Not every birthday is taken this seriously. For the UN’s 75th, a concerted effort focused on asking a million members of the public for help in steering its next 25 years. Governments also spent several months, during a pandemic, negotiating a political declaration with 12 commitments for re-energizing multilateralism, and they have issued a request for a set of recommendations from the UN Secretary-General on ensuring the UN rises to the challenges of current and future generations.

The timeframe set for the UN’s self-reflection – looking to the world in 2045 – is longer than the usual timeframes of international road maps and agreements. We have International Days (so many that some days of the year contain more than one “Day” within them). We have International Years; 2020 is the international year of the nurse and midwife (thank you, nurses and midwives) and the international year of plant health (thank you plants, too). We are also accustomed to titling ten-year periods by broad goals that need worldwide attention and effort. We are in the midst of international decades on biodiversity, people of African descent, sustainable energy, nutrition, poverty eradication, water, peace, and several more.

Setting plans for longer than a decade is a display of ambition but also reflects the scale of the problem. The eight Millennium Development Goals had a 15-year timeframe (2000-2015). The 17 global goals devised to succeed and broaden the MDGs also look 15 years ahead, to what will hopefully be a more sustainable world.

But it is a singular initiative that looks 25 years into the future and sketches its contours by the dreams of the children and youth who will fill and govern that world, and decide how it is left for their own grandchildren. The UN75 process has not shied away from the scale of the problem. This policy brief reviews the milestones since early 2019, who said what along the way, and what might come next.

Timeline of UN75 Actions and Milestones

February 2019: Governments begin negotiating the details of the anniversary commemoration through consultations led by the permanent representatives of Iceland and Singapore.

April 2019: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appoints Fabrizio Hochschild as Special Adviser on Preparations for the Commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary.

June 2019: Governments reach agreement (A/RES/73/299) on the theme of the anniversary meeting, date, format, and outcome, and note the importance of engaging civil society and youth in all commemoration activities. They decide to convene a youth plenary as part of the occasion. In this guest article for the SDG Knowledge Hub, Fergus Watt explains the points of contention regarding modalities.

October 2019: The UN announces a public consultation process to help determine how the UN should improve and assess “the future people want, and the UN we need.” Asked what should be done to change public opinion in countries where there is low confidence in the UN, Hochschild says that instead, “we should be letting public opinion change us.”

January 2020: The UN launches the “global conversation” with a one-minute survey. Over the next eight months the outreach process will comprise 1,000 dialogues in 80 countries, with over one million people in all 193 Member States of the UN, scientifically sampled surveys in 50 countries conducted by two independent companies, the first-ever AI analysis of social and traditional media, and university and think-tank research.

February 2020: The permanent representatives of Qatar and Sweden serve as co-facilitators for the political declaration and begin consultations. One speaker at an early meeting says the UN “has enough documents” and it is time to deliver on commitments that have already been made. Delegations highlight the 2030 Agenda and support for small island developing States (SIDS) as particular priorities: “to remain relevant, the UN must be the driving force and catalyst for sustainable development in all countries, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.” Initial discussions also note the importance of engaging women, girls, and all youth. But one says that “hearing all voices is not enough; we must also act on them.” She calls for marginalized groups to have a place at the table to make decisions and take actions with governments and the UN.

March 2020: The UN75 youth plenary is postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will eventually be rescheduled for early September 2020 and take place virtually. Intergovernmental consultations on the political declaration also shift to virtual formats.

May 2020: Civil society networks hold the UN75 People’s Forum for the UN We Need via virtual formats. Participants adopt a plan for action and priority recommendations for the UN and Member States, including to establish a Member-State-mandated, post-2020 follow-up mechanism to enhance global governance. Signatories see such a mechanism as ushering in a new compact for more equitable and effective global governance and rebuilding confidence in global institutions.

July 2020: Consensus is reached on a political declaration to be adopted by Heads of State and Government at the 75th commemoration. The 2020 session of the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) is less fortunate: the ministerial declaration that was under negotiation for several months through remote means could not be finalized. But statements made during the meeting send a clear message that multilateralism is a priority for surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and shifting more resources to SDG achievement. Many countries stress that the only way out of the pandemic-induced crisis is through global solidarity.

Among the actions proposed for reviving and strengthening multilateralism, as reported by the Earth Negotiations Bulletin, are:

  • working together to produce a “people’s vaccine;”
  • using non-GDP related measures of progress;
  • using broader measures of vulnerability;
  • reform of international financial institutions;
  • fair and open global trade;
  • protection of the rules-based international order; and
  • more social security and protection.

9 September 2020: The UN holds a UN75 Youth Plenary. One speaker says “people my age are unafraid to make change happen even when the world gives them little opportunity to do so.” Hochschild offers a preview of results from the global conversation, noting that 90% of young people surveyed – more than any other age group – believe global cooperation is vital. He observes, “this does not surprise me at all: young people are deeply multilateral.”

16 September 2020: The UN Economists Network launches a report with advice on steering five current megatrends toward positive outcomes. The authors stress that achieving the SDGs is highly unlikely without an “overhaul of the current disjointed policymaking,” but if the right choices are made quickly, “it is not too late to shape the major trends of our time” in a sustainable, equitable direction. 

18 September 2020: A letter signed by 49 leaders calls on governments to undertake institutional retooling of the UN. In a press release, signatory Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, points to “hard months and years ahead,” and says multilateralism represents the “only path that can deliver a green, sustainable and equitable recovery” from the pandemic.

21 September 2020: The UN75 office releases interim findings of the global conversation. The Special Adviser reports that they reveal “remarkable unity among respondents of all ages, regions, and social groups.” This guest article by Fabrizio Hochschild underlines that regarding the world in 25 years, respondents’ overwhelming concern relates to the climate crisis and the destruction of our natural environment, and this is the top concern even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Respondents also find international cooperation to be even more urgent due to the pandemic, and believe that more lives would be saved with better cooperation. Finally, people are looking for a UN that better reflects the stakeholders of the 21st century, that innovates more, and that is more diverse, more transparent, more accountable, and more effective.

21 September: The UN General Assembly holds a high-level event to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary. World leaders adopt the declaration agreed in July (UN/75/1), which recognizes multilateralism as necessary for a more equal, resilient, and sustainable world, and implementation of the 2030 Agenda as necessary for survival.

October 2020: Meetings following the anniversary event intensify the focus on local-led action (ICLEI/Daring Cities Forum and UCLG gathering of mayors), with UCLG Secretary General Emilia Saiz emphasizing in a guest article, “Local and regional governments are saying it loud and clear. We need to change the game and we are the game changers.” Other events around the world amplify the message that youth are central to a multilateralism that works.

Beginning the Next 25 Years

Writing before the anniversary meeting, the SDG Knowledge Hub editors observed that after a year full of discussions on multilateralism, the international community should be prepared to shape their ideas into “a more precise vision for revitalizing the multilateral system.” If, as governments said during the HLPF in July 2020, the only way out of today’s crisis is through global solidarity, then the international community must make time for action along the lines highlighted at meetings over the past year. If multilateralism is to “survive the pandemic,” on top of all of the other challenges it faces, governments and other actors must find ways to use it in humanity’s time of greatest need. This begins with showing solidarity with others. Cooperating to provide COVID-19 vaccines is a key place to start.

On 15 December 2020, UN Member States will gather in the UNGA Hall to begin discussing the follow-up to the UN75 declaration. They will hear Secretary-General Guterres’ vision for reinvigorating multilateralism and revitalizing the UN. He is also expected to provide a glimpse of the process by which he will develop recommendations, responding to governments’ request in the September declaration.

The public consultation continues until the end of 2020. The final UN75 report will be published in early 2021, and will inform the UN Secretary-General’s response to the political declaration.

Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has said the interests of individual Member States have repeatedly prevented the international order from functioning as it was intended, forcing the UN to “lag behind its ideals.” This is a moment in history when saving oneself begins with helping others – but this will not be the last such moment. As the end of 2020 is finally near, governments that can afford to do so should prepare to help others in more and deeper ways than they have done before in order to save multilateralism and themselves.

By Faye Leone, IISD