global governance

Mondial Fall 2021: Our Common Agenda: Secretary-General provides signposts for a stronger UN

By Fergus Watt

On September 10, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released his much anticipated “Our Common Agenda” (OCA) report, providing recommendations for more networked and inclusive multilateralism to build a greener, more equitable, and more just and secure future.

At a time when the machinery of international cooperation faces many challenges, Guterres has provided a politically bold strategy for the transformation of global governance.

The report comes a year after world leaders endorsed a declaration marking the UN’s 75th anniversary and requested the Secretary-General “to report back before the end of the seventy-fifth session of the General Assembly with recommendations to advance our common agenda and to respond to current and future challenges.”

The resulting OCA report followed extensive consultations with Member States, academics, civil society and other UN stakeholders, and was timed for release following Mr. Guterres’s election (in June) to a second five-year term as Secretary-General. While it places a premium on the implementation of existing agreements, i.e. not reforming the Charter or re-structuring the UN’s principal organs, many of the report’s 90 recommendations would nevertheless lead to significant and far-reaching innovations to global politics.

The Secretary-General makes recommendations across four broad areas:

1. A renewal of the social contract, anchored in human rights, to rebuild trust and social cohesion. The report recognizes that much global unease is rooted in persistent poverty, hunger, lack of access to health care, education and income security, growing inequalities and injustices as well as misinformation and lack of confidence in institutions.

Some key recommendations include:

  • Achieving universal social protection coverage, including universal health care, to be affirmed at a World Social Summit in 2025;
  • Addressing tax evasion, money-laundering and illicit financial flows through a “joint structure on financial integrity” in partnership with other financial institutions and international organizations;
  • Reinvigorating thinking around human rights to better include “our online lives”;

2. A focus on the future, through a deepening of solidarity with the world’s young people and future generations. As climate change illustrates, those that inherit the consequences of government policies are barely represented in decision-making, which is heavily weighted towards short-term political imperatives.

Some key recommendations include:

  • A Futures Lab to take full advantage of the organization’s capacity to predict and model the impact of policy decisions over time;
  • The repurposing of the UN’s Trusteeship Council to make it a deliberative body on behalf of succeeding generations. [Note: Elsewhere in the report reviving the Trusteeship Council is proposed for a much broader remit, i.e. to “issue advice and guidance with respect to long-term governance of the global commons, delivery of global public goods and managing global public risks.”]

3. Urgent action to protect and deliver global commons – high seas, the atmosphere, Antarctica and outer space – and global public goods – such as peace, economic security, and global health. Some key recommendations include:

  • Better integration of the global financial system with other decision-making processes through a Biennial Summit between the G20, the UN’s ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council), the Secretary-General and heads of other international financial institutions;
  • A new Agenda for Peace (building on the seminal “Agenda for Peace” document published in 1992 that framed UN peacekeeping and peacemaking in the 1990s). The new Agenda for Peace would set out a continuum of UN actions to promote peace “based on a better understanding of the underlying drivers and systems of influence that are sustaining conflict.”
  • Better preparedness for future global shocks through an Emergency Platform that would be triggered automatically in response to large-scale crises;
  • A Summit of the Future, scheduled for 2023, which would be preceded by preparatory events and consultations, to forge a new consensus on the most critical global concerns that the international system must deal with. As one of the OCA report’s most prominent recommendations, the Summit of the Future would address lagging progress on climate change, biodiversity and the sustainable development goals; a global digital compact and a declaration on the future; as well as the new agenda for peace, dialogue on outer space, and a cross-agency emergency response platform to respond to complex crises.
  • A High-level Advisory Board, composed of former heads of State/Government is proposed to inform the Summit of the Future and advance recommendations where governance improvements are most needed and propose options for how they can be implemented.

4. An upgraded UN that is fit for a new era – one that can offer more relevant, system- wide, multilateral and multi-stakeholder solutions to the challenges of the 21st century. This final section introduces reforms that are within the scope of the Secretary-General to initiate. The emphasis is on use of data, innovation, strategic foresight and predictive analysis.

Of course, it is the role of the Secretary-General to initiate and propose. It will ultimately be up to Member States to agree on next steps and take forward the recommendations in the OCA report. After the report was launched September 10, a number of ambassadors took the floor to make statements. Russia and China sent lower-level officials to the launch event, saying the report needs further study and cautioning against involving stakeholders other than governments in the work of the UN. However, most ambassadors who spoke responded quite positively to the report. The U.S. did not provide immediate comment. Canada’s Ambassador, Bob Rae congratulated the SecretaryGeneral on a report he described as “challenging, provocative and necessary.”

Many governments also referenced the OCA report later in September during the high-level opening of the 76th session of the General Assembly and at a September 23 meeting of the Alliance for Multilateralism, a 50+-state network led by Germany and France.

For the Coalition for the UN We Need (C4UN), the OCA report represents something of a milestone. The campaign has since 2017 had as its primary goal making the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary a vehicle to stimulate further strengthening of the organization.

Now that the OCA report is out, and is the subject of much discussion in foreign ministries around the world, C4UN campaigners will also undertake a process of consultation and reflection, to assess where progress will be possible in the coming months. A “People’s Forum” in December will bring together regional and global networks to frame a strategy and advocacy agenda to build on the openings for improving global governance provided in the Our Common Agenda repor

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