The development of the UNGA resolution on the 75th anniversary was contentious, reflecting the polarization among UN Member States that characterizes so many issues with which the UN system is currently grappling.
The most contentious provisions were those that set out the role of CSOs, as governments opposed to a robust 75th anniversary commemoration were successful in resisting any meaningful role for CSOs at the 21 September 2020 event.
However, the final resolution emphasizes the need to engage civil society and youth in all activities related to the anniversary.
On 14 June 2019, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) adopted by consensus a “modalities resolution” (A/RES/73/299, titled ‘Commemoration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the United Nations’) that sets out the framework and practical arrangements for actions by various UN stakeholders to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020.
Despite the consensus action to adopt this resolution, its development was contentious, reflecting the polarization among UN Member States that characterizes so many issues with which the UN system is currently grappling.
A growing civil society consortium, the UN2020 Initiative, has campaigned since early 2017 for using the UN’s 75th anniversary as an opportunity to address the current crisis in multilateralism, and to involve governments and other UN stakeholders in a process of stocktaking, review and consideration of measures to strengthen the Organization.
However, at the UNGA’s discussion of options for commemorating the anniversary, this expansive vision of what the process could entail clashed with the voices of those (including Russia, China and some members of the Non-Aligned Movement) preferring a cursory, pro forma event that would entail little more than a celebration of UN accomplishments and a re-statement of commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter.
Prospects for a stand-alone UNGA resolution for UN 75 received a strong push earlier this year from UNGA President María Fernanda Espinosa of Ecuador, who had identified as her top priority the need for states to renew commitments to multilateralism. In March, she appointed two co-facilitators, Burhan Gafoor from Singapore and Bergdis Ellertsdottir from Iceland, to lead intergovernmental discussions on the 75th anniversary.
After closed consultations with governments in April, an initial “zero draft” of the resolution drew sharp criticism for the limited involvement it envisioned for civil society organizations in the anniversary process. UN2020 campaigners provided the co-facilitators with a set of suggested revisions to the text, supported by 163 organizations from around the world.
After further discussions among governments, the modalities resolution that emerged is one that UN2020 campaigner Florencia Gor describes as “less than ideal, but one we can work with.” Some of the key provisions include:
- The theme for the 75th anniversary will be, ‘The future we want, the United Nations we need: reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism.’ This theme shall “guide all activities, meetings and conferences organized by the United Nations in 2020.”
- A Leaders Summit will take place on 21 September 2020. Additional commemorative meetings will be organized in New York on 26 June (the 75th anniversary of the signing of the UN Charter) and 24 October (UN Day). A youth plenary will be organized in spring 2020.
- A political declaration will be adopted at the Leaders Summit. Arrangements for negotiating this outcome document are to be determined by the President of the 74th session of the UNA, Tijani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria.
- The resolution welcomes the Secretary-General’s decision to appoint a focal point to coordinate all activities within the UN system, including an outreach strategy led by the secretariat’s Department of Global Communications. This focal point is UN Assistant Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 75th Anniversary; and
- A trust fund is to be established to receive voluntary contributions from Member States and other donors.
Points of contention during the development of the resolution included the wording for the theme, the length of the commemorative Summit (with countries eventually agreeing to one full day), whether heads of government would be invited to make statements at the Summit, and whether a negotiated political outcome document should be included as part of the process.
But the most contentious provisions were those that set out the role of CSOs. Governments opposed to a robust 75th anniversary commemoration were successful in resisting any meaningful role for CSOs at the 21 September 2020 event. However, the resolution also “emphasizes the need to engage civil society and youth in all activities to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations.”
At a meeting in Washington, DC, US, in early June, Hochschild shared a draft of the Secretary-General’s plans for an ambitious programme of activities around “UN@75.” The Secretariat hopes to stimulate a global dialogue at the local, national and international levels on the topic of, ‘The future we want, the United Nations we need.’ From “classrooms to board rooms, village houses to houses of parliament,” the intention is to catalyze widespread public engagement on the role of the UN system in addressing global challenges. All 130 UN Resident Coordinators will be involved, as will UN regional commissions and many UN agencies and programmes. Young people in particular are expected to be drivers of this worldwide dialogue.
The planning document recognizes that an unprecedented confluence of existential threats, systems changes and new actors, including the role of mega-corporations and tech giants, present new governance challenges. These changes “are occurring faster than public institutions ability to adapt or regulate.” The document calls for “a reflection on successes as well as failures, inviting transformational thinking about the potentially momentous paradigm shifts for how the multilateral system as a whole confronts global challenges.”
Gor observed, with regard to these plans, that civil society groups “really appreciate the leadership that the Secretary-General is providing.” At the same time, she noted, “much will depend on decisions taken by Ambassador Bande as incoming UNGA President. We’re gearing up for a lot of work ahead.”
The author of this guest article, Fergus Watt, is Executive Director of the Canadian section of the World Federalist Movement. He is a member of the UN2020 Initiative’s Coordination Team. See www.un2020.org.