Photo: Young people demand a seat at the table of UN climate change negotiations. Credit: UNA-UK - Photo: 2017

Listen to the People, UN Urged

By Phil Harris

ROME (IDN) – Civil society advocates from around the world are urging newly-appointed UN Secretary-General António Guterres to be a “champion for civil society and take concrete steps to build a more inclusive United Nations”.

In a new report entitled Strengthening Civil Society Engagement with the United Nations, four of the founding members of the 1 for 7 Billion campaign – which led calls for the United Nations to reform the selection process for one of the world’s most important jobs – have collected a range of proposals from its global network of civil society organisations on how this could be achieved.

The four – the United Nations Association-UK (UNA-UK), the Friedrich-Ebert-Stifting (FES) New York Office, CIVICUS and Avaaz – present a series of practical recommendations on ways in which the United Nations can improve multilateralism, not just among governments but by involving community leaders, civil society organisations and activists.

In its introduction, the report stresses that “the world’s seven billion people remain the Organisation’s most important stakeholders and beneficiaries. It is through their eyes that the UN’s record should be measured”.

It also warns that at a time of global uncertainty, people are increasingly losing faith in institutions and political leadership, while nationalistic trends represent a serious threat to the international system.

The report recalls that prior to his appointment as UN Secretary-General, Guterres (former UN High Commissioner for Refugees and Prime Minister of Portugal) had promised the General Assembly that “dialogue and cooperation with civil society will be a central aspect of the activities of the UN in the next few years”.

Taking Guterres up on his promises, the report’s authors – including youth activists, NGO directors and policy experts – call on the new Secretary-General to broaden relationships with civil society on a wide spectrum of common interests touching on young people, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), gender and peacebuilding, among others.

“The UN is ultimately accountable to the people,” says Aya Chebbi, pan-African feminist activist, board member of CIVICUS and founding Chair of the African Youth Movement. “The longevity and mandate of the UN is largely down to its ability to serve and actively engage citizens across 193 Member States.”

Chebbi notes that in its past dealings with civil society, the United Nations has tended to listen to large, well-funded organisations that do not necessarily reflect reality at a community level, “while the voices of the citizens who are most in need are not heard”. She also says that the new UN agenda for the SDGs “provides an opportunity to re-balance power relations between civil society in the global North and South”.

On the youth front, Kazi Ateea, a youth climate change activist and co-signatory of The Future Is Ours climate change campaign, calls for young people – “those with the biggest stake in the future” – to be represented in future negotiations on climate change talks.

“Those in power are more concerned with hearing themselves talk,” says Ateea, and besides, “the people who are currently making decisions on behalf of us will not be here to see the results. We as millennials need to take the lead and change the direction in which we are headed. We must be the ones to say what happens. The time is now, and the future is ours.”

Noa Gafni Slaney, founder and CEO of Impact Squared, a community-building consultancy, takes up the call for engaging millenials in achievement of the UN’s ambitious agenda.

While she recognises that is not only millennials who want to change the world, “understanding how they are distinct from previous generations is crucial if the UN is to engage and harness the capacity of this influential community in pursuit of ambitious UN initiatives like the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement.”

The issue of SDGs is also addressed by Farooq Ullah, a director of Stakeholder Forum and co-chair of UK Stakeholders for Sustainable Development (UKSSD), who argues that public policy alone cannot achieve these goals and that they must be aligned with action at the local level.   .

Ullah says that one of the roles of the United Nations should be to advocate the setting up and funding of “stronger and more formal mechanisms for including non-governmental stakeholders in delivery of the SDGs … (and) … regular, transparent and inclusive reporting mechanisms including civil society.”

Another of the report’s contributors is Melina Lito, a programme officer with Equality Now, which is working towards a just world for women and girls. Equality Now has been campaigning for the election of a woman UN Secretary-General for the last 20 years and is concerned about the under-representation of women in the United Nations itself.

Although she expresses her organisation’s disappointment that a woman was not appointed in the recent elections for the top UN position, Lito encourages Guterres “to become an unswerving supporter of a feminist agenda, including by ensuring gender parity among staff and prioritising the prevention of violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world”.

According to Lito, there is an urgent need for UN leadership on women’s rights, including through better incorporation of civil society voices working on gender issues in the highest policy forums.

“At a time when the political pushback against women’s rights will only increase, supporting women’s civil society voices also includes the UN showing leadership with Member States and their commitments to champion these issues within the Sustainable Development Goals and existing UN human rights frameworks,” she says.

Meanwhile, with the international community facing increasing demands on its peacebuilding capacity, Rachel Madenyika, a UN representative at the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO), argues that the UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) would benefit from more systematic engagement with civil society.

“It is clear that strengthened and institutionalised engagement with civil society will be required as the PBC takes the next steps towards implementing the new ‘sustaining peace’ agenda,” according to Madenyika.

Summing up the report’s call for supporting civil society across the UN system and beyond, Ben Donaldson, head of campaigns at UNA-UK and a co-founder of the ‘1 for 7 Billion’ campaign, says that the United Nations must provide concerted support to help protect civil society space in order to realise Guterres’ vision of “dialogue and cooperation with civil society”.

Donaldson recalls the words of UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai, who wrote in 2016 that “in the last decade we have seen an unprecedented wave of repressive laws and practices sweep across the world, all designed to prevent people from organising, speaking out, and engaging in democratic rights and duties”.

According to Donaldson, “civic space is shrinking fast” and the United Nations “must do all it can to champion the protection, reopening and expansion of civic space”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 March 2017]

Photo: Young people demand a seat at the table of UN climate change negotiations. Credit: UNA-UK

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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