COVID-19 accelerated threats to multilateral system, global cooperation key to defeat pandemic: Vivian Balakrishnan

Singapore
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SINGAPORE: Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Saturday (Sep 26) that COVID-19 has accelerated threats to the multilateral system, and urged countries to work together to defeat the pandemic and build resilience to future challenges.

Protectionism and unilateral action will ultimately be self-defeating and by working together, the international community will have a greater chance of finding solutions to issues such as vaccine development and free trade.

“We need to defeat COVID-19 together … None of us, in nations large or small, will be safe until all of us are safe together,” said Dr Balakrishnan, who was delivering Singapore’s national statement at the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly.

“What we need now is more global cooperation, not less,” he added.

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WORKING TOGETHER TO FACE CHALLENGES

In his video address, Dr Balakrishnan also said that it is essential to have a rules-based multilateral system where small states such as Singapore can have an equal voice, and that multilateral institutions also provide an avenue for countries to work together to deal with the common challenges facing humanity.

At the same time, however, the current system is “not perfect” and international institutions must adapt and reform in order to remain relevant.

“Countries cannot hope to go back to the way things were before COVID-19 came upon us, and neither can the multilateral system. We must adapt and we must reinforce our international institutions so that they remain open, inclusive, transparent, and fit for purpose,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

This is the first time in the General Assembly’s 75-year history that world leaders are not gathering in person. Dr Balakrishnan said the decision to proceed with the High-Level Week largely virtually is testament to Singapore’s commitment to multilateralism and the UN.

READ: World leaders mark UN at 75, challenged by COVID-19, US, China tensions

NATIONALISM, XENOPHOBIA

Amid the COVID-19 crisis, Dr Balakrishnan pointed out that the multilateral system is confronted with issues such as nationalism, xenophobia, the rejection of free trade and global economic integration, as well as the bifurcation of technology and supply chains. Although these threats are not new, he said, the pandemic has accelerated and intensified these pre-existing trends.

Some of these issues can shrink the global pool of knowledge and hinder research and innovation at a time when countries need greater international cooperation to ensure equitable and universal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Trust between nations will also be eroded if countries breach contractual obligations for the export of critical goods and the movement of people.

“Continued international cooperation is key to overcoming the devastating impact of the pandemic and to rebuilding. We need to build greater trust, and we need to learn from one another. We also need to cooperate to establish safe protocols in order to re-start travel again,” said Dr Balakrishnan.

International institutions can help with this. The UN, said Dr Balakrishnan, plays a particularly crucial role as it is indispensable as a universal platform for cooperation.

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ADAPT AND REFORM

At the same time, the UN must also adapt and reform in order to respond effectively to contemporary and future challenges “if it is to remain relevant for the next 75 years”, he said.

The reform of the UN should promote the forging of consensus among member states on emerging issues. There is also a need to concurrently revitalise the General Assembly and make a genuine attempt to reform the Security Council, said Dr Balakrishnan.

Likewise, other multilateral institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, need to be reformed as well, he said.

Dr Balakrishnan also touched on the World Health Organization’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, saying that it may be necessary to review how its processes can be improved further post-pandemic.

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