Can diplomats negotiating the New Urban Agenda deliver success this week?

SURABAYA, Indonesia — In the world’s diplomatic capitals, United Nations negotiations are an everyday affair. An event with a jargon-laden name like the “Third Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development” would barely solicit a yawn in Geneva or Vienna. But the U. N. rarely comes to East Java, making the final round of talks ahead of the Habitat III summit, which opened here Monday, a major event.

Surabaya has rolled out the red carpet for the 3,500 delegates representing 116 countries that have come to Indonesia’s second-largest city. From a bike ride hosted by the mayor to 24-hour street closures to an open-air dinner outside City Hall to volunteers that have been training since October, the event known as PrepCom 3 is the biggest show in town.

[See: Much at stake in final negotiating sessions before Habitat III]

Diplomats, too, have ratcheted up their game. The talks here are all about the new global urbanization strategy that will come out of this year’s Habitat III conference, known as the New Urban Agenda. After three months of variable attendance at hearings and informal negotiations at U. N. Headquarters on the agenda’s first drafts (the first version was released in May), delegations have arrived in full force.

In addition, several new voices are weighing in on the document at these talks, meant to be the final negotiations before the Habitat III conference takes place in October in Quito. Those new voices are adding their input not a moment too soon: From the outset, there is a strong appetite to iron out the remaining wrinkles in the New Urban Agenda — and all but ink the new strategy here in Indonesia.

“We can finalize the outcome document of the New Urban Agenda [here],” conference secretary-general Joan Clos said at the start of the three-day talks at the Grand City Convention and Exhibition Center. If the Surabaya talks are successful, he continued, “We can open Habitat III on the first day to approve the outcome document and then spend the rest of the Quito conference to talk about implementation.”

[See: How will we know if the New Urban Agenda has been successful?]

Such a rosy vision, however, will surely pressure negotiators, given the limited time here. Monday was eaten up largely by protocol and internal meetings, leaving just 48 hours to resolve all of the outstanding issues currently blocking consensus on the New Urban Agenda.

Entrenched positions on rights

Diplomats arrived in Surabaya with the third iteration of the New Urban Agenda, dated 18 July, in hand. Clocking in at 19 pages, the latest draft takes into account 131 pages of written comments that member state submitted after the last round of negotiations, which concluded at the beginning of the month.

[See: How are governments responding to the revised draft New Urban Agenda?]

These comments offered clues on the tension points that would need to be resolved in Surabaya. They included headline disputes over the “right to the city” and monitoring the New Urban Agenda as well as sideline debates over language about vulnerable groups such as migrants and LGBT group or how much emphasis to place on decentralization and local governance.

At the same time, a host of issues went largely uncontested. “There is a high consensus on the content of the New Urban Agenda,” Clos told Citiscope. “There’s a very public recognition of the role of urban planning, design, financing and legislation.” That should please Clos, who has emphasized these issues in his Habitat III stump speech for the past two years.

Clos, who thus far has been reluctant to opine publicly on the state of the negotiations, went further. “What is pending?” he asked rhetorically. “Issues related to monitoring, evaluation, follow-up and financing will be agreed on [through] further discussion here in Surabaya.”

The political difficulty of these topics is well known within the Habitat III process, although they were not breached Monday during a two-hour technical session on the document’s opening section, the Quito Declaration, as those issues come up later in the document.

Instead, the debate centered on the right to the city, a concept that social movements, civil society organizations and local authorities have agitated for. The idea has garnered  the support of several Latin American governments, including Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador, all of which called for the term to remain in the document.

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

“Mexico is convinced that it is necessary to include the right to the city in the New Urban Agenda in order to advance the right of present and future generations to cities that are just, sustainable and inclusive,” said Enrique González Tiburcio, Mexico’s subsecretary for territorial planning.

In turn, the usual suspects — the European Union, Japan and United States — as well as host country Indonesia voiced opposition to the idea. Instead, they suggested “cities for all” as an alternative formulation that steers away from human rights language. Dismissing the debate entirely, U. S. lead negotiator Nancy Stetson said, “We should not spend our time focusing on narrow interests or political disputes.”

However, the back-and-forth that ensued on the right to the city was cast in nearly identical terms to how the debate has played out in previous negotiations. Advocates for the concept argued that it synthesizes and thereby strengthens existing human rights that have an urban dimension — such as the right to adequate housing or the right to water — in a way that makes them greater than the sum of their parts.

[See: Homelessness is not just about housing — it’s a human rights failure]

Opponents pointed out that the right to the city is not agreed on in international human rights law and charged that its definition is unclear. If, for example, it is a synthesis of existing rights, they argue, then it’s a redundant concept. These attitudes, which repeat nearly verbatim what has been said in previous rounds of talks, suggest entrenched positions and minimal compromise on this issue.

‘Days and nights’

The Quito Declaration was as far as negotiations proceeded on Monday. The Group of 77 (G77) bloc of developing countries called for an early suspension of the session in order to allow time for its large group of members to meet and refine their positions.

Multiple diplomats from countries outside the G77 expressed frustration that such a meeting would have to eat up valuable time once PrepCom 3 already began. They said it should have been conducted prior to Monday’s opening.

[See: The United Nations risks stifling its own progress on sustainable urbanization]

Nevertheless, one diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, expressed hope that the impromptu meeting would provide an opportunity for Indonesia and Ecuador to show leadership and encourage the G77 to develop a unified message and be prepared to compromise. As hosts of PrepCom 3 and Habitat III, respectively, the diplomat argued that those two countries must impress upon their peers that Surabaya and Quito cannot be failures.

No diplomats with whom Citiscope spoke were willing to speculate this early on whether they can reach the finish line by 6:00 on Wednesday evening, the scheduled closing of PrepCom 3. Clos noted pointedly that diplomats have “days and nights” — although at this point, only Tuesday remains open-ended for a possible evening session, unless it will be possible to overstay the last day. (Last year’s PrepCom 2 in Nairobi did not wrap up until late on its final day.)

Several civil society observers, however, were pessimistic that member states will overcome the remaining issues in such a short period of time. They anticipate additional talks in New York in September or October in order to spare Quito from lengthy negotiations.

[See: First details emerge on Habitat III summit in Quito]

Still, after Monday there remained 48 hours before that could be required. Philippine Ambassador Lourdes Yparraguirre, who co-facilitated Monday’s negotiating session and repeatedly reminded delegates of the importance that this week’s talks reach consensus, sounded a positive note as the chamber cleared out for the evening.

“We are very optimistic,” she told Citiscope. “Everybody wants to be helpful and cooperative.”


Greg Scruggs is Citiscope’s Habitat III correspondent.

Citiscope is a nonprofit news outlet that covers innovations in cities around the world. More at Citiscope. org

Photo credit: Habitat III website.

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