Credit: UN DGC Civil Society Unit via Twitter

How Civil Society is Contributing to the UN’s Summit of the Future

Thousands of delegates gathered in Nairobi, Kenya, last week for the UN Civil Society Conference. The gathering was dedicated to the upcoming Summit of the Future, a major UN conference in September intended to reform and revitalize the UN and the multilateral system. The Nairobi civil society conference was an important opportunity for advocates, the NGO community, and other interested parties to help shape the outcome of the Summit of the Future.

On the line to discuss with me what happened at the Nairobi conference and to explain more broadly the role of civil society as we approach the Summit of the Future is Lili Nkunzimana, United Nations representative at the Baha’i International Community’s New York Office. We also discuss the current state of play of the intergovernmental negotiations over the Pact for the Future, which is the outcome document for September’s summit.

Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Baha’i International Community, an NGO that represents the worldwide Baha’i community at the UN and other international forums, where it says that recognizing humanity’s interconnectedness is key to a shared global future. This episode is part of a series on the Summit of the Future. The previous episode in this series was published in February. .

To get this episode on your preferred podcast player, go here.


Transcript edited for clarity

NB. The inputs for the New Agenda for Peace were in December 2022, not December 2023 as stated in the episode.


Mark Leon Goldberg: Lili, we are speaking just at the conclusion of the UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi, dedicated to the upcoming Summit of the Future in New York this September. Before we discuss what happened at that conference, can I have you set the context a little bit and explain why this meeting was convened in the first place?

Lili Nkunzimana: So, this conference in Nairobi was set up to ensure that civil society have a space to discuss the Summit of the Future. And really, it’s quite impressive that for a conference that was organized in the space of nine weeks, they were able to convene so many people. And to be honest, civil society organizations haven’t really been able to participate as much as they would’ve liked in this whole process. So, it’s actually within a larger context of conferences that have been organized for the Department of Global Communications in the past. What’s particularly interesting about this conference was that it’s being organized ahead of a UN process rather than afterwards. So, it really changes the tone of what could be said and what could be done at the conference.

So, we had about 2,300 organizations represented at the conference, and those organizations were represented by more than 2,500 individuals from 100 countries. And you know, they were also member states represented at the conference from 64 member states. And I think, most notably, all the six co-facilitators of the Summit of the Future process were present, one by proxy, but they were all there.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And it’s probably notable that this was in Nairobi as opposed to, I don’t know, like Vienna — Seems like deliberately located in order to encourage the participation of specifically African Civil Society members, if not more broadly civil society from the global south.

Lili Nkunzimana: Exactly. And this was actually noted a number of times during the conference that it was the first time it was taking place on the African continent and really just making sure that, as you mentioned, maybe voices or individuals from countries that don’t usually have as much of a platform on the international scale, that they were more represented at this conference.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, this conference was intended to inform discussions and outcomes around the summit of the future. What was your key message to the conference and what was the nature of your participation?

Lili Nkunzimana: The Baha’i International Community sent a delegation to the conference. I was part of that delegation. And we really tried to engage in three different ways. One was trying to make sure that we set a tone of openness and inquiry with those who were at the conference. We hosted a dinner the day before the conference started. And really this was an opportunity for individuals, particularly those in high-level positions and those who were in decision-making positions to discuss pertinent questions in an atmosphere that was really set up to allow for open and frank conversations. So, at this dinner, we talked about, you know, the importance of this particular moment in history. You know, the UN was founded in 1945, almost 80 years ago, and this has profound implications for governance today, right?

The systems that were set up in 1945 are not really adequate to address the challenges that we’re facing today. We also talked about the importance of thinking about future generations and the world that we want to leave for those who will come after us and the key challenges that are presented to us today. And lastly, we really thought about looking to the future. We asked the guests at the dinner to really think about when they wake up — today’s Saturday, today’s the day after the conference — what do they wish to have accomplished during these two days in Nairobi? And again, thinking about at the end of the Summit of the Future on September 24th, the day after the conference, what do they wish the member states will have accomplished? So, it was really important for us to have that conversation ahead of the conference itself, to make sure that people were thinking about the end goals that they wish to accomplish and think about what needs to be done now to be able to accomplish those goals.

The second way that we tried to engage was through a draft statement that we wrote. In the statement, we were quite honest in that there are many experts who are attending this conference and who’ve been engaging in the Summit of the Future process, and they have many solutions. And so what we wanted to do in this statement is to say there are fundamental breakdowns that have led us to where we are today and we want to really try to investigate and articulate what those are and think about what are some of the principles that we should focus on that will set us on the course of the future that we want to create. So, this statement looks at how do we create a collective vision so we can foster more coherence and unity, for example. We also address questions related to justice; not justice in the punitive sense, but really a broader sense of justice in terms of just relationships between member states, between institutions.

Lastly, in that statement, we also wrote about the types of leadership that we need to see today in order to establish the type of governance models that we want to see, and particularly courageous leadership on the part of those who are representing their countries international fora. As a delegation, we tried to make sure that these key messages really informed how we were engaging at the conference. And, of course, one of my colleagues from the Baha’i International Community was also closely engaged in the organization of this conference and was really engaged in terms of speaking on some of the plenaries and helping to make sure that the conference was running smoothly. So, these are the three different ways that we were engaged in the conference.

Mark Leon Goldberg: And after two or three days of the conference, what were some of the key themes that emerged, and did you see any themes along the lines of what you were encouraging as the Baha’i International Community in your statement? Did you see other NGOs, other civil society members embrace that in any meaningful way?

Lili Nkunzimana: In terms of the way the conference itself was organized, the Baha’i International Community is one of the co-chairs of the coalition for the UN We Need, and this was one of the organizing partners of this conference. And as part of that process, we really tried to be part of conversations that thought about how do we do this conference in a very different way. In previous conferences, there have been outcome documents. And to be honest, sometimes we busy ourselves in writing outcome documents at these conferences, and people stay up until two, three o’clock in the morning, but then that becomes it. And so we really wanted to make sure that it’s clear that civil society is not okay with just producing a document and then washing itself of a process, but that we think about how do we stay engaged in leading up to the summit of the future and then also afterwards.

So, there was tension and a lot of focus on making sure that this conference created spaces for people to connect, for people to reflect about what they want to accomplish and to make plans and how to look forward. So, a big theme throughout the conference was this idea of day one, on Thursday being a day where we thought about the pact where civil society contributed reflections on the five different chapters of the Pact for the Future, which is going to be the outcome document in the Summit of the future. And then day two was often referred to as the Impact Day. So the day when we made plans and formulated these impact collections, which really will help individuals make action plans for how they’re going to follow up on the Summit of the Future.

Mark Leon Goldberg: That’s fascinating. So, like as a aficionado of UN processes like this, I am very used to the outcome document being the key takeaway from a conference like this, but it’s fascinating to me and, seemingly likewise, sounding that there was no kind of outcome document negotiations until 2:00 in the mornings. But rather that some of the key takeaways that I’m hearing from you were something, perhaps a little more amorphous, but in the end perhaps a little more impactful as well.

Lili Nkunzimana: Yes. So, one of the attendees, actually one of the speakers on the plenary spoke about how we are operating in a very complex environment. So, we should not fear complexity of the approaches that this requires, right? And it was actually really encouraging to see that even in the very difficult geopolitical context that we’re in today, frank dialogue between member states and civil society is still possible. There was a dynamism at this conference that I really haven’t seen in New York City. We even saw the six co-facilitators of the Summit of the Future process providing a combined statement at the closing of the conference. In terms of these impact coalitions, there were some of them that are quite interesting just based on the thematic areas that I follow as part of my work, particularly the peace-building one. As part of the Pact for the Future, there may be references to the Peacebuilding Architecture Review, which is going to take place next year. And so, as far as I know, there isn’t actually any mechanism that allows for what people refer to as a PBA process.

Mark Leon Goldberg: What is that?

Lili Nkunzimana: The Peace Building Architecture process.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Ah, okay.

Lili Nkunzimana: To bring together members of civil society, member states, and the UN to really think about this review process together. They’re all consulted separately, but a coalition on peacebuilding could allow to sow the seeds for these individuals, these stakeholders, to work together in this review process, which is different and new. There was another coalition formed around a charter reform. And this is, as everybody knows, charter reform is a taboo topic within the UN, but actually two ambassadors attended the meeting on this impact coalition. So, we see that even though some of these goals may be out of reach, perhaps within our generation, but people were not afraid to think creatively. And even the Secretary General, in his closing remarks, referred to these coalitions as having real potential.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah, I mean, that’s interesting to me. Like, as you describe it, it seems that the coalitions that were formed and some of the outcomes from this conference was not just looking exclusively towards the Summit of the Future in September, but maybe beyond even, and looking to how more meaningfully engage in UN reform processes in general going forward, and not using exclusively the Summit of the Future as like the entry point to this.

Lili Nkunzimana: Exactly. And I think one of the things that we have to realize is that we have yet to create the types of societies that we all want to live in, right? Societies that are characterized by justice, inclusion, and so on. So, to get there, it requires levels of creativity and innovation, and maybe sometimes experimenting with things that may not be the norm.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, looking ahead to the summit itself, can you just give listeners a kind of current state of play of like where the intergovernmental relations aspect of this is and where they stand in negotiating that outcome declaration, the Declaration of the future?

Lili Nkunzimana: So, the outcome of the Summit of the Future itself is going to be the Pact for the Future. Of course, there is the Declaration of Future Generations and there’s also the Global Digital Compact that are being negotiated separately.

Mark Leon Goldberg: I meant the Pact for the Future when I asked my question, for the record, sorry. correct.

Lili Nkunzimana: It’s all right. I know all these things, the names are so similar. So yes, for the Pact for the Future, the negotiations have been quite difficult. And initially, when the zero draft came out, it was just over 20 pages, and then the co-facilitators sent that document out to the member states, and then it ballooned to over 240 pages. So, the co-facilitators really have a very difficult task ahead of them. They have asked their colleagues to be more ambitious, and they have made it clear that there’s probably going to be quite a bit of trimming of the document to make sure that it is a concise document. The co-facilitators were very open and very frank at the Nairobi Conference in talking about how this difficulty in the negotiation is probably going to continue. But what I did see is that, at this conference, there were representatives from the highest levels.

As I mentioned, the Secretary General of the UN himself was there, the president of Kenya was present. And this does show that despite how tough the negotiations have been, they are members of the Civil Society community, and there are many member states who are ready to listen to one another and to try their best to be able to put some of the inputs that have been offered by civil society and reflect them in the Pact for the Future as much as they can.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Yeah. I mean, that’s why I was sort of also wondering like are there concrete ways in which this conference, but also civil society participation going forward, are really like able to meaningfully impact the language included in the Pact for the Future. Like, what are the opportunities to encourage or pressure the intergovernmental negotiations to keep their ambitions high?

Lili Nkunzimana: So, maybe I’ll answer this question in reverse order and talk a little bit about what the input processes have been prior to the Nairobi conference. So, earlier this year, I think it was actually in December of 2023, there was an opportunity for civil society to input into some of the policy briefs. These were documents prepared by the Secretary General to offer more details of the recommendations that he had made in The Our Common Agenda report, which set up this whole process for the Summit of the future. And so there was a process for civil society to provide inputs on what he called a New Agenda for Peace, recognizing that the ways that have been set up today to respond to conflict, as we all know looking at the current affairs, are not adequate.

The Security Council has been really unable to respond to the current conflicts that we’re seeing ongoing today. There were also opportunities for the major groups and other stakeholders to write feedback for the Summit of the Future outcome document. There have been town halls and consultations that have been organized. At the conference itself, there was time provided to speak on the different tracks. However, at this particular stage in the process, really there is no way for civil society to input into the Pact for the Future unless they work with member states. And this was clearly stated by one of the co-facilitators of the Pact for the Future.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, really, it’s a matter of working directly with member states at this point if you want to influence the language in the Pact for the Future.

Lili Nkunzimana: Exactly. However, I do have to say, and this has been expressed within the civil society community, and I think civil society knows this very well — We don’t have to wait for permission to take action, right? Like, civil society has a lot of energy and enthusiasm. And through creative ways that they can come up with, they can address what they see as gaps in the process and as gaps in the Pact for the future itself. So, I think this is where impact coalitions come in, for example, to work with member states. That even if something is not addressed adequately in the Pact for the Future, what are the ways that after the pact has been released, they can continue to collaborate and work together? Because a lot of the things that we’re working on, these processes, they evolve and they mature over time.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, looking ahead from now, the conclusion of this major Civil Society Conference in Nairobi to the start of the Summit of the Future in September, what do you foresee to be some key moments or inflection points, or really opportunities between now and then for civil society engagement?

Lili Nkunzimana: Looking forward, everybody can anticipate a note from the conference co-chairs with key insights and highlights. That should be coming out sometime early next week. Also, early next week, there will be a release of rev one of the Pact for the Future documents. So this is when all the feedback from the member states will be reviewed. And the second version basically of the initial draft of the Pact for the Future will be released sometime next week. At the end of the month, on May 30th, there will be a town hall convened on the conclusions of the Nairobi conference. Of course, there’s also the high-level political forum, which is being convened in July. And this is a platform where the sustainable development goals are reviewed. And it’s a selection of different goals every year.

But because it’s a convening of so many members of civil society, this is also an opportunity where some of these conversations can continue. Lastly, there is going to be another online town hall, but the time for this one has not been set.

Mark Leon Goldberg: So, it sounds like, in the next several weeks, there are a lot of opportunities for civil society engagement. As we get really close to the summit itself in September, what are other opportunities you see for the Baha’i International community and other members of civil society to be fully engaged?

Lili Nkunzimana: So, ahead of the Summit of the Future, the Secretary General has referred to two days are being called Action Days, where those who have been participating in the preparatory process for the Summit of the Future can convene and share the fruits of their labor, so to speak. To talk about the analyses that they have put together, to convene with other stakeholders, and really prepare for the Summit of the Future that will happen on the 22nd and the 23rd of September.

Mark Leon Goldberg: Well, Lili, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time. I know it’s getting late in Nairobi after a very busy conference, so thank you. Thanks for sharing your thoughts while everything is obviously still fresh off the conclusion of the Civil Society Conference.

Lili Nkunzimana: Thank you so much, Mark, for taking this opportunity to speak.