Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders

The Promise and Potential of the UN’s Summit of the Future

The United Nations is hosting a “Summit of the Future” in September during the annual opening the UN General Assembly. If all goes according to plan, world leaders will endorse a so-called “Pact for the Future” that will serve as a vehicle for enacting meaningful reforms to the United Nations.

The Summit of the Future is a big deal in UN circles — it is very much a force that is driving the agenda at the United Nations even as other crises may dominate the news cycle. Namibia and Germany are co-facilitating complex negotiations over what will be included in the pact. Last week, they released a so-called “Zero Draft” that will serve as the basis for negotiations going forward.

My interview guest Dan Perell has been following this process closely. He serves as a representative for the Baha’i International Community’s United Nations Office. We kick off discussing why the Secretary General is so invested in the Summit of the Future and its potential to encourage key reforms to the United Nations. We also discuss what role civil society organizations like the Bahai International Community can play in helping ensure a successful Summit of the Future.

The full podcast episode is freely available across all podcast platforms. The full transcript is freely available below the fold.

This edition 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. 

Transcript edited for clarity

Mark Leon Goldberg I’m interested in having you place the Summit of the Future in context. Where did this idea come from and why is the Secretary General seemingly so invested in it?

Dan Perell Like many things at the United Nations, the seeds for the Summit of the Future were planted a number of years ago. And I’ll just go back to 2020, which was the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. Member states had a commemoration of that anniversary and in it they produced a declaration and outcome document. And this political declaration outlined 12 commitments that member states agreed to do. But the very last paragraph called on the Secretary General to report back before the end of that session of the General Assembly with recommendations to advance what they said was “Our Common Agenda,” and to respond to current and future challenges. So in that document one year later produced by the Secretary General, he called for 90 some odd recommendations and called for three summits to take place. One was a Transforming Education Summit in 2022. Another was a Summit of the Future in 2023. And then another is a World Social Summit in 2025.  Member states had a little bit of trouble agreeing about the precise date of the Summit of the Future, in part because the SDG summit was already planned for 2023. So they agreed on putting it off to 2024.

There are a number of different takes on why the Secretary General is so invested in the Summit of the Future. Fundamentally, I believe he has a genuine concern for the well-being of humanity and acknowledges that the UN, as it stands, is in need of improvements. And so the Summit of the Future is one of the avenues that he thinks —  and the Secretariat thinks — could lead to advances in how global governance is taking shape at the international level.  I think is his ultimate aim is to improve the global governance system for the citizens of the world, recognizing that even just the past few years have demonstrated that it is imperfect as it stands now.

Mark Leon Goldberg So if the idea is to revitalize global governance in general and the United Nations in particular, what is the process, therefore, of turning this idea into an actual summit around which heads of state will gather during high level week this September? And I ask you this process question knowing full well, having reported on the UN for almost 20 years, that in situations like this process really heavily influences outcomes. So how does this go from an idea to a summit?

Dan Perell Initially it was taken by some member states as an obvious necessity, which I found quite interesting. You had the Covid pandemic, climate change, all of these sort of emerging crises  —  what we still call a polycrisis. So to some member states, it seemed obvious that this kind of a gathering would be useful for the advancement of global governance. But other countries were a bit more skeptical of the utility of the timing. You know, states are thinly stretched. Is this another thing to add to their agenda? How will it be implemented? We’ve already made a number of commitments that are still unfulfilled. So there was quite a bit of tension, in fact, between different groups of member states about the utility and the necessity of this investment at this time in history. But ultimately, the secretary general and a number of member states were able to identify this as an opportunity, as a path forward. There was sufficient momentum generated by “Our Common Agenda” — the report that he produced in 2021.  To advance it now, as you alluded to ,wasn’t smooth sailing. It was a bit of a rocky road to get to where we are. But the course of the past two years in international affairs, I think, have increasingly shown that this kind of a gathering is necessary.

What was asked of him was to increase clarity around the request of a summit of the future. So he produced 11 policy briefs about everything ranging from youth engagement, to space, to digital frameworks to all kinds of different issues. And he also appointed a high level advisory board on effective multilateralism, which produced a report as well with a whole slew of recommendations. So it became something that you couldn’t really avoid. And now it’s sort of in the ether. And we’re at the point now in January and February 2024 when we are eight months before the summit that will include an outcome document. Member states have to make it happen. The zero draft just came out a couple days ago, and now we’re in the process of figuring out what the Pact for the Future will say and what kind of commitments the member states are prepared to make.

Mark Leon Goldberg You just mentioned that the zero draft was released just a few days ago, in late January. This is the draft that was put together by Germany and Namibia, who are the two countries leading this negotiating process. In U.N. parlance, the “zero draft” is the starting point from which negotiations really begin in earnest. So I’d love just to have you run down some of the highlights, as you see it, from that zero draft, like what’s in it?

Dan Perell The zero draft, like many first cuts in the UN space, is a product of significant negotiation back and forth behind closed doors. It is the result of political choices that were made. But again, this, we hope, will serve as the floor and not the ceiling for what’s to come.

So what’s in it? There are a couple of things that I think are helpful to point out. There are five chapters that relate to sustainable development and financing for development, peace and security, science, technology and digital governance, youth and future generations, and then global governance. And then there’s a chapeu. And in that chapeau, there’s this line that I thought was very exciting, which says, “today we pledge a new beginning in international cooperation with a new approach. We’ll cooperate to manage risks guided by the principles of trust, equity, solidarity and universality.” I thought that that set us in a really positive direction, and I do hope that that kind of language remains. But what I will say is that from there, it was difficult to see what the new approach is. A lot of what’s in here is reaffirmation. There is, of course, some new innovations, particularly around the area of youth engagement that I think are commendable. The biggest ticket item that I think a lot of U.N. watchers will look out for is the reform of the Security Council that was put down the road until June. There are a number of other processes that are ongoing looking at Security Council reform. There’s a separate Declaration on Future Generations that is being discussed in that chapter for UN youth and future generations. There’s not a whole lot about future generations, but it’s another process of engagement where I’m hopeful that there will be some really interesting ideas about how we conceive of future generations in our policymaking. Presently, there’s a lot about the role of technology and climate. These two things, especially when compared to 79 years ago at the inauguration of the United Nations, these two elements, more so than perhaps any other, are the new innovations, the new realities. There is a lot on conflict as it relates to climate change and autonomous weapons. Also duscussion about the advantages and drawbacks of digital technology and essentially how the international system can manage these emerging challenges.

Again, the concern that I have, as I read it, is if this stays as sort of the highest ambition and then we chip away at it, that would be a real shame, because I think that there’s plenty to work from here to actually create some new approaches. You know, they talk about rethinking or reassessing the charter bodies, ECOSOC, Security Council, these things are all mentioned in the document, which is helpful. But again, we have months of negotiations to come and we’ll see where the member states can end up. The key in this, I think, is the role of civil society and other actors to ensure that we use this as a floor. We keep pushing and requesting that more can be done in order to better meet the needs of humanity today.

Mark Leon Goldberg  I just can’t help but think that this is a potential vehicle for meaningful reform of a lot of aspects of the United Nations and the broader international system. But I also have to imagine that whenever these questions of reform, particularly, say, around the Security Council comes up, it can be kind of contentious. So looking at the zero draft, are there any like obvious points of contention you see going forward that the member states will have to take a very difficult negotiation path towards resolving?

Dan Perell Yes. I think that there are many issues that could be challenging. You know, this is a document that is covering pretty much every dimension of UN engagement.  This includes the peace and security space, the regional frameworks, the role of peace building contributions to certain funds and accounts, the role of the Security Council. I mean, all of these things are very realpolitik, ultimately, and I think it will be interesting to see how they unfold. But what I am hopeful for is that those sorts of debates can act as a Trojan horse, and maybe some of the less headline type reforms can make it in.  Things like an envoy on future generations or and a lot of the recommendations related to youth engagement, funding of various climate initiatives, etc.  I hope that those can get in there, because in a sense, the negotiators are distracted by the big ticket.  We’ll see if that’s how it works out, but it could be a way to get some of the smaller victories in if there’s a lot of challenges around the bigger ones.

Mark Leon Goldberg That’s really interesting. It also kind of comports with my observations over the years at the U.N., where these situations often really do help move the needle on a lot of important topics that kind of fly under the radar. And the impact is felt years down the road. Like you said, the headlines might be over debates around Security Council reform, but there are other really important reforms that are able to be included in a negotiation like this. That’s interesting.

Dan Perell One other item that maybe I can add is that there was a promise to ensure that gender equality and human rights were mainstreamed throughout the document. There was a kind of a debate about whether or not those deserve a standalone chapter. There’s also a question about the role of environment and climate, because explicitly, those don’t fall under one of the five chapters. But I will say, much to the credit of Namibia and Germany, those are very well integrated throughout. And you can actually see an acknowledgment and a recognition of how these different thematic areas actually touch on all the pillars of the UN. And I think that was a really, you know, something to commend the co facilitators for achieving.

Mark Leon Goldberg So you alluded to this earlier, but I’m interested in having you explain and discuss what you perceive to be the role of civil society groups like the Baha’i International Community in helping to move this process along and achieve a meaningful outcome.

Dan Perell So there are two dimensions of this that I’ve been thinking about. One is in the articulation of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. If that was an inter-governmental, negotiated document, I’m not sure where the human rights field would be today. Now, it’s not to say that this Pact for the Future won’t have its utility, but there’s a dimension to which the independence of experts can allow for more profound or more visionary thinking to find expression. The UN  is sometimes challenged with the political realities and moments of the day, the necessities of different state interests. The high ideals  are more difficult for an intergovernmental process to express. And what civil society can do, I think, is speak a little bit more to the zeitgeist of the day, we can say, “if you’re going to pledge a new beginning in international cooperation with a new approach, well, here’s a new approach. These are some ways that we would imagine the world can be bettered. Here’s how global solidarity can find expression in international governance. Do we need a charter body that is looking at environmental governance, or the future of humanity, or managing risks?”.  These are sorts of questions that are difficult for an intergovernmental process to work through. But civil society can use something like the summit of the future as a hook to offer new ideas and new thinking, and maybe something will stick.

That one dimension is sort of that aspirational, visionary dimension. Another dimension is many civil society actors are very knowledgeable about how the UN relates to their specific issues. Take, for example, the group of actors that focus on children’s rights. There are a number of different NGOs that are looking at that issue in particular, and they have amazing knowledge and history of agreed language of  principles that can be referenced in a document like a Pact for the Future that member states can then use. I mean, the two words that a member state likes the most in negotiations is “agreed language,” because then they can just copy and paste it. Now, civil society, many of whom have been around here for decades, the same individuals, myself included, have been around for a while and have seen some of these processes unfold.  And then the negotiators, who may be rather new to the scene, have this resource of information that may offer solutions to some of the tougher issues that are being negotiated. So there’s both the visionary dimension, but there’s also this very practical aspect that civil society can contribute to negotiations like this.

Mark Leon Goldberg What do you see as your role, personally, in helping move this along? I mean, you’ve been following this closely. You do have that deep history. Are there any particular issues that you think you’ll be kind of called upon to help advise negotiators on?

Dan Perell Well, we’ll find out. I will say that the Baha’i International Community has been asked to serve as a co-chair of this coalition called “the coalition for the U.N. we need”  which since the process of the 75th anniversary of the U.N. has been looking at the UN we need, rather than taking the UN as it is.  Also looking at what it is humanity needs today and figuring out how we can get there. So this is a large coalition of civil society around the world. We are trying to articulate our own parallel “people’s pact,” if you will. And I think that this process has put me personally in a position to understand a number of debates that are taking place at the UN and among civil society. It’s not like civil society is monolithic and has agreed on a path forward itself. But I think that there’s a dimension to  what we are trying to do at the BIC, and perhaps even with the coalition, which is to find those areas where there are points of consensus and to explore them further. And I can give you one example: we are hosting these monthly breakfasts on various dimensions of “Our Common Agenda.”  And one of them we had a couple months ago was on “beyond GDP” or “compliments to GDP,” and it was a really robust discussion with some of the UN statisticians and a number of member states. And then here we are five months later, and a member state reached out and asked if we would facilitate another conversation around this inviting private sector to join. And I think what this demonstrates is that there’s a convening power that civil society has on certain issues of interest to various member states, and then we can create a space where solutions can emerge and mew thinking can emerge. So whether I’m consulted on, you know, specific language, I’m not so sure. But I also don’t know that that’s the best way. I think the best way is for us to find spaces, to convene the right people in a room where they can actually create new knowledge. And that, I think, is our aspiration at the BIC.

Mark Leon Goldberg So say it’s September 2020 for the summit of the future has been adopted. The outcome document is signed by heads of state. What would you like to see included in it? What would be your sort of top items? Your wish list for an ideal version of a summit of the future outcome document?

Dan Perell So we have a lot of ideas. But when put to the test, what is the thing that we want? It’s actually a really hard question to answer at the level of broad principles. I would like it if this process has built trust among the international community, not just in that airy fairy way, but actually people have made commitments and made good on them. That kind of trustworthiness is a significant deficiency right now in the international community, and I would love to see that overcome. That doesn’t necessarily come out in text. It comes out in action.  But in the text itself and from the summit itself I think there are two things that I would love to have as sort of conceptual and then practical outcomes. At the conceptual level, I think it’d be great if we can acknowledge the proper role of state sovereignty. Now, it’s not to undermine state sovereignty. I don’t want responses in my inbox saying, “how dare you question the very foundations of the UN?”  But in reality, there’s no real such thing as sovereignty anymore. No country can close off its borders from all the rest and not be related to any other and survive in a meaningful way. And our global governance institutions are still built on the idea that political borders, geographic borders, actually define the international order. That’s no longer the case. I think it’d be great if we can interrogate a little bit further the benefits and drawbacks of state sovereignty, and where on that dial that issue should be. I think if we turn it down, then we would see a lot more local actors, regional actors, engaging meaningfully. We would see the international community finding its niche, not taking over. I don’t want an international authoritative body. I don’t think that’s the way to go, but it’s trying to figure out what is the right balance. We haven’t really questioned that in 79 years. And I think just an acknowledgment that this is a new reality of global interdependence, and it has implications for how we conceive of global governance. That would be an amazing rhetorical success at the practical level. What I would hope for is that we can continue the process. I know the UN is famous for having a process. Give birth to another process. Give birth to another one.

Mark Leon Goldberg Well, that’s why I asked you the process question earlier!

Dan Perell Exactly. And in fact, in the zero draft, it does say that at the 80th General Assembly we will revisit the success or lack thereof, of this document.

I also would love to see an article 109 process be launched. Article 109 is a provision in the charter of the United Nations that says that a majority of the General Assembly can call for a convention where the charter would be revisited. Of course, the modifications to the charter would have to be agreed by the Security Council, but I see this as a little bit of a Field of Dreams moment where if you build it, they will come. If we say in 2030, at the end of the SDGs, we have a moment to really rethink the role of the charter and the future of the United Nations in a reform kind of space we might get some really interesting new ideas. I think we may not be attracting all those wonderful new ideas because the UN has has lost a degree of its high esteem over the past decades. So perhaps if we call for this kind of a conference, you’ll get really interesting insights, innovations, thoughts coming together. Whether or not they make it into a new charter is an open question. But I think if you were to ask any politician across the street about whether or not the UN, as it stands today, is the same UN that will exist 100 or 200 years from now, they’d probably all say no. So my question to them would be, well, how do we get to that thing that will replace it?  Not replace it in an undermining kind of way, but what will be the next iteration of it? I think we have to start removing the taboo on charter reform in order to really envision what it is humanity needs. How do we get to that moment in 2124, when everybody has access to education and health care and food and water, when the environment is thriving and flourishing? How did we get there? Well, we didn’t get there by avoiding talking about a new charter. I think article 109 would be a really exciting innovation. The high level advisory board called for it narrowly in the area of Security Council reform. So let’s start there. Anything in my mind to allow us a space for this conversation would be a real benefit to future generations, which ultimately is who need to be at the center of these deliberations, the people today who are suffering and the future generations who are working for.

Mark Leon Goldberg There will likely to be some rather contentious debates over what is included in this outcome document. The starting point of which is that zero draft that was released just at the end of January. To what extent do you believe member states can kind of segregate from this debate other divisions that are rampant in geopolitics today? I mean, you are seeing these divisions pretty much everywhere around the United Nations today. Is this the kind of situation where countries are able to focus on the summit of the future and not let other challenges to the United Nations and divisions within geopolitics sort of interfere too deeply in these forthcoming negotiations?

Dan Perell Yeah, I think that that is at the heart of what needs to happen if the summit of the future is going to be successful. And I want to offer two thoughts in regard to this. Firstly, there are many who have said that in a moment of great political turmoil, we should not be trying to revitalize the United Nations. We have to focus on the urgent matters at hand. And I think there’s tremendous validity to that theory. But if you’re going to say that we can’t change a system that’s broken until it’s working. That’s a tough sell for the system to change. My goal ultimately is to ensure that it doesn’t take another catastrophe, another terrible occurrence in the annals of human history. Before we make the change, I think we have to see this moment of political turmoil, of polycrisis, as actually the moment when we have no choice but to revisit the foundations of the United Nations, to make it stronger. So that’s one answer to a challenge that I’ve heard. \.

The other thing I want to articulate is that in my mind, if you imagine the member states are on a ship and that ship is in the ocean going through this terrible storm —  and right now we are going through a terrible storm as humanity,  inequality on the rise, climate change, wars. It is not a good look — but every storm has an eye. And imagine that the summit of the future represents the eye of the storm. We know all the terrible things that have happened. We know that there’s going to be a whole other half of the storm coming behind us, but we have a moment of respite. This needs to be that moment when we can say, okay, let’s figure out a better way to prepare ourselves for the storm that’s coming. Let’s take a step back and have a look at the international system. Try to figure out where it’s working, what lessons to learn, where it’s falling short, and how we can improve it. This is not the final chapter. These are not the final challenges we’re facing. We have to use this moment as a respite in order to take a step back from all the short term crises and really look long term. I mean, that to me is why it’s called the summit of the future, because we have to always be thinking, what would our future generations ask of us today? And I don’t think it would be to keep fighting the same fights we’ve been fighting. I think it would be to look above that path to the distant horizon and say this the goal that we’re trying to get to, it’s not going to be easy, but at least now we know our North Star and let’s point ourselves in that direction. If we can do that, then I think we’d be in a much better position a year from now than where we are today.

Mark Leon Goldberg Well, Dan, thank you so much for your time. This was really helpful.

Mark Leon Goldberg Thank you so much, Mark. It was a pleasure.