by Fergus Watt
The adoption on 14 June 2019 by the United Nations General Assembly of a resolution (A/RES/73/299) on “Commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations” marks a significant landmark for the UN2020 campaign. This “modalities resolution” sets out the organizational framework and practical arrangements for actions by various UN stakeholders to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020. Its development however was contentious, reflecting the division and polarization characteristic of so many issues the UN system grapples with these days.
Prior to these developments, since early 2017, a coalition of civil society organizations, the “UN2020 Initiative,” (convened by the World Federalist Movement) had mobilized opinion in support of a vision of the 75th anniversary as an important 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 that strengthen the organization.
At the General Assembly discussions of the draft modalities resolution, this expansive vision of what an anniversary process could entail clashed with the voices of those (including Russia, China, and some members of the Non-Aligned group of states) that wanted a cursory, pro-forma anniversary event that allowed little more than a celebration of UN accomplishments and a re-commitment to the purposes and principles of the Charter.
Prospects for a stand-alone General Assembly resolution for UN 75 received a strong push earlier this year from the President of the General Assembly, Ms. 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, ambassadors from Singapore and Iceland, to lead the General Assembly discussions on the 75th anniversary.
After closed consultations with governments in April, an initial “Zero Draft” of the resolution drew sharp criticism for its limited involvement of civil society organizations in the 75th anniversary process. UN2020 campaigners provided the co-facilitators with a text-based set of suggested revisions, supported by 169 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 of the resolution 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 September 21, 2020. Additional commemorative meetings will be organized in New York on June 26 (the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Charter) and October 24 (UN Day). A youth plenary will also be organized in the Spring of 2020.
- A political declaration will be adopted at the Leaders Summit. Arrangements for the negotiation of this outcome document are to be determined by the President of the 74th session of the GA, Amb. 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.
- 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 (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 part of the process.
But most contentious were the provisions setting out the role for civil society organizations. Governments opposed to a robust 75th anniversary commemoration were successful in resisting any meaningful role for CSOs at the September 21 Summit event. However, elsewhere the resolution “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 June 5-7 hosted by the Washington-based Stimson Center, UN Assistant Secretary-General Fabrizio Hochschild, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 75th anniversary, shared the SG’s ambitious draft plans for a “UN@75” program of activities.
The Secretariat hopes to stimulate a “global dialogue” at the local, national and international levels on “The future we want, the United Nations we need.” From “classrooms to board rooms, village houses to houses of parliament,” the intention is to catalyse 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 Agencies and Programmes. Young people in particular will be drivers of this worldwid 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.”
According to Ms. Gor, “We really appreciate the leadership that the Secretary-General is providing. The stage is set for a potentially groundbreaking series of developments for the UN. Much will also depend on decisions taken by Amb. Bande, the President of the General Assembly’s 74th session. We’re gearing up for a lot of work ahead.”