Mobilizing for a Strengthened United Nations

Fergus Watt
Executive Director of WFM – Canada and Chairperson of the WFM-IGP Executive Committee. He is also a member of the UN2020 Initiative’s Coordination Group

It has become commonplace in politics these days to bemoan the impacts of rising nationalism and autocracy, particularly among some of the world’s largest and most powerful states. Internationalism, the rule of law and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter have (to say the least) seen better days.

Some governments that have led at the United Nations are no longer doing so. Its most powerful Member State and largest donor, the United States, has withdrawn funding from UN budgets, (including the peacekeeping budget, the UN Fund for Population Activities and the UN Relief and Works Agency), withdrawn from important UN bodies (notably UNESCO and the Human Rights Council), as well as multilateral processes (on climate change and migration, among others). The Security Council too often remains paralyzed with both Russia and the United States casting vetoes to protect their client states. Moreover, Russia and some of its allies run roughshod over major international legal prohibitions on intervention (Crimea) and use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. And the current political climate allows China to expand its influence abroad and to restrict even further civic space, including freedoms of association and expression.

And when major powers that have important responsibilities under the Charter shirk their obligations others are tempted to follow suit. However there is a resilience to the multilateral system, fortified by a widely understood recognition that in the 21st century, the machinery of international cooperation is needed more than ever.

At a time when large powers are doublingdown on militarism, nuclear weapons and trade protectionism, there are significant numbers of small and medium states that need the kind of rules-based order that depends on a flourishing and proper-functioning UN system. Some promising developments include:

  • The determination of Secretary-General Guterres who is doggedly pursuing useful reforms to the UN Management structures, improvements in the coherence of the UN Development System and a reorganization of the UN Secretariat’s peacebuilding architecture.
  • Outgoing General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcˇák of Slovakia responded to the current crisis in multilateralism by convening an unprecedented series of off-the-record breakfast meetings for UN ambassadors. Mr. Lajcák successor, Ecuadorean Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, will also be someone to watch. Her acceptance speech as incoming General Assembly President last June identified UN strengthening and reform among her promised priorities.
  • And importantly, a significant number of governments have called for utilizing the upcoming 75th anniversary of the United Nations in 2020 as an opportunity to further strengthen the Organization.

This latter development responds to some quiet but persistent campaigning by civil society organizations over the past 18 months, calling for an adequately prepared 75th anniversary commemoration for the United Nations in 2020, one that includes a meaningful process of stocktaking, review and strengthening for the organization. The UN2020 Project is initiated by a coordinating group of civil society organizations including CIVICUS, The Stimson Center, The Workable World Trust and World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy.

UN2020 campaigners had hoped that language mandating a formal intergovernmental process for a 2020 Summit could be agreed in a General Assembly resolution last September. However, opposition from some members of the Non-Aligned Movement (notably Cuba, Egypt and Algeria) prevented the Assembly from reaching consensus.

Nevertheless, the idea of a 2020 Summit is now widely known and has considerable traction at the UN, with expressed support this year from a cross-regional group of states including Brazil, Canada (also on behalf of Australia and New Zealand), Estonia on behalf of the ACT (Accountability, Coherence, Transparency) group of states, Nigeria, Norway, Uruguay and the European Union (in a statement also endorsed by 8 or 9 East European states, and EU candidate countries Turkey, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, as well as potential candidate countries Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia).

Civil society organizations have recognized the need to capitalize on the opportunity for a 2020 Summit. At the August 2018 67th UN Department of Public Information / NGO (UN DPI/NGO) Conference, over a thousand NGOs called upon Member States to “Advance people-centered multilateralism by developing proposals to revitalize the United Nations on the occasion of its 75th Anniversary in 2020.”

The idea of a “people-centered UN” has become an important framework for the transformation of international politics, and one of the key organizing principles for UN2020 campaigners.

In the face of very real threats to international diplomacy, governments at the UN cannot simply do nothing and “weather the storm.” The idea of a 2020 anniversary summit offers a political space where those committed to multilateralism can push back, through a mandated review and re-commitment to the principles and purposes of the Charter, and (hopefully) reforms that strengthen the organization.

Civil society organizations, particularly WFMIGP are working to build support for such a dedicated preparatory process for 2020, in order that this anniversary moment can be utilized to strengthen the international legal and institutional order, rather than lamenting its continued decline.

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