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The UN Pact for the Future Needs Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue

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United Nations Headquarters in NYC
World leaders will meet at the UN in September for its first-ever Summit of the Future, an event “intended to revive a multilateral system built for a different era,” the essayist writes. But governments, she adds, “are already jeopardizing this opportunity.” JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

In September, world leaders will gather in New York for the United Nations’ Summit of the Future, an event intended to revive a multilateral system built for a different era. While similar efforts are taking place in other international forums, no other platform for reforming global governance can compete with a summit that convenes all countries, great and small. Unfortunately, the world’s governments are already jeopardizing this opportunity.

UN member states are negotiating a Pact for the Future, which has been envisioned as a blueprint for multilateral cooperation in the 21st century. The initial “zero draft” of the pact, developed by co-facilitators Germany and Namibia based on their interpretation of member states’ positions, was a timid text that included 39 instances of “we reaffirm” but not a single “we decide.”

It lacks many of the sensible ideas proposed by Secretary-General António Guterres, including those regarding the global financial system, peace and security, new digital technologies, the rights of youth and future generations, and the reform of global governance institutions. This is because many member states have yet to fully digest the numerous proposals (much less develop the national or regional positions required for productive bargaining), are fixated on narrow interests rather than the big picture. Or they are wasting time rehashing past debates.

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Given the stakes, how might governments tailor a Pact for the Future that actually meets the moment? Here’s one proposal: They should heed the sartorial advice traditionally offered to brides for an auspicious wedding. That is, they should include something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.

Something Old

Nothing has so undermined global order as the sense that the law of the jungle is replacing the rule of law, from Ukraine to Gaza to Sudan. To stop this erosion, the pact must reaffirm something old: the sanctity of the UN Charter’s principles, as well as the centrality of international norms and laws governing the use of force, conflict and human rights. The latter includes agreements such as the Geneva Conventions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Beijing Declaration and multilateral treaties. The pact must insist on accountability for those who violate these obligations.

In parallel, the pact should seek to bolster the nuclear nonproliferation regime. It should recommit all nuclear weapons states to disarmament, consistent with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as well as to the principle of No First Use. The summit should call on those states to deliver full transparency on nuclear doctrine and weapons stocks, which could significantly boost nuclear stability.

Something New

The Pact for the Future also must look ahead to the governance of new and emerging global challenges. One of the most inspired ideas is a proposed Declaration on Future Generations, to be implemented by a new special envoy and new UN forum. It would signal a commitment to safeguarding the rights of the 10 billion people who will be born by the end of this century, mostly in developing countries. The declaration should recognize that addressing climate change — the key threat to future generations — is a global public good and that collective action is required.

Cooperation on rapidly evolving technological change will also be a feature of 21st-century governance. The proposed Global Digital Compact, beyond endorsing access to digital technologies and digital transformation, should establish the principle that humans should always be in the loop when it comes to emerging technologies, particularly in the cases of AI and lethal autonomous weapons systems. Similarly, the pact should propose new principles and rules to govern expanding capabilities in cyberspace and outer space.

Finally, the “something new” component should include principles to help the world work together in a manner that is more inclusive and equitable than in the past. Just as world leaders agreed that the principle of Leave No One Behind should guide delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the pact should declare a new principle of Nothing About Us Without Us. That is, those most affected by the decisions made about them in multilateral bodies must be consulted and represented. By agreeing to this principle, world leaders can signal their intention to address a major source of the legitimacy crisis of international institutions — agency — and lay the groundwork for further reform.

Something Borrowed

The Summit of the Future will unfold alongside reform efforts in other institutions, including the multilateral development banks. Rather than seeking to replicate that work, the summit offers heads of state and government a chance to borrow from and build upon that progress. A political message from the highest level could bring a sense of urgency to reform of the international financial architecture.

At last September’s SDG Summit, world leaders acknowledged that too many developing countries, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, were falling behind, in large part because of inadequate financing. Yet donor governments have failed to deliver on their development and climate finance commitments. Ultimately, the major decisions about global finance will take place in other venues, including the governing boards of the major international financial institutions and the G20. However, those forums exclude vulnerable countries. The UN is one of the only places where poorer (and often smaller) nations have a voice, and in the General Assembly, they and their allies have the numbers to secure the outcomes they want.

They recently did so on global tax cooperation: fed up with not having a say, African governments succeeded in getting a large majority of countries to agree to have a UN framework convention on tax cooperation, challenging the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s long-standing leadership on cross-border taxation.

That effort may foreshadow what’s to come if commitments to strengthen the voices and participation of developing countries in international economic decision-making are not fulfilled. Donor governments may choose to continue to resist change and ignore the rise of developing countries, many of whom look to the UN as a venue for voicing their concerns. Alternatively, they could acknowledge the desire of developing countries to have more say and work with them to make global economic decision-making more democratic.

In addition, the summit should endorse further steps to alleviate the debt crisis afflicting many low- and middle-income nations by improving their access to international public financing, expanding their access to sustainable private capital and improving global tax cooperation. This is especially crucial for meeting urgent development needs and global net-zero targets. Governments should also pledge to ramp up contributions to the loss and damage fund and identify new sources of financing to advance the green transition.

The summit can also bring more coherence and equity to international financial governance; for instance, by proposing a biennial summit where the UN Economic and Social Council and UN Secretariat meet with the G20 and the international financial institutions.

Something Blue

Finally, the Pact for the Future should include something blue — that is, specific to the UN, an entity symbolized by its blue flag and blue helmets. The pact should reaffirm the UN’s centrality and enduring relevance as the only universal international organization with a legally binding charter. And it should endorse specific institutional reforms designed to address the UN’s current weaknesses. Those reforms can serve as a guide on what qualifications to look for as governments vet candidates for a new secretary-general in 2026.

Restoring the legitimacy and effectiveness of the UN Security Council is critical, as it is the only multilateral forum mandated to maintain international peace and security. The pact should include meaningful provisions on Security Council reform, including providing member states with clear options on its potential enlargement. The pact must set a process and a deadline for deciding on the direction of reform and propose measures to limit the veto, including in the case of mass atrocities. In April 2022, the General Assembly passed a resolution that requires a debate any time a permanent member casts a veto. This innovation provides some accountability, but more can be done, such as instituting a mandatory review of Security Council working methods.

As governments decide how to respond to the next pandemic or catastrophe, they should endorse the proposal for a new emergency platform that the secretary-general can invoke to strengthen the global response. Furthermore, because more and more international agreements, such as those on climate or disarmament, are now essentially voluntary, member states should consider strengthening independent monitoring of agreements to provide some accountability for noncompliance. Bolstering UN capabilities for conflict prevention and mediation — national prevention strategies and changes to how senior UN officials are appointed (including not allowing particular countries to monopolize specific positions) — should also be on the table.

A successful summit in September would defend the old, govern the new, strengthen the borrowed and renew the blue. A tedious and tepid outcome that restates the obvious risks becoming yet another waypoint in the slow decline of multilateralism — a trend that is making the world much less stable.


This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the Pact for the Future?

Minh-Thu Pham is a co-founder of Project Starling and a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

We would love your thoughts. Please comment:

The UN Pact for the Future Needs Something Old, New, Borrowed and Blue
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Sharif Akhmedov
Sharif Akhmedov
2 months ago

A good allegory with a “favorable wedding”. However, how true is this allegory, considering that “family” is already in place. Maybe we are talking about “preserving the family” in which disagreements have reached the level of “domestic violence” and “relatives” are increasingly taking the side of one of the parties. In this case, the set of means and mechanisms for “preserving the family” may look somewhat different.

Dr Bilali Camara
Dr Bilali Camara
2 months ago

A world multipolar is needed to end the unipolar world and its rule of the jungle. The world needs a democratic UN Security Council which is juste, inclusive and representative of all of us. These elements are the real basis of a better Future for all!

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