Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 United Nations High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) took place virtually last July, with theme “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development.”
The two HLPF segments remained despite the virtual format: a thematic segment reviewing progress on specific sustainable development goals (SDGs), and a Ministerial segment, where a select number of governments presented Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs). The official sessions were complemented by virtual side events covering a diverse range of issues related to SDG implementation. Expectedly, the pandemic itself loomed over all of the discussions.
As of this writing, an outcome document in the form of a Ministerial Declaration is yet to be agreed. In its absence, it is difficult to assess the strength of the messages and commitments coming out of the HLPF, but the fact that Member States are unable to strike an agreement given the circumstances does not imply a strong spirit of cooperation and healthy multilateralism.
The deliberations themselves were standard for the UN, with obvious special attention to the enormous challenge the pandemic has put in front of us when it comes to achieving the SDGs. At surface level, the statements made by Member States would suggest a political willingness to see the SDGs realised and the world emerge from this crisis with a common cause and greater solidarity in the face of a deadly plague. Regrettably, the actions of Member States suggest otherwise, as the Ministerial Declaration is stuck in a bitter negotiation likely over one or all of the familiar red lines that separate the G77 and the developed countries block – ostensibly the OECD countries – at every negotiation. If ever adopted, a weak Ministerial Declaration will really put into question the relevance and strength of the HLPF.
Then, the Voluntary National Reviews, which have already in previous years been something akin to rehearsed theatre were especially lacking in depth this year. Many countries chose to prepare pre-recorded presentations which appeared to be closer to promotional tourism videos than serious reporting on the 2030 Agenda. As in previous years, CSOs attempted the difficult task of responding to the country VNRs through the stipulated process of presenting a handful of questions and feedback to the presenting country or countries. On a positive side, some governments have started to set strong precedent for CSO engagement in their VNR processes, including CSOs in the official presentations.
Speaking of CSO inclusion in the HLPF, the online format yielded expectations of a broader and more robust participation or attendance, with the elimination of the typical limiting factors such as travel costs, security, and room capacities. Unfortunately, the virtual HLPF instead proved to be more limiting than its in-person form. This was true across the board, and not only specific to CSO participation, suggesting that the UN must take greater measures to adapt to remote working modalities.
For instance, the meeting even failed to provide interpretation of all official sessions into the six UN languages, typically a strict requirement for political processes of this nature. For most CSOs wishing to participate in this year’s HLPF, the only way to do so was through UN Web TV, which does not allow for any interaction and which has always been available for UN political processes of this nature.
A limited number of CSOs could follow the proceedings in the online meeting platform, but for little purpose since there would be no space to interact. Relatedly, official space for CSO interventions was limited and very hard to manage and coordinate. The number of CSO panelists was lower than in previous years and the possibility for “floor interventions” was limited, unclear, and impossible to plan for. On the latter, while it is normally understood practice that floor interventions are never guaranteed and will be determined by the moderator of a session, this approach is not feasible when participants are not in the room and must follow from different timezones.
The “official” Side Events were the only space where CSOs were able to participate freely in the discussions at this year’s HLPF. Side events are always more democratic spaces at the UN, and the difficulty in engaging in the official proceedings, gave them increased importance as spaces to present CSO messages. The online side events also appeared to attract greater cross-constituency participation than in-person side events, because they allowed for participation from beyond the UN circles (e.g. governments could be represented by different departments/ministries that would not necessarily be at UN Headquarters for the HLPF).
It is hard to come away from this year’s HLPF with many positive reflections. If one were to try to frame the HLPF in an optimistic, forward-looking light, it would be to draw parallels with the global context itself.
The pandemic has exposed huge cracks in our societies the world over, and in some cases mobilised a previously unimaginable level of response by governments and people. Most definitely, it started a needed debate on how to address some of the deep systemic failures hindering human advancement. The shortcomings of the HLPF as the apex accountability body of the 2030 Agenda have clearly been exposed this year as well. The question is whether the UN and its Member States will respond in kind, or double down on the old and tired divisions which have hampered the institution’s legitimacy in recent years.#