UN Reform: Fix the Present – Not to Jeopardize the Future

The world must unite to build a common agenda that addresses the challenges of a fraught and dramatically changed geopolitical context. Indeed, the UN report “Our Common Agenda” and the 76th UN General Assembly offer the prospect for a revitalized multilateral system. An essay by María Fernanda Espinosa, Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

María Fernanda Espinosa | September 2021
Ein Mann streicht eine aufgestellte Flagge der Vereinten Nationen glatt.
UN Photo/Kim Haughton

The 76th UN General Assembly General Debate took place at a moment like no other in recent history: marked by the impact of simultaneous and interconnected global crises that span from the worst global health emergency in a century and growing economic inequality, to the increase in extreme weather events due to climate change.

The Covid-19 pandemic has already caused 230 million infections, more than 4.7 million deaths, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It has also caused the first increase in global poverty in more than 20 years by pushing 97 million people into poverty.

The end of the pandemic is far from over due to the unequal access to Covid-19 vaccines. While industrialized countries have 61 percent of their population vaccinated with at least one dose, in low-income countries this number amounts to just 3 percent. 

Porträt María Fernanda Espinosa

About the person

María Fernanda Espinosa is an Ecuadorian diplomat, politician, and academic with more than 30 years of experience in international organizations, the Ecuadorian government, NGOs and academia. She served as President of the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (2018/19), and as Ecuador’s minister of foreign affairs, minister of cultural and natural heritage, and minister of defense. Espinosa is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.

Dysfunctional global system prevents sustainability

These crises are both the cause and the symptom of a dysfunctional global system whose institutional and ideational structures are no longer fit to ensure a healthy, synergetic, and sustainable relationship between society, the economy, and nature. This situation comes as no surprise considering that our multilateral system, the center of gravity of which is the UN, was conceived to address the challenges of a geopolitical context that has changed dramatically.

But this does not mean that the UN is obsolete, let alone irrelevant. Quite the contrary: the levels of socio-economic development, the progress in human rights and health, and the relative international peace and stability that the world enjoys today could not have been possible without the existence of our multilateral institutions. However, global challenges have mutated as a result of the increased levels of planetary interconnection and interdependence. Given this new reality, the multilateral architecture urgently needs to be better equipped to face these challenges. This is necessary for them to overcome their structural hurdles to build a more peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable future.

Our Common Agenda UNGA Guterres_1200x503
UN Photo/Cia Pak

Secretary-General António Guterres addresses the General Assembly.

Our Common Agenda: inclusion, intergenerational justice, and networked multilateralism

On September 10, the UN Secretary-General launched a forward-looking report entitled Our Common Agenda. The report is the result of an inclusive participation process that followed the Global Consultation and the Political Declaration adopted to commemorate the UN’s 75th anniversary.

Our Common Agenda provides a blueprint for retooling the UN under the principles of inclusion, intergenerational justice, and networked multilateralism. It has three main objectives. First, it aims to accelerate the achievement of the 2030 agenda and the SDGs by renewing the social contract between governments, citizens, and the environment. In this sense, it seeks to overcome inequalities with a particular focus on gender equality and universal access to public goods such as peace, security, social protection, and global health. It also promotes a stronger commitment to protect our global commons, with bolder measures to protect nature and stabilize our climate.

Second, it aims at democratizing global governance through the participation of civil society, women, and young people in decision-making. It pays special attention to promoting and respecting the right of future generations to inherit a healthy planet and a stable climate. Democratic decision-making comes with the fight against misinformation. It has the objective of ending the infodemics plague and foster a common, empirically backed consensus around facts, science, and knowledge.

And third, it seeks to achieve gender equality through the full realization of equal rights, the participation of women in all spheres and at all levels of decision-making, the economic inclusion of women, and the eradication of gender-based violence.

Two summits as the way forward

Our Common Agenda proposes two important summits: the 2023 Summit for the Future and the 2025 World Social Summit. They will be the catalyzers of a new social pact, a new global green deal that can de-couple the vicious cycle of growing inequalities, ecosystem’s depletion, insecurity, and mistrust in politics and public institutions. The importance of the summits go beyond the events themselves and perhaps the carefully crafted declarations but rather reside on the process, the social ownership, the voices of all. The path toward the summits should unleash dialogue processes, prospective thinking, and action-oriented commitments, with the inclusion and participation of societies, actors from all sectors, regions, genders, age, and perspectives.

The future of multilateralism, of the UN, of our societies, and the planet depend on how we seize this opportunity for real transformation.

Given its significance, Our Common Agenda should be endowed with the political commitment and the engagement from all states to reach its goals through a dedicated, inclusive inter-governmental process.

Recently, during the UN General Debate we heard  practically all heads of state and government call for a stronger and more efficient  multilateral system and praised the irreplaceable role of the UN in addressing current global challenges. As I write this article, the UN General Debate is still ongoing, however we can already say that there were too few references to Our Common Agenda and the need to follow it up.

As part of the UN General Debate agenda, in September 23, the foreign ministers of Germany and France organized a meeting of the Alliance for Multilateralism, which gathered 61 countries to discuss climate, Covid recovery, and gender equality. Twelve out of the 61 countries mentioned the Our Common Agenda report. And, on a very promising note, the heads of the governments of Spain and Sweden have set up an informal alliance of countries from different regions to support the implementation of Our Common Agenda.

Our Common Agenda cannot and should not be just one more of the 400 reports that the UN Secretary General produces every year. The future of multilateralism, of the UN, of our societies, and the planet depend on how we seize this opportunity for real transformation.  

Now the ball is in the playing field of member states. We are hopeful that the world will unite to collectively build a common agenda to fix the present, so we don’t jeopardize the future.

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