“As we emerge from the pandemic, the UN is more relevant than ever. This was clear in the responses to our global listening exercise conducted for the 75th anniversary, but it was also clear in the ways people looked to States—the very States that make up the United Nations—and to international organizations to solve the biggest problem we have collectively faced since our founding. We must act as a catalyst and platform for more inclusive, networked and effective forms of multilateralism.”
— UN Secretary-General António Guterres (23 March 2021)1Guterres, António. Vision Statement “Restoring trust and inspiring hope” The next five years for the United Nations. United Nations, March 23 2021. 15. Accessed May 18, 2021. https://www.un.org/pga/75/wp-content/uploads/sites/100/2021/03/Letter-PGA-VS.pdf.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ UN75 Global Conversation with civil society and Member State negotiations for a UN75 Declaration, both major initiatives that were just underway, had to accommodate the pandemic’s restrictive “new normal.” The sudden and severe health crisis and its knock-on effects also heightened already-trending exclusionary undercurrents in many states and the related impacts of populist, anti-multilateralist politicians. Together, they amplified public anxiety in pursuit of nationalist, short-sighted agendas, posing an unprecedented test for the rules and institutions of global cooperation.
Just over a year later, however, encouraging signs abound of a shift from defending and preserving multilateralism to strengthening and renewing it. From likely more ambitious climate targets for the Paris Agreement’s COP26 this November in Glasgow to the slow yet steady transfer of resources, know-how, and possibly intellectual property to enable developing countries to better combat the coronavirus, prospects have grown for improved collective action through multilateral institutions to deal with hard global problems. Beginning with a dramatic policy U-turn in the United States, countries large and small are further signaling their support for the Secretary-General’s vision of an “inclusive, networked, and effective” United Nations.
Meanwhile, requirements for global cooperation have, arguably, never been greater. Besides the COVID-19 and climate change crises, extremist violence in fragile states, the specter of cross-border economic shocks, and increasingly sophisticated cyber-attacks loom large. Low-income countries have far less fiscal space than wealthier ones for pandemic recovery and relief; many entered 2020 with high levels of debt that have only grown. As powerful nations hustle for influence and opposing camps emerge that downplay basic principles of multilateral cooperation, countervailing efforts to enhance justice, security, and prosperity for all need a firm, human rights-centered vision; creative proposals to fulfill that vision; and a forward-looking strategy for implementing them and guiding global relations in the 21st century.
The UN75 Declaration of September 2020 was an important first step in that direction by remaking the case for the United Nations to cope with contemporary threats and challenges in a politically turbulent era, while recognizing that the world body needs to partner increasingly with non-governmental civic and private sector actors to maintain relevance. It further mandated the Secretary-General to produce a follow-up report, Our Common Agenda, due in September 2021. That report can offer world leaders a program of ambitious renewal and innovation. To persuade Member States to embrace such a program, the Secretary-General should present a roadmap with three essential, intertwined elements: conceptual advances, specific recommendations for taking forward the UN75 Declaration’s twelve commitments, and a highly participatory strategy for reform.
Conceptually, Secretary-General Guterres’ repeated calls, in 2020 and 2021, for a new social contract, a new global deal, and networked and inclusive multilateralism have the potential of framing the shape and trajectory of the United Nations in its next quarter-century, like the powerful ideational roles over the past few decades played by the concepts of sustainable development and human security. Extending beyond the classic people-state relationship, the new social contract provides an overarching vision for progressively realizing the economic, political, social, civil, and cultural rights of all peoples. The new global deal would operationalize this vision by encouraging global, regional, national, and community-level plans for green recovery from the pandemic and attendant policies and programs—both recalibrating and accelerating the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
To take these concepts forward, Secretary- General Guterres appealed for a new kind of networked and inclusive multilateralism, drawing on the ideas and capacities of academic and scientific institutions, regions and cities, civil society, and the business community. This could also generate a rethinking of global governance institutions, policies, laws, operations, and norms. To spur new thinking on renewal and innovation, this report undertakes a gap analysis and offers these and other ideas that speak to each of the UN75 Declaration’s twelve commitments:
- We will leave no one behind. Create a G20+ to accelerate the Decade of Action for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development through enhanced coordination by G20 members with the UN system, Bretton Woods institutions, and related bodies, supported by a new, small, and full-time secretariat. The global economic governance system should be further strengthened to limit the potential for socioeconomic dislocations, such as those produced by the current global pandemic, while guiding a durable, green, and broad-based recovery.
- We will protect our planet. Define one or more global climate adaptation goals and gauge their achievement in terms of measurable improvements for local human security; finance support for adaptation from revenues formerly directed to fossil fuel subsidies.
- We will promote peace and prevent conflicts. Create a strong UN Democratic Peacebuilding Council to replace the current Peacebuilding Commission (as well as the Trusteeship Council) with a body having enhanced powers, responsibilities, and a mandate to lead on conflict prevention and peacebuilding policy development, coordination, and resource mobilization—for situations not addressed directly by the Security Council. It would employ a new Sustaining Peace and Conflict Prevention Audit tool.
- We will abide by international law and ensure justice. Seek universal acceptance of international justice institutions, in particular the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, while increasing their enforcement powers, preserving their independence, and enhancing their resilience against political pressures.
- We will place women and girls at the center. Call for the withdrawal of most UN Member State reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Stronger legal bearing on preventing and combating violence against women would compel Member States to enact national policies to provide better legal protection for women and girls.
- We will build trust. Establish an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) to build trust in governments, reduce inequality, improve governance efficacy, and decrease security risks. Similar to the International Criminal Court, the IACC would enable international prosecution of corruption cases only where national jurisdictions are unable or unwilling to prosecute.
- We will improve digital cooperation. Strengthen cybersecurity through international cybercrime centers, international cybercrime expert rosters, and a global campaign to promote end-user cyber hygiene.
- We will upgrade the United Nations. Address the UN’s democracy and legitimacy deficits by establishing a United Nations Parliamentary Network, initially as an advisory body to the UN General Assembly. Composed of individual members of national and regional parliaments— as well as representatives of existing parliamentary networks, institutions, and possibly local authorities—the UN Parliamentary Network would act as a platform for direct participation, input, and accountability claims by the peoples of the world on governance matters pertaining to the UN.
- We will ensure sustainable financing. Set-up a new funding compact to finance a sustainable, values-based, and effective UN system. It would aim to reduce the tying of both Member State and non-Member State financial contributions to a specific program, project or entity, increase financial transparency across the UN system, and meet the highest standards of due diligence.
- We will boost partnerships. Establish a Civil Society Champion within the UN senior echelon to enhance civic space and participation at the United Nations, by representing civil society across senior UN Secretariat leadership meetings, monitoring the UN system for civil society inclusion in policy-making opportunities, and promoting diversity and equity, including from the Global South, in UN-civil society operational partnerships.
- We will listen to and work with youth. A UN Youth Advisory Council is needed to elevate the voices of youth in international decision-making and to ensure youth inclusion in programming across the UN system. It would offer advice and oversight in advancing the 2018 UN Youth Strategy and serve as an advocacy body for young people’s rights around the world.
- We will be prepared. Establish a Global Health Threats Council, adopt a Pandemic Framework Convention, and strengthen the independence, authority, and financing of the World Health Organization, as recommended recently by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, for preventing and better managing future global disease outbreaks.
The roadmap for implementing such a strategy for reform should include a comprehensive, intergovernmental, and multi-stakeholder preparatory effort that culminates in a 2023 World Summit on Inclusive Global Governance (IGG Summit)—for truly innovating the United Nations system to keep pace with present peace and security, sustainable development, and human rights challenges and opportunities. Mobilizing diverse actors worldwide, the summit would seek to upgrade and equip the global governance system to better address major issues confronting the international community, and to usher in a new compact with citizens to enhance and rebuild confidence in their common institutions. To maximize the summit’s impact, priority steps would include:
- Convening four two-week Preparatory Committees (PrepComs) on different continents organized around the four thematic pillars of: i) peace, security, and humanitarian action; ii) sustainable development and COVID-19 recovery; iii) human rights, inclusive governance, and the rule of law; and (iv) climate governance; a fifth cross-cutting pillar could consider overarching topics to promote integrated, system-wide reforms in connection with these four pillars;
- Holding global-regional Peoples’ Forums and E-Dialogues to increase global public awareness and feed civil society perspectives into the PrepComs and summit;
- Organizing an Eminent Advisors Council and a related series of Track 1.5 UN Ambassador- Expert Roundtables to examine how the global governance system can be better organized and equipped to address major current and over-the-horizon threats; and
- Ensuring that the IGG Summit’s Outcome Document emphasizes select, concrete, time-bound, and measurable reform commitments to aid near and longer-term results.
A more inclusive and effective system of global governance for better coping with 21st century challenges while seizing new opportunities is within our reach; time, however, is running short. Going forward, the international community must draw strength from the representative legitimacy—but also ideas, networks, and capabilities—of diverse state and non-state actors. Meaningful change is possible, though making headway on this global road ahead will require patience, imagination, and most of all courage.