On the UN's 75th anniversary, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is undergoing major upheaval. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the region, LAC had been wracked by economic crises, political instability and the spread of nationalism. As political winds shifted towards the right (or, in the case of Brazil, to the extreme-right), governments rolled back social programmes, stepped up the militarization of public security and made repeated attacks on multilateralism, human rights and the environment. On top of that, like other parts of the world, LAC faces the emerging challenges of our times: climate change and the security risks that it intensifies, labour market implications of new technologies and geopolitical shifts that foment new and more intense rivalries.
This is not, of course, LAC's first rodeo. The region has a history of sharp ups and downs. It has undergone major political shifts and economic crises, with countries like Brazil, Argentina and Mexico seesawing between periods of robust growth and stretches of stagnation, or even recession. One persistent problem, in particular, poses challenges not only to stakeholders in the region, but also to actors involved in international cooperation: there is deep socio-economic inequality, both with respect to wealth and income and in terms of social cleavages, such as race and ethnicity, gender and geography. Even though almost all LAC states are classified within the UN system as middle-income countries (MICs) and feature relatively robust institutions and resilient civil societies, most have been unable to reduce inequality in significant ways. This inequality helps drive, and is reflected in, patterns of widespread violence, including the world's highest homicide rates and skyrocketing femicides.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become more urgent not only to commemorate the achievements of the UN's role in LAC, which are considerable across all its three pillars, but also to ask how the UN can improve its approaches in the region. With respect to climate action, regional consultations on the Americas organized by a consortium of think tanks (and carried out via webinars as well as online meetings) yielded several recommendations on how changes in UN approaches could help make LAC more resilient. Among the ideas raised is the need to engage the UN in:
Boosting the energy transition: The United Nations is a high-level policy dialogue partner for LAC's middle-income countries as well as a repository for knowledge and experience with energy transition across the world. It is consequently well positioned to support the region's stakeholders in implementing or accelerating the energy transition, especially in countries that are highly dependent on oil and gas. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over in LAC, countries are beginning to consider roadmaps towards socio-economic recovery, which could present new strategic inflection points to promote more sustainable and inclusive development paths, including through South-South cooperation.
Reinforcing responses that are climate and security-sensitive. From the Amazon rainforest to the Andean glaciers and extreme weather events in the Caribbean, discussions on how climate change multiplies security risks across LAC – have intensified over the past year, with a number of publications and debates about how policy responses can tackle these growing challenges. The recent creation of the Climate and Security Mechanism at the UN Secretariat can boost this discussion by mainstreaming climate and security risk assessments and policy recommendations across the UN system, while providing a clearinghouse of best practices and a legitimate platform for cooperation around diagnostics and solutions.
Strengthening the role of regional organizations: LAC has a plethora of regional and subregional organizations, but many have lost momentum due to lack of political commitment, infighting, lack of leadership and scarce resources. The weakening of regional structures means lost opportunities for policy coordination and international cooperation around climate change. Organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS), the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) should be strengthened, but also encouraged to adopt more ambitious and effective climate agendas as part of organizational change and reform efforts.
This article reflects the perspective of the author who was the coordinator the International Peace and Security area at the Igarapé Institute at the time of the UN75 Regional Dialogue for the Americas. The official summary report of the dialogue, for which participants’ inputs have been synthesised on a not-for-attribution-basis, can be downloaded here. Igarapé co-organised the dialogue with the Stimson Center, Organization of American States, the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, adelphi, Global Challenges Foundation, Together First, and UN2020. The online dialogue (20 March-26 April) was structured in four segments across four thematic issues areas. Each segment started with a focused thematic webinar that brought together key experts from the United Nations, civil society, regional organizations, and member states.