UNITED NATIONS: ‘Civil society has proved itself to be an indispensable ally’

ben donaldsonCIVICUS speaks to Ben Donaldson, Head of Campaigns at the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations (UN) among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its action is based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

Why should people care about the UN?

The reason for caring about the UN is the same as the reason for caring about the planet. Anyone concerned about the climate crisis, conflict, terrorism, or cybercrime should also be concerned about the health of the UN since it remains our most effective medium through which to combat global challenges. When you think about the UN as a meeting place with an agreed rulebook for the international community to address the defining issues we face, its need is apparent.

Another indispensable part of the UN’s programme is its coordination of humanitarian activities, from supplying vaccines to almost half the world’s children to the tens of millions who depend on it for their food, shelter and protection. When disaster strikes it’s often said that the UN is the first to arrive and the last to leave, at great personal risk to UN staff. Similarly, day-in day-out, UN peacekeepers are putting themselves in harm’s way across 14 missions, keeping the peace in some of the world’s most dangerous environments.

When things go wrong our newspapers are filled with the atrocities that are taking place, and we rightly question why the international community isn’t doing more to prevent this. But we rarely credit the role UN diplomacy and peacekeepers have played in preventing countless conflicts since the UN was founded 75 years ago. Throughout this time the UN has fulfilled its fundamental role: to avert a third world war. Dag Hammarskjöld, a towering figure in UN circles and perhaps the best leader the UN ever had, perhaps said it best, when he famously remarked: “The UN was not created to take mankind to heaven, but to save humanity from hell.”

Like all large organisations, the UN is far from perfect, but without it the world would be more dangerous and more chaotic. Rather than discussing whether or not the UN matters, I would love to see more energy going into how the UN can adapt and become more effective given the current political landscape.

Do you think the UN offers a valuable space for civil society?

The UN is currently dominated by states and this is a massive problem. Civil society, businesses and local and regional leaders all clearly need to work in partnership with states to respond effectively to issues such as ecosystem collapse and cybercrime, yet they are locked out of the decision-making structures and when they are invited to participate in discussions, their involvement is often tokenistic.

The UN Charter gives civil society organisations (CSOs) consultative rights with member states, but 75 years on, the means to achieve this have not kept pace with the burgeoning UN system. The UN secretariat lacks the resources to provide a coherent, system-wide approach. The results are a hotchpotch of different ways for civil society to engage with various processes and UN bodies, with key organs such as the General Assembly and the Security Council still only allowing piecemeal participation on certain occasions, and usually only to those – often well-resourced – organisations that have been able to navigate their way to attaining much-vaunted consultative status. The process to do this, overseen by a committee of member states, has been widely exposed as politicised and biased, with organisations working on issues such as LGBTQI and sexual and reproductive rights treated unfavourably.

Despite these shortcomings, civil society has proved itself to be an indispensable ally to the UN, contributing massively to many aspects of its programme work, from service provision to defending human rights to data collection and much more.

What needs to be done so that civil society can participate more effectively in UN processes?

Internally, reform is urgently needed to create easier and more meaningful ways for civil society to engage with UN activities. A good start would be the appointment by the Secretary-General of an Under-Secretary-General for Civil Society to act as a system-wide focal point. Crucially this role would need to be backed by an office with the institutional status and funding necessary to mainstream civil society participation across the UN. Supportive states or donors willing to champion this idea will be vital to its longevity and success. The idea is not new, but is needed now more than ever.

But the benefits of civil society to the UN will remain stunted until they are fully invested in decision-making structures. Opportunities should be sought to reform the governance structures of UN bodies to incorporate and recognise the interests of other stakeholders, including civil society. The way the International Labour Organization works – with delegations made up of government, business and workers’ representatives – could provide some inspiration on this front.

Externally, the UN secretariat and its officials need to be determined and vocal in their support for the protection of civil society space. The global trend towards silencing – sometimes brutally – those who support human rights and are willing to oppose those in power is hugely concerning and must be reversed if the international community is to come good on its mantra to ‘leave no one behind’. This is where the internal and external strands meet: by improving access to UN platforms to those who have been silenced or oppressed in their domestic contexts, the UN can give voice to the voiceless and disincentivise repressive behaviour by states, whose reputations will take a hit.

Is the UN facing a legitimacy challenge?

Yes. This is mainly because the UN is an easy target for states and non-state groups to point to when something has gone wrong. It’s distant, it’s made up of mostly unelected officials and its role as a servant to states makes it tricky to stand up robustly to accusations made by member states. A large proportion of the media coverage I read on the UN also makes it apparent that it is not well understood. This often takes the form of journalists regurgitating the lazy misconception that a conflict is the fault of UN inaction or the fault of the ineffective UN Security Council, when in reality, it is almost always very specifically the fault of one or two states, whose motivations for blocking action should be under the spotlight, not the UN.

There is, of course, also the justifiable criticism that the UN comes under such as over its mishandling of whistleblowers or of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers. Then there is the question of both gender and geographic representation in UN appointments and in the location of UN offices. On appointments, the current Secretary-General has made some progress on gender parity at the senior level, but there remains a lot to be done both in terms of reaching gender parity across all levels, including the top job, which has seen nine men occupy the role, and in terms of the stranglehold on top jobs that influential countries continue to maintain. Issues like these inevitably cause reputational fallout to the organisation and need to be addressed.

Much of the current backlash is against a perceived elite and therefore it is more important than ever, both for legitimacy and principle, to get serious about the promise contained in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to leave no one behind. A global system can work, but it needs to work and be seen to work for everyone, particularly in today’s political climate. The most representative body – the General Assembly – has an expanding role to play here, including on matters of peace and security, which need not be the exclusive preserve of the Security Council.

Can you tell us more about what UNA-UK does, and specifically about its recent campaigns, such as the one conducted around the election of the UN Secretary-General?

UNA-UK is a campaigning organisation that makes the case for an effective UN. One of our recent successful campaigns was the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign to reform the way the UN chooses its leader. The campaign ran for three years ahead of the appointment of the most recent Secretary-General, building a strong civil society coalition and working closely with progressive states and the then-president of the General Assembly to revolutionise the way the UN Secretary-General selection process was conducted. Instead of being dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the P5) in the shadows like in previous races, the process involved a list of named candidates from all over the world along with vision statements and public hearings in the General Assembly for each candidate. We are now working to ensure these hard-won gains are consolidated and built into all future selection processes for the UN’s top job as well as for the learning to be applied where appropriate to other senior appointments.

You are currently leading a campaign, Together First, aimed at establishing “a global system that works for all.” What does the campaign seek to achieve?

Together First is our flagship campaign that we launched with partners in 2018. Its vision is to give civil society a seat at the table when the world’s future is being discussed.

Humanity faces challenges that threaten our very survival, and rising to those challenges requires the world to work together. But the status quo is not set up for this. Global coordination to mitigate cross-border threats remains overwhelmingly dominated by states, despite it being undeniably apparent that civil society needs to be part of the decision-making process if it is to be successful.

Together First is focusing on building coalitions of CSOs, activists and experts around the most promising existing ideas so we can then turn them into a reality. We are a coalition of realists and are delighted to count CIVICUS among our ranks. We understand that to convince decision-makers to pursue reforms in the current environment will not be easy, but that the chances of success will be maximised by demonstrating where existing support and resources for proposed ideas can be found, along with clear roadmaps for implementation.

Next year the heart of our current global system, the UN, turns 75 years old. Governments have decided to mark this milestone with a leaders’ summit in September 2020. What could make this more than a talking shop is for the associated intergovernmental process to agree on a forward-looking outcome document on the theme: ‘The future we want, the UN we need’. The first clause appears somewhat redundant given we already have the SDGs, but the second clause speaks to a long-overdue exercise which, if done well, could get to the heart of how multilateralism must radically adapt to face the challenges of the 21st century.

This is a crucial opportunity to demand action to improve our current global system. Together First’s objective is to ensure we make the most of this historic moment.

Get in touch with UNA-UK through its website and Facebook page, follow @UNAUK on Twitter, and get involved in the Together First campaign.


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