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The United Nations (photo: courtesy of Xabi Oregon)

Recently, I heard Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Motley, in an address to the UN General Assembly, addressing the issue and practice of multilateralism as it emerged in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries. This is a movement which came to prominence in the mid twentieth-century with the establishment of the United Nations and from there it manifested itself in globalization, a market driven economic model which has seen the rise of multinationals and governments which serve to shore up the practices of these large corporations. Multilateralism, a process of organizing and sustaining relationships among three or more states, is built on the premise of relationships, not as a means to an end but for the purpose of building, sustaining and maintaining cooperation among and between states in a spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. It affirms the value, worth and dignity of every person, upholds respect for the sovereignty and independence of states and equality of opportunities, is embraced as a possibility for individuals and states alike.

Multilateralism has emerged, and was in fact strengthened, after the first and second world wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 and, in a present context in which memories tend to be short, it is worth being reminded of the millions of lives lost in these two genocides, unprecedented in human history. And, though famine, disease, epidemics and pandemics, such as HIV and AIDS, tend to claim more lives, and the epidemic of chronic non-communicable diseases is now a fast-rising killer, nevertheless, we should not easily forget the history of the massive loss of human life. Ego, greed, evil and the intent of the owners of capital, colluding with governments, to pursue wealth and power over the common good are things which precipitated the human disaster and the Magna Carta of the thirteenth century, an agreement with royal authority, in which King John of England agreed that the monarch does not have absolute or final power, is a beacon of multilateralism and was designed to uphold the common good. Multilateralism, therefore, flourishes where small and medium developing states are protected, preserved and supported and their interests are prioritized in a context of rapid economic and political shifts, especially due to climate change.

Small- and medium-sized developing states require the flourishing of principles and values of multinationalism, such as cooperation, collaboration, partnerships and respect if they are to grow and progress in a context in which the global economy is shrinking. This decrease is not because of restrictions in natural resources but, rather, due to the greed of a few with concomitant exploitation of the majority.  A good example of this greed was the availability and distribution of the vaccines for COVID-19 in which large developing countries, working in tandem with big pharma or large pharmaceutical companies, reserved vaccines for themselves. Only when they were close to expiry date or they had excess, were vaccines made available to small and medium developing states. This example of injustice in distribution of a life-saving commodity is a reminder that without multilateralism these small and medium states are vulnerable to natural and human engineered shocks and to the extent that actions such as these are exacerbated the fate of these states and the people in them will simply be viewed as tragic consequences.

What this means is that, on the one hand, advocates for multilateralism, such as Prime Minister Motley, are of the view the establishment of the non-aligned movement in the 1970s, designed to focus on mitigating the vulnerability of small and medium developing states, was designed to overcome the risk of economic meltdown in the face of large corporations. This is with the recognition that, in the final analysis, unless developing states focus on their interest as a collective unit, large multinationals, in consort with governments in large economies, will work to preside over their demise, hence the need to fight for their survival like the proverbial Buffalo Soldier in one of Bob Marley’s popular song.

On the other hand, some will argue in the Darwinian sense, the survival of the fittest must be the current focus in the context of climate change, the advance of globalization and large economies. In this regard, weak developing states, which are unable to make it in a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world in which rapaciousness and brutish behaviour are the order of the day, weak states will just have to plan to go out of existence, as in the case of some small states in the pacific that are being inundated with water as a consequence of the rise in sea levels. Moreover, those who subscribe to this view are quite comfortable to put profit over people and see the plight of those who suffer as simply collateral damage in the march towards progress and development, primarily in western economies and societies while others simply accept their fate in demise and death.

At the same time advocates like Prime Minister Motley, like a voice crying out in the wilderness, are putting a human face to the present economic, social, political and humanitarian crisis and are making their voices heard in places where it matters. The floor of the UN General Assemble is appropriate for making pronouncements that befit the spirit of multilateralism and, in this way, while naysayers will continue to advocate that the age of multilateralism, consumerism and globalization must continue apace, others will argue that this is passé and the world must move on. At the same time, we must heed the call of Latin American saint, prophet and a voice for the poor, Oscar Romero, who argued that those who have a voice must use it for the voiceless. In this way, while there is the recognition that multilateralism has its problems this is not the time to throw out the baby with the bath water. Rather, we must add our voices to the survival and progress of small and medium developing sates, just as CARICOM is doing with Haiti, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

Rev. Garth Minott is the Suffragan Bishop of Kingston.

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