Ministerial Meeting Stresses Role of Economic and Social Council as Central Plank of Renewed Multilateralism as It Seeks to Meet Sustainable Development Challenges

24 September 2012

Ministerial Meeting Stresses Role of Economic and Social Council as Central Plank of Renewed Multilateralism as It Seeks to Meet Sustainable Development Challenges

24 September 2012
Economic and Social Council
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Economic and Social Council

Special Ministerial Meeting

50th Meeting (PM)

Ministerial Meeting Stresses Role of Economic and Social Council as Central Plank

of Renewed Multilateralism as It Seeks to Meet Sustainable Development Challenges

Bureau Statement Reaffirms Council’s Key Role; Secretary-General, Council

President among Speakers; Panel Discussion, Ministerial Dialogue Round out Debate

Government ministers and other high officials from around the globe meeting in New York committed themselves to strengthening the United Nations Economic and Social Council, in order to engender more coherent multilateral action to face the daunting challenges of sustainable development, at a Special Ministerial Meeting of that body this afternoon and evening.

“We reaffirm the key role of ECOSOC as a central mechanism for the coordination of the United Nations system and in promoting a strengthened multilateral system; achieving a balanced integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development; and serving as a forum for multi-stakeholder involvement”, according to a statement prepared by the Council’s Bureau for today’s high-level session themed “Building the Future We Want”.  The meeting was a follow-up to the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ( Rio+20), which called for a strengthened Council.

The statement expressed deep concern about threats to the economic, social and environmental well-being of humanity and its planet, including what it called the “fragile state” of the world economy and serious risk of the reversal of the development gains made so far.  As an important part of the effort to address that situation, the officials committed themselves to strengthening the Council within its Charter mandate to make it more effective and efficient, reinforcing coherence and coordination and avoiding duplication of efforts.

At the opening of the Special Meeting, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the Council could make important contributions to coordinated action on the global job crisis, avoiding a new recession, ensuring that donor countries honour their commitments to help the developing world achieve the Millennium Development Goals in reducing poverty and other global ills by 2015, putting food security at the top of the agenda, achieving inclusive, environmentally sustainable growth and concluding the Doha talks on trade and development.

“A strengthened multilateral system must be able to address immediate concerns, as well as broad sustainable development challenges — from poverty, high unemployment and food insecurity to biodiversity loss and climate change, the Secretary-General said at the opening of today’s meeting.  “That means being coherent and coordinated”, he stressed.  It was particularly important to ensure that the post-2015 development agenda was defined as a single global development framework with sustainable development as its core.  “This is an opportunity to show that the multilateral system for development works”, he added.

The President of the Council, Miloš Koterec of Slovakia, said he was deeply impressed by the large presence of officials, which was critical because the multilateral system was in the midst of redefining its development agenda — from his perspective, a question of how best to achieve development for all — as 2015 grew closer while unemployment, income inequality and food prices increased along with the associated threat of unrest.

The Council was a natural focal point within the United Nations for improving on what was generally acknowledged as the mixed record of international efforts on sustainable development, he said.  It was at the centre of partnerships within the Organization and with other multilateral institutions.  In an era that saw the rise of new groupings, such as the Group of 20 (G-20), and given the importance of the private sector and civil society, the Council was well placed to construct an appropriate framework to ensure a truly global approach to solving challenges.  However, he acknowledged, a “major systematic rethink is in order” to gear the whole Council system towards sustainable development, without creating parallel structures, but by revitalizing existing institutional arrangements.  Today’s meeting would lay the foundation for that work.

The President of the General Assembly, Vuk Jeremić, said a more dynamic Council could make a dramatic contribution to the work of the sixty-seventh Assembly session, in both sustainable development and human rights.  Improved global economic governance was another common area of interest, as was inclusivity in all endeavours.  For the agenda to become truly effective, both the Assembly and Council had to work closely together, he stressed.

Also speaking at the opening, Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, recalled that the Rio+20 outcome, “The Future We Want”, recognized the Council’s key role in advancing sustainable development because it was not a stand-alone body but an interlocking system that connected organs, regional commissions and agencies.  It had a unique ability to promote international dialogue on a wide variety of subjects from population and development to statistics, from narcotics and criminality to science and technology and the environment.

In order to continue its leadership, however, the Council needed to strengthen its methods in agenda-setting, mobility and other areas, he said.  The momentum to strengthen the Council was already in motion, given the Rio+20 outcome, so input on how to do it was eagerly awaited.

Following those statements, a panel discussion addressed steps needed to strengthen the body.  Former Council President Gert Rosenthal of Guatemala said that the Council suffered from an inability to attract major players and to coordinate “unruly” subsidiary bodies; its role also overlapped with that of the Assembly.  He said the Council could be reinvigorated if the new forum to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development, called for by Rio+20, fell under its aegis.  Surveying accomplishments of the Council thus far, the President of the United Nations Foundation suggested a new focus on areas in which the body had comparative advantage, but former Council President Munir Akram said a clean sweep, followed by a new structure and agenda, was needed.

In the dialogue that ensued, which included nearly 40 high-level Government officials, speakers agreed that the economic and social challenges facing the world required well-coordinated multilateral action, for which the Economic and Social Council was well positioned to underpin.  Many speakers, however, stressed the need for a more robust body, with some calling for greater focus on substantive matters, resulting in more concrete recommendations.

All agreed that, given the magnitude of the world’s challenges, determined action was needed.  “We are not seeking to strengthen ECOSOC or the United Nations for its own sake”, Norway’s Minister of International Development said.  “It is for our sake.  There isn’t a Plan B because there isn’t a Planet B.”

In his closing remarks, Under-Secretary-General Wu, through a statement delivered by Navid Hanif, Director of Council Support and Coordination, said that the discussions today demonstrated that the Council would fulfil its pivotal role in international development and would be strengthened as the post-2015 agenda, built upon the three pillars of sustainable development, was established.

Council President Koterec said that the Council Bureau stood ready to consult with all delegations on their recommendations.  After hearing today’s discussion, he said, future discussions should be guided by lessons learned to refine Council priorities, make its deliberations more outcome driven, redesign the subsidiary system and Secretariat support, expand partnerships and strengthen accountability.

Panel Discussion

Opening the panel, “Inclusive, strengthened and effective multilateral system for achieving sustainable development — What steps are needed?”, David Steven, Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation, New York University, then introduced the panellists:  Gert Rosenthal, Permanent Representative of Guatemala to the United Nations and former President of the Economic and Social Council; Timothy Wirth, President, United Nations Foundation; and Munir Akram, former President of the Economic and Social Council.

Mr. ROSENTHAL suggested that there was a disconnect between the existing multilateral institutional frameworks regarding the international economic and development issues as seen in 2008 when the world’s largest economies had to improvise rather than turning to the established forums of the Bretton Woods institutions or the United Nations.  In an interdependent global economy it was necessary that multilateral expressions agree on concerted policy decisions in economic, financial, social and environmental arenas and coordinate those policies for maximum impact and monitoring capability.

That, he said, raised the question of what those multilateral expressions would look like and what role, if any, the United Nations would play in a reformed international institutional economic and development architecture, as well as the role of the Economic and Social Council within that construct.  In the name of greater coherence and effectiveness, some type of G-20 arrangement — perhaps an Economic Security Council — was necessary, as it was crucial for major players to have a forum where they could take collective decisions to “steer the international economy”.  At the same time, it was not clear that economic, social and environmental issues must all fall under a centralized arrangement, he said, noting that the decentralization of specialized agency architecture of the past 60 years had “served the world quite well”.

Regarding United Nations participation, he noted the value of its analytical work and believed that the broad-based system, the Secretariat and its intergovernmental machinery were “well-placed to play a robust role” in development.  Still, the role of the Economic and Social Council and its functions had not been “overly successful” in the past, owing, in part, to the loss of convening power to attract economic policymakers and executives and the inability to coordinate activities among the “unruly” subsidiary bodies.  The most glaring example was the overlap between the Council’s agenda and that of the General Assembly, in particular its Second and Third Committees.

In Rio’s outcome document, the call to integrate the economic, social and environmental and related fields was a step in the direction of strengthening the Economic and Social Council.  The document also created a new high-level political forum to replace the Commission on Sustainable Development.  He hoped the new forum would fall under the Council’s aegis and possibly give it some “new life”.

Mr. WIRTH said that in considering the future of the Economic and Social Council, it was important to review its past.  He noted five or six achievements over the past decades, including its work on strengthening the international community’s coordination of development aid in the 1970s and the sponsoring in the 1980s of eight world conferences, which had had a significant impact on the efforts of countries worldwide.  He also noted that the Millennium Development Goals was a result of the Council’s discussions, as was the legitimacy of addressing environmental issues.  That distinguished history indicated that the Council did its best work when it was not focused on procedural issues internally, but rather on specific outcomes.  Indeed, it had done a “remarkable job” of helping the international community to understand complex issues.

Several emergency issues would benefit from the Council’s intervention, including completion of the first phase of the Millennium Development Goals and the transition into the second phase.  Energy issues, now at the forefront of United Nations efforts, could benefit from the Council’s assistance. There was an opportunity for the United Nations to join with the private sector and explore that partnership; that collusion was a “significant task”, he said.  Lastly, he said it was critical that the issue of gender be addressed in a more in-depth manner, as the Council had only “scratched the surface”, but not investigated the breadth of that issue.  The United Nations was best at convening the international community, and the Economic and Social Council needed to resume that role again.  By picking a few areas of focus, the Council could use its convening power to bring together intellectuals, Governments, and economic world leaders.

Mr. AKRAM recalled that 40 years ago when he was at the Secretariat, he had introduced a resolution, entitled “Strengthening the ECOSOC”.  That objective had failed; the Council’s potential had not been realized.  The case for the Economic and Social Council system was stronger today than 40 years ago, as there was a greater need for policy coherence and for effective implementation of the decisions of the international community, and there was no other legitimately accepted organ that could provide it.  However, changes were required.

He went on to say that piecemeal reform of the Council’s agenda was not good.  He called for a “clean sweep”, saying there were too many items to which too many delegations were attached.  “It is time to start anew”, he said, and allow the agenda to be determined by what had been agreed, such as the Millennium Development Goals, the internationally development goals agreed by leaders at world conferences, concerning finance, trade, and technology.  As seen in Rio+20, there was an opportunity to “take a look at the real world we live in” in regards to finance, food, and the environment.  The combination of decisions and reality would inform a new agenda.

On the structure of ECOSOC, he believed membership could be opened up to all Member States.  The problem was how to build a forum that was effective in decision-making.  He believed the “magic number” of 27 members would replace the G-20 and ensure fair representation.  There would be permanent members and a democratic rotational process, which took into account the concerns of the large economies and the representational requirements of smaller States.  He concluded by noting that the Council had not taken advantage of the secretariats throughout the Organization or of the Bretton Woods institutions, and he urged it to do so.

Interactive Discussion

Following the panellists’ presentations, Mr. STEVEN read out a number of questions received through social media, which included what civil society and new technology could do to help with the development agenda, and whether or not sustainable development meant inclusive development.

When the floor opened for discussion, several representatives questioned the panellists about the Council’s future structure and role.

Mexico’s representative said “what we do here has less and less impact on the world”, whereas non-governmental organizations were making progress on the ground, as was the case in Chiapas, where those organizations’ poverty eradication efforts had made inroads, with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).  He then asked how the panellists would see a more visible role for the United Nations, and if greater involvement with civil society and the private sector would establish a better sense of ownership among the stakeholders.  He also asked how the Economic and Social Council could succeed in bringing in more players to deepen that sense of ownership.

Mr. WIRTH replied, “if you build it, they will come”.  The United Nations, he added, had a profound legitimacy, and “agenda-setters” would be attracted and would make commitments if there was a strong agenda with robust backing.

Pakistan’s representative asked panellists how to market United Nations credibility and channel it to the Economic and Social Council.  Noting that the Council needed to be reinvented by repositioning itself, he likened the process to football:  the player needed to be in the right place at the right time to kick the ball in.  He also asked if it would be beneficial if the segment-based approach was realigned to the three “pillar” approach.

Responding to several questions, Mr. AKRAM said in a world afflicted by multiple crises interacting with each other, there was no real forum to address all those issues in an integrated way.  He said Governments had a critical role in dealing with crises, as they had in the United States and European Union cases.  But, who was going to bail out the poorest countries affected by the global financial crisis? he asked, noting that this forum should be used to address that and other questions.  Doing so effectively entailed bringing the private sector and civil society on board, he added.

Ministerial Dialogue

Commencing the dialogue, aimed at considering major changes in the Council’s agenda setting and working methods as part of a renewal of the whole multilateral system, the Council President noted that more than 300 “tweets” had been posted on Twitter about the meeting, which was a clear indication that civil society around the world was invested in the issues being discussed.

When the floor was opened, speakers, many at the ministerial level, overwhelmingly applauded the Rio+20 Conference and reiterated their firm commitment to the tasks ahead.  The Minister of Foreign Affairs and Immigration of the Bahamas foreshadowed a common theme that would resonate throughout the afternoon and evening:  strengthening the Economic and Social Council was essential to meeting the pressing development challenges.

“In today’s ever-shifting international economic and financial climate, which in the last five years had moved from one crisis to another, and against the backdrop of the intensified challenges associated with protecting the environment as a global commons for the future generations of mankind, the need for coordinated, effective and sustained international cooperation in these areas is more imperative than ever”, he said.  A successful response to those and other emerging challenges depended, to a large extent, on the ability of institutions to deliver the types of assistance that would have a real impact on people’s lives.

High on the “to-do” list was preparing for and agreeing on a post-2015 development framework, which the Foreign Affairs Minister of Finland said was among the most important issues facing the international community.  “At the end of the day, ECOSOC, as any multilateral organization or body, is just as strong and dynamic as the Member States allow it to be”, he said, urging that the Council embark on serious policymaking and not just in academic exercise.

Many speakers agreed, emphasizing the necessity to weave together the three pillars of sustainable development to achieve the goals and set the post-2015 agenda.  Gabon’s Minister Delegate of Economy, Employment and Sustainable Development said a multilateral system should be inclusive and efficient, and ready to rise to current and future challenges.

Some speakers raised concerns about how to safeguard the environment while striving for development.  Due to absence of a new economic and financial model that could address the “multiple chronic crises that had been created by the current model”, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nicaragua said that some South American countries were constructing their own solutions through multilateral and regional initiatives.  Ecuador’s Minister Coordinator of Heritage suggested that a universal declaration on the rights of nature was necessary.  Political and cultural components should also be included in the sustainable development framework.

For its part, Sri Lanka, said its Minister for Power and Energy, had used unique methods to address short-, medium- and long-term challenges.  “Our interactions should not remain at the level of a mere exchange of ideas but be translated into action”, he said.

Mirroring a common view of the Council’s leading role in achieving all three pillars of the Sustainable Development Goals, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation felt existing architecture could tackle those tasks, but duplication of initiatives should be avoided to ensure effective results.

In that vein, many speakers discussed the Council’s future role, with some putting forth proposals for the work ahead.  The Minister for Development of France called for a “modern” Council, while Colombia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs said that “substance should take precedence over negotiations”, and that the Council should produce concrete recommendations instead of generated negotiated outcomes.  The Foreign Affairs Minister of Switzerland suggested streamlining the Council’s “overburdened” agenda, as well as coherently discussing reform processes that included the establishment of a high-level political forum on sustainable development.

Several delegates, including the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Nepal, urged that a “more robust” Economic and Social Council was needed.  He stressed its value to mainstreaming implementation of the Istanbul Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries.  The Minister for Foreign Affairs of Latvia invited all Member States to “stay united to make the future we want and the United Nations we want”.  Pointing to UN Women as an excellent example of reform, he said future endeavours should address strengthening the rule of law, facilitating access to education for all and embracing the “green economy” philosophy.

Summing up the tone of the meeting, the Minister of International Development of Norway said new times brought new challenges.  He said it was critical to join efforts to become better diplomats, to find new technology and to reduce consumption patterns.  “We are not seeking to strengthen ECOSOC or the United Nations for its own sake,” he said, adding, “it is for our sake.”  As the Deputy Secretary-General had said, “There isn’t a Plan B because there isn’t a Planet B.”

(For a complete list of the participating delegations in the Ministerial Dialogue, please see the Journal of 22 September.)

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.