By Mandeep Tiwana
NEW YORK, Sep 22 2021 – When the UN Charter was being drafted in the closing days of the Second World War in 1945, a debate ensued on what its opening words should be. Jan Smuts, representative of colonial South Africa, had originally suggested that the UN Charter begin with the words, ‘The High Contracting Parties.’
This would have clearly placed the very the people the UN was set up to serve out of the picture. Ultimately, an elegant and notably democratic solution was arrived at, to begin the UN Charter with the words, ‘We the Peoples of the United Nations’. The UN has never wavered from this aspiration in principle despite the political ebbs and flows.
In practice, however, it’s arguably another matter.
Although, people around the world generally hold positive opinions about the UN, its ability to respond to global crises remains constrained by state-centric bureaucratic impulses and the assertion of narrow interests by powerful countries.
This has worked to the detriment of people who seek the assistance of the international community to alleviate their suffering, including recently in Burundi, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and elsewhere.
The UN’s refugee agency estimates that there are at least 82.4 million forcibly displaced persons globally. Concerned citizens and civil society organisations have long argued that they need to have a greater stake in the UN’s functioning to enable it to better respond to violent conflict and human-induced disasters.
In 2020, the imperative to make the UN more inclusive in its engagement with relevant stakeholders was recognised in a rare show of unity by the UN General Assembly through the landmark Declaration to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary.
All heads of state and government affirmed that contemporary challenges require cooperation not only across borders but across the whole of society. They committed to upgrading the UN and tasked the UN’s Secretary-General to produce a report on how to respond to current and future challenges.
This 10 September, following extensive global consultations, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres did just that, releasing the much-awaited Our Common Agenda report, with substantial hope riding on it.
For thousands of civil society activists and organisations in all corners of the globe who dedicated significant time and effort in providing inputs, Our Common Agenda offers a critical pathway for increasing participation in the UN, with the aim of enhancing its effectiveness and getting it closer to its founding values.
Notably, the report emphasises the indivisibility of human rights even as personality cult-driven leaders and authoritarian regimes are undermining the universality of internationally agreed human rights norms and development principles by disingenuously urging accommodation for cultural values and national characteristics.
The report also highlights what it calls a global “infodemic” plaguing the world, in a veiled reference to state-run propaganda and manufacture of politically expedient ‘facts’ by polarising figures. It calls for a global code of conduct to promote integrity in public information.
Significantly, a new social contract between governments and their people is proposed to rebuild trust, foster gender equal participation and social protection.
A multitude of challenges facing the world, from the ravages of climate change to vaccine nationalism to dysfunctional multilateralism, are identified. In the light of these, the report calls for a fresh embrace of global solidarity and renewed focus on boosting partnerships.
The report rightly urges greater political voice for the world’s many young people in decisions that affect them and commits to upgrading the position of the UN Youth Envoy to a UN Office for Youth.
The role of civil society as an integral part of the UN ecosystem is recognised. To foster inclusion, all UN entities are urged to set up civil society focal points if they haven’t done so already.
But somewhat disappointingly, the key demand by scores of civil society organisations and over 50 states for a people’s champion or civil society envoy to drive participation across the UN is simply acknowledged and parked for future consideration.
This is a lost opportunity as there are far too many inconsistencies in how the UN’s sprawling infrastructure engages with active citizens and civil society organisations. A civil society envoy at the UN headquarters would play a vital role in supporting all UN forums, agencies and offices to develop good practices on participation and also act as liaison between civil society focal points across the UN.
With an eye on upgrading the UN, the report exercises remarkable foresight in proposing an Envoy for Future Generations. A ‘Summit for the Future’ is envisaged in two years’ time to forge global consensus. People’s involvement – beyond high level panels and speeches by powerful politicians and celebrated technocrats – will be crucial if this summit is to be meaningful.
To help the UN evolve and face the future, the Secretary-General could explore the establishment of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative. It’s an innovative idea whereby a critical mass of people could bring a petition for action on a matter of vital public importance by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.
Significantly, the report makes a compelling case for ‘networked, inclusive and effective multilateralism,’ key components of which are described as cross-pillar coordination at the regional and international levels, space for all voices, including civil society as well as global south states, local governments, parliaments, international institutions and the private sector, and delivery of results through resource prioritisation and accountability for commitments.
These are ambitious objectives, and it is hard to see how they can be achieved without a serious rethink about how deliberations are carried out and decisions are made at the UN. Current processes are bureaucratic and heavily state centric, often screening the UN from the everyday struggles and demands of people, including victims of abuses.
There’s an acute need for more imaginative modes of direct people’s representation to make the UN fit for purpose for the 21st century and beyond. Innovative ideas to set up citizens’ panels and a UN parliamentary assembly exist but are still erroneously seen as being too ambitious.
The ambition of Our Common Agenda must now be followed by ambitious transformative actions. We mustn’t forget that the formation of the UN in 1945 was a revolutionary achievement. Since then, the UN has always been a work in progress. But with perseverance and foresight, we can put ‘We the Peoples’ at its heart.
Mandeep Tiwana is chief programmes officer at CIVICUS. He is based at CIVICUS’s UN liaison office in New York.