Coronavirus | An Opportunity for Global Governance Reform

How to make the April 5 International Day of Conscience really mean something.

The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown chaos across our world in only three months. As we have passed the 1-million-caseload mark, and the 50,000 deaths, the angst of millions cries out to be heard, and leaders must respond. The UN estimates a decline of at least 1% of global GDP, and the International Labor Organization admits to grossly underestimating 25 million job losses this year. The global figure may well be 200 million, and rising sharply. The ILO needs to get a better grip on this – and fast.

The UN Conference on Trade and Development fears Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) will fall by 30 to 40%. The dramatic falls in national taxation revenue from the cutbacks in economic activity across the world – at a time of enormous fiscal stimulus for safety nets – will deeply affect the future ability of governments to sustain service delivery, undermining post-COVID19 recovery efforts. Talk of a global recession is yielding to the pessimism of a depression.

The integrity, intelligence, and wisdom of the world’s leaders has never been so important since the United Nations was founded 75 years ago. Yet many of the most powerful leaders seem singularly incapable. Can they be redeemed? Can they rise to the new challenges? Can they alter their outlook, behavior, style of command?

If nothing else, leaders must be guided by legitimate expertise, not by ideology let alone populist rhetoric and certainly not by corporate greed. This is a time for the best of science and insight to be brought to the fore in guiding leaders to take the right actions in proper time for humanity.

For these reasons, the UN General Assembly has declared 5 April 2020 as the International Day of Conscience. It must start at the top. Leaders must show the way. They must change, for the better, and do it now.

Where is the Security Council?

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus pandemic, the silence of the UN has been deafening. Apart from the WHO, and a few smaller agencies, and the lone voice of Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, there has been no forceful leadership by the UN.  Statements have been short-sighted. The Security Council – that has addressed human security before – is effectively dormant. Why? Notwithstanding efforts by the G-20 to shore up economies with billions if not trillions for pandemic holding patterns, this is a dramatic abnegation of global responsibility by the leading member states,

Apart from the short-term emergency interventions, and the immediate post-pandemic recovery priorities for human security and economic re-ignition, there are some other opportunities – indeed imperatives –that should now be addressed for quantum change in global affairs, for restorative resilience.  These include reform of global multilateral institutions; conflict resolution; climate change; corporate regulation; market diversity and competition; and renewed focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The UN Secretary-General’s latest report, Shared Responsibility, Global Solidarity – Responding to the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19, lays out some of the issues that must be addressed. But does it go far enough?

Globalization has brought progress but also pain. The disparities, between rich and poor, between advanced and least developed economies, will be dramatically sharper, not least as a result of massive unemployment and work-suspension around the world. Emergency fiscal and social safety net measures notwithstanding, we can expect a dramatic decline in SMEs and in self-employment. The UN estimates the global economy could shrink by at least one per cent. But some national economies will shrink by ten per cent or more.  Notwithstanding taxation losses, state intervention will mean the strengthening of government per se, and the relative weakening of corporate influence. Government has not been so important in a very long time. 

Where does this bring us? And what are the opportunities in this?

Corporations have not generally been regulated on the global scale, despite voluntary OECD and UN codes of corporate conduct such as the Global Compact.  Because of the current paradigm shift in influence between now-fiscally-liberal governments and stressed corporations, this may be the best time to (a) rein-in the influence of corporate lobbies and the risks they pose of state-capture, and (b) to regulate the corporate sector (public and private).  

We also need to tackle market concentration, the extent to which market share has been taken over by fewer and fewer companies. There are two important challlenges: (i) to develop a global legal convention on multinational/global corporations, their rights and responsibilities, with an obligatory code of conduct and enforcement; and (ii) to adopt global and national regulation of competition, to prevent market concentration and state/regulatory capture. And both of these regardless of the national, international or planetary nature of the domains exploited.

The 17 sustainable development goals to be achieved by 2030 also include human rights, fundamental freedoms, political participation, accountable institutional building, and capacity-building. The targets for SDG number 16 – Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions are particularly important for civic education, human rights, and good governance. These must also be protected.

The key issue in structural reform of the UN has to do with representation on the Security Council. There has been a longstanding debate as to whether the European Union should itself have a seat. African countries are pressing for at least three seats.  The veto is perhaps the most controversial aspect. Many if not most members believe that no veto should be exercised by a P5 member that is directly involved.

Overall, there is agreement on two things: (a) to expand the non-permanent membership of the Security Council from the existing 15 to something between 22 to 27 members; and (b) that permanent membership without a veto should include India, as well as possibly Brazil, Germany and Japan.

All this calls for immediate action: The UN Secretary-General must call a High-Level Commission to forge a set of options around “low-hanging fruit” opportunities within the next six months, to support an accelerated exit strategy from the current pandemic.

This would make the International Day of Conscience truly meaningful.

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