By all accounts, 2020 has been a terrible year so far — but is it worse than 1920?
In 1920, World War I, which killed 16 million people, had just ended. The two-year influenza pandemic that followed killed 50 million more. In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has already killed more than one million people and infected more than 40 million with infections surging worldwide.
With 20/20 hindsight, the 20th century was a terrible one. It heralded two world wars that together took more than 85 million lives. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire ushered in an era of British and French colonialism that led to deadly decolonization and national liberation battles in Latin America, Africa and Asia. It was a century of genocides — including the Holocaust in Europe — which was the worst and most remembered — as well as the Armenian genocide, the Russian pogroms, the Cambodian genocide, the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian genocide.
It was also a century of partitions: India, Palestine and the Korean Peninsula, all divided in failed attempts to resolve conflicts that still linger into the 21st century. The dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union were historical watersheds marked by more wars in Europe and Asia.
When we look back at the last century, however, we forget the millions who died in the pandemic and celebrate the medical, technological and digital revolutions. We forget the demise of the League of Nations and celebrate the establishment of the United Nations. We forget the millions of slaughtered innocents and celebrate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human-rights and humanitarian conventions.
As we end the 20th year of the 21st century, we have endured the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the war in Afghanistan and aggressions in Iraq and Ukraine; genocide in Darfur and Myanmar and continuing mass-atrocity crimes in Syria and elsewhere; the terror of Al Qaeda and the barbarity of ISIL; the accelerating climate change crisis; and most recently, the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to take lives and livelihoods on a global scale.
With 2020 foresight, the answer to our descent into cynicism, chaos and crisis can once again be found in the UN, its Charter and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The UN can rise again, using new information and communication technologies, to live up to its founders’ vision of being a center for harmonizing the actions of nations to coordinate an effective, humane response to the coronavirus and climate change and protect civilians from terrorism, nations from aggression and peoples from genocide.
In their UN75 Declaration, the heads of state and government recognized that “[t]here is no other global organization with the legitimacy, convening power and normative impact of the United Nations.” They concluded that “[m]ultilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we build back better for a more equal, more resilient and more sustainable world.”
UN member states have, at least in word, recommitted to the promise and vision of the UN Charter and to fulfill their roles and responsibilities, individually and collectively, as envisioned therein. They must now rise to the moment — in word and more important, in deed — not only to limit the spread and socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic but also to combat climate change, to alleviate poverty and hunger and to stop genocide and other mass-atrocity crimes.
To survive the pandemic, we as individuals must stand apart for the time being. To survive as a human race, we must stand together and forge a multilateral response to these common challenges guided by our universally accepted principles.
Imagine if the Security Council took the reins and, relying on the guidance and recommendations of the World Health Organization, led a global response to the pandemic. Imagine if the General Assembly adopted a universal basic income to ensure that no one is left behind in the unfolding economic crisis. Imagine if the secretary-general held a pledging conference to ensure that all countries can provide protective equipment to their first responders; to ensure supplies of therapeutics to the afflicted; and soon, to distribute a safe vaccine to us all.
The founding fathers emerged from World War II and drafted the UN Charter to offer a way out of the scourge of war and a path to peace, development and human rights for all. Similarly, in their UN75 Declaration, world leaders have vowed to return to the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to build back a post-pandemic world defined by greater security and dignity, less hunger and poverty and larger freedom and justice.
Let us hope they live up to their promise. Our lives and the future of the planet depend on it.
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