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

Compromise would remove the most significant roadblock remaining in the New Urban Agenda talks — the future of UN-Habitat. But clarity wouldn’t come until 2017 at earliest.

U.N. Headquarters hosts last-minute talks on the New Urban Agenda this week. (Greg Scruggs)

UNITED NATIONS — Negotiators working through last-minute talks here on a new global vision for the future of cities and sustainable urbanization may have arrived at a stopgap solution that would allow the process to move toward full consensus.

Late Thursday night, government representatives debating the details of a major draft strategy called the New Urban Agenda in principle agreed to disagree for now on the last major sticking point in these talks: How to structure review mechanisms for the new agenda going forward. In particular, that question has gotten caught up in a turf battle that is only partially related to the issue at hand, on the role that the UN-Habitat agency will have in overseeing implementation of the New Urban Agenda.

The issue has roiled the talks for months now, even threatening whether a consensus document would be possible for finalization at next month’s Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador. Another key disagreement — on whether the document would refer to a concept known as the right to the city — appears to have been ironed out on Wednesday. This week’s negotiations were a last-minute addition to the official schedule in large part because these two issues had stopped up previous rounds of talks.

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

Following the Wednesday agreement on the right to the city, negotiators hoped that the momentum would extend to the most vexing issue: the future of UN-Habitat, the U. N.’s lead agency on urbanization, which is addressed in the draft New Urban Agenda’s final section on “follow-up and review”.

As outlined in previous Citiscope reporting, a schism has emerged in recent months largely between developed and developing countries. A major bloc of the latter, known as the Group of 77 (G77), wants all countries to have a say in the governance of UN-Habitat; they also want the agency to take the lead on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda. Several key developed countries, on the other hand, have resisted on the grounds that expanding the agency’s mandate in this way would also increase its budget — to which they are the primary contributors.

Now, a compromise proposal presented by the Habitat III co-facilitators Thursday night and confirmed by multiple sources would punt the issue to the U. N. General Assembly rather than deciding upon it in the New Urban Agenda itself.

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

The proposal calls for the 72nd session of General Assembly — which begins in September 2017 — to conduct an independent assessment of the agency, including its governance structure, “considering alternatives such as the universalization of the membership of its Governing Council and its designation as an institution that has a central role in the follow up and review of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda.”

Independent assessment

Multiple sources indicated that the proposal was immediately marked up, chiefly by the G77.

“The signs are pointing toward a final agreement in New York, with diplomats on all sides expressing optimism. Handshakes and smiles, as opposed to handwringing and grimaces, are suddenly in ample supply.”

A North American diplomat explained that there appeared to be a recognition on the part of the G77 that the proper protocol is for the General Assembly to take up the issue, and that there is some agreement on the idea of an independent assessment — though by whom and in what form was not discussed.

However, the diplomat expressed concern over a call by the G77 to change part of the new proposal to revert to language that called for UN-Habitat to be strengthened and its mandate to be enhanced. The diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, called such an approach “prejudging” the outcome of any such assessment. A Latin American diplomat said that Friday’s sessions would see a “long discussion on prejudging”, indicating that the G77 would try to convince other delegations to add their language.

On Thursday, Kenya’s lead negotiator, Samson Ongeri, said that the proposal “has a lot of concessions, but we are still reacting to it.” Kenya has been one of the chief advocates for a strengthened UN-Habitat, a position that was ultimately taken up by the entire G77. UN-Habitat is based in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Ongeri claimed that other than consideration of universal membership, most of the proposal comes from language previously suggested by the European Union.

[See: Will the New Urban Agenda define the future of UN-Habitat?]

Inside the negotiating room, the North American diplomat reported that there was a brief contest of delegations arguing over who was compromising more in the proposal, leading the talks’ co-facilitators to table the issue until Friday morning, when closed-door negotiations reconvened around 10 am.

In the meantime, according to a document shared with Citiscope by a G77 delegate, the bloc prepared a draft counterproposal that notes “the need to take urgent and concrete actions to strengthen” UN-Habitat. The counterproposal also urges enhancing the agency’s accountability, representation and other factors “in order for it to effectively fulfill its coordination and follow up and review roles of the New Urban Agenda within the UN System as the focal point as well as to provide appropriate support to Member States in the implementation of sustainable urbanization and human settlements including the New Urban Agenda.”

Finally, the counterproposal requests the U. N. secretary-general “to commission an evidence-based independent assessment of the needs of an effectively functioning UN-Habitat”.

Sudden optimism

Nevertheless, the signs are pointing toward a final agreement in New York, with diplomats on all sides expressing optimism. Handshakes and smiles, as opposed to handwringing and grimaces, are suddenly in ample supply.

As of Friday afternoon, negotiators had reached agreement on around 99 of the document’s 164 paragraphs, according to the Habitat III Secretariat.

[See: Habitat III loses proposed Multi-Stakeholder Panel — for now]

For Lourdes O. Yparraguirre, the Philippine co-facilitator of the negotiations, nothing less than consensus will be sufficient. “We will work until we come to an agreement,” she said Thursday morning, calling for delegations to show “political will” and “steadfast commitment.”

Indeed, she too has already showed some compromise. At the opening of the talks, she said, “Hopefully we need not punish ourselves by having late-night sessions.” By the next morning, however, she was warning delegates to prepare themselves: expect the negotiations to continue after dark.

Note: This story updated the number of paragraphs in the New Urban Agenda that had been agreed upon by deadline.

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