What hope for a more democratic United Nations?
Our Common Agenda, the new report by the United Nations (UN) Secretary General, recognises the need to improve multilateralism and strengthen cooperation – but it doesn’t go far enough. Commissioned in 2020 on the UN’s 75th anniversary and presented to the UN General Assembly this September, the report’s recommendations were informed by extensive consultation. Despite this, its proposals lack the ambition civil society has been pushing for. Civil society expects our commitment to multilateralism to be matched with genuine partnership, and will keep engaging, not least to ask for a civil society envoy to help mainstream participation in the UN.
In September 2021, once again the circus rolled into town for the official opening of the UN General Assembly in New York. This is the high-profile end of the annual UN cycle, when one after another, presidents and prime ministers line up to give their speeches. Unlike 2020, when much of the event had to take place online due to the pandemic, in 2021 leaders from democratic and authoritarian states alike jetted in to enjoy their moment in the international spotlight. While the pandemic still forced many to stay away, at least 83 countries were expected to be represented in person. There was much to discuss – vaccine inequality and pandemic recovery, climate change and the crises in Afghanistan and Myanmar, to name but a few of the pressing issues that can’t be tackled by states working in isolation.
The formal speeches – and the high-level diplomatic meetings that take place in the wings – are of course only the tip of the UN iceberg. All year round the UN is quietly working to develop international agreements, assert human rights norms and hold states to account on their commitments, alongside its work to prevent and respond to conflicts and disasters. And in this ongoing work, civil society seeks to be an essential partner, and offers a vital source of ideas, proposals and scrutiny.
A state-centric bias
However, civil society’s relationships with UN institutions are still characterised by unevenness and inequality. For all that the UN Charter begins with the words, ‘We the Peoples of the United Nations’, the UN still remains built around states as the principal stakeholders and units of organisation. Powerful states use UN institutions to advance their self-interest: the UN Security Council, deadlocked between China, Russia and the USA, failed to do anything of value to the people of Syria; the UN Human Rights Council passed a weak resolution on Afghanistan this August that failed to even mention the Taliban; and the World Health Organization was accused last year of failing to get to grips with the pandemic due to its reluctance to criticise China.
Civil society sees people’s participation as a necessary corrective to this state-skewed picture, and to the dominance of the strongest states. But one of the problems is that each different institution of the UN offers a varying level of space for civil society. Further, what spaces are available tend to privilege elite civil society groups. And in all cases civil society complains of being behind not only states but also the private sector when it comes to access. This is no trivial matter. When civil society is excluded, UN institutions risk being disconnected from the people closest to the major issues that the UN is supposed to be tackling.
The lack of priority afforded to civil society in the UN system was clearly signalled when the UN General Assembly convened. As they have been for more than 18 months now, civil society organisations remained locked out of the UN’s headquarters. While the pandemic remains a problem for everyone, government delegations and journalists were allowed to attend, but not civil society representatives. Once again, civil society was at the back of the queue.
In response to these deficits, civil society has developed a highly thought-out UN reform agenda, offering an array of practical proposals to make the UN more democratic and more open to people’s voices. These ideas are not just about civil society having a seat at the table. If more voices can be included in UN circles, the views of the most powerful states will count for less, and states will be confronted by the people who are impacted upon by their decisions and their failures to act. Opening up the UN offers the potential to connect the local to the global and enable people from the grassroots to speak truth to power, rather than let elite perspectives dominate.
When the UN turned 75 last year, civil society took the opportunity to put ideas for radical change forward. And there were signs that at least some states were taking civil society’s thoughts on board. In a rare show of unity, all states supported a landmark Declaration commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary. In this, they affirmed that current challenges require global cooperation. They committed to upgrading the UN and tasked the UN’s Secretary-General, António Guterres, to produce a report on how to respond to current and future challenges. Ahead of the start of the UN General Assembly meeting this September, the result was Our Common Agenda.
Some positives for civil society participation
The consultation processes for the Our Common Agenda report saw thousands of people from civil society engage. And to some extent the report bears their fingerprints, but it fails when it comes to the big, bold ideas.
The report calls for a new social contract between governments and people and a renewed emphasis on partnerships and global solidarity. It urges a greater political say for the world’s many young people, facing the hard end of unemployment and economic inequality but at the cutting edge of demands for change on global issues such as the climate crisis and racial injustice. Practically, it proposes to create a UN Office for Youth.
Among many other problems facing the world today, the report identifies the dysfunctional nature of current multilateralism. With an eye on making the UN more innovative and helping it evolve, the report has the foresight to propose an Envoy for Future Generations. In the same vein, in two years’ time a ‘Summit for the Future’ is suggested.
The report recognises the integral role of civil society within UN institutions and processes. Its call for ‘networked, inclusive and effective multilateralism’ requires effective coordination, accountability over all commitments and space for all voices, including civil society. As part of this, all UN bodies are urged to set up civil society focal points if they don’t already have these. Doing so would correct a shocking omission for those that don’t.
Room for much more ambition
While this recognition is a start, there is disappointment among the civil society that engages with the UN system that more forward-thinking ideas still seem to be kept off the agenda. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that the report reflects and reproduces a pecking order in which those with the most existing clout – powerful states that control the UN’s purse strings – must be appeased by being threatened with the least change; as civil society already has little say, it need not be taken seriously.
If civil society is to have a stronger voice, then at least part of the solution may come in one of the key current calls from civil society: for the UN to appoint a system-wide civil society envoy or people’s champion. This call, put forward by a range of civil society organisations working with the UN representatives of Costa Rica and Denmark, won the backing of over 50 states and numerous further civil society groups. Most recently, it was supported by the UN Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order. The appointment of such an office would help smooth out the great inconsistencies in the way different parts of the UN engage with civil society and link between the various civil society focal points across the UN. It would stand up for civil society and help it cut through the UN’s bewildering and opaque layers of bureaucracy. But disappointingly, the demand was simply acknowledged as an item for future consideration. This is a lost opportunity.
Similarly, while the Envoy for Future Generations and Summit for the Future offer some acknowledgement that the UN should regenerate itself as future challenges arise, the potential for change threatens not to be realised if these remain elite procedures – if, as past experience indicates, high-level officials determine the content and processes of any summit, state representatives dominate and innovation is expected to be supplied by wealthy business leaders. If the UN truly wants to open up to innovation, it should explore civil society’s idea to put in place a UN World Citizens’ Initiative.
Drawing from a precedent in the European Union, a World Citizens’ Initiative would enable a petition to be brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly or Security Council if it attracted enough support from people in multiple countries. Through this, people would be able to bring a matter requiring urgent action to the attention of the UN, offering a vital connection between communities and the international sphere and making it harder for institutions like the UN Security Council to turn its back on the world’s troubles.
VOICES FROM THE FRONTLINE
Natalie Samarasinghe is Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Association UK (UNA-UK), the UK’s leading source of independent information and analysis about the UN that works to build support for the UN among policymakers, opinion-formers and the public.
The report is remarkably forthright in parts. In calling for a renewed social contract, for instance, Guterres weaves together a number of politically challenging issues, such as human rights, taxation and justice. He is right to position these issues as essentially national, but defining a way forward will be tricky: the emphasis on the UN’s role in ‘domestic’ issues will undoubtedly irk governments, while civil society organisations (CSOs) may fear it signals a retreat into norm-setting and technical assistance.
In other places, Guterres pulls his punches. This is perhaps wise in contested areas such as peace and security, where the report sets out modest proposals that are, for the most part, already underway. UNA-UK and partner CSOs would have liked more emphasis on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and on halting the development of lethal autonomous weapons.
On climate, Guterres’ signature issue, the report could have gone further to frame the ‘triple crisis’ of climate disruption, pollution and biodiversity loss as an interrelated emergency with human rights at its core. It could also have sensitised policymakers to a bolder set of measures. And after an excellent distillation of the challenges, those looking for new approaches on women’s empowerment and gender equality are also left wanting.
For many of us, though, the biggest disappointment was on civil society inclusion. Guterres’ language is positive but less emphatic than in his Call to Action on Human Rights and there are few specifics that move beyond warm words.
During the stakeholder consultations, CSOs from all regions called for a high-level UN civil society champion to help increase and diversify participation and advise on access – be it to UN headquarters or to climate COPs. This was the one concrete proposal that attracted widespread support and while the report commits to exploring it further, there is some bewilderment as to why Guterres did not move forward with an appointment that is in his gift.
In the short term, the proposed roll-out of systemwide focal points should happen swiftly and in consultation with civil society. A timeline and process should be set for mapping and monitoring engagement, as envisaged by the report. A high-level champion would be a natural instigator for both, so hopefully this position will be established.
In the medium term, a number of other changes would be helpful, including a system-wide strategy on civic space inside and outside the UN; a simple online platform to support engagement, which could include a citizen petition mechanism; a voluntary fund to support participation, as well as tools such as social impact bonds to finance in-country CSO activity; and a new partnership framework to enhance partnership capacity – including in-country, simplify engagement and improve vetting.
In the longer-term, the UN should move towards a partnership model, launching a global capacity-building drive to transfer a number of its functions to CSOs and others who are better able to deliver on the ground. This would enable the organisation to focus on the tasks it is uniquely well-placed to undertake.
CSOs can push for making progress on ‘Our Common Agenda’, from advocacy with states to provide the Secretary-General with the mandate needed to forge ahead, to fleshing out the many proposals in the report and taking action in their communities, capitals and UN forums.
We can do this from the sidelines – we are well-practised in making our voices heard despite shrinking civic space. But we will be much more effective if we are given a formal role in dedicated processes such as preparations for the Summit of the Future and in the work of the UN more generally; and if we know we can count on the support of UN officials. Appointing a civil society champion would be a good start.
This is an edited extract of our interview with Natalie Samarasinghe. Read the full interview here.
Need for follow-up
Above all the fear among the civil society that so actively engaged in this latest process will be a familiar one: that even the limited ambition shown does not translate into action and the report becomes another that quickly gathers dust. The history of the UN is littered with well-meaning reports that were never implemented.
The way to combat that seems obvious: more pressure to hold UN institutions to account. Again there are innovative civil society ideas here, such as the institution of a UN parliamentary assembly to bring more voices into the halls of the UN and act as a source of scrutiny – but this is yet another suggestion that is still dismissed as too ambitious.
Even if all the report’s recommendations are followed up, it will remain far behind the pace of civil society’s UN reform agenda. There is no more obvious partner for multilateralism than civil society, committed as we are to universal human rights, motivated by humanitarian values and certain that multilateral solutions are needed to global problems. But this natural partner keeps being disempowered. Civil society will keep insisting that our commitment to multilateralism and engagement with the UN must be matched by action that recognises civil society as a full and vital partner.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The UN Secretary-General should go beyond acknowledging calls for a civil society envoy and begin the process of appointing one as a way of demonstrating civil society’s vital role in the UN.
The Summit for the Future, and other innovations proposed by the report, must have full participation by a diverse array of civil society and commit to bold ideas for people’s participation, including mechanisms for people to shape the UN’s agenda and have direct representation.
Democratic states that emphasise civil society participation in their foreign policy should publicly affirm their support for a civil society envoy and commit funds to make it a reality.