WASHINGTON, D.C. — United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres used his annual State of the World speech to the General Assembly last month to outline his 2020 priorities. He stressed four threats to progress in the 21st century: growing geostrategic tensions and mass violence in fragile states, creating an unprecedented refugee crisis; the climate catastrophe; rising mistrust in global, regional and national governing institutions; and the dark side of the digital world.
Fears of stalled socioeconomic progress caused by inequality and injustice in the global economy could also be added to this daunting list. Each problem could hurt the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.
Against this challenging backdrop, the president of the General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, appointed Qatar’s permanent representative, Alya Al-Thani, and Sweden’s permanent representative, Anna-Karin Enestrom, to lead the development of a “concise, substantive, forward-looking and unifying declaration” to mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the UN by June, three months before the Sept. 21 high-level meeting in New York. Ambassadors Al-Thani and Enestrom will convene UN member states on the draft declaration’s preparation on Feb. 21.
The key question is how far governments are willing to go to ensure a meaningful — rather than symbolic — result at the UN-75 summit meeting in September? One indication of the UN-75 appointees’ determination to have member states discuss significant improvements in the world body is evident in their “Food for Thought” paper to spur serious discussion on both short- and longer-term steps to strengthen multilateral governance. That includes by innovating the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.
Contributing to this approach and Guterres’s call for conversations worldwide on the future of the UN, we at the Stimson Center and several partners organized four global policy dialogues in the last two years on the themes of Preventive Action, Sustaining Peace and Global Governance (December 2018, Doha); Global Security, Justice and Economic Institutions (June 2019, Washington); Climate Governance: Innovating the Paris Agreement and Beyond; (October 2019, Seoul) and Global Economic Institutions (November 2019, World Bank).
The civil society-led UN2020 initiative and Together First campaign are championing creative proposals from these and other consultations before the UN-75 summit meeting at the UN General Assembly. Governments, for example, are being encouraged by the global policy dialogues to:
- Transform the Peacebuilding Commission into a strong UN Peacebuilding Council with a conflict-prevention mandate, as called for at the Doha dialogue. The new council would supplant the long-dormant Trusteeship Council. It would focus peacebuilding resources and political attention on countries and regions in nonpeacekeeping (and especially “post-“) environments. Through a new peace-building audit tool, the new council would also monitor and marshal collective action to avert the outbreak or recurrence of deadly conflict and closely track the UN’s systemwide efforts to sustain peace.
- Strengthen the International Criminal Court (ICC) and promote interim steps toward the Rome Statue’s universal ratification, as recommended by the Washington dialogue. The ICC’s many perceived flaws merit urgent attention, including its inability to prosecute, its vulnerability to political pressure from powerful countries, some questionable or weak jurisprudence, being outside the UN system and even a lack of cultural awareness of the court. With measures to tackle these shortcomings, an outreach campaign by diverse countries and civil society groups — buttressed by the future UN-75 declaration — could help promote progress toward widening acceptance of the Court’s jurisdiction.
- Adopt a whole-of-ecosystem approach by linking climate governance to other environmental agreements, protocols and conventions, as proposed at the Seoul dialogue with former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. An ecosystemwide approach will harmonize myriad international environmental agreements and state and nonstate parties. Enhanced coordination should begin with the four major environmental conventions (on climate change, biodiversity, combating desertification and law of the sea), but then extend to the more than 300 other existing environmental agreements (such as dealing with ozone depletion, pollution, land and water). This is the aim of current negotiations toward a new Global Pact for the Environment, which should also receive a boost from UN-75 deliberations.
- Create a G20+ configuration as part of a new framework for global economic cooperation, as discussed at last November’s dialogue held at the World Bank. Every two years at UN headquarters, the G20 forum should engage the other 173 member countries of the world body to ensure greater institutionalized coordination with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organization and others and prioritize better on crucial issues for the world economy. This new G20+ configuration could also strive to prevent the spread of cross-border financial shocks, promote the reduction of economic inequality and foster the inclusive growth that is needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
If the UN is to grapple with the biblical-size threats pronounced by Guterres last month, it is imperative that its 75th anniversary represents far more than a birthday celebration. This milestone is a real opportunity to serve as a landing zone for a select number of timely innovations, such as those considered at last month’s UN-75 inaugural launch event with Guterres, featuring important youth perspectives.
Moreover, achieving tangible signs of progress in specific areas will demonstrate the UN’s continued ability to reform and, over time, pursue broader structural changes. A sequenced, two-phase approach — where UN-75 is also positioned as a launching pad for negotiating more ambitious goals post-2020 — is also more realistic, given the current resistance to improving multilateral governance posed by such powerful countries as Russia, China and the United States.
To help these ideas come to fruition and build the arrangements to pursue them, UN-75 gatherings in San Francisco this June and elsewhere can stimulate new kinds of public-private partnerships with the UN system. That would make the commitments in the UN-75 Declaration more ambitious.