The high level political forum: Strong enough to achieve the future we want, or merely as good as it gets for now?

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By Jan-Gustav Strandenaes, Senior Governance Adviser for Stakeholder Forum [1]

hlpf-for-jgs-article-resizeOn 9th July 2013, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) formally adopted by consensus the format and the organisational aspects of the high level political forum on sustainable development (HLPF). The forum will replace the existing body for sustainable development within the UN – the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) – which will close down after 21 years of hard work on 20th September, prior to the first meeting of the HLPF on 24th September 2013 (both will take place as part of the beginning of the 68th session of the UNGA).

There are some very useful elements in the HLPF document. In many ways it has accomplished the challenge embedded in paragraph 84 of the Rio+20 Outcome Document, which states that the new body should build on “…the strengths, experiences, resources and inclusive participation modalities of the Commission on Sustainable Development.” Significantly strengthened by high quality input from the CSD secretariat [2],  expert meetings, hearings and lobby efforts by members of civil society and major groups – as well as the energy and input from a handful of the most dedicated delegates – the HLPF document reflects in many ways a compilation of experience, knowledge and process understanding of more than twenty years of sustainable development deliberations at the global level. However, close inspection also reveals a number of weaknesses that need to be studied and hopefully rectified over the next few years.

Strong participation and a high political standing

Major groups, civil society and stakeholders came to enjoy an unprecedented number of participatory privileges through working with and at the CSD, enabling them to become responsible participants, bringing insights into the process that enriched the debate and often contributed to creative and new ways of solving sustainable development issues. These participatory rights are now inscribed into the HLPF mandate and procedure – in some ways a precedent at this high level of a global intergovernmental context – and greatly contributing to the potential relevance of the HLPF and global governance.

The HLPF has also been given a high level political standing with a provision for the involvement of Heads of State and Governments. According to the final document, in addition to convening annually for eight days, under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council, including three days at the ministerial level, the HLPF will also meet every four years for two days at the level of Heads of State and Governments under the auspices of the UNGA. These meetings will result in “…a concise negotiated political declaration to be submitted to the Assembly for its consideration” as the GA resolution states. This looks really good on paper – let us hope it will look as good in real life.

A heavy agenda, will eight days suffice?

A close reading of the HLPF document reveals a formidable programme of work. The HLPF is tasked with providing leadership, guidance and recommendations for sustainable development, and with identifying emerging issues, reviewing progress in the implementation of commitments made at all major UN conferences and Summits in the economic, social and environmental fields and continually enhancing integration of the three dimensions of sustainable development. Furthermore, the HLPF will make sure there is inter-agency coordination, develop an annual Global Sustainable Development Report and ensure evidenced based decisions-making at all levels to strengthen the science-policy interface.

Added to all of the above are the sustainable development goals (SDGs). An intergovernmental process is currently underway to produce recommendations for a set of universal SDGs, and it is anticipated that the HLPF will become the institution responsible for the implementation and monitoring of the goals once they are established. Depending on the number of SDGs agreed, this will add correspondingly to the work load of the HLPF.

Given this wide reaching mandate, there is concern that eight days deliberation a year will not be sufficient to address the complex and varied agenda. The CSD was originally given two weeks of preparatory work every year, in addition to its two weeks of negotiations to arrive at agreed outcomes. The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI) [3]  reduced this somewhat, but never to the level of eight days in total.

During the final days of the HLPF negotiations in June this year, the United States tried to lessen the concerns voiced by many about the mere eight days given the HLPF, saying that should a particular HLPF deliberation need more time, Members States would be sure to grant it. Looking at the overloaded UN agendas and time allotted to these agendas over the next few years, such statements sound disingenuous.

Further challenges

The HLPF’s position within the UN hierarchy is not clear. Formally speaking a ‘forum’ within the UN system is a subsidiary body with a subsidiary mandate and influence. But delegates claim that the HLPF is a new construction within the UN system, a ‘hybrid’ body with a new hierarchical position within the UN. Perhaps. It is true that the political reality of 2012 is very different from the situation in 1992, when CSD was created and a new political reality demands novel and creative institutions. The architects behind the HLPF claim it has the necessary relevance for today and tomorrow. Sceptics, however, remain unconvinced of this hybrid body and its potential influence.

During the negotiations on the HLPF document, several of the active negotiators stated that HLPF would be more like a platform for sustainable development, which would be weaker in formal status than a forum. The concept of ‘platform’ appears twice in the outcome document, but neither designates the entire HLPF to be a platform. 2If the HLPF is understood to be a ‘platform for a forum’, we have indeed weakened the role of the UN working for global sustainable development, and we have not honoured the text in paragraph 84 of the Rio+20 Outcome Document. Then the HLPF is weaker in its modus operandi than CSD,” – mused a tired delegate over coffee during the last day of negotiations in June.

Another serious issue with the HLPF is the question of “universality”. Early in the negotiations many nations were supportive of universal membership, including the G-77, who in a well-argued paper in February 2013 stated they wanted “universal membership” in the HLPF. The new UNEP managed this – one is therefore left with the question – how did UNEP manage what the HLPF apparently did not? Several experienced UN delegates claimed universal membership would make the HLPF a strong body, and perhaps this was the problem; the majority of the UN members did not want a strong, separate body to deal with sustainability.

Finally, the question of a secretariat for the HLPF has not been sufficiently addressed. The mandate for the CSD gave the UN the authority to establish a secretariat for sustainable development, now named the Division for Sustainable Development (DSD). This secretariat became the strongest asset in promoting global sustainable development policies. By contrast, the secretariat for the HLPF has only received a cursory reference in the final text: “that the forum will be supported by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs [UN DESA] of the UN Secretariat in close cooperation with all relevant entities of the United Nations system ...” (paragraph 23). UN DESA will be responsible for implementing a number of the agenda points mentioned above, in addition to continuing its critical work on documentation, research, review, all whilst maintaining  coordination with other relevant UN agencies. The only way to accomplish all would be to establish a strong and autonomous secretariat within the field of sustainable development policy and to provide it with sufficient resources to enable competence and quality to become integral to its work.

The next few years will reveal how serious countries have been in their asserted support for global sustainable development. One of the repeated criticisms made by governments against the CSD was its lack of implementation focus; but the CSD did not fail sustainable development and its implementation, governments did by slowly eliminating sustainable development from their national policy priorities and by ignoring the CSD. The challenges raised above are all issues that we will need to keep a diligent eye on during the first few formative years of the HLPF, to prevent sustainable development from being burying in a quagmire of formalities. Governments must now follow through on their promises to support the HLPF, in order to enable this body to implement sustainability policies immediately and well into the future. Only then will we be able to ascertain the correct interpretation of HLPF – whether it stands for the “High Level Political Forum” for sustainable development, or the “High Level Political Failure”.

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[1] This article reflects the analysis and opinions of the author and not of Stakeholder Forum.

[2] See also the Secretary-General’s report on lessons learned from the Commission on Sustainable Development, 2013, United Nations A/67/757

[3] The Johannesburg Plan of Implementation was the key outcome document from the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002

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