Stakeholders say they’re sidelined as New Urban Agenda negotiations begin

Longtime U.N. observers say a decision on the contentious issue of participation is up to the two co-chairs of the negotiations, France and Ecuador.

City officials and other stakeholders take part in Habitat III sessions this week at the U.N. (Christopher Swope)

UNITED NATIONS — What could prove to be the signature summit on this year’s diplomatic calendar entered its political phase this week, but after being promised an open and inclusive process, advocates are concerned that they will not have a say as diplomats roll up their sleeves to negotiate a key global strategy on urbanization.

In October, the United Nations will seek to adopt 20-year guidelines known as the New Urban Agenda at the Habitat III conference, a summit that takes place every two decades. Some 30,000 people are expected to attend Habitat III, which will take place in Quito, Ecuador. The first draft of the New Urban Agenda was released this month, and this week the battle lines are beginning to be drawn between different U. N. negotiating blocs.

Meanwhile, the NGOs, local governments, grass-roots activists and others who have spent the past 18 months mobilizing for this moment say they have found themselves confined to the sidelines. As of press time, they will only have “observer” status during the negotiations — they can listen, but they cannot formally comment on the negotiations. Citiscope first reported on these concerns in January.

[See: Stakeholders concerned over access to Habitat III negotiations]

In light of this development, the General Assembly of Partners, a key umbrella group of stakeholders in the Habitat III process, issued an open letter on 15 May to the governments of France and Ecuador, the co-chairs of the Habitat III process, and the conference’s secretary-general, Joan Clos. The letter expresses concern about a lack of stakeholder participation in the New Urban Agenda negotiations despite repeated claims from the Habitat III Secretariat that the process leading up to October’s conference is among the most progressive ever undertaken in the U. N. system.

“We urge you to develop modalities for these meetings that are transparent, inclusive, participatory and consultative,” the letter states. It calls on the Bureau to allow accredited stakeholders to make statements and to brief stakeholders at the end of each session. (It also calls for stakeholders to be permitted access to the negotiations — which they have — and for new drafts of the New Urban Agenda to be issued after each round of negotiations, which will now be done following an announcement Wednesday.)

The other major groups of stakeholders in the Habitat III process is local governments, who spent the beginning of this week addressing the United Nations in a unique two-day series of hearings. There, several mayors and heads of city networks likewise pled for an open negotiating process. But these hearings were optional and saw considerably lower attendance by member states than the negotiations that began today. Civil society will have a similar set of hearings on 6-7 June.

[See: Cities clamour for a seat at the table of the U. N. countries club]

“We have shared with [the Bureau] our concerns about the formats that might not be as open as” technical consultations that took place in April, said Emilia Saiz, who represents local authorities at the U. N.“We realize they need to define a useful and efficient way for them to work, but we sincerely hope that these will be inclusive and they will allow the groups that have been providing so much input to continue doing so.”

Traditional way

Speaking at a press conference Monday, Bureau co-chair Maryse Gautier of France told Citiscope that the negotiations would proceed according to “the traditional way” at the United Nations. Several longtime representatives of stakeholders and NGOs in U. N. negotiations interpreted this statement to mean that negotiations will be restricted to member states without an opportunity for stakeholders to have a formal say; rather, they will have to work backchannels informally with friendly delegations.

“We think that along the process of the conference, it would be good to make use of the possibility provided for in the rules of procedure to invite observers to contribute to the debate. Conveying their views might help negotiating members in clarifying concepts, impacts and feasibility of measures considered in the New Urban Agenda.”

Isabelle Delattre
Habitat III negotiator for the European Union

[See: How to advocate within the Habitat III process]

Thus far, Bureau members do not see this way of conducting the negotiations as contrary to the letter of the U. N. General Assembly resolution from December that authorized the parliamentary rules, known as “modalities of participation”, for Habitat III. “The modalities have already been established,” Helena Yanez of Ecuador, the other Bureau co-chair, told Citiscope on Wednesday. She declined to elaborate.

On Monday, Citiscope inquired with another Bureau member, Indonesia’s Purnomo Chandra, if the open and inclusive aspects of the Habitat III process — which thus far have been heralded by multiple stakeholder groups — would come to a halt with the beginning of the negotiations. Yes, he said — they will be allowed to participate but not in the negotiations. If stakeholders have any concerns about this interpretation, he said they should consult the U. N. Office of Legal Affairs.

Habitat III Secretary-General Clos concurred with the co-chairs’ perspective by also referring back to the December resolution as a done deal. On Wednesday he called the resolution “very generous, very ample.” (Among other Bureau members that Citiscope was able to reach by press time, Senegal, Slovakia and the United Arab Emirates declined to comment.)

[See: U. N. General Assembly approves Habitat III rules, ending 8 months of limbo]

The European Union, however, endorsed stakeholders’ continued participation, although it is not a Bureau member.

“We think that along the process of the conference, it would be good to make use of the possibility provided for in the rules of procedure to invite observers to contribute to the debate,” the E. U.’s Isabelle Delattre told Citiscope. “Conveying their views might help negotiating members in clarifying concepts, impacts and feasibility of measures considered in the New Urban Agenda.”

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

Last year, the European Union was a staunch defender of stakeholder participation in the fight over the Habitat III rules of procedure.

Habitat history

The current fight over access in the Habitat proceedings is based on a recent U. N. decision. But it is also grounded in experience from 20 years ago at the previous Habitat conference — Habitat II, held in Istanbul in 1996.

This year’s conference is governed by the Habitat III resolution, formally, Resolution A/70/473. According to Rule 65 of that resolution, “Upon the invitation of the presiding officer of the body concerned and subject to the approval of the Conference, such observers may make oral statements on questions in which they have special competence.”

“[Habitat II] was the best. We were treated as part of the team. ”

Felix Dodds
Communitas Coalition

In other words, provided no one objects, it is the prerogative of the chairperson to allow stakeholders to speak. But those rules only apply to the Habitat III conference itself (as well as to a final round of preparatory negotiations scheduled for Indonesia in July). The ongoing negotiations operate under a different set of rules: These sessions are technically considered “informal”, meaning that the guidelines for how they operate are prepared ad-hoc once the sessions are underway.

Instead of an official resolution, rules governing participation in informal negotiations are based on past examples, says Felix Dodds, an expert on U. N. advocacy. “You’re never going to get member states to agree to formalizing rules for informals,” he told Citiscope. “What you’re building is a common-law precedent of how it’s been done, so member states are expecting it to happen.” That is to say, previous instances of participation create an assumption that new negotiations will follow that course of action.

Dodds participated in the Habitat II negotiations, where similar informal negotiations were held in Paris. He described a system in which stakeholders were treated as equal negotiators and introduced proposed revisions to the document under negotiation, provided these were co-sponsored by a country. Smaller groups met to resolve thorny issues outside the main negotiating chamber, again with stakeholders involved.

“1996 was the best,” he recalled. “We were treated as part of the team.”

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

Given the productive experience of the 1996 informals, member states opted to carry it through to the Habitat II conference. During the feverish negotiating days in Istanbul, each of the Habitat II co-chairs — at the time, Pakistan and Finland — presided over separate committees, one of member states and one of stakeholders. Each group had a dialogue with the other in those committees, and their conclusions had equal weight in the elaboration of the final document.

Dodds admitted that this was an exceptional moment in U. N. diplomacy — and one that has not been replicated. “It’s difficult to say why it happened there, other than I think that the informal process built a level of trust between the stakeholders and the governments,” he said.

Still, he views the experience from Istanbul as the floor upon which to build the current negotiating process in the lead-up to Quito. “It should at least ensure that the participation approach that was taken at Habitat II is also taken in Habitat III,” he said.

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

But given that the current phase of Habitat III negotiations relies on the collective decisionmaking of the Bureau rather than a statutory resolution, leadership comes down to the co-chairs of the process.

“In the experience of any negotiating process, the role of the co-chairs is critical,” Dodds said. “Very good co-chairs build confidence among the member states to enable more innovative approaches to happen.”

In recent years, he noted, the standout has been Kenya’s Kamaria Machau, who shepherded the Sustainable Development Goals process to fruition last year. Machau did so while maintaining robust stakeholder access, sometimes over the objections of his peers.

Improving access

The issue of stakeholder participation is not confined to Habitat III. It comes in the context of a slow but steady improvement in stakeholder access throughout the U. N. system, with the Habitat conference only the latest opportunity for stakeholders to solidify recent gains.

This week’s letter from the GAP notes precedents that have significantly expanded stakeholder access. In the various processes leading up to the finalization of the SDGs and subsequent follow-ups since the goals were adopted last September, stakeholders have had a seat at the table.

[See: Civil society must ensure equitable inclusion in Habitat III]

According to Aashish Khullar, who often represents the U. N. Major Group for Children and Youth (MGCY) in such negotiations, stakeholders have had the opportunity to collaborate with member states in order to set agendas, compose panels, participate in hearings and comment on briefings. (The MGCY has also provided the Habitat III Bureau with a proposed method of conducting the New Urban Agenda negotiations.)

“Stakeholders speak to a dynamic process,” Khullar told Citiscope. “They are part of the conversation as it evolves, centered around the draft at that point in time.” As a result, he said, segmenting the opportunity for stakeholder contribution into hearings, as the Habitat III process has done, does not allow for such an interactive dialogue to take place — rather, stakeholders merely express views on the hope they are heard.

What’s more, according to Dodds, “It is well known that these hearings are not a good way of doing this.” He continued, “If you look back at previous hearings that have been held on other issues, very seldom have these hearings been attended well by member states.”

Consequently, hearings on some days and negotiations on others operate like two ships passing in the night.

“[Stakeholders] cannot respond to what other people have said, they cannot second what other people have said, they cannot raise flags on what other people have said, and they cannot respond to the changing of text,” Khullar said. “If there is room for stakeholder dialogue at the end of every session and every day, then they can speak specifically to what happened on the floor and how their constituencies relate to that.”

But there is still time for the situation to change. In her opening remarks Wednesday, Bureau co-chair Gautier suggested that one of the goals for this week’s negotiations will be to establish modalities for next month’s negotiating sessions, slated for 8-10 June and 29 June-1 July.

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