Drumbeat builds among national governments to adopt Habitat III rules

The U.N. General Assembly began discussion of outstanding questions around next year’s urbanization conference on 3 November.

UNITED NATIONS — With less than a year to go before Habitat III, next year’s U. N. conference on cities, member states have started to stake out their ground publicly — including on key outstanding issues, formal resolution of which is required for the conference to move forward.

The U. N. General Assembly’s Economic and Financial Committee, better known as the Second Committee, took up UN-Habitat as its agenda item on 3 November, an annual event. Given that UN-Habitat’s executive director, Joan Clos, is also secretary-general of Habitat III, this year’s discussion was also a platform to discuss the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

So, on Tuesday, member states delivered their yearly on-the-record statements about cities, human settlements and urbanization, as well as the management of the U. N. programme tasked with overseeing related efforts. Alongside these statements, however, several member states called publicly for the procedural aspects of Habitat III’s preparation to be settled as soon as possible.

[See: General Assembly taking up Habitat III; November adoption possible]

These key procedural rules need to be decided upon to clarify who can formally participate in Habitat III, particularly regarding local authorities and civil society. While these rules have been introduced for consideration twice already — at preparatory negotiations in September 2014 and in April of this year. Both times, negotiators failed to agree on their adoption.

“We have waited far too long to discuss this, but it is not yet too late to send a clear and positive message to stakeholders and local authorities about our governments’ commitments to work with them in preparations of the conference,” said the European Union’s Thibault Devanlay.

The General Assembly has mandated that Habitat III exceed a participatory benchmark set by its predecessor, the Habitat II conference held in Istanbul in 1996, regarding the role played by entities other than national governments.

[See: Let’s not forget the legacy of inclusiveness from Habitat II]

Given this mandate, some delegates are also singling out civil society and local authorities as vital contributors to the fashioning of the New Urban Agenda.

From SDGs to Habitat III

In September, the U. N. General Assembly kicked off its 70th session with exceptional fanfare when it adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) a 15-year global agenda.

“The future of cities and their populations cannot be discussed without their full and adequate participation.”

Sérgio Rodrigues dos Santos
Brazilian diplomat

While urban advocates cheered the inclusion of Goal 11, the landmark goal on cities and human settlements, this issue was given relatively short shrift compared to many of the other more traditional development topics like hunger, poverty, education and health care. Habitat III received almost no formal reference beyond that included in the SDGs text.

[See: At U. N., traditional development concerns overshadow sustainable urbanization]

Although the Second Committee’s conference room was less grandiose than the General Assembly Hall, it nevertheless offered a stark change of tune on this issue, with nearly every country referring to Goal 11 by name. They also cited Habitat III as the best opportunity to implement the urban SDG, while calling for a holistic and integrated approach that reflects how the different SDGs relate to one another.

Two countries also pointed out that Habitat III will be the first major U. N. conference after this year’s key events, defining the new Post-2015 Development Agenda. “It will be our first opportunity to discuss the implementation of the new development framework and to work towards a global agenda for sustainable urban development,” said Ecuador’s Esteban Cadena. Habitat III will be hosted by Ecuador.

The Maldives, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), made an unexpected contribution.

AOSIS is committed to moving Habitat III forward in 2016 as the first major U. N. conference following the adoption of the 2030 Agenda,” the country’s representative said, referring to the SDGs. “Following the recent celebration on October 31st of World Cities Day, we are eager to promote cooperation around thoughtful planning and innovation of settlement policy, adding the unique perspective of SIDS [Small Island Developing States] to the conversation.”

In recent years, UN-Habitat has worked with small island countries in the Pacific and the Caribbean on climate change planning for human settlements. The acknowledgments made by Ecuador and the Maldives echo repeated statements by Clos, who regularly underscores that Habitat III’s relevance stems from its role on the calendar as the first implementation conference of 2016.

Local authorities

The most provocative statements of the 3 November session came from countries pushing their colleagues to finally adopt two parliamentary matters that are essential for Habitat III to produce a New Urban Agenda.

The first, the rules of procedure, are mostly a formality, as all U. N. negotiations generally operate on the same guidelines. Nevertheless, they must be formally adopted in order for negotiations to proceed. The second, the modalities of participation, outline how entities other than national governments can play a role in the negotiation of the New Urban Agenda.

“We need not only to build on the precedent of the inclusive participation of stakeholders at Habitat II but we must go farther with new inclusive and improved modalities for their participation,” said Devanlay, who was a forceful advocate for local authorities participation at “PrepCom 2”, the Nairobi negotiations that took place in April.

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

The European Union’s position comes from a strong stance on the role of local authorities and civil society. “They are the closest partners to citizens, historically linked with the fulfillment of their basic needs,” Devanlay explained in a statement to the committee. “If these actors are not fully engaged at all stages of preparations of the New Urban Agenda … We take the risk that the conference would fail at delivering its promises.”

The E. U.’s position was backed by Brazil’s Sérgio Rodrigues dos Santos, who declared, “The future of cities and their populations cannot be discussed without their full and adequate participation.”

Ecuador, which spoke on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, also acknowledged the role of non-government participants. “We invite all member states and relevant stakeholders, including the private sector, policymakers, local government leaders, non-governmental stakeholders and expert practitioners in the field of human settlements to actively contribute to the preparation of the conference,” Cadena said.

South Africa, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing nations (G77) — a bloc that is often in opposition to positions taken by the E. U. and its members — did not address the rules of procedure or modalities of participation. Instead, the South African representative called for governance reform at UN-Habitat.

Urban showcase

Procedural issues for Habitat III occupied some, but not all, of member states’ time during the Second Committee session. Many were also keen to showcase their own urban innovations and detail the state of urbanization in their regions.

Kenya and Albania called attention to their recent experiments with decentralization and reorganization of territorial jurisdictions. Singapore described its efficient use of underground spaces in the densely packed city. India lauded its 100 Smart Cities initiative, while Malaysia highlighted its early preparation for World Urban Forum 9 in 2018, which will take place in Kuala Lumpur.

Delegates from Africa and Latin America cited eye-popping statistics about urbanization rates and the growth of megacities.

“It is expected that by 2025, cities like Lima, Bogotá and Santiago will become megacities with a population of at least 10 million people, joining Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in the group of the largest cities in the world,” Cadena said. Brazil’s Rodrigues dos Santos claimed that by 2050, more than 90 percent of South America’s population will be residing in cities.

Others made sure that rural areas were not forgotten in the urbanization discussion. Colombia, Indonesia and India all made pointed references to urban-rural linkages.

“When we speak about human settlements, we are referring to both cities and metropolitan areas, peri-urban and rural zones,” the Colombian delegate said. “Sustainability in all of its urban-rural spectrum and strengthening these interconnections is what we must put on the New Urban Agenda.”

The delegate added that doing so was paramount to achieve the aims of the Medellín Declaration from World Urban Forum 7 in 2014. “Equity is a moral obligation and a central element of social justice,” the Colombian delegate stated.

Habitat III housekeeping

Many countries also indicated that they are preparing their Habitat national reports, which are to survey the state of urbanization over the past 20 years, since Habitat II. The reports were originally due in 2014, and Clos indicated that 100 countries are currently working on these documents.

According to the Habitat III Secretariat’s website, thus far 10 countries have published reports. In his remarks, Clos called on member states to “expedite the elaboration of national reports, including from local authorities, the private sector and NGOs.”

Clos also named several donors to the Habitat III Trust Fund, a pot of voluntary contributions whose resources support conferences preparatory activities, such as funding travel for members of least-developed country delegations. He singled out France, Germany, Indonesia, Kenya, Slovakia and Spain for their generosity. In his remarks, Clos made multiple appeals for contributions to the fund.

The Second Committee session was the only time that the General Assembly will discuss the Habitat III rules publicly. Negotiations will now take place behind closed doors, with some suggesting that a decision could be made before the end of November.

All statements made to the Second Committee hearing on Habitat III can be found here.

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