PrepCom 2 stalls on rules of procedure, issue to await U.N. General Assembly

Lack of agreement means participation by local authorities and stakeholders is up in the air for Habitat III process.

The European Union's Thibault Devanlay at PrepCom 2. With the Nairobi talks unable to agree on rules of procedure for the Habitat III process, the European Union expressed concern that the PrepCom 2 delegates had "collectively failed". (UN-Habitat)

NAIROBI — The second of three preparatory meetings for the U. N.’s Habitat III conference wrapped up late Thursday night, 16 April, on a sour and somewhat contentious note.

Following three days of negotiations here, the closing plenary ran several hours behind schedule. Member states had been unable to reach consensus on the rules of procedure that would govern, among other issues, how and if local authorities and stakeholders will engage in next year’s signature urban conference.

Typically, only member states can formally participate in U. N. debates. But the opening of discussions to local governments and other interested parties, agreed to in the rules for Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, had been widely anticipated to take place again this time around.

Instead, a small number of delegations, in some cases apparently because of political considerations, resisted. The lack of agreement resulted instead in a request to the U. N. General Assembly to take up and decide upon the Habitat III rules of procedure during its next session, in September. (The text of the stalled provisional rules is available here.)

In its final declaration, the European Union delegation made forceful remarks about the unresolved matter. “While we are happy with the very rich general debate in the plenary, that proved the commitment of all countries and stakeholders for the preparation of the New Urban Agenda, we cannot hide our frustration that most of the issues under agenda item 5 of the working group were not agreed upon,” the E. U.’s Thibault Devanlay said.

Agenda item 5 concerned guidelines for participation in both the preparatory process and the Habitat III conference itself. The New Urban Agenda is the intended outcome document of Habitat III.

“We are in particular dismayed that the discussions on the modalities for improved participation of stakeholders and local authorities were, once again, postponed to a later occasion,” Devanlay continued. “On that matter … we collectively failed.”

“The opening of discussions to local governments and other interested parties, agreed to in the rules for Habitat II in Istanbul in 1996, had been widely anticipated to take place again this time around. Instead, a small number of delegations, in some cases apparently because of political considerations, resisted.”

The E. U. was particularly concerned about the possibility that putting off the decision on how and whether local authorities and stakeholders will be able to participate in the Habitat process could impact on the next and final meeting of the preparatory committee. “PrepCom 3” is slated to take place in July 2016 in Indonesia.

“We cannot afford to get into PrepCom 3 without those modalities,” Devanlay said. “It would send a terrible signal to [local authorities and stakeholders], as it would in particular impede them to participate effectively in the third PrepCom.”

The European Union’s frustration was echoed by the United States.

“The longer we wait on this issue, the more we put at risk the conference,” the U. S. permanent representative to UN-Habitat, Tobias Glucksman, said. “Stakeholders are key participants, key voices. For the credibility of the conference and for the credibility of the outcome document, we must resolve this as quickly as possible.”

Unprecedented legacy

The draft rules of procedure were first presented by the Habitat III Bureau, a body made up of member-state representatives from the major regions, last fall at the first preparatory committee, in New York. The document was then opened for discussion.

The rules subsequently moved on to PrepCom 2, held here on 14-16 April, where instead of being adopted they became a more contentious item. The particular sticking point concerned the participation of local authorities and stakeholders in the drafting of the New Urban Agenda.

This is quite a central concern, given the unusually strong position that local authorities were granted at the last Habitat conference, in Istanbul in 1996. At that event, local authorities were given a “special status” that allowed them a level of participation unprecedented at a U. N. conference.

At Habitat II, local authorities were permitted to observe and intervene in the drafting of the outcome document, for instance, although they did not have a vote. Other civil society stakeholders were likewise able to voice their views to member states through an unprecedented third committee session during the Istanbul negotiations.

These remarkable arrangements received wide, positive attention. Indeed, in its 2012 session, the U. N. General Assembly even called for the Habitat III preparatory process to expand upon the levels of participation afforded to local authorities and civil society that enriched Habitat II.

In Resolution 67/216, the General Assembly encouraged “effective contributions from and the active participation of all relevant stakeholders, including local governments … and other Habitat Agenda partners, at all stages of the preparatory process and at the conference itself.”

The resolution further requested the Habitat III secretary-general to “make proposals … on improved participation of local authorities and other stakeholders in the preparatory process and the conference itself, building on the positive experience enabled by the rules and procedures of the Governing Council of UN-Habitat and the inclusive engagement modalities of Habitat II.”

In the run-up to Habitat II, the rules of procedure were agreed upon at PrepCom 1. This time around, however, given the failure to arrive at a common understanding in Nairobi, that process will have to await the U. N. General Assembly’s next session, in September. Final decision on this matter could come possibly as late as November.

The General Assembly’s September session already has a very busy agenda, however, given the planned Special Summit on Sustainable Development and the expected adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals. This is no small bit of business: The SDGs, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals, will define the international development agenda for the coming decade and a half.

Further, should the Habitat III rules of procedure not be taken up by the General Assembly, it is likely that an extraordinary session of the preparatory committee would have to be called before PrepCom 3, in Jakarta in July.

Yet thus far, the Habitat III process’s leadership has appeared unperturbed by the PrepCom 2 outcome.

“We are now at the one-and-a-half-year mark from the conference, and while we would like to have the rules of procedure already approved, it is not extremely important because we have plenty of time,” Joan Clos, the secretary-general of Habitat III and executive director of UN-Habitat, said after the Nairobi events ended. “We are very ambitious in these rules so it is better that consensus is built.”

He added: “We are on a good ground. And we hope that stakeholder participation will be approved and improved from Habitat II.”

Accreditation frozen

Already the confusion over the rules of procedure has frozen the process to expand civil society participation in the Habitat III process.

Civil society members already accredited through the U. N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), as well as those that participated in Habitat II, will be grandfathered in to the Habitat III process. However, one of PrepCom 2’s agenda items was the accreditation of 33 new “major groups and other relevant stakeholders”. These have now been left in limbo.

The status of these 33 groups was approved on 14 April, and they were given the floor to speak. But a point of order was raised that questioned how the assembly could approve the status of these groups if the rules of procedure — which establish the process for accreditation — had not yet been approved.

The outcome was “very disappointing”, says Michael Cohen, the director of the International Affairs Program at the New School in New York, one of the 33 institutions whose accreditation hung in the balance during PrepCom 2.

“Having participated in Habitat I and Habitat II, this is a step backwards in accessibility,” Cohen said. “The fact that civil society could not even be observers in the working group suggests a lack of transparency in the whole process.”

United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network, established a Global Taskforce to work on the international development agenda ahead of Habitat III. In a statement to PrepCom 2, the taskforce underscored the opportunity in ensuring broad participation in the Habitat process, noting that “an organized constituency” stands “ready to contribute”.

The group also offered specific recommendations. The statement cited Rules 64 and 65 of the draft rules of procedure, which reaffirm local authorities’ Habitat II-related permissions to participate in deliberations and NGOs’ permissions to participate in public meetings and provide expert input.

“Despite our desire to see agreements as soon as possible on improved participation of stakeholders and local governments and their accreditation, we are still hopeful for an inclusive process,” UCLG and the taskforce said after PrepCom 2.

“The agenda that the organized local governments want to bring to Habitat III is not related to domestic affairs but rather local solutions as contributions to global challenges. The New Urban Agenda cannot be defined without the local managers and elected representatives [being] accountable to the inhabitants.”

(Note: See this update from 27 May, “Surprise accreditation granted to 33 NGOs to participate in Habitat III”.)

Solidified schedule

There were some concrete decisions made at PrepCom 2. In particular, the Habitat III process schedule was firmed up in response to frustration from member states around the late delivery of draft “issue papers” — the 22 thematic documents put together by multilateral agencies that will form a key technical backbone to the Habitat III conversations.

Despite their importance, the draft papers were reportedly made available only immediately before PrepCom 2 began, thus not giving member states enough time to review them. During the opening plenary, several countries expressed irritation at this scheduling.

A resolution was passed, however, that established a 31 May deadline for delivery of the full issue papers. Member states will now have until the end of June to submit written comments, and a consultative process involving stakeholders and local authorities will follow in July.

The finalized issue papers will in turn feed into thematic “policy units”, made up of external experts, tasked with offering formal recommendations on the details and implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Under the new agreement, the policy units must publish their papers by the end of December, with comments from member states and stakeholders expected in January. Finally, the “zero draft” of the Habitat III agenda must now be made available no later than six months before the conference, so sometime in April 2016.

Other dates, too, have now been nailed down. The conference itself will take place 17-26 October, in Quito. And PrepCom 3 will take place 25-27 July, in Jakarta.

Meanwhile the robust schedule of side events, parallel events, caucuses, exhibits and working groups that took place outside of the formal PrepCom 2 proceedings in Nairobi certainly suggests significant interest on the part of civil society to engage with the Habitat III process.

With a full slate of regional and thematic meetings, national and regional urban forums, Urban Thinkers Campuses and other activities in the coming 18 months, attention on Habitat III — and interest in the actions around the rules of procedure — will likely only strengthen.

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