away from a bureaucratic language that feels so natural to us,” she says.

At the beginning of July, it was finally clear that all UN Member States had agreed on the declaration text. Now it just needs to be adopted in September.

Hopes for the future

Anna Karin hopes that after the crisis, we will manage to build an inclusive UN that has not only political support from its Member States, but also strong and sustainable financial support. We also need a reformed UN with a more representative Security Council that can play a more constructive role in resolving conflicts.

“I hope we will see a stronger UN whose Member States understand that international cooperation is in all countries’ interests. This is how we will solve the challenges that lie ahead,” Anna Karin concludes.

Author: Nils Dahlqvist