The uncertain prospects of the UN’s future summit

The United Nations headquarters amid the skyline of New York City during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, 20 September 2021. (Keystone/AFP/Ed Jones)

A summit intended to set a future modus operandi for the United Nations amid new global challenges has high aspirations as well as important hurdles to overcome.

With less than a year and a half to plan for it, the Summit of the Future was still far from rolling off the tongues of Geneva diplomats. A plan to remodel global governance and remind governments of their commitments to their populations, at the centre of an international conference in New York, remained somewhat abstract – if not confusing – to many by mid-May.

Known as Our Common Agenda, the plan was presented by UN secretary general António Guterres in 2021 in response to a request from member states at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic to address weaknesses in global governance and backsliding fundamentals.

The agenda stresses the urgency of dealing with emerging threats, such as “infodemics” and the war on science as well as the need to reconsider how prosperity is measured amid environmental destruction. It also calls for a renewal of global solidarity and a social contract between governments and society, based on human rights. It addresses everything from the reform of international financial institutions to how to fight climate change. Guterres said in the agenda report: “Now is the time for a stronger, more networked and inclusive multilateral system anchored in the United Nations.”

According to the UN, several compacts will emerge from the Summit of the Future, including on digital technologies, peace and outer space, which is part of the global commons.

For Richard Gowan, UN director of the International Crisis Group, a think tank, speaking in late April at an event at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP), the agenda provided an “intellectually compelling document”. However, “I would imagine that what the summit aims to achieve is probably not entirely clear to diplomats here. It is so broad that it has been difficult for the diplomatic community in New York to really get a grip on what can be achieved now and over the next 18 months,” he said.

A number of diplomats attending high level events in Geneva deferred to colleagues when asked by this journalist about the summit, saying that they were not familiar with process.

Gowan added that a multitude of diplomatic processes were already underway at UN headquarters ahead of ministerial meetings later this year, intended to prepare for the future summit scheduled forSeptember 2024.  “There is a certain degree of chaos around this sort of multitrack process. The challenge is how do we ensure that this chance to address the state of multilateralism is actually focused and delivers change,” he said.

Where to focus?

Given the context of its launch, much of the agenda’s focus was on fighting pandemics and climate change, explained Gowan. However, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been a growing interest in reforming the international security system. Guterres is expected to release later this month a report called the new agenda for peace, one of the many items to be discussed at the future summit.

That, Gowan said, should include basic discussions on fundamental values, new funding mechanisms for UN peace operations and the participation of women in the processes.

At the General Assembly last year, US President Joe Biden supported the idea of reforming the Security Council, whose permanent members, which include Russia, have remained the same since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Gowan said that while Brazil and India are favourable to such changes, reforming the UN body would be impossible at this time amid heightened geopolitical polarisation.

While challenges to institutional reform remain significant, some experts say the moment may nonetheless provide a way to revive international cooperation.

Swiss ambassador Thomas Greminger, director of GCSP and former secretary general of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), said at the event some countries may be “guided by despair” when faced with the huge task to resolve the ominous polycrises, and admitted that finding solutions to urgent international problems will be an uphill battle.  But “we have no other option than to try to use (the preparations for the Summit of the Future) as an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, a US State Department spokesperson told Geneva Solutions that the government “see(s) value in a new agenda for peace that could allow the UN to more effectively manage existing and emerging threats to international security, especially in an era of greater geopolitical tensions”. He added that the US was “committed to engaging actively in the associated ongoing conversations”.

Other countries have appeared somewhat reluctant towards the timing of the Summit for the Future.

Devex recently reported that the Group of 77 coalition at the UN of 134 developing countries and China, demanded in April that preparations for the future summit be put on hold for the rest of the year over concerns that Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) may be sidelined seven years ahead of their sell-by date, at a time when a redoubling of efforts is needed.

A ministerial meeting to discuss plans for the Summit of the Future had been scheduled for the same time as the SDG Summit, a mid-term review of the goals planned to coincide with the opening of the UN General Assembly this year in September.

The pandemic, climate change, and conflict have all affected progress made in recent decades on global food security, employment, health and education in middle and lower-income countries.

The developing countries feel that greater attention needs to be given to ensuring that the SDGs adopted in 2015 are implemented. Some of the same states had already succeeded in getting the future summit to be postponed from 2023 to 2024.

At the time of publication, the UN’s press office in New York did not reply to a question from Geneva Solutions on whether the summit and its preparatory meeting in September had been once again postponed.

Discord or compatibility?

To try to appease reservations, Guterres’ office asked the International Trade Center (ITC) and the United Nations Development Programme to analyse how his blueprint aligns with the SDGs.

When asked about plans for the summit and concerns held by developing countries regarding the implementation of SDGs, Pamela Coke-Hamilton, ITC’s executive director, told Geneva Solutions that the “mapping” of their future implementation showed that the agenda’s objectives were “fully complementary with the SDGs”. “There is no clash,” she said.

Details of the mapping efforts are not yet public, as they are still in progress, her office said.

“It is a question of perception,” she added, saying that it would be important to demonstrate that they are “mutually reinforcing” and that the agenda presented a way of “taking the SDGs into the future in a practical way”.