In today’s blog, Maddy Gimzewska discusses the significance and symbolism of international summits and conferences, and what they represent in terms of international cooperation on global issues.
Conferences remain important due to high coverage and their symbolism of global unity
The globalisation of international politics is a phenomenon which has transformed the way our political systems work. By living in an interdependent world, issues are no longer limited to individual countries. Likewise, medical students and doctors are practising in a more internationally aware profession, which is engaging in health issues at a global level. One of the ways in which international problems are addressed is through global summits addressing specific issues, many of which target health. Yet in the aftermath of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, questions arise regarding the feasibility of global cooperation on important issues. Following two weeks of discussion all that emerged was a weak agreement, which may prove inadequate in stabilising climate change, and lacking legal authority. So what does this symbolise in terms of current international cooperation? Is it realistic for global agreements to be reached, or is the scale of problems facing the international community too great an obstacle to overcome in negotiations?
The majority of international summits are organised by the United Nations (UN). The first summits, termed Global Conferences, were convened throughout the 1990’s when increasing globalisation meant there became an interest in translating global concerns into specific agendas (1). The most prominent were regarding issues of human rights (Vienna 1993), population issues (Cairo 1994), women’s issues (Beijing 1995), and the environment via the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro 1992). In response to these, Programmes and Funds have since been established (e.g. the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDs), which are in charge of implementing action and raising funds. Involvement in Programmes and Funds is endorsed by member governments and nongovernmental donors, and progress is overseen at subsequent conferences, and via publications and progress reports. The aims of numerous summits have been further amalgamated and monitored by the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, which set ambitious targets for development by 2015 (2).
Several problems become apparent when over 100 independent parties attempt agreement on one issue. Firstly, the competing interests of nations can never be truly eliminated. Even if heads of state concur that an issue is important, implementing action is significantly more complex, and often dependant on the national politics of the country a leader is representing. Lack of cooperation by one nation has the potential to block action being taken, or to reduce the actions overall in order to accommodate the blocking country. This was seen in Copenhagen: China has been publically blamed for a watered down deal and lack of a legally binding treaty, as their government prioritised national economic agenda over looming international crisis (3). In the past, the USA administration under George W. Bush repeatedly refused to sign deals on Climate Change due to scepticism amongst its population and politicians, where a large number of people believed Global Warming was a hoax.
Even in the event that a plan for implementing action is harmonized, as happened when the eight Millennium Development Goals were formed, there is no guarantee the targets will be met. The Millennium Development Goals were the first agreed targets for eradication of global poverty, but their implementation has not been global, with progress uneven and below target in most areas (4). In addition, the 8th goal, to “develop a global partnership for development,” highlights the issue in its own right.
Fortunately, the strategies derived at some conferences have worked: following the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, “The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer” entered into force in 1989, and since levels of chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons have either levelled off or fallen (5). In 1980, following global action directed by the WHO Smallpox Eradication Unit, the world was declared free of smallpox. Similarly, in 1988 the World Health Assembly launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. Polio has now been reduced in prevalence from affecting 125 countries to six (6). These issues all owe at least part of their success (there are, of course, a large number of factors of play) to agreements at international level, staged at Global Conferences.
Overall, international issues are complicated, ongoing and cannot be solved at a two week conference. Yet Conferences remain important due to high coverage and their symbolism of global unity. It has been shown that the success of global conferences is variable, both in theory and reality. Setting targets and agreeing that steps must be taken does not translate into direct action. Our global interdependence means that a failure of one contributing party to respond brings the overall outcomes down, and by being everyone’s responsibility, no one is individually held to account for missed targets. Yet numerous occasions in history show that, despite recent set-backs, cooperation is possible. As future doctors, we will see how our patients’ health will be affected, for better or worse, by decisions made at global level. We can only hope for the issues obstructing cooperation to be put aside, and for an increase in the success of conferences and cooperation as a whole in addressing the problems humanity faces.
Madelaine Gimzewska is a second year medical student at the University of Edinburgh
(1) John Baylis and Steve Smith: The Globalisation of International Politics, An Introduction to International Relations. Third Edition. Chapter 18, p419.
(6) Jeffery Sachs: The End of Poverty, Chapter 13, page 263.