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What can humanitarians expect from the UN’s Pact for the Future?

‘I’m not that alarmed that this process could damage the multilateral system, but I am worried that it will waste time, resources, and political capital.’

This is an image of the logo of the UN. Overlayed is a circular radiant from green to orange. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

The main UN General Assembly week will see more hype than usual this year as Secretary-General António Guterres launches his Summit of the Future – an attempt to “forge a new international consensus” by reforming multilateralism for an era of rapid change and deepening geopolitical divisions.

Seen as a potentially legacy-defining moment for Guterres, the 22-23 September summit will be marked by a Pact for the Future in which governments will agree – or not – on how to approach international cooperation in the coming years.

A 20-page zero draft of the pact – an initial document from which diplomats can begin to negotiate – was published on 26 January by Germany and Namibia. 

But a 19 February update – obtained by The New Humanitarian – showed widespread disagreement over the document among the governments of UN member states: The extensive additions and deletions stretched to 242 pages.

Most observers are underwhelmed by the diplomatic bickering and a perceived lack of ambition on big ticket issues like reform of the UN Security Council, but some do see it as a chance to at least nudge along incremental change.

Big UN events can be “a lot of talk shop and nothing can happen, but they can also lead to the emergence of real institutional innovations and real policy shifts”, said associate professor Susanna Campbell, a security and international aid expert at the American University in Washington, DC. She pointed to the emergence of the UN’s peacebuilding architecture from former secretary-general Kofi Annan’s 2005 World Summit as one such example.

While some larger reforms are still possible, Campbell said she would also be looking for the “smaller and more interesting changes that get by despite the tendency for multi-stakeholder processes to water things down”. 

Others, however, were more sceptical about the event’s prospects, and a little more critical.

“I don't think it will move the dial very much,” one participant in the process, who preferred to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the ongoing discussions, told The New Humanitarian.

“A solid Pact for the Future would safeguard against states backsliding in their commitments to a fairer, more peaceful, more sustainable world, but I don't think it will move us forward,” they said. “I’m not that alarmed that this process could damage the multilateral system, but I am worried that it will waste time, resources, and political capital.”

What’s in it, and what’s not?

The draft pact has distilled the so-called Common Agenda – a collection of 11 documents that form the summit’s policy bedrock – into five areas: sustainable development and financing for development; international peace and security; science, technology and innovation and digital cooperation; youth and future generations; and transforming global governance.

Some aspects of the pact are more relevant than others to humanitarians, but its framing makes clear the wide-reaching problems it hopes to address: Humanity is in “a moment of acute global peril” and facing “a range of potentially catastrophic and existential risks”. The only solution? “Strong and sustained international cooperation… [through] a multilateral system that is fit for the future.” 

Despite the pact’s ambitious language, the section on governance transformation omits tackling what many experts have said is the main obstacle to achieving a new multilateralism: reform of the UN Security Council. A note in the draft says this is still “a priority for the Summit of the Future”, but “initial language” on the issue will not be presented until June 2024.

This mirrors the absence of big reforms to the Security Council in the New Agenda for Peace – the part of the Common Agenda proposing responses to the world’s increasingly complex and deadly conflicts. This led to sharp criticism from the likes of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) think tank, which branded it a “missed opportunity”. 

Experts and, privately, some officials told The New Humanitarian that any major move towards reform of the UN Security Council is a non-starter at the summit due to the strained geopolitical backdrop over Ukraine, Gaza, and many other issues. 

Preventing violence

The draft advances the main planks of the New Agenda for Peace – from nuclear disarmament and preventing new methods of violence like cyber-attacks, to conflict prevention, to strengthening peace operations and international governance.

Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, told The New Humanitarian the area he would expect to “find a modicum of consensus” around is strengthening the peacebuilding system, referring to it as “the landing zone for agreement that I see” for the pact.

The draft calls on states to “commit to developing new, and revitalising existing, confidence-building and crisis management mechanisms”, as well as mediation efforts to prevent violence. Interventions, including counter-terror operations, should always include political efforts to address conflict drivers, it adds.

The zero draft also reflects the growing taste among policymakers for outsourcing conflict resolution and peacebuilding to regional bodies, calling for organisations like the African Union to receive adequate financing.

Shock therapy

Outside of dealing with conflicts, another key aspect of the draft, also building off the Common Agenda, is a pitch for governments to agree to develop an emergency platform to respond flexibly to large-scale and complex global shocks.

Interconnected global crises in recent years, such as the COVID pandemic, food insecurity, and economic upheaval, have sorely tested the effectiveness of both governments and the UN.

The emergency platform “would not be a standing institution or body... [it] would support and complement the response of United Nations principal organs mandated to respond to crises”, according to the draft.

This idea has been criticised by some conservative academics as an attempt to erode the sovereignty of national governments, particularly the United States.

But “current piecemeal approaches are inadequate to prevent emergencies within a country or region from metastasising into worldwide catastrophes,” according to Peter Hoffman and Richard Ponzio of the Stimson Center think tank.

Writing in favour of the platform, they said: “A vehicle is needed for realising predictable and rapid responses through greater cooperation not only among states, but also intergovernmental organisations, civil society, and the private sector to more efficiently and effectively allocate resources to save lives.”

Where’s the money?

Given the vast need for more resources to fund many of the pact’s objectives, the draft contains relatively little discussion of finance.

There’s the standard call for more aid, and the document nods to – though doesn’t name – various reforms of the international financial system, saying they’re “necessary both to provide greater stability and access to finance, and to offer more complete, equitable and sustainable solutions to future challenges”.

Key elements of the Bridgetown Agenda, promoted by Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, appear in the text, which asks governments to “work together to improve the global financial safety net in a world prone to systemic shocks”.

It also asks governments to accelerate the dispersal of special drawing rights, which can expand the cash-strapped public budgets of lower-income countries. “We call for access to liquidity finance based on need and vulnerability, while respecting debt sustainability,” it says.

Another Global South-led international finance campaign mentioned in the document is the movement to reform international tax, for which the UN General Assembly recently voted to begin work on a treaty. But the language on this is imprecise and ambivalent, only inviting governments to “look forward” to further discussions.

It also recognises, “the primary role played by domestic resources in financing development”, and asks governments to fight illicit financial flows.

The draft will no doubt be changed over the coming months as various governments continue to have their say, but the goal remains to have all 193 UN member states sign off – by consensus – on an agreed final pact at the summit.

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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