A special status for cities and regions at the United Nations

Last month, the High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB)[1] released its report “A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future”. The report addresses an issue which stands at the centre of the Geneva Cities Hub’s mission: providing formal status to cities and other local and regional governments, so that they may be accredited and participate to UN processes and meetings in their own capacity.

Faced with multiple crises (climate change, pandemics, rising poverty and inequalities, conflicts, mass migration, etc.), the multilateral system is today unable to address all of them in an effective manner. The High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) has thus been requested by the UN Secretary General (SG) to identify concrete, actionable recommendations that can lead to a radical shift in the international community’s approach to global governance.

The overall thrust of the HLAB’s report is to “rebuild trust in the multilateral system with the UN at its core” [2]. In particular, the HLAB argues that to be effective, multilateralism must be more inclusive, including with regard to how decisions are being taken and collective solutions are being developed. Today, UN multilateralism is almost exclusively led by its Member States. However, it should extend beyond States and include a broader range of actors, such as local and regional governments (LRGs), who can help revitalize a multilateralism that works better and faster for everyone.  

To that end, the HLAB makes a number of proposals for a more secure and sustainable future. In particular, it underlines that “effective multilateralism is more than merely adding seats around a table. It requires a fundamental transformation towards more distributed, networked decision-making for our collective well-being. It recognizes that in many areas, the future of global governance will not be based on worldwide unity or top-down control, but rather on connectivity across distinct domains, communities, and spheres of influence”.[3]

Of particular interest to the GCH, is the recommendation relating to the role of cities and subnational regions in multilateralism. Acknowledging that cities and other LRGs are often responsible for addressing the impacts of climate change, socioeconomic inequalities, health risks, violence, migration flows, and demographic changes, the HLAB however notes that they remain largely side-lined in the formal mechanisms of global governance. As a consequence, the HLAB suggests that “LRGs are offered a formal and permanent status, independent of civil society and NGOs, notably in the areas of the environment, global health, migration, refugee response, addressing transnational organized crime, and sustainable development […] consideration should be given to involving LRGs directly in relevant multilateral treaty processes, allowing them to become signatories with responsibilities in much the same way the current plastics treaty is looking to involve and obligate the private sector”.[4]

Since its establishment, the GCH has been working to create more space for LRGs in selected multilateral processes. Priority has been put on: the UNECE Forum of Mayors; the WHO negotiations on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response; the Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review (UPR); the ITU and its WSIS Forum; and more recently the new plastic pollution treaty, as well as the Global Refugee Forum that will be organized in Geneva in December. In all those processes, the GCH is slowly building up the presence of LRGs, mainly by providing LRG-related language input in the intergovernmental negotiations and by supporting the participation/contribution of mayors to some of the meetings. The GCH has also encouraged States to include LRGs in their delegations, for instance to the UPR or the Global Refugee Forum. However, this is not good enough for LRGs that would wish to participate and speak in their own capacity at UN meetings.

Granting a formal status to LRGs that would enable them to be accredited and take part in specific UN meetings would be a game changer. The GCH therefore calls upon all States to take forward the HLAB recommendation on the creation of a special status for cities and regions in multilateralism and to start identifying relevant processes (such as those mentioned above) where this approach could be tested. The GCH stands very much ready to work with States willing to foster a more inclusive and effective multilateralism to effectively address the global challenges of our times.   

[1] Established by the UN Secretary General (SG), the High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism builds on “Our Common Agenda”, the 2021 SG’s report that calls for stronger governance on key issues of global concern. The HLAB is led by a former Head of State (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf) and a former Head of Government (Stefan Löfven) and consists of 10 other eminent persons representing different constituencies and stakeholders in global decision-making. Learn more here.

[2] High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism, “A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future”, p.4.

[3] Ibid, p. 13.

[4] Idem.

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