"Geneva's G20" looks at WHO, WTO and the renewal of multilateralism

The G20 summit was held virtually over the weekend, hosted by Saudi Arabia. It could well be renamed the “Geneva G20” due the omnipresence of Geneva-based international organizations in its discussions.

This is an onsite edited excerpt of the G|O Briefing newsletter

The G20 summit was held virtually over the weekend, hosted by Saudi Arabia. It could well be renamed the “Geneva G20” due the omnipresence of Geneva-based international organizations in its discussions. With Trump on his way out, leaders were able to include for the first time in three years a full chapter on climate change in the final declaration, including explicit references to the Paris Agreement. It has generated partial relief in the city.
Essentially, three items with a profound and direct impact on Geneva were on the Summit’s agenda:

  • the future of WHO
  • WTO reform, and
  • the consolidation of multilateralism as a central tool to deal with global problems.

WHO and the persistent financial gap

One of the main issues was WHO’s attempt to get assurances from leaders that COVAX would be fully financed. The final statement in part reflects this demand: “We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people, consistent with members' commitments to incentivize innovation,” it says. “In this regard, we fully support all collaborative efforts, especially the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) initiative and its COVAX facility, and the voluntary licensing of intellectual property. We commit to addressing the remaining global financing needs.”

Regarding the role of the health agency itself, the final declaration reads: “We emphasize the important mandates of the United Nations' system and agencies, primarily the WHO, while considering the ongoing evaluations, its stated commitment to transparency, and the need to strengthen its overall effectiveness, in coordinating and supporting the global response to the pandemic and the central efforts of Member States. We take note of the assessments of gaps in pandemic preparedness undertaken by relevant international organizations and we look forward to the work of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and the IHR Review Committee on evaluating the global health response to the pandemic.”

While the commitment of governments was received with enthusiasm in the WHO, its leadership made no secret of its frustration with the lack of details and firm financial commitments at the end of the event. On Monday, Tedros Ghebreyesus raised the issue at this regular press conference: “It was encouraging to hear world leaders expressing their support for WHO and their commitment to the ACT-Accelerator.” But the Director-General also made it clear that the promised had to be translated into money. With US$ 4.3 billion still needed for 2020, and an estimated US$ 23.8 billion needed in 2021, he warned that “only a fundamental change in funding and approach will realize the full promise of the ACT-Accelerator.”

The scientific community’s speedy development of a vaccine has certainly set “a new standard.” Dr Tedros said that it was now up to the international community to “set a new standard for access.” He added, “The urgency with which vaccines have been developed must be matched by the same urgency to distribute them fairly.” Unfortunately, as things stand, there is a real risk that the poorest will be “trampled in the stampede” to get inoculated.

WTO and the future trading system

On the same lines, the G20 leaders tackled WTO reform. Once again however, no details were mentioned. The group declared that “supporting the multilateral trading system is now as important as ever. We strive to realize the goal of a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable, and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open. We will continue to work to ensure a level playing field to foster an enabling business environment. We endorse the G20 Actions to Support World Trade and Investment in Response to COVID-19.” They also “reaffirmed the objectives and foundational principles of the multilateral trading system as well as to demonstrate our ongoing political support for the necessary reform of the WTO, including in the lead up to the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference.” The EU and other countries such as Brazil and Japan did attempt to include in the final declaration the need to re-establish the dispute settlement bodies of the WTO, as well as principles that could guide the new institution. But these attempts were blocked by the US negotiators.

Multilateralism’s return

And, once again, a direct reference to the central role of multilateralism was back in the final declaration. Countries committed to “stand united in our conviction that coordinated global action, solidarity, and multilateral cooperation are more necessary today than ever to overcome the current challenges and realize opportunities of the 21st century for all by empowering people, safeguarding the planet, and shaping new frontiers.” Confirming the agenda for 2021, the new president of the G20 and prime minister of Italy, Giuseppe Conte, made it clear his program of work for the next twelve months. “Multilateralism is not one of the options. It is the only option,” he said.

…but with a revamp says Guterres, as he hosts a closed-door meeting to renew it Both at the UN and amongst negotiators at the G20, many are aware that multilateralism needs to be rethought in order to avoid another wave of criticism. On the day after the G20 had concluded, António Guterres met with all UN agencies and regional organizations to prepare the ground for the debate on the future of multilateralism. In a closed-door meeting, he insisted that his New Social Contract and New Global Deal was the way “to ensure that power, wealth and opportunities are shared more broadly and fairly both at the national and international levels.”

“In order to do so, international cooperation must adapt. We need a new, reinvigorated multilateralism,” he claimed. As such, two principles would guide the work of the UN in 2021:

  • a networked multilateralism, in which the United Nations, regional organizations, international financial institutions and others work together more closely;
  • an inclusive multilateralism, fully representative of all components of our societies—in particular women—and drawing on civil society, cities and local governments, businesses and young people.