Are we really in this together?

Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International’s Senior Director for Advocacy, Research and Policy

“The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation — a test we have essentially failed,” these were the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his address to a UN Security Council meeting on Post Coronavirus Global Governance. He was not alone in lamenting this failure. Several others also attempted to remind everyone that “we are all in this together” when the harsh reality that played out was, that we are not in this together.

If there is one trend that can describe the past year, it is the failure of international cooperation. While time and again clarion calls were made for solidarity and cooperation, time and again we instead saw nationalistic policies, greed and self-interest. While many global leaders were repeatedly called upon to show leadership and cooperate, what they did instead was close the doors and turn their backs not only on international law and commitments to cooperation but to humanities’ most desperate cries to work together.

The overriding antagonism at a time when cooperation was so desperately needed and “beggar-thy-neighbour bidding wars” when solidarity is what was required have defined the pandemic and the global policy space more broadly.[1]

But in a world in which leadership is defined by demagoguery, is international cooperation a mere fantasy? In a world where greed and me-first sentiments characterise geopolitics and the geoeconomics, what would cooperation look like?

Recently, as the world scrambled to figure out ways to address Omicron, the new mutant variant of Covid-19, some rightly commented that “our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us”.[2] For several countries around the world, especially those most acutely affected with Omicron (based on present data), and developing countries more widely, these failures of cooperation are being manifested both in terms of mounting new cases but also in the emergence of new mutations. As public health scientists pointed out, both outcomes were all-too predictable. While high-income countries are rushing their populations for booster jabs, many in low-income countries have yet to receive their first one. None are anywhere close to the WHO vaccination target rate of 40% by the end of 2021. The inability of many wealthy countries to cooperate and to agree on the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS waiver, which would remove obstacles that currently stand in the way of allowing increased production of much needed supplies to developing countries, is yet another example of this failure.  All this has taken place against a shameful background of high-income countries sitting on stockpiles of vaccines many times their population size, some of which are going to waste and being put in the bin, while refusing to share them with those most in need.[3]

The Charter of the United Nations, in its very first article, talks about the need, “To achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character, and in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion”. Why is it then the member states of the UN refuse to cooperate while humanity faces one of its biggest crises since WWII? As naïve as the question might seem, the answer to it holds the key to our collective futures. Because unless we cooperate, we will not find solutions to the challenges we face.

The abandonment of the basic ethos of solidarity and cooperation were laid bare as world leaders sat muted and saw the falling of Afghanistan. Or when the conflict in Ethiopia told of unimaginable horrors. Or when world leaders copped out at COP26 and, instead of showing the bold leadership we need to protect humanity and our planet, took minimal steps,[4] failing to treat the climate crisis as urgently as required, and indeed as Greta said, on key issues such as providing funding for loss and damage faced by people due to climate change, all it amounted to was “blah, blah, blah”. And while they refused to cooperate and fulfil their international human rights law obligations, they continue to play handmaidens to the corporate lobby. Whether it was pharmaceuticals or fossil fuels, global leaders chose to remain silent and let corporate greed supersede human rights.

Social media erupted when the Prime Minister of Barbados in her speech at COP26 asked, “when will the leaders lead” and issued a resounding call to act ambitiously and act now before it’s too late.

But there is hope. Lessons in leadership and cooperation came from people marching on the streets and saying, “not in our name” and demanding vaccine equity and justice.[5] It also came from communities who opened their doors to provide support to those fleeing persecution, violence and threats. Lessons in solidarity and cooperation also came from our health workers who have worked around the clock saving lives during some of the most harrowing moments of the Covid-19 pandemic. If only these same lessons trickled up with power to affect change, we would be in a much stronger position to beat Covid-19 or any other international challenge that we will need to face as a global community.