Former Foreign Ministers Issue Call for United Nations to Coordinate Global COVID-19 Response

June 12, 2020

Members of the Aspen Ministers Forum Call for Greater International Cooperation During an Unprecedented Global Emergency

Contact: Jon Purves
Senior Media Relations Manager
The Aspen Institute
[email protected]

Washington, DC, June 12, 2020– Declaring that “The vacuum at the top in the world today is damaging,” 27 former foreign ministers issued an open letter calling for the United Nations and national governments to take actionable steps to address the COVID-19 pandemic. While some countries are experiencing declining transmission rates in the first wave of the virus, it is increasing in many others, and the severe economic impact continues to be felt around the world.

The open letter is published in full below with a list of signatories. Underscoring the current lack of international cooperation, the timing coincides with what would have been the final day of the postponed G7 summit, a day ministers would have hoped to see international solidarity and statements of cooperation.

The foreign ministers, from every region of the world, are members of the Aspen Ministers Forum, an Aspen Institute initiative. Founded by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2003, the group has established itself as a leading platform for nonpartisan dialogue, aimed at addressing and developing concrete policy recommendations to build upon and improve the work of key international institutions.

Editor’s Note: For interview requests or more information about the Aspen Ministers Forum, press should contact Jon Purves: [email protected]

An Open Letter from Members of the Aspen Ministers Forum

We are a group of former foreign ministers from every region of the world, who bring to bear decades of experience in conducting international diplomacy, responding to crises, and reforming international institutions. Never before have we seen a challenge as acute, complex, far-reaching, and potentially long-lasting as the COVID-19 pandemic. While many nations have been able to implement effective interventions through social distancing, testing and contact tracing, the first wave of the virus is not yet over and the pandemic continues to pose a risk to the lives and livelihoods of people in every nation on earth.

As with many of the threats we face, the virus does not respect boundaries and therefore cannot be defeated by any country acting alone. To respond to this pandemic and prevent future outbreaks, nations must combine their strengths.

We have seen the benefits that cooperative action can bring. During our careers, world leaders worked to build and strengthen regional and global institutions to spur development, prevent war, promote health, regulate trade, and prosecute crimes against humanity. Although certainly not every decision made was the right one, the mechanisms created helped resolve dangerous conflicts and brought about unprecedented gains in alleviating poverty, expanding literacy, and containing the ravages of communicable diseases.

While the pandemic has exposed flaws in the international system, it has also reminded us of the need for cooperation and leadership at every level. With this open letter, we wish to mobilize support for the indispensable partnerships between local, national, regional, and global institutions that this crisis requires, while respecting the role that individual countries must play in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. Vigorous multilateral measures can complement steps by national governments, not undermine them.

The COVID-19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on public health, social norms, the economy, as well as peace and security. As we look ahead to the 2030 development goals, this crisis also presents an opportunity to reinvest in sustainability and resilience. It is essential to begin acting now to shape a post-COVID world order that is better than the old. In that spirit, we want to propose several specific steps for both the United Nations and national leaders to consider.

We urge the United Nations to implement the following five points of action:

1. THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY SHOULD HOLD A VIRTUAL EMERGENCY SPECIAL SESSION

Speed is of utmost essence in this crisis.  The structures in place, while good for deliberative policy making, are not built for quick decision making and action. It is our view that the General Assembly should exercise its right to call an Emergency Special Session under Resolution 377A(V). An Emergency Special Session, even one convened virtually, would allow the UN to begin preparations for the additional complications from the pandemic that are on the horizon, including an imminent food crisis in Asia and Africa. The World Food Programme is predicting famine in as many as three dozen countries and expects the number of refugees and internally displaced persons to surge. The General Assembly must convene to create a plan that accounts for the needs of these vulnerable populations and solidify a stronger mandate for global coordination to address humanitarian crises.

2. THE SECURITY COUNCIL MUST ADDRESS THE PANDEMIC

The United Nations has taken measures to respond to the health implications of the pandemic through the World Health Organization (WHO), and to the social impact of the crisis through organizations such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

However, the UN has stopped short of addressing the peace and security risks of the pandemic as the Security Council has been unable to agree on a resolution that confronts the issue. The deadlock between the U.S. and China is undermining the crucial need for global agreement on actions such as demanding cease-fires in conflict areas and highlighting human rights abuses as governments institute lockdown measures. While the Secretary-General’s appeal for an immediate global cease-fire is an important step, it should be bolstered by invoking Article 99 of the UN Charter to bring the pandemic before the Security Council as a matter that threatens international peace and security. This would not be the first time the Security Council has addressed an urgent health threat, having previously adopted resolutions on Ebola and HIV/AIDS.

3. THE SECRETARY-GENERAL SHOULD BRING GLOBAL INSTITUTIONS TOGETHER TO DEVISE AN ECONOMIC RECOVERY STRATEGY

It is our belief that the Secretary-General, using his convening power, should gather a multi-stakeholder group to discuss a strategy to deal specifically with the economic fallout from the pandemic. This group should include the Bretton Woods Institutions; the economic pillars of the United Nations; the Regional Development Banks; and representatives from business sectors such as finance and tourism.

In forming this powerful connective body, the Secretary-General would create a space to develop complementary and mutually reinforcing recommendations, with a particular focus on protecting the most vulnerable groups.

Given the immediacy of the crisis, this group should be established and convene as soon as possible to begin working on a dynamic global economic response that meets the needs and realities of developed and developing countries.

4. THE SECRETARY-GENERAL SHOULD PROMOTE A COORDINATED DEBT RELIEF PLAN

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy has already been devastating. As international financial institutions hasten to counter the economic fallout, the United Nations must take a strong role in coordinating debt-relief strategies to free up funding so countries can quickly respond to the crisis.

So far, the G20 has agreed to a temporary debt service standstill on bilateral loan repayments from a group of 76 of the poorest countries effective through 2020. The UN should urge the G20 to expand this plan to include protections for middle-income countries that are also vulnerable and extend it into 2021.

Since bilateral debts account for only about half of the total debt for these countries, debt relief from multilateral institutions and private creditors must also be implemented. More than 90 countries have inquired about support from the IMF – nearly half the world’s nations – while at least 60 have sought to avail themselves of World Bank programs. The UN should call on these multilateral financial institutions to expand and expedite their debt relief programs.

As the length of the crisis is uncertain, suspending debt payments may not be enough. The UN should consider preparing a strategy for a debt standstill, to restructure or even cancel unsustainable debt to help the poorest nations withstand the economic fallout.

5. THE UNITED NATIONS SHOULD PROMOTE A BROADER CONCEPT OF SECURITY

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that the international community cannot be safe unless and until it can coordinate unified responses to global threats. The Secretary-General must lead the way in redefining concepts of security to include “borderless” issues such as pandemics, natural disasters, public health, and climate change. Such risks are integrated and interactive. Tackling them one-by-one and relying on ad hoc coalitions is ineffective. We need to seize the opportunity to discover integrated, innovative and cooperative solutions to these global threats tailored for this century. Thus, the Secretary-General should urgently hold a meeting with heads of all UN agencies and urge them to develop a comprehensive and common approach in their global activities. Only by taking a broad and comprehensive approach to security will the UN be able to effectively counter modern borderless threats. Only by working together will the UN agencies be able to promote the Sustainable Development Goals and Agenda 2030.

We urge national leaders and governments to implement the following five points of action:

1. FUND INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS WORKING ON THE PANDEMIC

We urge the leaders and governments of all nations, and especially President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, to prioritize the funding of the relevant international organizations that conduct research on viruses, vaccines, and medical treatments. In an online summit, over 30 countries pledged more than $8 billion to research, manufacture, and distribute a possible vaccine for COVID-19. Notably missing from this laudable effort, however, was the United States, and China was only represented by its ambassador to the European Union.

National leaders, especially those in China and the United States, must provide support for the crucial work of international institutions responding to this crisis. Although we must work towards increased transparency, to halt funding and withdraw from the WHO at this point is counterproductive and only compounds the effects of the pandemic. It is incumbent on all of us to defeat the common enemy of COVID-19, and to that end we must mobilize the necessary and available resources.

2. ENSURE THE EQUITABLE DISTRIBUTION OF A VACCINE

As the New York Times reported in May, several nations across the globe have attempted to hack vaccine research, steal data, and exploit the pandemic with attacks on the digital infrastructures of other countries. Instead of thinking only in terms of perceived national interests, we must instead come together and coordinate a global response to the pandemic. When it comes to borderless threats such as the coronavirus, we know that none of us can be safe unless all of us are safe, and that the disease will be fully eradicated only if enough of the world population is vaccinated. It is therefore in the national interest of all states that an eventual vaccine is allocated equitably. Now is the time to create a plan to ensure this can happen, before a vaccine emerges. We call on all national leaders to officially pledge to take part in creating a global framework for distributing a “people’s vaccine” fairly, securing access for all.

3. EXPAND PROTECTIONS FOR WOMEN

As UN Secretary-General Guterres has said, it is critical to put women’s leadership and contributions at the heart of resilience and recovery. Gender equality and women’s rights are essential to getting through this pandemic together, to recovering faster, and to building a better future for everyone.  While reported death rates from the virus have been higher for men, women have been hit especially hard by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to data by the United Nations Populations Fund, at least 15 million additional cases of domestic violence worldwide are predicted in 2020 as a result of pandemic restrictions such as stay-at-home orders.

National governments must ensure there are structures in place, nationally and locally, that help women and children who are the victims of domestic violence, and provide them with access to resources, hotlines, and shelters. These tools can deliver immediate support to victims and survivors to find safety and live free of abuse. Additionally, national governments have a responsibility to stimulate the economy in ways that specifically help women in need, from cash transfers to special loans. Finally, countries must ensure that girls have access to education and health services, which also serve as preventative investments against disproportionate impacts on women. We call on nations all over the globe to expand social safety nets for women.

4. SUPPORT A PRO-SCIENCE ENVIRONMENT

This crisis has cast into sharp relief the need for data-driven and evidence-based approaches to fighting the virus. We have seen some politicians and members of the public call into question the authority of scientific researchers, which only exacerbates our inability to eradicate the disease. During a crisis, national leaders must be the voices of reason amidst the chaos that breeds misinformation. We call on national leaders to create awareness campaigns to foster a pro-science environment that credits empirical findings with the validity they warrant. Public health recommendations must be depoliticized so that clear and objective safety measures can be implemented. Additionally, nations must strengthen their own science and research sectors by creating programs that incentivize bright young minds to enter STEM careers. To be prepared for the next public health emergency, nations must encourage the pursuit of science and research.

5. PROMOTE COOPERATIVE ACTION

To date, nation states have taken the lead in mitigating the virus and its economic repercussions. Nevertheless, countries cannot on their own manage an already interconnected world that will surely only become more intertwined in the years ahead. Individual nations will always be instrumental bodies in providing good governance, but hyper-nationalism will only hinder the ability of the international system to develop responses to future crises. Coming out of this pandemic, we need a new age of international cooperation.

Currently, international organizations such as the United Nations are only as strong or as weak as their member states allow them to be. Therefore, we call on the leaders of national governments to adapt international tools and remind their citizens that the most urgent challenges we face transcend borders and cannot be dealt with by any nation acting alone.

 

The vacuum at the top in the world today is damaging and what the world is experiencing now must not happen again. We hope these recommendations will strengthen international solidarity and multilateralism as we work to recover from this crisis and prepare for the next. Coming out of this crisis, we must build back our global system, and build it back better.

Respectfully, 

Madeleine K. Albright
United States of America

Lloyd Axworthy
Canada

Ali Babacan
Turkey

Mohamed Benaissa
Morocco

Maria Eugenia Brizuela de Avila
El Salvador

 Erik Derycke
Belgium

 Lamberto Dini
Italy

 Alexander Downer
Australia

 Jan Eliasson
Sweden

 Joschka Fischer
Germany

 Jaime Gama
Portugal

Igor Ivanov
Russia

Marina Kaljurand
Estonia

Tzipi Livni
Israel

Susana Malcorra
Argentina

Don McKinnon
New Zealand

Daniel Mitov
Bulgaria

Amre Moussa
Egypt

Marwan Muasher
Jordan

Ana Palacio
Spain

George Papandreou
Greece

Malcolm Rifkind
United Kingdom

Claudia Ruiz Massieu
Mexico

Jozias van Aartsen
The Netherlands

Hubert Védrine
France

Knut Vollebæk
Norway

Margot Wallström
Sweden

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During the COVID-19 crisis, the Aspen Institute is adapting to address the challenges of the pandemic. Learn more about some of the solutions we’re proposing, the actions we’re taking, and the changemakers we’re supporting.

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