As trade wars begin, the humble mail is a reminder of the value of multilateralism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 2:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2018, 11:00pm

Multilateralism is under such intense pressure these days that a recent meeting of G20 foreign ministers at San Martin Palace in Buenos Aires felt the need to weigh in with a call for it to be preserved.

In this time of budding trade wars, spats among good international friends and a disturbing lack of consensus on human rights and peace, it can often seem that disagreement on the way forward is actually a retreat from present standards. Perhaps what shines clearest from these unsettling woes is a forgetting of multilateralism’s potency and the reason why it has been the organising principle of our modern societies since the darkness of the second world war.

Insights may come from something so commonplace we take it for granted when it drops through the letterbox: the humble mail.

What determined the mail’s journey was a multilateral agreement in existence long before the arrival of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

The Treaty of Bern, signed in 1874, was an act of multilateralism that not only created my organisation, the Universal Postal Union, but also united different postal operators to create a single network of networks ensuring everyone on this planet had access to post.

Known as the Universal Service Obligation, it is a stunning example of how countries often unite out of circumstance, but are driven by a recognition that nations in concert gain something beyond narrow self-interest.

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The Universal Service Obligation works because visionary nations got together and gave something up to get something better. Does that sound like a familiar argument?

Today, in forums such as the Universal Postal Union’s extraordinary congress, to be held this September in Addis Ababa, the treaty is the foundation for numerous discussions involving multilateralism.

Our postal union brings countries and postal operators together to discuss a range of matters including the movement of dangerous goods, helping with disaster risk-management and powering efforts to promote e-commerce and financial inclusion for millions outside the world’s financial systems.

The treaty is a shining symbol of multilateralism and proof of the desire to treat everyone equally. That should have everyone’s stamp of approval.

Bishar A. Hussein, director general, Universal Postal Union