Jeffrey Sachs, Guillaume Lafortune – Adhering to the UN Charter: Barbados first, the US last

The United States and Israel are ranked bottom and second bottom respectively of all UN member states in their respect for the UN Charter and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Jeffrey Sachs is University Professor at Columbia University. Guillaume Lafortune is member of the Grenoble Centre for Economic Research (CREG), France.

Cross-posted from Other News

Picture by Focal Foto

As part of our academic research on how to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we are examining the extent to which UN member states adhere to the UN Charter and UN-backed goals such as the SDGs.  Towards this end, we have created a preliminary “Multilateralism Index,” and welcome feedback and suggestions. The ranking of 74 countries according to the Multilateralism Index is shown in the Figure. 

Barbados ranks highest, the UN member most aligned with the UN Charter.  Though Barbados is a very small country, with just 280,000 people, its peaceful multilateralism gives it a big voice.  Barbados’ globally respected Prime Minister Mia Mottley, recently teamed up with French President Emmanuel Macron to co-host an important Summit for a New Global Financing Pact for People and Planet, in Paris this past June.  This summit built on Barbados’ Bridgetown Initiative — named after the Barbados’ capital city – to reform the Global Financial Architecture to enable vulnerable countries cope with climate change.

At the very bottom of the ranking of 74 countries is the United States, with Israel being the second from the bottom.  Both countries are frequently at odds with the UN multilateral system, as is so evident these days. 

The US fails to adhere to the UN Charter in several ways.  The starkest is the many wars and regime change operations that the US has led, without any UN mandate and often against the will of the UN Security Council.  In 2003, the US tried to get the UN Security Council to vote for a war against Iraq.  When the Security Council opposed the US, the US launched the war anyway.  As events later proved, the US ostensible reason for launching the war, Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, did not even exist.  The US has engaged in dozens of covert and overt regime-change operations that violate the letter and spirit of the UN Charter. One important studyfinds 64 covert regime change operations by the US during the Cold War, 1947-1989.  There have been many well-known US covert operations since then.     

The US also goes it alone on issues of sustainable development.  In 2015, all 193 UN member states adopted the SDGs to guide national policies and international development cooperation during the period 2016-2030.  Every UN member state is supposed to present its national SDG plans, challenges, and achievements to the other nations, in a presentation called the Voluntary National Review, or VNR.  So far, 188 of the 193 UN member states have presented VNRs, sometimes more than once. Barbados for instance presented two VNRs in 2020 and 2023. Yet five countries have never presented a single VNR: Haiti, Myanmar, South Sudan, Yemen, and yes, the United States of America. South Sudan and Yemen are now on the list of countries to present a VNR in 2024, but not the US.

At this stage the Multilateralism Index covers 74 of the 193 UN member states, the group for which we have collected extensive data on the governments’ efforts to achieve the SDGs.  The Multilateralism Index is positively correlated with those SDG efforts, that is, countries abiding by UN processes (according to the Index) also demonstrate a strong commitment to the SDGs.     

The Multilateralism Index is based on five indicators. 

The first is the proportion of UN treaties between 1946 and 2022 that each country has ratified.  As an example, Barbados has ratified more than 80 percent of major UN treaties, while the US has ratified less than 60 percent.    

The second is each country’s deployment of unilateral economic sanctions (sometimes called “unilateral coercive measures”) not approved by the UN.  The UN General Assembly proclaimed in 1974 that “no State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights.”

The third measures each country’s membership in major UN organizations. 

The fourth measures each country’s militarization and resort to war.  The indicator draws on the excellent work of the Global Peace Index

The fifth measures each high-income country’s economic solidarity with poorer nations, according to its Official Development Assistance (ODA) as a percent of the Gross National Income (GNI).  According to a resolution of the UN General Assemblyin October 1970, high-income countries are supposed to devote at least 0.7 percent of GNI to ODA.  The US, by contrast, devoted just 0.22 percent in 2022

We combine these five indicators to produce the Multilateralism Index. 

Our index, which is based on data up through 2022, has shown its predictive power these very days.  In recent weeks, in vote after vote, we witness America’s self-isolation within the UN.  To be multilateral within the UN system, after all, means to abide by UN precepts and the voice of the global community. 

On October 18, the US stood alone in the UN Security Council, when it deployed its veto to stop a resolution calling for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.  The vote was 12 voting yes, 2 abstentions, and the US alone vetoing the measure. 

Similarly, on November 2, 2023 the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution A/78/L.5, which calls on the United States to end its long-standing economic, financial, and commercial embargo on Cuba.  To put it mildly, this was not a close vote:  187 countries voted in favor of the resolution, while only the United States and Israel voted against.  Ukraine abstained, and three countries did not vote.  Thus, the vote was 187 Yes, 2 No, 1 abstain.  This year’s resolution follows 30 similar resolutions, dating back to 1993.  The United States has ignored every single one of those UN General Assembly resolutions.   

In a deeply interconnected and interdependent world, facing unprecedented and complex crises ranging from pandemics to wars to climate change, the need for multilateralism under the UN Charter is more urgent than ever.  No government can do it alone.  Barbados sets the highest standard for others to achieve.  The US needs to recognize that the UN system, operating under the UN Charter, is the true “rule-based international order.” 

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