The HLPF – a blueprint for more democratic global governance? Not yet.

This article references content included in the 2019 Spotlight Report, available for download at There will also be a side-event at the HLPF on 11 July, 9:30am-11:30pm at Baha’i International Community, 866 UN Plaza, New York. See the invitation here.

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which governments adopted in September 2015, have been announced as a “supremely ambitious and transformational vision … of unprecedented scope and significance”.

Since 2015 the Civil Society Reflection Group (CSRG) has been monitoring how governments and international organizations have been implementing the 2030 Agenda. As part of this role the CSRG is presenting a series of papers at the 2019 High-level Political Forum, all of which identify obstacles and suggest solutions, as well as the Spotlight Report on Reshaping Governance for Sustainability.

People still believe in the UN

People still turn to the UN as the arbiter of peace and justice, but recent years have seen calls for its workings to be brought up to date. Barbara Adams from Global Policy Forum, argues that work on the 2030 Agenda, could set in train a new generation of global governance.

Part of the thinking behind the 2030 Agenda and its SDGs was to bring together the UN’s different programming strands to foster real change. Adams believes the 2030 Agenda can be the UN game-changer, by addressing the root causes of poverty and conflict and confronting how UN policy space is being held hostage to powerful interests, public and private. She writes to:

  • Use the 2030 Agenda as the impetus for the UN General Assembly to reassert its role as adjudicator across policies, sectors and institutions.

The next phase of SDG monitoring: moving from quantitative to qualitative assessment

The first phase of the HLPF monitoring of the SDGs has concentrated on quantity, with countries reporting on progress in achieving SDG targets. Monitoring now needs to concentrate on quality, says Adams.

  • Monitoring should look at quality of SDGs results. This may require the need for ‘trade-offs’ between targets, and to transcend national boundaries, as solutions can be regional and global.
  • Monitoring should adopt a ‘rights-based approach’ for poverty elimination, and providing housing, sanitation, etc., and for trade and debt agreements.

While the UN family has embraced the SDGs and is working to raise awareness, implementation has been over-dependent on a win-win, ‘pay-to-play’ dynamic that is prevalent around the UN and ignores negative impacts such as inequalities, greenhouse gas emissions, or lack of labour standards. Instead,

  • Monitoring should incorporate benchmarks, and actions to prevent governments or corporations glossing over negative impacts and must highlight obstacles and include democratic financing strategies.

The 2030 Agenda – the promise of new global governance hampered by a power imbalance in the UN

For UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres the 2030 Agenda has the potential to “overcome the deficit of trust” that people have in the UN by creating multilateral governance forms that bring the UN closer to people’s everyday lives.

This aspiration is thwarted by the current form of the UN, where most influence is in the hands of the Security Council, which itself is dominated by five veto-wielding permanent members (P5). The major UN funders, which overlap with the P5, have leveraged their power and influence to keep the UN out of their policy priorities, particularly in trade and investment, undermining not only the ability to achieve the SDGs but also the democratic multilateralism the UN represents.

This is compounded by the severe lack of UN funding – in 2017 it received US$48.3 billion (compared to global military expenditure of US$1.7 trillion). These financial strictures impact its human rights work in particular: while the 2030 Agenda takes a strong human rights perspective, the UN human rights’ work receives a mere 3.7% of the total UN regular budget.

  • Essential to democratic multilateralism is a thorough restructuring of how the UN is funded.

Economic dominance should be answerable to human rights principles

Another block to change within the UN has been the decision-making power that some countries or corporations have. Time after time financial deregulation or lowering environmental protection has restricted populations’ human rights. When countries sign trade and investment policies with stronger economies, this often restricts that freedom for action in the domestic sphere. In addition, there are two economic mechanisms: the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) and the International Investor Agreements (IIAs), in which States de facto sign away human rights in return for investment, that make it more difficult to achieve the SDGs.

  • There is an urgent need for a systemic reform of the ISDS and the IIAs, to protect communities’ rights to seek remedies to protect their economic, environmental and human rights interests.
  • Additionally, the ability of investors to sue States should be removed.

Changing UN thinking

Many echo Guterres’ belief that now is the time the UN could change. While in the 2030 Agenda Member States committed themselves to addressing “disparities of opportunity, wealth and power”, it has often been difficult to get the stronger players to do so. The UN has tried many approaches – adopting ‘win-win’ partnerships between stakeholders, or associating with power centres, such as big business, regionalism, or South-South cooperation – but often finds itself the looser.

There are concerns about the inherent power imbalance within the UN, where outside economic interests determine or disproportionately influence policy, and that by adopting the rubric “doing good business is doing good” the UN is veering too strongly towards a market-based approach. Trying to correct power imbalances by persuading the most powerful to share their power is not a long-term solution, and fails to address “those left behind”, a key tenet of the 2030 Agenda.

To remedy this

  • Economic policymaking must be anchored in, and guided by human rights’ standards, and economic reforms must advance, not inhibit human rights. Governments, International Financial Institutions, and private actors must adhere to UN Human Rights Council Principles 13: International assistance and cooperation; 14: External influence and policy space; 15: Obligation of public creditors and donors; and 16: Obligations of private creditors.
  • A primary task of a revitalized General Assembly should be to examine the impact of the current investor preference view on the GA and on UN work. This could begin to unravel the systematic asymmetry of control by the big private and public powers.

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