Those who can’t talk a lot

(Statement of the Republic of the Philippines by His Excellency Mr. Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr., Secretary of Foreign Affairs, at the 19th Foreign Ministers Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) of the 19th foreign ministers’ meeting, First Plenary, December 16, 2019, with the topic: “Revitalizing the multilateral system – advancing the ASEM partnership on global issues.”)

AT the Asia-Europe Meeting in Brussels last year, predictions were rife of the death of multilateralism. To this our meeting stressed the relevance of ASEM as “a building block for effective multilateralism” that recognizes the United Nations as its core.

The UN was established to end the scourge of war — to stop it after it’s started; to prevent it when it threatens. And for 74 years that’s what it’s done. If you look at all the UN since its founding did — give or take Bosnia and Rwanda, the United States saved itself hundreds of billions of dollars not having to go to war. Multilateralism, which is to say the UN, kept antagonists talking, even insulting rather than fighting each other. And dragging Great Powers or being dragged by them into bigger fights. As long as the UN exists, none can trumpet the end of multilateralism nor show its uselessness. The only alternative to multilateralism is a world at war at every turn.

Multilateralism has come into question because it’s been bent to unipolar purposes; against multilateralism’s intended reason for being: the protection and safety of the weak and many, against the strong and few. In a sense, “unipolarism” has won out albeit on the sly. And it is the “unipolarism” of each of the 3 at most 4 Great Powers if we include the hesitant federated one of Europe.

Sovereignty is the pillar on which multilateralism and the UN stand. It means every UN member is an independent country and not a hand puppet of a Great Power. That means each brings its independent judgment to issues because many heads are better than just one that will surely be singularly self-serving. But, as a collection of sovereignties but not itself a sovereign collective, the UN is only as effective as members cooperate to make it so. This also applies to ASEM. As a forum for informal dialogue, ASEM must complement UN’s work. ASEM’s flexibility and informality are its strong points; making it an incubator of new ideas and initiatives.

We already have the global frameworks to address poverty, sustain development, and combat climate change. That is also the message of Greta Thunberg. The failure of Climate Talks in Madrid only emphasizes how right the girl is. The old have failed the young again; the past has failed the future — of our posterity and our planet. And if the young don’t take the world in hand, the old will surely drop and break it, even as they keep talking like they still have a grip on it. Those who can’t talk a lot. Senility is marked by loquacity.

The climate crisis is the defining development issue of our time. Failure to address it nullifies all other endeavors. Though still a developing country, the Philippines has effective programs for accurate and integrated disaster anticipation, prevention and mitigation. It’s at the edge of much climate action. But these amount to nothing; if those most responsible for climate change do not step up to answer commensurately for the environmental damage their giant economies are inflicting. If climate action does not measure up to what is needed, we all face the same fate: a diminished existence then extinction altogether.

This goes for the oceans too. If there is a distant planet capable of life, this is the only one our species has lived and will die on as its capacity to sustain life runs out. Yet we’re still failing the oceans and inland waters — the earth’s lifeblood. Everyone should clean up after as if it all depended on each one alone. It is the only alternative to the temptation of finger pointing.

On peace and security, we need more women making decisions. Women know best how to build; men how to tear down; yet that’s the only time women come in: to lament over what’s broken and lost. This year the Philippines launched the Asean Women and Peace Registry. It lists Asean women with expertise in peace negotiations, conflict resolution, peace building, and post-conflict rehabilitation. Naming is powerful: it initiates women’s inclusion and full participation in the peace and security agenda. Finally, for ASEM to stay relevant and solid, its collective understanding must be reflective of the real situation on the ground rather than in the mind of whichever Great Power has a different take on the reality it is pointing its guns at. Where we go cannot be the decision of a select few or most will be left behind. Where we go must be a choice that we all make — all of us. And so we plead again that migration not be left out of the multilateral – and ASEM – agenda. It is telling that advocates of multilateralism conveniently leave out issues of migration. Migration is as multilateral as it gets — that is if we’re talking humanity. If we’re talking something else, why are we even here? Thank you.


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