Multilateral Cooperation: Are Global Challenges Outpacing Global Unity? Pathways to Reignite Solidarity towards 2030

Dennis Francis
December 19, 2023

When the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, it recognized for the first time a comprehensive set of fundamental rights and freedoms that all of us deserve to enjoy. Spurred into action by the atrocities of two world wars, the Assembly proclaimed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” that all shall enjoy freedom from fear and want, and that these entitlements, among others, shall be protected by the rule of law.

This year, as we mark the 75th anniversary of this landmark document – and the midpoint of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – multilateralism is experiencing a period of profound crisis. Dialogue, solidarity and cooperation – core values underpinning the multilateral system – are in retreat, while dynamics of division and disaffection are on the rise.

At the UN, we see it in the Security Council deadlock preventing action on key resolutions to help resolve crises in places like the Middle East, Ukraine, Syria, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Mali. In the General Assembly, issues such as disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, that once attracted relative consensus, are now mired in discord. From war, the climate crisis and backsliding on human rights to the deep distrust pulling member states apart, these extremes undermining the prospects for global development, peace and prosperity. These forces are far too great for any single nation, regardless of how large and or powerful, to manage alone. Multilateralism can and does work. But it should work better. And it must work faster to ensure that global challenges do not outpace global unity.

For these reasons, I have focused my Presidency of the General Assembly on rebuilding trust and reigniting global solidarity – anchored in the belief that we are more effective when we work collaboratively, and that we can better harness the power of multilateralism to secure peace, prosperity, progress, and sustainability for all. For this, we must be clear-eyed.


Perhaps nowhere are the dynamics of division on more visceral display than in Gaza, where the crisis has electrified social media and galvanized people across the globe. The intolerable toll on civilians – and lack of access to critical humanitarian assistance – have sparked agonizing questions over what it takes to save and sustain human life. In the last year alone, a series of military takeovers have supplanted established orders across Western Africa, the war and aggression against Ukraine has deepened and Haiti has descended into lawlessness, all while violent conflict persists in places like Yemen, Myanmar, and Sudan.

Peace is not only the raison d’être of the UN. It is the foundation upon which everything else is built, with nations bound by the principles of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, political independence, and the peaceful settlement of disputes, set out in the UN Charter.

The UN is working tirelessly around the globe to translate these principles into reality on the ground. From successful peacekeeping operations in Liberia, to its involvement in peace negotiations in Colombia and Timor-Leste, the UN has been ambitious across the peace continuum. The Security Council’s recent authorization of a security support mission in Haiti offered a rare, unified voice at a critical time. These historic successes should not be cast aside when considering the Organization’s role in conflict resolution and management. These are striking cases of global solidarity in action. We need to implicate and broaden the areas of success.


We know the path to sustainable peace is forged, collectively, through sustainable development. Yet, progress across the Sustainable Development Goals is perilously lagging our 2015 ambition. Extreme poverty is on the rise after years of decline. Hunger and food insecurity are again surging, while the global pandemic resulted in a setback to education and exacerbated an already worrying digital divide. Despite these headwinds, world leaders at the UN still registered a hard-won triumph of unity over division. The political declaration adopted at the 2023 SDG Summit reaffirmed the shared pledge to lift millions from poverty and set out commitments to accelerate action.

Going forward, we must close the financing divide preventing faster implementation of the SDGs. We must update the way we measure progress – looking beyond GDP to a metric that captures the multidimensional nature of vulnerability and facilitates countries’ access to development resources on better terms. And with 37 of the 69 poorest countries at high risk or already in debt distress, we must prevent the debt crisis from becoming a development catastrophe. The Fourth Conference on Financing for Development in 2025 will therefore be a key moment to tackle these issues.


A critical measure of our advancement will hinge on how well we level the playing field. This is especially true for women, who are less likely to work in formal employment. Roughly half of working-age women participate in the global labour force, compared to 80 percent of men. One in three women experience violence in their lifetime, predominantly at the hands of their spouse or partner.

Today, we are seeing a pushback against women’s rights in many corners of the world. We stand no chance of achieving the SDGs with half the global population sitting on the sidelines, locked out from participating in the economic and social life of the community. I have therefore made gender equality a priority of my Presidency. I am committed to rally member states on this issue, so more women and girls can be empowered, and we can advance the achievement of the SDGs. I have appointed a Special Adviser on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment and reestablished the Advisory Board on Gender Equality to help mainstream a gender perspective across the priorities of my Presidency. Is it enough? No – and we continue to aggressively seek more possibilities for gender empowerment. But these are important steps I can take to push back against the trends eroding women’s rights and imperiling trust in the multilateral system.


I hear the loudest demands for progress from the young people I meet, most recently at COP28. Everywhere, young people recognize that while climate change is dire, it is solvable, and we need ample, predictable financing to make the necessary reforms.

For policy and decision makers, we simply must meet these demands. This includes observing the 1.5-degree threshold for temperature rise. Thankfully, we observed some instances of leadership at COP28 in the capitalization of the Loss and Damage fund. But we must do more. The risks are nothing short of existential for small island developing states, where rising seas are forcing millions to relocate, raising imperative questions about their sovereignty and the future of their statehood. All countries in special situations, including least developed and landlocked developing nations, deserve our undivided attention. We must pledge our support as we look ahead to the Fourth International Conference on the Small Island Developing States and the Third United Nations Conference on Landlocked Developing Countries, both in 2024.

On the Horizon

This year’s anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is our wake-up call to turn rhetoric into reality. To do more to ensure that everyone – regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status – has an equal shot at a safe, productive, and dignified life.

In the General Assembly, I will advance these issues throughout the 78th session, including at the first-ever Sustainability Week, a flagship event in 2024, which will be an important stepping stone on our path to achieving real sustainable development. I will also continue to offer my support and assistance to any member state wishing to resolve a conflict through dialogue and diplomacy.

At the Summit of the Future in September 2024, leaders will aim to forge a new global consensus on how to strengthen the multilateral system so it can better deliver for people and planet: fast-tracking the SDGs, enhancing digital cooperation, redressing governance gaps, and – importantly – holding member states more accountable to their commitments.

Yes, these are troubling times. But the history of multilateralism is still being written. We have it within us to overcome its inefficiencies and fortify the foundations for trust and solidarity that will bring us to a safer, more just, and more prosperous world, with no one left behind. Let’s get to it.


About the author:

Dennis Francis is the President of the United Nations General Assembly for its 78th session. He has a 40-year career in the diplomatic service of Trinidad and Tobago. He was Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York and Geneva, and to the World Trade Organization (WTO), with concurrent accreditation to the UN Specialized Agencies in Vienna and Rome. Follow him on: Twitter/XInstagram, LinkedIn, or YouTube.

The views and opinions expressed in this think-piece are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPA or Columbia University