Habitat III impasse resolved with Mexico, Philippines to lead talks

Still, observers increasingly worried about time lost for New Urban Agenda negotiations.

This week two new diplomats took over the day-to-day reins of the Habitat III negotiations: Mexico's Dámaso Luna Corona, at left, and the Philippines' Lourdes Ortiz Yparraguirre. (LEFT: IISD/ENB/www.iisd.ca/hlpf/2015/26jun.html; RIGHT: Mark Garten/UN Photo)

UNITED NATIONS — A political impasse that had stalled progress on negotiations toward the New Urban Agenda, the outcome strategy of this year’s Habitat III conference on urbanization, has been resolved with the appointment of diplomats from Mexico and the Philippines as co-facilitators of the talks.

Starting immediately, their task is to shepherd the delicate process of transforming the first draft of the document into a text ready to be negotiated word by word in the hopes of reaching consensus by the time the conference begins in October. Such an achievement would allow the gathering in Quito, Ecuador, to serve largely as a victory lap focused on implementation rather an ongoing exercise in hard-nosed diplomacy.

[See: Progress on Habitat III negotiations in limbo pending new draft, appointment of co-facilitators]

The selection resolved a two-week stalemate that prevented the preparation of an updated version of the New Urban Agenda following the first round of intergovernmental negotiations last month. Thus far, the Habitat III process has been guided by France’s Maryse Gautier and Ecuador’s María Duarte, who are the co-chairs of the 10-member Habitat III Bureau and had also been serving as co-facilitators.

During last month’s negotiations, however, a Nigerian diplomat called for new co-facilitators with the autonomy to take the reins of the negotiating process. That request, which the Bureau acceded to, prompted a search that did not immediately yield fruit. As early as this past Friday, Citiscope confirmed that the Philippines had taken the job on behalf of the Global South. But a counterpart — traditionally, for balance, a country from the Global North — was not forthcoming.

Sources close to the process indicated that Italy, Norway, Sweden, Romania and Australia had all been considered or were asked directly. But each either was deemed unsuitable or rejected the offer.

“It’s not that simple to jump into a heavy process,” European Union diplomat Isabelle Delattre told Citiscope by way of explanation for the difficulty in finding a second co-facilitator. In other words, it would have been easier embark upon a leadership role from the outset, rather than joining in partway through when much of the work has already been done by other parties.

By late Tuesday night, the Bureau had successfully convinced Mexico to step into the role. While not a traditional Global North country, Mexico is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD); it is also the only Latin American country other than Ecuador to have hosted two Habitat III meetings.

[See: Mexico seeks to place rights at the centre of the Habitat III negotiations]

The announcement came just in time, as the second round of informal negotiations was scheduled to begin Wednesday. With Mexico on board, those talks were able to proceed, with the two new co-facilitators taking the dais and the Bureau co-chairs formally stepping aside from the facilitation role. (Gautier was present; Duarte was not.)

No new draft

The two co-facilitators bring significant diplomatic experience to the process. Lourdes Ortiz Yparraguirre is the permanent representative of the Philippines to the United Nations, having come to New York after an ambassadorial post and several stints as permanent representative to U. N. agencies in Vienna. Dámaso Luna Corona, the adjunct director general for sustainable development in Mexico’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, was his country’s lead negotiator during the Rio+20 process that led to the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“We cannot neglect the significance of not having a revised draft declaration for this meeting. Canada must stress the importance of the Bureau in playing a leadership role in ensuring that the negotiations of the New Urban Agenda proceed, and we look forward to continuing this process in a timely manner.”

Berthe Bourque
Canadian diplomat

Yparraguirre immediately called for this week’s negotiations to result in “a meeting of the minds” that would yield “converge points”, or agreements between member states, in order to form the basis of a constructive way forward.

Luna Corona reminded delegates, “The New Urban Agenda must fit into the SDG framework, and all of its provisions with regards to sustainable development need to complement the SDGs over the next 20 years.”

[See: Habitat III: The best chance to make the SDGs count?]

While the appointment of co-facilitators points to a way forward for the Habitat III process, member states were swift to make their displeasure known about the delays. Based on terms announced by Gautier during the May negotiations, a new draft of the New Urban Agenda had been expected by 27 May.

In turn, that document should have served as a basis for this week’s three-day negotiating session. Instead, all that was delivered to delegates ahead of Wednesday’s resumption of talks was a 104-page compilation of inputs received thus far. Member states said this was a useful reference but hardly equivalent to a revised negotiating text.

“We cannot neglect the significance of not having a revised draft declaration for this meeting,” said Canada’s Berthe Bourque. “Canada must stress the importance of the Bureau in playing a leadership role in ensuring that the negotiations of the New Urban Agenda proceed, and we look forward to continuing this process in a timely manner.”

The European Union and the Group of 77 developing countries (G77) plus China — traditionally opposed blocs in U. N. negotiations — struck a note of agreement on this topic. “It is regrettable that we have lost precious time in the last weeks,” said Delattre. “It is time that we make the best use of the negotiations to come up with an ambitious New Urban Agenda.”

[See: The E. U. is a major voice in the Habitat III process. What is it saying?]

Thailand’s Thanavon Pamaranon, speaking on behalf of the G77, said, “The Group is of the view that given the time limitations, we urgently need to change gear and significantly accelerate our progress towards the final Quito outcome.” Thailand currently is the head of the G77.

However, with no new text to work from, member states were forced to refer to the New Urban Agenda’s first draft, which was published in early May.

[See: U. N. issues draft New Urban Agenda, aiming for ‘actionable’ document]

A few countries did offer some enhanced comments. Jamaica’s Nicola Barker-Murphy, notably, provided detailed tweaks to the preamble, which it is coordinating for the G77.

Yet the overall sentiment was one of frustration with the lack of a new draft. “At this point we should be negotiating the text word by word, paragraph by paragraph, something that will not be done this week,” said Brazil’s Carlos Cuenca. “I must stress that we don’t want the intergovernmental process to somehow get derailed.”

Slowed by ‘distrust’

While there are bumps in any political negotiation, seasoned U. N. observers have expressed concern about the state of affairs in which Habitat III finds itself.

“We’ve had lots of dysfunction in every process,” said Christopher Dekki, a policy officer with the Communitas Coalition. But in the case of Habitat III, he said, “Distrust pervades the process.”

[See: Decision expected on stakeholder participation in Habitat III negotiations]

In Dekki’s estimation, “blame should be equally shared” for the current negotiating climate. The recent impasse was the result of a “collective problem”, he said, not the fault of any one party.

In recent negotiations that Dekki has followed closely, such as those around the SDGs, he said he observed more mutual respect and genuine dialogue between member states and non-governmental stakeholders. By contrast, he said: “I feel like everyone involved in [Habitat III] is talking past each other. It seems the urgency of the topic is being missed.”

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

Meanwhile, stakeholders who have spent months preparing for this moment with the hopes of influencing the New Urban Agenda have also struggled with the muddled situation. During last month’s negotiations, for example, the Russian Federation questioned the participation of stakeholders in the process, despite a U. N. General Assembly resolution on Habitat III authorizing their role.

That issue remains unresolved. In her opening remarks this week, Yparraguirre said that stakeholders would be given the floor. But later the negotiations were temporarily halted at the request of the G77 — which may affect that plan.

“Compared to other processes, it’s concerning that we are not clearly applying the agreed procedure and protocol,” said Katia Araújo, who has eight years’ worth of experience in following U. N. negotiations on behalf of NGOs.

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

Tick-tock

The new co-facilitators are also fighting the clock, as the Habitat III conference is now set to start in just over four months. A more immediate deadline is the third and final preparatory meeting — the site of formal negotiations — in Indonesia at the end of July.

“It is regrettable that we have lost precious time in the last weeks. It is time that we make the best use of the negotiations to come up with an ambitious New Urban Agenda.”

Isabelle Delattre
E. U. diplomat

Many hope the Indonesia sessions will be able to make as much progress as possible on finalizing the New Urban Agenda, in order to avoid having the text come down to the wire in Quito. Yet the less progress that is made in New York in the coming month, the more the Indonesia talks will be forced to take on.

Yet the time currently on the diplomatic calendar to negotiate the New Urban Agenda is limited. Given that this week’s negotiations are not working from a revised text, actual line-by-line negotiations will have only three days of informal negotiations — currently scheduled from 29 June to July 1 — as well as three days in Indonesia. With four more days available in Quito, that’s a total of just 10 days to finalize a major negotiated document — one that is supposed to set the global urbanization agenda for the next two decades.

[See: Citiscope’s Habitat III calendar]

It is possible that member states will call for additional informal negotiating days, but that remains to be seen.

It is useful to compare the current process with the last Habitat conference, which took place in Istanbul in 1996. At this stage in the run-up to Habitat II, there were 26 more negotiating days still on the calendar — both the third preparatory negotiations and Habitat II itself included 10 such days each. That said, the document that emerged from Istanbul was the 109-page Habitat Agenda, versus the comparatively leaner 22-page New Urban Agenda first draft.

Such a calculation may ultimately provide enough negotiating time for the New Urban Agenda to maintain its current format — a preamble, a declaration, and a detailed implementation plan including follow-up and review. But structural adjustments to the document could also be in the cards.

[See here for a compilation of initial responses to the New Urban Agenda ‘zero draft’]

Whatever the outcome, the most vocal member states are repeatedly urging that the process move forward, because time is of the essence. The United States’ Ian Klaus used a literary allusion to make that point.

“The ringing clock of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway” that tracks the movement of time in the city continues apace,” he said. “This negotiation is an opportunity for the member states to take leadership on how urbanization will happen. Unnecessary time lost on politics and process is time lost on delivering an ambitious New Urban Agenda which can helps shape the future of urbanization.”

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