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"Strengthening Multilateralism and the Role of the United Nations" Open Debate

Tomorrow (9 November) the Security Council is planning to hold an open debate on “Strengthening multilateralism and the role of the UN”. Briefing the press on this month’s programme of work on 1 November in his capacity as Council president for the month, Chinese Ambassador Ma Zhaoxu discussed the open debate at length, stating: “We believe it is important that the United Nations and its member states jointly uphold the purposes and principles of the UN Charter” and maintaining that the “Security Council must play a leading role in strengthening multilateralism and…collective security”. Secretary-General António Guterres is expected to brief at the debate. This is one of two open debates that China is holding during its presidency; the other, scheduled for 20 November, will focus on strengthening peacekeeping in Africa.

China has circulated a concept note in preparation for tomorrow’s open debate, which frames the discussion by calling on members to consider how to uphold multilateralism more effectively; how to enhance the role of the United Nations, including by upholding the Charter and strengthening cooperation with regional organisations; and how to address global challenges such as terrorism and cybersecurity more effectively. The concept note states that the world is facing both traditional and non-traditional security challenges, ranging from protracted regional conflicts to terrorism and transnational organised crime, and that enhanced cooperation and dialogue are critical in an increasingly interdependent and unstable international environment. The note says: “Peace and stability in individual countries depend on the attainment of common security.”

This debate is reminiscent of the ministerial-level open debate spearheaded by China during its February 2015 presidency, focused on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter (S/PV.7389). That debate was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN and to commemorate the end of World War II.

In tomorrow’s meeting, China, Russia and some other member states may reiterate the perspectives on multilateralism they expressed during the February 2015 debate, focusing on the importance of upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of states and promoting the peaceful settlement of disputes. In his statement at that debate, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that while “multilateralism has become the prevailing trend, inequality and a lack of democracy continue to exist in international relations, while the norms that govern international relations are violated from time to time”. In defining the norms of international relations, he asserted that the Charter clearly “sets forth the principles of sovereign equality, non-interference in internal affairs and respect for territorial integrity.” He further added that it “advocates that disputes should be settled through peaceful means…and that threats to security should be removed through cooperation.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov similarly emphasised the importance of sovereign equality, non-interference in internal affairs, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in his intervention at the same meeting.

Other member states are expected to focus their interventions on the importance of promoting human rights and accountability as important elements of the multilateral system. In this regard, several Council members and other member states may express concern about ongoing violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law around the world and the lack of accountability for serious crimes, including in many of the conflicts on the Security Council’s agenda. Some of them may recall language in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that calls for the promotion of human rights and appeal for enhanced accountability in cases of significant violations of international law.

Tomorrow’s meeting takes place at a time when many observers perceive a retreat from multilateralism by the US and when tensions among the major powers are reflected in the divisions in the Security Council. In his 25 September address to the General Assembly, US President Donald Trump said: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” In an environment in which the US has withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and the UN Human Rights Council, some members are likely to use the opportunity to defend multilateralism, and emphasise the benefits of these and other international agreements and mechanisms in promoting a more secure international order.

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