10 September 2021, New York, USA - Today, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres unveiled a report titled “Our Common Agenda” which outlines plans for strengthening international collaboration and the future of the United Nations (UN). The document includes suggestions to renew the social contract between citizens and institutions, considered by Guterres to be indispensable to address global crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
The report comes as a follow-up to a yearlong consultation undertaken by the UN ahead of its 75th anniversary in 2020. The so-called UN75 process revealed a clear demand by people all over the world that the UN should become more effective and accessible. In response to these concerns, member states identified commitments across twelve issue areas and tasked Guterres with drafting a way forward.
The “Our Common Agenda” report calls for reinvigorated multilateralism, renewed solidarity and stronger consideration of future generations. Among other things, the UN chief promises “to ensure that the United Nations builds on recent innovations in listening to, consulting and engaging with people around the world.”
In the UN’s consultations, a global civil society coalition of around 200 groups dubbed “We The Peoples” had been calling for three reforms in the field of “upgrading the UN”: a World Citizens’ Initiative enabling citizens to put items on the agenda of the UN if proposals reach a certain threshold of popular support, a UN Parliamentary Assembly composed of elected representatives to act as a watchdog and connecting the people with the UN as well as a UN Civil Society Envoy to champion the implementation of a broader strategy for opening up the UN to people’s participation and civil society voices.
The campaign is spearheaded by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Democracy International and Democracy Without Borders.
“It is encouraging that the Secretary-General wants to include citizens more closely in global agenda-setting and decision-making, but we need permanent and robust mechanisms for this,” said Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International, “In recent years, tens of millions have mobilised for stronger climate action around the world for example, but citizens do not have access to a genuine and formal process to initiate action at the UN. It is good to promise more consultations, but it is not enough. We need a transnational and global agenda-setting tool such as a UN World Citizens’ Initiative.”
“While it is a step in the right direction, the Guterres report does not suggest specific institutional changes that would make the UN genuinely more democratic and inclusive. Our proposals remain on the table and we will continue to advocate for them”, said Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders.
The UN’s report points out that the UN chief will “explore options to enhance parliamentary inputs” working with “existing partners.” According to the civil society groups, the UN requires a genuine parliamentary chamber.
Regarding the proposed UN Civil Society Envoy, the Secretary-General acknowledges that he “has heard” such calls and that he will “further explore options in that regard.” A commitment that he would ask all UN entities to establish “a dedicated focal point for civil society” was welcomed in the group’s statement. However, it was noted that such a network would have to be coordinated.
The groups say they are encouraged by another report that was published this week. As part of recommendations addressed to the UN’s Human Rights Council, the UN’s own independent expert on the promotion of a democratic international order, Livingstone Sewanyana, endorsed all three proposals put forward by the We the Peoples coalition, noting that they would make “the United Nations more open, participatory and representative, with a view to ensuring that its responses both to the ongoing and to future global challenges are more effective.”
Sewanyana also endorses a Summit on Inclusive and Global Governance in 2023 to take forward these and other proposals. In the “Our Common Agenda” report Guterres suggests a “Summit of the Future” which is also to take place in 2023.
“Our Common Agenda sets a course for the future, with an important emphasis on human rights and the need to build renewed trust in institutions. The Summit of the Future will be the forum where these efforts will be concretised, but it is imperative to ensure that the process towards the summit and the event itself takes a genuinely democratic approach and includes citizens and civil society at the core,” the civil society groups stated in a press release. “The future belongs to us all,” they said.