Chapter 17 The UN at 75: A Political Declaration and a Global Conversation

In: Does the UN Model Still Work? Challenges and Prospects for the Future of Multilateralism
Cecilia Cannon
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The United Nations commemorated its 75th anniversary at a time of great challenges. COVID-19 has deepened inequalities and widened the digital divide, freedom of expression has been attacked and disinformation is rampant; unemployment has spiked, and violence and human rights abuses have risen. Hard-won development gains have faced major setbacks, and the climate crisis looms. The working methods of diplomacy and multilateralism were disrupted, geopolitical tensions intensified and the United Nations’ financial woes continued.

Amid the turmoil, hope was found in two important outcomes of the official commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary held at the General Assembly in 2020. Member states adopted the Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations. Working under the theme “The future we want, the UN we need,” member states recognized our interconnectedness in the face of global challenges and committed to reinvigorate multilateralism to build a more equal, resilient and sustainable world through twelve commitments: leave no one behind, protect the planet, promote peace, abide by international law, place women and girls at the center, improve digital cooperation, upgrade the United Nations, ensure sustainable financing, boost partnerships, build trust, work with youth and be prepared for future crises.

In parallel, the UN Secretary-General launched a global conversation inviting people around the world to discuss how we can work together to better address our shared global challenges. Through dialogues and surveys, more than 1.5 million people in 193 countries shared their short- and long-term priorities, and their ideas for action. Findings show that as COVID-19 reversed progress in human development, respondents prioritized access to basic services, tackling inequalities and global solidarity. Respondents in all regions identified climate change and environmental issues as the top long-term global threat; after that, they prioritized less conflict, more respect for human rights and more employment opportunities. Optimistic about the future, respondents voiced support for increased international cooperation, looking to the United Nations to lead, though also calling for the organization to innovate and to be more inclusive, engaged, transparent, accountable and effective.

The commemoration of the United Nations’ 75th anniversary came at a time of great challenge. The COVID-19 pandemic sent health and socio-economic shock waves across the globe in 2020 and exacerbated several existing challenges within the multilateral system. Inequalities have widened during the global pandemic, freedom of expression has been attacked around the world and disinformation is rampant. Unemployment has spiked, and violence and human rights abuses have risen. The development progress made across the past 30 years has hit major setbacks, and the effects of the climate crisis are being felt around the world. Geopolitical tensions also intensified, while the working methods of diplomacy and multilateralism were abruptly disrupted, and the United Nations’ financial situation worsened.

Amid the turmoil and disruptions, there were two important outcomes of the official commemoration of the UN’s 75th anniversary that provide opportunities for the United Nations, its member states and all actors to re-engage with, and work toward reinvigorating, the multilateral system: (1) United Nations member states adopted the Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations; and (2) the Secretary-General presented the results of the UN75 initiative – a global conversation launched in January 2020 about immediate and long-term global challenges, and how international cooperation, including the United Nations, can evolve to better address these challenges.

In this chapter, I first present the unstable context in which the United Nations commemorated its 75th anniversary. I then provide an overview of the major commitments presented in the UN75 Declaration, as well as the key results of the UN75 public engagement initiative. I conclude by offering some reflections on current challenges the United Nations faces, and possible ways forward for better addressing our most pressing global challenges.

Commemorating the UN’s 75th Anniversary at a Time of Great Challenge

The global COVID-19 pandemic has spared no region or country from its adverse health effects, as well as subsequent socio-economic effects. COVID-19 has widened the digital divide and has deepened inequalities. Lower and middle human development countries and lower income and minority groups have felt the effects of the pandemic harder than others. In May 2020, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) expressed concern that human development, measured according to education, health and living standards, has spiraled to levels not seen since UNDP introduced the human development index in 1990 (UNDP 2020a).

Healthcare systems around the world buckled under the pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, with indirect health impacts also expected to rise, as many non-critical surgeries were put on hold while intensive care units filled up with COVID-19 patients (UNDP 2020b, 15). The UN Sustainable Development Group (UNSDG) reported in April 2020 that at least half of the world’s population did not have access to full coverage of essential health services, with 100 million people pushed into extreme poverty due to health costs in 2020 (2020, 11). At the same time, 785 million people lacked access to basic sources of clean water, while around 3 billion people lacked a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water at home (UN 2019, 34). During a global pandemic, where one of our best defenses against spreading the virus was washing hands with soap and water, the health-related outcome inequalities generated by a lack of access to such basic services have been dire.

Yet the inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic have extended far beyond health and hygiene. In May 2020, UNDP reported that the “effective out-of-school rate” – the adjusted percentage of primary school-age children facing school closures that takes into account households with internet access that provides students the chance to continue structured education at home – was far higher in lower human development countries (86 percent of children were out of school, an increase of 59 percentage points), followed by medium human development countries (74 percent, an increase of 67 percentage points) and high human development countries (47 percent, an increase of 41 percentage points). The majority of school-age children in very high human development countries could continue structured learning, with an effective out-of-school rate of 20 percent (still an increase of 19 percentage points) (UNDP 2020b, 15).

UNDP has suggested that the potential for communities to implement “non-pharmaceutical COVID-19 restrictions,” such as stay-at-home orders, together with what they refer to as “enhanced capabilities,” such as access to digital technology, safe living spaces with balanced care work, remote work or government subsidies, reduced human development losses because they allowed for the continuation of access to goods and services, income-generating activities, education and social and recreational opportunities. The COVID-19 pandemic has turbocharged disparities in the access to these “enhanced capabilities” (UNDP 2019).

In its 2020 Human Development Report, UNDP stressed that planetary imbalances and social imbalances are exacerbating one another, with already entrenched inequalities expected to continue to worsen due to climate change, environmental degradation and related pandemics. Low human development countries, for example, are projected to have an additional 50–100 extreme temperature days by the year 2100 (UNDP 2020c).

Unemployment also spiked during 2020, with vulnerable groups such as migrant workers hit particularly hard as they often had no access to social protection or economic support (ILO 2020a). Workplace closures disrupted labor markets globally, leading to an estimated 17.3 percent of total working-hour losses in the second quarter of 2020 – the equivalent of 495 million full-time jobs (ILO 2020b, 1). The high working-hour losses have translated into substantial losses in labor income, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimating a global decline of 10.7 percent during the first three quarters of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019. This amounts to 3.5 trillion US dollars, or 5.5 percent of global gross domestic product. Fiscal stimulus was unevenly distributed worldwide when compared with the scale of labor market disruptions, with the estimated fiscal stimulus gap at around 982 billion US dollars between low-income and lower-middle-income countries (45 billion and 937 billion US dollars respectively) (ILO 2020b, 14–15).

Violence and violations of human rights were also on the rise in 2020. At times, these were exacerbated as a direct result of COVID-19 containment policies, such as higher incidences of domestic violence during stay-at-home orders, or increased state surveillance. In October 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warned that the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic was further undermining economic, social and cultural, and civil and political rights. She stated:

What the pandemic has done is deepened and worsened preexisting human rights problems, particularly for the most vulnerable … We have seen a whole lot of excesses. We have seen States that have strengthened their surveillance power, threatening privacy, exceeding what is required for public health … harassing journalists and human rights defenders or restricting freedom of expression, freedom of press.1

As was evident in the 75th General Assembly debate, geopolitical tensions continued to rise, while the working methods of diplomacy and multilateralism as we knew them were disrupted, rendering the UN’s work even more difficult. At a time when diplomacy and international cooperation were most needed, its working methods, which are so dependent on in-person relationship building and dialogue, were forced to suddenly switch online. For the first time in the UN General Assembly’s history, heads of state and government sent pre-recorded video statements, or spoke through their missions to the UN, rather than gathering in person in the United Nations General Assembly Hall.

Secretary-General António Guterres went so far as to warn that the current state of intergovernmental relations risks deteriorating into a cold war. The international cooperation desperately needed to address COVID-19 was strikingly absent, compounded by gridlock between major powers, increasing trade disputes, a continued rise of isolationism and a return to nationalism.

Stakeholder participation in multilateral processes was also significantly restricted for many international negotiations and policy meetings. Many NGOS feared COVID-19-related restrictions on their attendance at the Human Rights Council would further shrink the space for NGOs and civil society in multilateral processes (Langrand 2021). Yet switching online has also opened up the possibility for more participation from NGOs based in the Global South, who increasingly face difficulties in obtaining travel visas, as well as exorbitant travel costs that often prohibit them from attending international meetings in person.

Perhaps the most under-discussed crisis the UN faces relates to the incredibly fragile financial grounds on which the United Nations stands. Liquidity levels are currently so low that the organization risks defaulting on staff payments (UN Meetings Coverage and Press Releases 2020). And as has occurred after previous global financial crises, the UN’s financial situation is expected to worsen as the full economic effects of COVID-19 come into play. Unlike previous crises, this time, there is no financial room for the UN’s finances to dip any lower.

Negotiating Multilateralism in a Changing World

Amid the turmoil exacerbated by the pandemic, and during the High-level Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, UN member states adopted the Declaration on the commemoration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the United Nations. One hundred and eleven heads of state and government and fourteen ministers attended the official commemoration virtually, putting their weight behind multilateralism and committing to work together to address the pandemic and other global challenges.

The UN75 Declaration was negotiated and finalized while New York was in the throes of a COVID-19 lockdown, early in 2020. It was no small feat that the women-led process – co-chaired by the Permanent Representatives of Qatar and Sweden to the UN, Alya Ahmed bin Saif Al Thani and Anna Karin Enestrom – reached consensus in July 2020 amid such a tough negotiating environment. Working under the theme “The future we want, the UN we need: Reaffirming our collective commitment to multilateralism,” member states recognized our interconnectedness in the face of global challenges, and the need to reinvigorate multilateralism and to make it more inclusive so as to create a more sustainable, equal and resilient world.

The UN75 Declaration contains twelve commitments aimed at strengthening multilateralism and reaffirming the central role of the UN. Six commitments focus on current global trends and challenges: leave no one behind; protect the planet; promote peace; abide by international law; place women and girls at the center; and improve digital cooperation. The remaining six commitments are focused on strengthening the UN and improving its work: building trust; upgrading the UN; ensuring sustainable financing; boosting partnerships; working with youth; and being prepared for future crises.

Some terminology in early drafts of the UN75 Declaration created stumbling blocks during the negotiations, such as reference to the sovereign equality of all states and the right to self-determination of peoples, as well as reference to the rules governing the use of force, and the seriousness of terrorism and violent extremism as threats to peace and security. Questions were also raised by some member states as to whether they were really working toward the “common good of present and future generations,” with member states settling on working toward strengthening multilateralism for the “common future of present and future generations.” References to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and achieving sustainable consumption and production patterns were also watered down to simply align with “applicable State commitments to the Paris Agreement and in line with the 2030 Agenda” (International Institute for Sustainable Development 2020).

In the UN75 Declaration, member states called on the Secretary-General to present recommendations on how the United Nations will address these twelve commitments to “advance our common agenda” before the end of the 75th session of the General Assembly. To do so, the Secretary-General launched a process of reflection on the future of multilateralism to inform his report and recommendations, and he consulted thought leaders from around the world, young thinkers, “we the peoples,” civil society, the private sector, subnational leaders and other nongovernmental partners with expertise across the Declaration themes and UN member states. The focus has been to make multilateralism more inclusive, networked and effective, and the Secretary-General proposed recommendations for global action to address shared problems, deliver on critical global public goods and prepare for future threats and opportunities. The report was made available at the end of the 75th session of the UN General Assembly in September 2021.2

The UN75 Global Conversation – Peoples’ Priorities and Their Ideas for Upgrading the United Nations

In parallel to the political UN75 Declaration process, the UN Secretary-General launched a global conversation in January 2020, inviting people around the world to discuss how we can work better together in order to address shared global challenges. Through dialogues and surveys, more than 1.5 million people in 193 countries shared their short- and long-term priorities, their ideas for action and their calls for a more inclusive, transparent UN to lead the response to pressing global challenges.

Data was collected through five channels: 1.3 million UN75 survey responses were received from 193 countries; 1,141 UN75 dialogue summaries were received from participants in 94 countries; a research mapping was conducted in six languages; two independent polls were carried out in 50 countries, by Edelman Intelligence and Pew Research Center; and media analysis was conducted in 70 countries by Edelman Intelligence. The data was analyzed in collaboration with the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.3 Working together with UNDP’s Human Development Index team and the Institute for Economics and Peace, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies cross-analyzed the UN75 survey data with the Human Development Index and the Global Peace Index, uncovering some further regional trends and trends based on level of human development and levels of peacefulness in the countries where respondents reside.

The full results of the analysis can be viewed in the January 2021 final UN75 report, “Shaping Our Future Together.” The raw data, all analyses and interactive data visualizations are also available on UNDP’s Data Futures Platform, under “Data and insights from UN75” (UNDP 2020d). It is striking to see that across regions, sectors and age groups, several patterns and recurrent themes emerged in the data in terms of respondents’ short- and long-term priorities.

As COVID-19 reversed progress in human development and widened inequalities, many respondents prioritized access to basic services, tackling inequalities and international solidarity (UN75 Office 2021, 20). The shortfall in healthcare to address the pandemic saw universal access to healthcare as the top immediate priority of all respondents. As COVID-19 forced children out of schools, investment in education and youth also ranked high, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. While 3 billion people lack access to a basic hand-washing facility with soap and water, access to safe water and sanitation was a key priority across all human development levels.

Following universal access to healthcare, second and third immediate priorities among respondents varied across regions. Many, and especially respondents in low- and middle-income countries, prioritized global solidarity, support for the hardest-hit places and addressing inequalities as priorities for pandemic recovery efforts. Fewer respondents in very high human development countries viewed support for the hardest-hit places as a high priority (UN75 Office 2021, 28).

Globally, more respondents believe we will be better off in 2045 than today (49 percent) than believe we will be worse off (32 percent). Respondents in sub-Saharan Africa were most optimistic (with 59 percent stating we will be better off), followed by Central and South Asia (52 percent) and East and Southeast Asia (51 percent), while respondents in North America, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean and Oceania were more pessimistic. Respondents living in lower human development countries and those living in conflict situations were more optimistic about the future than those living in higher human development countries and countries not experiencing conflict (UN75 Office 2021, 33–35).

Respondents in all regions identified climate change and environmental issues as the number one long-term global challenge. The highest percentage of respondents who chose climate change and the environment as a top threat were in Latin America and the Caribbean (73 percent), followed by respondents in Europe and North America (71 percent each) and Oceania (64 percent). This is not surprising given the high rates of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, wildfires and rising sea levels, that respondents in these regions face (UN75 Office 2021, 37–38).

More environmental protection was the number one long-term priority for respondents globally, ranking in the top three priorities across all regions. Other long-term priorities vary according to income levels and include employment opportunities, respect for human rights and reducing conflict. While respondents in higher human development countries prioritized the environment and human rights, those in lower human development countries prioritized less conflict and meeting basic needs, including employment, healthcare and education (UN75 Office 2021, 46–48). A correlation was also observed between individuals who selected climate change and environmental issues as a priority and respondents with greater pessimism about the future.

While respondents in four of eight regions (Northern Africa and Western Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and North America) registered “Armed conflict and politically motivated violence” as the third top future threat, Europe registered “Forced migration and displacement,” Oceania and Antarctica “Risks related to health,” Central and South Asia “Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction” and East and Southeast Asia “Breakdown in relations between countries” (UN75 Office 2021, 49).

“More respect for human rights” ranked as the third long-term priority globally, and it ranked number one in Northern Africa and Western Asia and number two in North America and Europe. “More employment opportunity” rose from respondents’ tenth long-term priority in April 2020 to their sixth long-term priority in December 2020, reflecting COVID-19-related workplace closures, reduced working hours and income losses (UN75 Office 2021, 50–51).

Reducing conflict registered as a high priority among respondents in East and Southeast Asia, Northern Africa and Western Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Those respondents in countries that are not experiencing conflict are more concerned about tensions between countries, while those in conflict situations are more concerned about violence within their borders.

Ninety-seven percent of respondents believe that international cooperation is important for addressing global challenges, with the majority of respondents (52 percent) believing international cooperation is essential, 34 percent that it is very important and 11 percent that it is fairly important (UN75 Office 2021, 55–56). Only 3 percent of respondents viewed international cooperation as not important or not important at all. The degree of importance registered among respondents varies across regions, with the highest support among respondents in North America.

The majority of respondents globally said that COVID-19 has increased their assessment of the importance of international cooperation. Yet those in higher human development countries perceive the need for international cooperation as greater than those in lower human development countries (UN75 Office 2021, 58–59).

In Pew Research Center’s survey of respondents, in fourteen higher human development countries, 81 percent of respondents agree that countries around the world should act as part of a global community that works together to solve problems (Bell et al. 2020). Pew Research Center’s survey indicated that the UN must do more to ensure ordinary people are aware that the UN cares about their needs.

Edelman, who conducted a scientifically sampled survey in 36 predominantly lower human development countries, found that 74 percent of respondents agree that the UN is an essential organization for helping tackle the biggest issues the world faces today (quoted in UN75 Office 2021, 64). Six in ten respondents in Edelman’s survey believe the UN has made the world a better place.

Many respondents look to the United Nations to lead in international cooperation to address immediate and longer-term global challenges, but they also call on the organization to innovate, and particularly to be more inclusive, engaged, transparent, accountable and effective. Participants in UN75 dialogues held in 94 countries called on the United Nations to take up its role as global moral leader. They discussed the need for a reformed, more representative and more agile UN Security Council; a revised United Nations Charter that includes today’s most pressing global challenges, such as climate change; continued management and leadership reforms and more inclusive hiring practices, more accountability and more transparency; an inclusive and participatory UN system, with improved understanding of the work of the UN among citizens around the world, and which shows more care for the needs of ordinary people; more engagement with women and youth; and improved implementation of internationally negotiated agreements, as well as monitoring and evaluation of UN programs globally.4

This unique twelve-month UN initiative of engaging with publics globally appears to have improved perceptions of the UN in a number of countries. Pew Research Center’s annual survey on public perceptions of the UN shows that in 2021, publics in all but two of the seventeen advanced economies surveyed increased their positive perception of the UN compared with 2020, by as much as 11 and 12 percentage points in some countries (Fagan and Moncus 2021). At a time when commitment to and trust in multilateral processes is waning, this is encouraging, and it highlights the need for more regular dialogue and engagement with publics globally about the UN’s work.

The Future of Multilateralism and the United Nations

Born amid the ashes of a conflict that decimated nearly 3 percent of the world’s population, the UN was formally established as the organization we know today when the UN Charter was adopted in 1945, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Recognizing from the failings of the League of Nations that the UN could only survive as long as the major powers were at the table, the UN’s founding members endowed the major powers with privileges – permanent membership on the Security Council with veto rights. While the veto is lamented today for blocking the Security Council from finding solutions to conflicts such as that in Syria, it has succeeded in keeping the major powers in some level of dialogue at the UN.

Seventy-five years after it was created, the UN barely survives. Even before the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt, UN Secretary-General António Guterres made a desperate plea for member states to pay their outstanding dues – some 1.3 billion US dollars in the year 2019 alone, with liquidity levels so low that the UN risked defaulting on staff payments (UN News 2019a). This was at a time when the world faced rapidly evolving challenges that require cooperative problem-solving.

Now, as Secretary-General Guterres embarks on his second term at the helm of the United Nations, observers are watching with interest to see if he will provide the bold leadership required to quell geopolitical tensions and to mobilize collective action to tackle some of the biggest global challenges of our time.

Two seeming solutions introduced to temper the UN’s woes in recent decades may be undermining the capacity for UN member states to solve problems cooperatively. First, facing ever increasing budget shortfalls, the UN and many of its agencies have diversified their financing. They now widely rely on earmarked voluntary contributions from states and private donors and, increasingly, on private-individual donations made in response to public appeals, as well as fees paid for the provision of services and goods. While this fills a short-term financing gap, it favors bilateral and unilateral decision-making over collective problem-solving by introducing new lines of accountability that steer UN agencies toward fulfilling the demands of individual states, private donors and/or UN secretariats.

Research conducted at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies shows that the proportion of UN agencies’ outputs/activities that focus on collective member state-given mandates is subsequently diminishing. For example, member states mandated the UN Refugee Agency to provide refugees with (1) protection, (2) humanitarian assistance and (3) permanent solutions. Yet, as the UN Refugee Agency increasingly relies on voluntary contributions and private-individual giving, its work focuses more on humanitarian assistance, leaving permanent solutions – the part of its mandate that requires collective member state problem-solving and burden-sharing – lacking. While the 770 pledges and approximately 10 billion US dollars in financial commitments made during the 2019 Global Refugee Forum will support protection, employment and education of refugees and host communities, they won’t produce the desperately needed resettlement visas for the 99 percent of refugees requiring them (UN News 2019b).

Second, in times of waning support for multilateralism, reaching consensus swiftly is often prioritized over meaningful debate. Former Secretary- General Kofi Annan raised this concern in his 2005 report “In Larger Freedom,” stating that

[c]onsensus (often interpreted as requiring unanimity) has become an end in itself…. It prompts the Assembly to retreat into generalities, abandoning any serious effort to take action. Such real debates as there are tend to focus on process rather than substance and many so-called decisions simply reflect the lowest common denominator of widely different opinions.

UN General Assembly 2005

Today, disagreement among member states is too swiftly discredited as a failure of, or a retreat from, multilateralism, rather than being seen as a necessary component of it, from which innovative, brave and meaningful solutions can be crafted. Remaining “resolved to combine our efforts” while balancing power disparities is perhaps the UN’s most daunting task.5 But, as Dag Hammarskjöld passionately articulated in his 1960 speech, it is also the UN’s raison d’être to defend the principles of the UN Charter, while balancing the interests of large states and small states, of the South and the North, the East and the West, the faithful of one creed and the faithful of another, and the ever evolving differences within and between regions.6

Some progress has been made to foster healthy debate, such as the inclusive pre-negotiation consultative processes that led to the Sustainable Development Goals and the UN global compacts on migration and refugees, and the Open-ended Working Group on cyber-security. But additional procedural modifications, such as redesigning the three-minute intervention format to UN proceedings utilizing digital technologies, could go a long way toward fostering an environment of healthy debate and dialogue on tough, inherently political issues.

Amid the despondency there are reasons to hope. First, we know that UN reform is possible, from the large-scale overhauling of the Human Rights Commission in 2006 (replaced by the Human Rights Council with innovative mechanisms and procedures) to procedural reforms, such as increasing the transparency of Security Council processes. Even the tabooed Security Council membership underwent reform back in 1965, expanding the number of rotating members from six to ten. It has been done before, and it can be done again.

Second, Secretary-General Guterres is now engaging in the process of deep reflection on the future of the United Nations and multilateralism, after having held a global conversation about the current and future state of global cooperation. Reform is front and center on the UN political and administrative agenda.

Third, the global destruction from which the UN was born should remind us that it is precisely for times like these that the UN was created.



For more details, see UN Foundation (2021) and UN (2021).


For full results, analysis and methodology, see UN75 Office (2021).


See UNDP (2021).


“Resolved to combine our efforts” is quoted from the preamble of the United Nations Charter (UN [1945] n.d.).


See Dag Hammarskjöld’s 1960 speech where he explains “I shall remain in my post.”

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