Authors: Elizabeth Deheza and Srgjan Kerim*
The COVID-19 blame game is underway and it has already severely inhibited the implementation of a co-ordinated, multilateral response to fight the coronavirus. When the need is greatest for international cooperation and collective action to confront the most severe global challenge since the Second World War, world leaders are moving away from globalisation and public trust in international institutions is evaporating. We believe this divisive behaviour has been compounded by the lack of clear communication between the World Health Organization (WHO) and Member States and that ‘communicative multilateralism’ must play the central role in beating the virus.
The WHO, a United Nations (UN) specialised agency, has a mandate from its 193 Member States to provide science-based recommendations to protect human health worldwide. The agency had been calling for better preparedness for epidemics or pandemics long before the current crisis, highlighting the vulnerability of many healthcare systems towards such crises. Unfortunately, when the moment arrived, the absence of a clear and simple communication framework and common understanding between the WHO and the Members States undermined previous work and the goodwill the agency once enjoyed.
When several cases of pneumonia were first reported in Wuhan, China in late December 2019, the WHO noted the new threat and started independent epidemiological investigations to understand the cause. WHO’s communications stayed close to China’s official line and even endorsed a preliminary investigation that the virus might be limited to animal-to-human transmission, despite warnings from Taiwan of the possibility of human-to-human transmission.
Later, on 10th January, the WHO released an interim Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) guidance note for Member States and on 14th January it warned hospitals of the possibility that the virus could spread between humans. On 20th January China confirmed human-to-human transmission and after a further ten days of deliberation, while the virus was already spreading internationally, the WHO declared COVID-19 a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) – one of its highest levels of alert under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), a legally binding agreement between Member States to work together on global health security. At this point, several Member States became anxious, but most did not have a clear idea of what a PHEIC alert actually meant in the context of their response.
On 4th February, WHO’s Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the world had a “window of opportunity” to invest in prevention and control as there were a limited number of confirmed cases outside China. By 21st February Dr Ghebreyesus called the international community to action as “the window of opportunity was narrowing”. How did Member States really interpret this message? Was the international community really grasping the idea that we were about to miss the last opportunity to contain the spread of the virus? Was it already too late?
As February rolled into March, the WHO highlighted a huge shortage of equipment for frontline healthcare around the world and finally on 11th March, nearly three months after the first reports, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Throughout April, the WHO made desperate calls to global leaders to put aside any differences, step up collaboration and act in unison. However, by this point, some Member States were struggling to stay ahead of the virus and could only think of themselves, instating measures to protect their citizens and borders without the time to consider a concerted multilateral response.
At the time of writing, with over 5.2 million coronavirus cases reported globally, more than 336,000 deaths and many more unreported cases, the pandemic still rages on. While China claimed to have recovered from the virus, its north-eastern city of Shulan is currently in lockdown after a cluster of coronavirus cases emerged, fearing a second wave. Meanwhile, its political adversary on the issue, the United States, has more than 1.6 million confirmed cases with more than 95,000 deaths, the highest in the world. Other regions like Europe are slowly emerging from strict lockdowns but in Latin America the number of confirmed cases has passed half a million and continues to rise, with Brazil the worst affected.
This is the first truly global health crisis that “We the Peoples” have suffered since the foundation of the UN: every citizen of the world is at risk. The pandemic has forced governments to impose draconian restrictions in an attempt to mitigate the collapse of their public health systems while simultaneously injecting unimaginable levels of capital directly into their economies to soften the financial impact. And yet, if all the governments had rapidly coordinated their responses, collaborated at an early stage and acted in unison, the global impact may have been contained and the recovery period shortened. Moreover, if clearer communication had come from the WHO in a more timely fashion, even the most self-interested and ill-prepared Member State would have known what pre-cautions to take as the viral threat grew and their citizens could have held their governments accountable.
The wider UN has also been lacklustre in its response. Who better than the UN to digest WHO’s early warning messages and convey the right message to its Member States? Who better than the UN to orchestrate a coherent global response through its Security Council (UNSC)? “The UN has a huge role to play in bringing together countries and people during these trying times,” says Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum, to ensure that “no one is left behind”.
There are 3 articles of the UN Charter that clearly determine the UN’s role in such emergency situations: Article 13 refers to the UN General Assembly’s role in initiating international cooperation on economic, social and health issues, Article 57 describes the need of engaging specialised agencies, such as the WHO, and eventually under Article 99, the UN Secretary General must bring forward any matter which may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security to the attention of the Security Council. Unfortunately, to date, the UNSC has not produced any meaningful statement to tackle COVID-19 as efforts have been obstructed by political conflicts between the U.S. and China.
While the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres has referred to the pandemic as “the biggest challenge since the Second World War” and has acknowledged that “normal rules no longer apply”, the General Assembly started to address COVID-19 only in mid-March and its response has not passed beyond a non-binding resolution that called for “intensified international cooperation to contain, mitigate and defeat” the coronavirus.
Despite WHO’s leadership through the SARS, MERS, Ebola, Avian Flu outbreaks and its extensive knowledge of past pandemics throughout history, Member States have voiced their frustration at the WHO’s handling of the pandemic. One of the organizations biggest donors, the U.S., has even suspended its funding and has threatened to withdraw its membership if substantial changes are not made. Other countries, such as Australia, have requested more transparency and an independent investigation of the causes of the coronavirus outbreak. A resolution, presented by the European Union (EU), on behalf of 100 Member States, called for an independent inquiry into the WHO’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and was approved at the first virtual annual assembly (WHA) of the WHO’s 194 members on 20th May. The day before, on 19th May, an interim independent review on the WHO’s conduct and response to the virus was released by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) for the WHO Health Emergencies Programme.
Communication is the most important tool in any international crisis and ‘communicative multilateralism’ must be at the core of all response strategies. The IOAC report calls for “greater global solidarity and stronger multilateral cooperation” but a close reading of the recommendations underlines the clear need to improve the clarity of the communication framework between the WHO and its Member States.
‘Communicative multilateralism’ has also been at the heart of suggested reforms by the IOAC report to the WHO’s response framework. It has been reported that some Member States do not consider a PHEIC declaration a “sufficiently clear trigger” due to its broad coverage between a small outbreak and a pandemic. Alpo Rusi, a distinguished Finnish diplomat recently told us, “A more effective early warning system needs to be urgently set up at the UN”. There have been other sensible calls for change including, “a stepped level of alerts and galvanization of response measures added to the IHR” and “IHR-nominated focal points in governments to adequately raise the alarm”, that must be heeded.
Additionally, the people must be able to hold their governments to account and how can they do this without clear and simple communication, well defined categories of alert and detailed response measures from the WHO? “Covid-19 is wreaking havoc on the health and economic well-being of our society. As individuals, we have readily conceded life-changing decision-making to our leaders, and we now assume and indeed expect them to do what is in our best interest”, exemplifies Amir Dossal, President of the Global Partnerships Forum.
The IOAC’s recommendations provide the opportunity to explore further the mechanisms already in place and well known by Member States that could “trigger” a much needed sense of urgency that the WHO tried but failed to convey to the international community. Lessons could be learned from other disaster response strategies, for example, there are clear and simple categories of alert to the likely effects of hurricanes and earthquakes that have been tried and tested for over 50 years and are widely understood by governments, scientists and the public alike. There are clear lessons that the WHO and the UN can learn from such natural disaster response systems.
There is a general understanding that this pandemic will have far-reaching political, economic and social implications. Parag Khana, an expert on international relations told us, “If we are lucky, the world will pass ‘peak virus’ within the next six months. But the economy, governments, and social institutions will take years to recover in the best-case scenario. Indeed, rather than even speak of ‘recovery,’ which implies a return to how things were, it would be wise to project what new direction civilization will take. That too will be a bumpy ride. The next 3-5 years will remind us that COVID-19 was the lightning before the thunder”.
There are opportunities to improve following any crisis but before we transform the way society has functioned for hundreds of years, we must determine whether multilateralism and globalization is to blame or if there are other weaknesses in the system that have led us here, such as an alarming weakness of national economic, social and health systems?
We must be careful that rising geopolitical tension is not exploited by some national political elites as an excuse for imposing inward-looking policies and strategies. This may bear fruit on the short- term but will be counterproductive longer-term. A shift to nationalism would disrupt global supply chains of goods and services, doing harm to economies of scale and the provision of aid which will worsen health security. World leaders must step back from knee-jerk reactions to retrench and instead should come together in order to pursue modalities of international cooperation.
Clear communication channels only work if the message is simple and the recipients are educated on the subject. While the IOAC’s recommendations call for “more robust use of WHO collaborating centres around the world, expert networks, such as technical advisory bodies, and public health institutes”, we believe that they should be more ambitious and aim to strengthen the understanding of health systems and pandemics within schools, universities and the public at large. As for the international organizations such as the UN and WHO it must be clear: reforming them and updating them to the requirements of the globalized digital era necessitates ‘communicative multilateralism’ and the launching of ‘Verified’ by the UNSG António Guterres on 21st May, to create a cadre of “digital first responders” to fight misinformation, may be a positive step to adjust.
* Srgjan Kerim, President of the 62nd session of the UN General Assembly, is a seasoned diplomat, scholar and businessman with more than 30 years of international political experience as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Ambassador of the Republic of Macedonia. Mr. Kerim began his academic career as a professor of international economics at the University of Belgrade. In addition, he was a visiting professor at the University of Hamburg (Germany) and at New York University. Mr. Kerim is also a recipient of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Award and has been decorated with honours by nations such as Italy, Germany, Austria, the U.S. and others.
Biden-Putting meeting: Live from Geneva
19:00 The places of the flags on the Mont Blanc bridge on which President Biden and President Putin will pass to reach the meeting venue on Wednesday usually hold the flags of the different Swiss cantons. Not today. The American and Russian flags have been placed to welcome the two leaders.
18:00 A day before the Geneva summit: Hotel Intercontinental where the American delegation and probably President Biden himself is staying, how the city looks like a day before the meeting, what are the security measures like, why isn’t the UN involved and are the usual protests expected?
Iveta Cherneva with live video political commentary from Geneva one day ahead of the Biden-Putin Summit
Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?
In recent years, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have been trying to bolster their ‘Soft Power’ in a number of ways; by promoting tourism, tweaking their immigration policies to attract more professionals and foreign students and focusing on promoting art and culture. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has taken the lead in this direction (in May 2017, UAE government set up a UAE Soft Power Council which came up with a comprehensive strategy for the promotion of the country’s Soft Power). Under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), Saudi Arabia has also been seeking to change its international image, and it’s Vision 2030 seeks to look beyond focusing on economic growth. In the Global Soft Power Index 2021, Saudi Arabia was ranked at number 24 and number 2 in the Gulf region after the UAE (the country which in the past had a reputation for being socially conservative, has hosted women’s sports events and also hosted the G20 virtually last year)
Will the promotion of cricket in GCC add to its Soft Power?
One other important step in the direction of promoting Soft Power in the GCC, is the attempt to popularize cricket in the Gulf. While the Sharjah cricket ground (UAE) hosted many ODI (One Day International )tournaments, and was witness to a number of thrillers between India and Pakistan, match fixing allegations led to a ban on India playing cricket at non-regular venues for a duration of 3 years (for a period of 7 years from 2003, Sharjah did not get to host any ODI). The Pakistan cricket team has been playing its international home series at Sharjah, Abu Dhabu and Dubai for over a decade (since 2009) and the sixth season of the Pakistan Super League is also being played in UAE. Sharjah has also hosted 9 test matches (the first of which was played in 2002).
Sharjah hosted part of the Indian Premier League (IPL) tournament in 2014, and last year too the tournament was shifted to UAE due to covid19 (apart from Sharjah, matches were played at Dubai and Abu Dhabi). This year again, the UAE and possibly Oman are likely to host the remaining matches of the IPL which had to be cancelled due to the second wave of Covid19. The ICC Men’s T20 World Cup to be held later this year (October-November 2021), which was actually to be hosted by India, could also be hosted not just in the UAE, but Oman as well (there are two grounds, one of them has floodlights). International Cricket Council (ICC) is looking for an additional venue to UAE, because a lot of cricket is being played there, and this may impact the pitches. The ICC while commenting on the possibility of the T20 World cup being hosted in the Middle East said:
, “The ICC Board has requested management [to] focus its planning efforts for the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2021 on the event being staged in the UAE with the possibility of including another venue in the Middle East’
GCC countries are keen not just to host cricketing tournaments, but also to increase interest in the game. While Oman has a team managed by an Indian businessman, Saudi Arabia has set up the SACF (Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation) in 2020 and it has started the National Cricket Championship which will have more than 7,000 players and 36 teams at the school level. Peshawar Zalmi, a Pakistani franchise T20 cricket team, representing the city of Peshawar the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which plays in the Pakistan’s domestic T20 cricket league – the Peshawar cricket league — extended an invitation to the SACF, to play a friendly match against it. It’s owner Javed Afridi had extended the invitation to the Saudi Arabian team in April 2021. Only recently, Chairman of SACF Prince Saud bin Mishal met with India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dr Ausaf Saeed, to discuss ways for promoting the game in Saudi Arabia. He also visited the ICC headquarters at Dubai and apart from meeting officials of ICC also took a tour of Sharjah cricket ground.
GCC countries have a number of advantages over other potential neutral venues. First, the required infrastructure is already in place in some countries, and there is no paucity of financial resources which is very important. Second, there is a growing interest in the game in the region, and one of the important factors for this is the sizeable South Asian expat population. Third, a number of former cricketers from South Asia are not only coaching cricket teams, but also being roped in to create more enthusiasm with regard to the game. Fourth, UAE along with other GCC countries, could also emerge as an important venue for the resumption of India-Pakistan cricketing ties.
In conclusion, if GCC countries other than UAE — like Saudi Arabia and Oman — can emerge as important cricketing venues, their ‘Soft Power’ appeal is likely to further get strengthened especially vis-à-vis South Asia. South Asian expats, who have contributed immensely to the economic growth of the region, and former South Asian cricketers will have an important role to play in popularizing the game in the Gulf. Cricket which is already an important component of the GCC — South Asia relationship, could help in further strengthening people to people linkages.
Analyzing the role of OIC
Composed of fifty-seven countries and spread over four continents, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) is the second-largest intergovernmental body following the United Nations (UN). And it is no secret that the council was established in the wake of an attack on the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Safeguarding and defending the national sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of its member states is the significant provision of the OIC’s charter. OIC charter also undertakes to strengthen the bond of unity and solidarity among member states. Uplifting Islamic values, practicing cooperation in every sphere among its members, contributing to international peace, protecting the Islamic sites, and assisting suppressed Muslim community are other significant features of its charter.
Recently, the world witnessed the 11-days long conflict between Hamas and Israel. In a recent episode of the clash between two parties, Israel carried out airstrikes on Gaza, claiming many innocent Palestinian lives. The overall death toll in the territory rose to 200, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1305 injured, says Hamas-run health ministry. This event was met with resentment from people across the world, and they condemned Israeli violence. After 11 days of violence, the Israeli government and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire. The event of Israeli violence on Palestinians has called the role of OIC into question. The council, formed in the aftermath of the onslaught on Al-Aqsa mosque, seemed to adopt a lip service approach to the conflict. However, the call for stringent measures against Israeli aggression by the bloc was not part of its action.
Likewise, the Kashmir issue, which has witnessed atrocities of Indians on innocent Kashmiris, looks up to the OIC for its resolution. Last year, during the 47th session of the Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Niamey, Niger, the CFM reaffirmed its strong support for the Kashmir cause. The OIC categorically rejected illegal and unilateral actions taken by India on August 5 to change the internationally recognized disputed status of the Indian Illegally Occupied Jammu and Kashmir and demanded India rescind its illegal steps. However, the global community seems to pay deaf ears to the OIC’s resolution. The Kashmir issue and the Palestine issue are the core issues of the world that are witnessing the worst humanitarian crisis. And the charter of the bloc that aims to guard the Muslim ummah’s interest rings hollow. About a year ago, the event that made rounds on electronic and social media was the occurring of the KL summit, which reflected another inaction of the OIC. The move of influential Muslim countries (Iran, Turkey, and Indonesia), to sail on the idea to establish another forum to counter the OIC, manifested the rift in the bloc.
Many OIC countries are underdeveloped and poorly governed and are home to instability, violence, and terrorism. The consequences of the violence and terrorism in the OIC countries have been devastating. According to Forbes, 7 out of 10 countries, which suffer most from terrorism are OIC members. The Syrian conflict is another matter of concern in the Mideast, looking up to OIC for a way out. An immense number of people have lost their lives in the Civil war in Syria.
Several factors contribute to the inefficiency of the bloc. The first and foremost reason is the Saudi-Iran stalemate. Influential regional powers (Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) in the Mideast share strained links following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Both sides dissent each other on many fronts. Saudi Arabia accuses Tehran of interfering in its internal affairs, using terrorism as a tool to intimidate neighbors, fuelling sectarianism, and equipping proxies to de-stabilize and overthrow the legitimate government. Locked in a proxy war in the Mideast, the KSA and Iran vie for regional dominance. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear program is met with strong resentment in the KSA since it shifts the Balance of Power towards Iran. Such developments play a vibrant role in their stalemate, and the bloc’s effectiveness is hostage to the Saudi-Iran standoff.
Political and social exclusion in many OIC states is the norm of the day, contributing to upheaval and conflict. In OIC countries, the level of political participation and political and social integration is weak. This fact has rendered OIC countries vulnerable to unrest. Arab Spring in 2011 stands as the best example. Furthermore, conflicts, since the mid-1990s, have occurred in weak states that have encountered unrest frequently.
Saudi Arabia has tightened its grip on the OIC. The reason being, the OIC secretariat and its subsidiary bodies are in the KSA. More importantly, the KSA’s prolific funding to the bloc enhances its influence on the bloc. One example includes, in the past, the KSA barred an Iranian delegation from the OIC meeting in Jeddah. Saudi authorities have not issued visas for the Iranian participants, ministry spokesman, says Abbas Mousavi. “The government of Saudi Arabia has prevented the participation of the Iranian delegation in the meeting to examine the deal of the century plan at the headquarters of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation,” Mousavi said, the Fars news agency reported. Given the Iranian growing influence and its access to nuclear capabilities, the KSA resorted to using financial leverage to reap support from Arab countries against Iran. For instance, in past, Somalia and several other Arab states such as Sudan and Bahrain received a commitment of financial aid from Saudi Arabia on the same day they cut ties with Iran. Furthermore, the summits of OIC, GCC, and Arab League are perceived as an effort by Saudi Arabia to amass support against Tehran.
Division in the Muslim world and their clash of interests is yet another rationale behind its inefficacy. These days, many Muslim countries are bent on pursuing their interests rather than paying commitment to their principles, that is, working collectively for the upkeep of the Muslim community. Last year, the governments of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that they had agreed to the full normalization of relations. Following this, the Kingdom of Bahrain became another Muslim country to normalize its links with Israel. Such moves by the Islamic countries weaken the OIC agenda against Israel.
OIC’s efficacy would be a distant dream unless the Saudi-Iran deadlock finds its way. For this purpose, Pakistan can play a vital role in mediating between these two powers. Pakistan has always been an active player in the OIC and played its role in raising its voice against Islamophobia, Palestine Issue, and the Kashmir issue. Shunning their interests and finding the common goals of the Muslim ummah, should be the utmost priority for the members of the bloc. Every OIC member ought to play its part in the upkeep of the bloc. Furthermore, a split in the bloc should come to an end since it leads to the polarization of member states towards regional powers. Many OIC countries are rich in hydrocarbons (a priceless wealth, which is the driver for the growth of a country); if all OIC members join hands and enhance their partnership in this sphere they can fight against energy security. And OIC is the crux for magnifying cooperation among its member states to meet their energy needs.
In this era of globalization, multilateralism plays a pivotal part. No one can deny the significance of intergovernmental organizations since they serve countries in numerous ways. In the same vein, OIC can serve Muslim ummah in multiple ways; if it follows a course of adequate functioning.
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