Multilateralism: taking a seat at the table

By Audrey Azoulay

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COVID-19 is a challenge like no other. The virus knows no boundaries — it affects all areas of our lives, in all countries around the world. It is a stark reminder that global challenges need global solutions; that isolated actions and uncoordinated responses are doomed to failure. It was precisely to address situations like these that the United Nations was created in 1945, in the wake of two devastating world wars.

In recent years, however, the multilateral system has fallen out of fashion. Critics argue that the UN lacks the strength to respond to the global crises of the 21st century, including mass migration, climate change and spiralling inequalities. The Secretary-General, António Guterres, acknowledged this in June, when he said, “Today’s multilateralism lacks scale, ambition and teeth.”[1]

But international cooperation still has points in its favour. The UN is more trusted than many governments.[2] According to a worldwide consultation organized by the UN for its 75th anniversary, 74% of people believe it is essential for tackling future challenges.[3] The multilateral system can achieve results that cannot be obtained by many countries: it can act over extended periods of time, all around the world. Today, however, we need to prove that multilateralism is effective — and COVID-19 is a unique opportunity in this regard.

At the start of the pandemic, the international scientific community and medical profession acted in solidarity. Chinese scientists sequenced the genome of the new coronavirus as early as 11 January and posted it online, enabling scientists in Germany to develop a screening test that could then be shared by the World Health Organization with governments everywhere. As the world’s scientific community joined forces, it demonstrated the very spirit of multilateralism and ‘open science’ without borders. This potential is one reason why UNESCO and its 193 Member States are currently working on a global Recommendation on Open Science, to forge a global consensus that encourages governments to lift legal restrictions on scientific research, enabling scientists to work together, across borders, sharing data, research and publications with the world.

The pandemic also spurred the development of thousands of innovative and efficient technological solutions — telemedicine, contact-tracing applications, the delivery of medicine by drones, and data processing to speed the discovery of a vaccine. Yet the rapid progress being made in the field of public health must not blind us to the inherent risks in new technologies such as artificial intelligence. AI relies on vast amounts of data. It therefore risks reproducing discriminatory practices or biases, and is vulnerable to malicious usage. To ensure that this technology is used appropriately, UNESCO is working quickly to develop the world’s first standard-setting instrument on the ethics of artificial intelligence. A draft recommendation was submitted to UNESCO’s 193 Member States, with a view to presenting it at our next General Conference in November 2021.

For multilateralism, 2020 is both a test and an opportunity. As the pandemic has shown, international collaboration is the only course of action in the face of a disease that does not respect national borders. Today’s multilateralism may lack teeth, but it offers unique potential for action — as UNESCO has shown in recent weeks in Lebanon, where it has launched the ‘Li Beirut’ initiative to support the city’s recovery after the blasts of 4 August.

We are firmly committed to this ideal, and we call on all countries around the globe to commit to it as well. When things are not perfect, we sit down, we discuss new solutions, we take action — but we do not walk away from the table.

[1] Press conference, 25 June 2020, (consulted 22/09/2020)

[2] Edelman Trust Barometer, 2020. Available at: (consulted 22/09/2020)

[3] “UN75: The Future We Want, The UN We Need”, press release, 21 September 2020. Available at: (consulted 22/09/2020)

Views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Paris Peace Forum.

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Elected Director-General of UNESCO in 2017, Audrey Azoulay launched a vast Strategic Transformation programme for the Organization with a view to positioning UNESCO at the heart of emerging challenges in the 21st century. This includes several flagship projects to protect cultural heritage (through the initiative “Revive the Spirit of Mosul” in Iraq), to achieve quality education for all (in particular for girls and women), as well as to defend UNESCO’s role as a global laboratory of ideas (on artificial intelligence and its ethical implications).

After successfully completing her studies at the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, Audrey Azoulay graduated from the Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. She also holds a Diploma of Business Administration from the University of Lancaster (United Kingdom). Active in the cultural sector from the outset of her career, she has worked, among other things, to support the financing of the French public audiovisual sector and to reform and modernize French public aid systems for the film industry.

As the French Minister of Culture, she took action to protect endangered heritage, particularly in the Middle East. She also worked to widen children’s access to culture by launching artistic and cultural education programmes (the “Création en cours” programmes and “Microfolies” innovative cultural infrastructures).

Audrey Azoulay is committed to positioning UNESCO as a platform for humanist cooperation, as a standard-setting body and as an agency of experts that helps to disseminate knowledge and know-how throughout the world to the greatest number of people.

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