Potentially historic gathering of mayors to meet three times this year

The Second World Assembly of Local Authorities, created at Habitat II, marks ‘the maturity of the international local and regional governments movement,” one organizer said.

Heads of state have been hobnobbing at summits for centuries, but when 500 mayors and local leaders gathered in Istanbul 20 years ago, it was novel. That meeting, the World Assembly of Cities and Local Authorities, took place 30-31 May 1996 on the sidelines of the United Nations’ Habitat II conference on human settlements.

Last week, the first details emerged about the Second World Assembly of Local Authorities, which will convene in three sessions over the course of this year. It will culminate at the next Habitat conference — Habitat III, to be held in October in Quito.

The first session of the assembly will take place 15 May in New York City. That’s a day before local governments are given the floor to address U. N. member states on the first draft of the New Urban Agenda, the 20-year urbanization strategy that will come out of Habitat III.

[See: Habitat III official negotiating process expanded significantly]

The second session will meet on 14 October in Bogotá during the annual meeting of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), a global network. Finally, the third session will convene on 16 October in Quito on the eve of Habitat III.

“The Second World Assembly is a process that will culminate in Quito,” said UCLG’s Emilia Saiz. “Its historical significance is marking the maturity of the international local and regional governments movement.”

This week, Habitat III Secretary-General Joan Clos echoed this characterization. “This conference is the day of the local authorities,” he said in his opening address to a key regional Habitat III meeting in Prague.

The 1996 gathering and its final declaration had lasting implications, as it harnessed the experience of city leaders from across the world into a unified voice. It led to the establishment of the U. N. Advisory Committee on Local Authorities and eventually the birth of UCLG.

The unified message that Istanbul sought has carried through in the international arena, with local authorities now officially recognized by the United Nations as a “major group” that must be formally consulted on topics such as sustainable development and climate change. City networks including UCLG, Metropolis and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability have likewise evolved into bona fide institutions with global reach.

[See Citiscope’s coverage of cities pushing for a global voice]

UCLG in particular is spearheading local governments’ contribution to Habitat III through its special initiative, the Global Taskforce of Local and Regional Governments.

“Local leaders committed in Istanbul to organize themselves and articulate their diversified voices to enable a structural dialogue with the international community,” said Saiz. “The Second World Assembly is the crystallization of that commitment and the mechanism that identifies the specificity of local and regional authorities as [a] sphere of government.”

In an announcement on the Global Taskforce’s website, the group lists three key messages that it will hone at the assembly’s first session, to be delivered 16-17 May at special hearings for local authorities to speak directly with national governments on the New Urban Agenda.                           

“The Global Taskforce will call for the Agenda to recover the spirit of the last Habitat Conference in Istanbul by reinforcing decentralization,” the announcement says. “It will also place an emphasis on the need to link the Agenda to the 2030 Agenda, and will reiterate its call for a seat at the global table for local governments.”

This three-part gathering will not be the first major meeting of mayors in the 20 years since Habitat II. Nor is it likely to be the largest. Last year, 9,000 delegates from more than 300 cities came to Johannesburg in December for UCLG’s Africities Summit. That same month, 1,000 mayors and local leaders met in Paris on the sidelines of the U. N. Climate Change Conference, known as COP 21. In September, the first Global Parliament of Mayors will assemble in The Hague.

[See Citiscope’s coverage of the COP 21 process from a cities perspective]

Of the three Second Assembly sessions, Bogotá is likely to be the largest, with an estimated 3,000 participants expected. With limited flight and hotel capacity in Quito, UCLG opted to concentrate its energy on the group’s already-planned annual meeting as a forum in which to finalize its Habitat III message.

“Our aim is not to have the biggest gathering ever but to bring very concrete, articulated messages to the table, which are truly informed and representative of the authorities the world round, big and small,” Saiz said.

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