Reclaiming Multilateralism for People Rights and Sustainable Development Reclaiming Multilateralism for People Rights and Sustainable Development
Details of the Proposal


In 2012, UN Member States are conducting a 20-year review of the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) and its outcome agreements, the Rio Declaration and Agenda 21. When these agreements were struck in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, they represented a breakthrough in multilateral consensus. Raising the bar for political commitment, they established the concept of sustainable development as comprising three pillars – social, economic and environmental – that must be dealt with together. All signatories agreed they had common but differentiated responsibilities to implement steps to achieve sustainable development, meaning they must all work towards that end, but those with greater resources and capacities are obligated to do more.


Over the last 20 years, however, the ideals and principles of Rio have been overshadowed as implementation has mostly not occurred. Similarly, a host of commitments to international human and women’s rights have not been fulfilled. Some economies have grown at double-digit rates, yet with widening disparities. Globalization has yielded millions of poor quality jobs. Little has been done to change patterns of production and consumption that pollute, erode biodiversity and lead inexorably to climate change. The Rio Conference, like other multilateral forums, underscored that the multilateral system should be the focal point for systematically acting on issues of global concern. Reclaiming Multilateralism sets out to explore why that system today has reached a point where it is more needed than ever before, but in light of worsening trends in sustainable development and human rights, very real questions should be raised about its relevance. In a concise format intended for civil society audiences, as well as government and UN representatives, the publication considers how the multilateral system could realign itself around commitments to human rights and sustainable development, and recommends some concrete steps in that direction.


Critiques of the multilateral system come from many directions. While there is a tendency to look within multilateral institutions for the solutions to an array of problems, Reclaiming Multilateralism maintains that if the goal of the multilateral system is to achieve human rights and all three pillars of sustainable development, the starting point for any critique needs to be the context in which the multilateral system operates. The following pages explore how an unsustainable economic model has allowed a few powerful countries and political elites to dominate multilateral debates. These interests have gained most from patterns of globalization associated with deeply inequitable benefits and costs. They have also become firmly entrenched, in the era of global interdependency, as “too big to fail.” This makes them virtually untouchable, even by the collective will of the multilateral system, and even on issues where global well-being is at stake.


In looking primarily at their own interests, powerful countries are well within the tradition of political realism. But they have lost the connection to another tradition – of adhering to ideals based on higher human aspirations. As long as there are nation States, all countries will be able to justify the pursuit of sovereign national interest. This publication argues, however, that competing needs of global significance must be fairly and equitably moderated through a multilateral system that is far more effective than the one in place today. Such a system would re-balance realism with a collective idealism, in which universally endorsed principles of human rights and sustainable development would take the lead. It would be guided by the recognition that there are diverse ways of realizing the same objectives, and that individual interests will always be there, but need to be aligned with collective imperatives.


Reclaiming Multilateralism embarks on an exploration of multilateralism with as many questions as answers, aiming to provoke further thought. The book is divided into three chapters. The first looks at the past and present of multilateralism. It analyses some of the underlying reasons why multilateral governance has not lived up to human rights and sustainable development objectives, notably in relation to contemporaneous issues of power and participation, flawed development models and major fault-lines plaguing the multilateral system today.
A series of questions at the end of the chapter ask readers to consider four concepts often used in multilateral reform discussions, but requiring much deeper analysis than is the norm – namely, effectiveness, representation, accountability and neutrality.


Chapter 2 considers what it might mean if the multilateral system was realigned around the principles of human rights and all three pillars of sustainable development. The chapter is intended to imagine the ideal. Chapter 3 grounds the discussion with recommendations for specific actions that aim high but could be taken now – towards a longer-term vision of change. Most of the actions will be the responsibility of government leaders and policy makers. But all multilateral stakeholders, including civil society, can use the recommendations to campaign for a new multilateralism, where the promises of justice, equity and sustainable development can finally be fulfilled.


Proposals and abstracts


Table of Contents


  • Chapter 1: Moving Forward, Stopping (Way) Short
    • Multilateralism today: power
    • Multilateralism today: participation
    • Failing sustainable development
    • Three fault-lines: decisions, implementation, institutions
    • Special Focus: Questioning Some Terms of Debate
    • Effectiveness
    • Terms of Debate
    • Representation
    • Accountability
    • Neutrality
  • Chapter 2: What If: Aspirations for the Future of Multilateralism
    • What if…all multilateral actions were guided by the principles of sustainable development and human rights?
    • What if… global decision-making had higher aspirations?
    • What if… development measurements fully reflected commitments to sustainability, equity and human rights?
    • What if… the achievement of sustainable development and human rights drove the reform of multilateral institutions?
  • Chapter 3: Pragmatism and Principles:
    • Recommended Actions for Now
    • Aim high to restore aspirations, and rebalance realism and idealism
    • Make participation meaningful
    • Insist on policy coherence
    • Implement internationally agreed principles
    • Make measurement meaningful
    • Reinvent the reform discussion
  • Bibliography
  • Endnotes