Are the Habitat III talks on the brink of collapse?

No, say many observers. But in the wee hours of this week's inconclusive Surabaya negotiations, concerns continued rising.

Negotiators are greeted at the start of this week's Habitat III talks in Surabaya, Indonesia. Ultimately, they went home with no formal agreement on the New Urban Agenda. (Habitat III PrepCom3/Flickr)

SURABAYA, Indonesia — For some the solution is endless coffee; others don’t touch the stuff. Two diplomats cited a vegetarian diet as the key to late-night stamina. Adrenaline is the drug of choice for many, while one top negotiator smiled and said “the will to succeed” was what motivated her.

Whatever their fuel, diplomats on the Habitat III portfolio needed to tap into their reserves over the course of three days of negotiations this week here in Indonesia’s second city. Tuesday night’s session concluded around 4:00 am, with negotiators back at it come 10:00 am on Wednesday. A new complete draft of the 20-year urbanization strategy under negotiation — known as the New Urban Agenda — was issued around noon, prompting a midday break for negotiators to digest the fresh version.

[See: ‘Final’ talks fail to deliver consensus on New Urban Agenda]

The evening talks resumed around 6:30 pm, at which point several delegations immediately expressed their displeasure to the co-facilitators and the Habitat III Secretariat that their requested changes were not reflected in the document. The new text shaded some contentious paragraphs, but it did not otherwise indicate controversial language — for example through the use of brackets, a standard practice in U. N. negotiations.

“We’re at the same position where we were at the beginning [of the talks], which raises issues about the process,” said Canada’s Jacques Paquette. “In the future, if we want to solve our issues, Canada is wondering if by resubmitting the same elements … [that] is going to be sufficient. Given the red lines that we have, Canada is not able to support the current document.”

Red lines are non-negotiable positions. For example, Canada had previously indicated that language “committing” their national government to functions that are not national responsibilities in the country’s federated system would not pass muster with its parliament.

“We’re at the same position where we were at the beginning [of the talks], which raises issues about the process.”

Jacques Paquette
Canadian negotiator

The E. U.’s Delattre echoed this concern over process, asking the co-facilitators for their “rationale for taking on or not certain proposals.”

Nancy Stetson, the chief U. S. negotiator, announced that her delegation was “disappointed” with the new text. “This draft appears to have moved away from rather than toward consensus,” she said.

In private conversations, both delegations declined to prioritize their “red lines” but indicated that the talks are far from removing such language from the document.

[See: Can diplomats negotiating the New Urban Agenda deliver success this week?]

Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre of the Philippines, one of the co-facilitators alongside Mexico’s Dámaso Luna Corona, reminded delegates that they had been inundated with over 500 pages of comments in 24 hours. Reflecting all of those changes, she said, was not an easy task.

As some delegations continued to offer general comments on Wednesday night — or in the case of Turkey, a tedious line edit calling for “/administrations” to be added to every appearance of “local governments” —  others made an appeal for proper negotiations to continue, with the goal toward resolving the document before the Surabaya talks, known as PrepCom 3, concluded. Impassioned speeches from Chile and the United States to get to work elicited applause from the chamber, whose enthusiasm for a second late night was intact but waning.

“100 paragraphs are within striking distance of agreement,” said the negotiator from the United Arab Emirates. “With direct negotiation, we could get through them tonight.”

Yparraguirre eventually called a 15-minute break and then a 30-minute break that resulted in the stalled talks. Ultimately, no paragraphs were adopted as agreed text.

Candid assessments

The final six-hour wait before the 3:00 a. m. resumption of the session, which dealt with matters of protocol to officially close out the talks at 4:30 a. m., gave the chamber the feeling of an airport terminal following a massive flight delay. Delegations raided the shopping mall next door to the conference center and laid out picnic spreads for anyone to share. A steady hum of chatter gave the room a slight, if tired, buzz, and new friends and colleagues snapped selfies as the night wore down and departure back home neared.

“This draft appears to have moved away from rather than toward consensus.”

Nancy Stetson
Chief U. S. negotiator

With time on their hands, several diplomats, all speaking on the condition of anonymity, offered more-candid assessment of the state of talks. Some chastised the co-facilitators for not taking the reins more aggressively, especially as frustration mounted over the opaque process. For example, Yparraguirre could have cut off Turkey, as had done with other member states that bogged down the process with detailed line edits just as easily submitted in writing.

However, a European diplomat was more self-effacing, noting that the co-facilitators were doing the process a favour by joining midway through to save a sinking ship. After all, the diplomat said, it was Europe’s fault that they could not deliver an immediate counterpart to Yparraguirre, a delay that threw the Habitat III talks into limbo last month. He suggested that there will be a serious self-assessment of this failure after Quito given how much several European countries have invested in Habitat III.

[See: Habitat III impasse resolved with Mexico, Philippines to lead talks]

A North American diplomat commended the change in tone behind closed doors, which in New York had been even-keel on the “right to the city” but less so on the future of UN-Habitat — the new key issues that have dominated debate in recent weeks, including in Surabaya. That “civil” tone finally arrived on the heated issue here. “There is some professional diplomacy going on,” the diplomat commented.

A Latin American diplomat in particular praised Thailand’s Thanavon Pamaranan, whose mission is the current rotating chair of the G77. The diplomat noted that unifying the group —  which ranges from conservative authoritarian regimes to liberal democracies — is a perpetual challenge.

Having endured marathon, down-to-the-wire sessions last year at the Financing for Development conference in Addis Ababa and the COP 21 climate change talks in Paris, the diplomat did not think the breakdown in negotiations was overly concerning. “There’s still two and a half months to go” until Quito, he said. “No need to panic.”

Outside observers shared this wait-and-see attitude. “There was a moment in the negotiations when everyone was burning the midnight oil, but all seemed concerned that their points weren’t being considered,” said Christopher Dekki, policy analysis and communications officer with the Communitas Coalition, a lobbying group active in the Habitat process.

Observing an “air of positivity” as exhausted diplomats filed out of the chamber for good, Dekki concluded, “I certainly think progress was made.”

Better to take time?

Stakeholders, meanwhile, were essentially shut out of the talks, as Yparraguirre announced on the first day that they would not be given the floor in the negotiating chamber — although they did deliver statements in the plenary. Such groups instead were forced to lobby delegations informally, for which there was plenty of time given the long closed-door sessions that left most diplomats milling about the building.

“There’s still two and a half months to go [to Quito]. No need to panic.”

A Latin American diplomat

“I think people need to put the outcomes of Surabaya into perspective, rather than jumping up and down about the document not being ‘closed’ here at the final PrepCom,” said Shipra Narang Suri, vice-president of the General Assembly of Partners, a key civil-society umbrella group in the Habitat process.

“I personally feel it is better to take more time than to force agreement on a document which doesn’t have consensus,” she said, “especially because it is a non-binding document and consensus is central to its widespread acceptance and successful implementation.”

References to stakeholder groups came and went from the draft. But once it became clear that their role in the New Urban Agenda was being used as a bargaining chip, some stakeholders were pleased that the document was not concluded here.

“Our other worry was that the pressure to agree on something — anything — would drive member states towards a rapid cull of unreconciled issues, instead of a genuine attempt to resolve concerns of their peers,” Suri said.

“This would have really been a disastrous outcome,” she continued. But with the stalled talks, “we live to fight another day!”

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