Final burst of talks results in consensus on draft New Urban Agenda

‘All the groups made sacrifices and were very flexible,’ one diplomat said in celebrating the agreement. ‘They were animated by a spirit of going to Quito with a consensus document that we can really implement.’

Participants in the final negotiations clap after reaching consensus on the draft New Urban Agenda late Saturday night at U.N. Headquarters. (Greg Scruggs)

UNITED NATIONS — After 38 hours of non-stop negotiations, diplomats Saturday night delivered an agreement for a new global strategy on sustainable urbanization, called the New Urban Agenda. With the newfound consensus — which had been elusive, coming only after emergency talks were extended for an additional day — the document is likely to be adopted next month at the Habitat III summit in Quito, Ecuador.

Working continuously from Friday morning through Saturday night, the marathon closed-door session saw governments reach a breakthrough on two key topics that had bogged down talks for months as well as resolve a host of ancillary issues that threatened to unravel progress toward an agreement.

But when the final debates were settled around 9:15 pm, diplomats could finally breathe a sigh of relief, confident that heads of state and ministers will be expected to sign the 23-page document next month. The new draft of the New Urban Agenda should be released early this week; see the previous drafts here. (UPDATE: See the new draft here.)

“This is a milestone of what we’re trying to achieve in multilateralism,” Ecuador’s Esteban Cadeña told the weary few remaining after a day-and-a-half cloistered in the basement of U. N. Headquarters. Choruses of applause greeted his words, and his colleague Jonathan Viera added, “We’ve been sharing this time with people from different countries and different languages but that share the same passion.”

The Ecuadorean delegation had reason to be particularly relieved. The country will host next month’s conference, and Saturday’s deal clearly raises the likelihood that the conference will be seen as a political success.

[See: For the New Urban Agenda, it’s now or never]

“The golden rule is always consensus,” Senegal’s Mamadou Mbodj told Citiscope outside the negotiation room after the final deal was announced and delegations were combing through the document a final time to confirm accurate spelling, grammar, syntax and punctuation. “As a member of the [Habitat III] Bureau, I am happy with the result. It’s been two years and a lot of effort.”

Something’s gotta give

The major breakthrough occurred mid-afternoon Saturday, with the adoption of a new paragraph in the New Urban Agenda’s contentious “follow-up and review” section. For months, that concluding part of the document had stalled over the role of UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s lead agency on urbanization. The G77 bloc of developing countries wanted the Nairobi-based agency to have primary responsibility for implementation of the New Urban Agenda, while developed world donor countries resisted this call.

“When the final debates were settled around 9:15 pm, diplomats could finally breathe a sigh of relief, confident that heads of state and ministers will be expected to sign the 23-page document next month.”

The issue was intractable, with seemingly no progress for four months until this weekend’s resolution. One Latin American diplomat told Citiscope at the beginning of this final set of talks that, having been moved off the Habitat III portfolio and then returned to it this week, his perception was that nothing had changed. “It’s the same as four rounds ago,” he said, before quoting the title of a movie, “Something’s Gotta Give.”

[See: Proposal would kick Habitat III’s main sticking point to U. N. General Assembly]

Something finally gave, with a new proposal for “an evidence-based and independent assessment of UN-Habitat” to be conducted by the U. N. secretary-general and presented during the U. N. General Assembly’s 71st session, which begins this week and concludes in September 2017. “The result of the assessment will be a report containing recommendations to enhance the effectiveness, efficiency, accountability and oversight of UN-Habitat,” the compromise states.

The assessment will, in turn, inform a two-day “High-Level Meeting of the General Assembly”, also during the 71st session, “to discuss the effective implementation of the New Urban Agenda and the positioning of UN-Habitat in this regard.” It will be only in the 72nd session, however, that the General Assembly will consider “action to be taken.” Such a decision is likely to come in late 2017 in a body of the General Assembly known as the Second Committee, which holds an annual session on UN-Habitat.

According to a source within the office of the president of the General Assembly, the report will ideally be delivered in April or May, followed by the high-level meeting in June or July.

The final compromise saw a concession from the G77, which stepped back from its insistence on language calling for “strengthening and enhancing the mandate” of UN-Habitat. The result now reads “with a view to enhancing the effectiveness of UN-Habitat”. The bloc also compromised on whether the New Urban Agenda would provide a definitive role for the agency in implementing the Habitat III strategy; the final text states only that the agency is “a focal point on sustainable urbanization and human settlements” in the U. N. system.

[See: UN-Cities? Rumoured proposal gains steam]

In turn, the developed countries lost their fight to keep the future of UN-Habitat out of the Habitat III debate entirely. With this compromise, they accepted the argument that the Habitat conferences, which happen every 20 years, are intertwined with the history of the agency, which was born as a result of Habitat I in 1976 and given its current mandate at Habitat II in 1996.

The independent assessment will now be tasked with addressing key issues of controversy, including UN-Habitat’s governance structure and financial capacity. A Latin American diplomat was overheard calling the 11th-hour acceptance of the independent assessment proposal on Saturday a “radical” change from how it was greeted on Friday. “It was like night and day,” he said.

‘20-year mindset’

But if a deal on the future of UN-Habitat was the climax, there was still the denouement. It took another seven or so hours after this breakthrough before the gavel could finally bang and adjourn the meeting.

The issues at stake included references to a host of complex but only marginally related points of controversy — common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR), the right to development, official development assistance (ODA), unilateral economic sanctions and territories under foreign occupation. These issues relate to longstanding geopolitical disagreements between the G77 and the developed world and have a tendency to crop in any U. N. negotiation, whatever the subject. But they also represent a long-term turf battle, and so they must be resolved, however slowly and painfully.

The final deal, confirmed by multiple sources, kept a reference to CBDR but removed any reference to ODA and deleted a proposed trust fund for implementation of sustainable urban development in poor countries. According to multiple sources, references to a right to development, unilateral economic sanctions and territories under foreign occupation remain in the text, a final version of which could be available as soon as Monday.

[See: The New Urban Agenda will pay for itself]

Meanwhile, the 38-hour diplomatic bender — made all the worse by stuffy conference rooms as New York sweltered through a late-summer heat wave — saw its fair share of ups and downs. On Friday night, one diplomat described the mood as “bipolar”, with certain issues raising tensions before the co-facilitators moved on and calmed the situation.

Sources inside the room indicated that Belarus mounted a strong defense of its proposal to include “family-friendly” language, even threatening to implode an announced deal on “the right to the city,” the other major controversial agreement. The European Union, in turn, expended significant political capital to maintain the caveat “regardless of migratory status” in a section on refugees and migrants — an increasingly hot global topic and the subject of a major one-day summit this month.

[See: Historic consensus reached on ‘right to the city’ in New Urban Agenda]

But according to sources, sometime around 3:30 on Saturday morning, the mood shifted and a spirit of progress returned. “All the groups made sacrifices and were very flexible,” Mbodj said. “They were animated by a spirit of going to Quito with a consensus document that we can really implement.”

Key to success, according to Ecuador’s Viera, was a long-term vision. “We had a 20-year mindset,” he told Citiscope, excited at the prospect of bringing “new concepts” to the table — such as the right to the city, a key issue for the host country.

For Mexico’s Dámaso Luna Corona, one of the two figures who led the talks, what guided his strategy was a sense that “the principles of the document were already resolved,” which is to say, the meat of the New Urban Agenda’s discussion of urbanization was not in debate. Rather, he told Citiscope, the sticking points were “short-term political elements”.

A North American diplomat concurred. “[The document] touches on some of the really exciting things happening in urbanization,” he told Citiscope, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He also complimented the “really professional diplomacy” that marked these final talks, particularly pointing to Canada, Colombia, Singapore and Thailand.

Still, the full impacts of what has been agreed upon in New York are yet to be fully understood. Luna Corona requested more time when asked for initial comment. Pacing the hallway and stretching his arms, he pleaded, “I’m dead.”

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