Negotiating the 2018 Ministerial Declaration

This July, as Croatia scored two goals and knocked England out of the World Cup, cheers from the game echoed into meeting rooms throughout the United Nations. While some diplomats watched the match, others focused on a different kind of goal. UN Member States, civil society organizations, and UN entities had gathered for the High Level Political Forum (HLPF). From July 9 to 18, this conference tracked progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which set targets for economic, social, and environmental development. The 2018 theme, “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies,” highlighted goals on inclusive cities, water management, and sustainable energy, among others.

During the HLPF, States discuss best practices for development and produce a Ministerial Declaration. The document provides a platform for political leadership, guidance, and recommendations for follow-up and review of the SDGs. For civil society, it can be difficult to understand the process of adopting the Ministerial Declaration because much happens behind closed doors. By the time stakeholders arrive at the UN for the HLPF, the Ministerial Declaration is essentially drafted in full and ready for adoption by Member States.

In June, diplomats use a “zero draft”, or initial draft of the Ministerial Declaration, as a starting point for negotiations. This primary text draws heavily on agreed language from previous declarations and UN documents. Once the draft is introduced, representatives of Member States hold readings and offer newly-revised texts over several weeks during closed, in-person meetings. While members of Major Groups, which represent different sectors of society, may sometimes attend and offer comments, these negotiations are generally closed to civil society.

Typically, States negotiate in groups and facilitators identify areas of agreement to shape revisions. The main negotiators this year were Egypt, representing the Group of 77 (G77) and China; the European Union; Canada, on behalf of CANZ (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand); the United States; and Russia. Although the Holy See is not a voting member of the UN, their representative participated actively as well. During negotiations, diplomats spend hours closely reviewing language. While minor revisions may appear trivial to outsiders, an extra word or a twist of syntax may open up the text to new interpretation.

Throughout the negotiations, CANZ and the European Union introduced language upholding gender equality. During the second reading, for example, the CANZ representative suggested a change to language around women and girls’ empowerment. Rather than keep the phrase “empower them”, the diplomat suggested less paternalistic wording. While “empowering” a group suggests that vulnerable people need saving, rephrasing this as “supporting their empowerment and participation in decision-making” gives a new spirit to the text. However, not all Member States agreed with CANZ’s approach.

Egypt, negotiating for the G77 and China, stressed instead the need for the text to focus on economic development and the particular challenges that least developed countries face. While vital that this group speak for many formerly-colonized countries and States struggling with basic development challenges, framing the negotiations as a trade-off between social and economic development set up a false dichotomy. Egypt negotiated for a “balanced” text that did not liberally “pepper the word ‘gender’” throughout the declaration, but CANZ and the European Union noted that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue. When women and girls participate actively in policy implementation, initiatives from health programs to peace and security measures become stronger and more successful.

Other contentious issues included the mention of foreign occupation, cross-border water rights, climate change, and international trade. While the Ministerial Declaration has always passed by consensus, that possibility waned as the 2018 HLPF began. Though the text had gone through weeks of negotiations and revisions, the United States broke agreement on the final draft to offer up new amendments. Rather than adopt by consensus, the Ministerial Declaration went to a vote, with several paragraphs singled out by the United States, Israel, and Russia for deletion. While paragraph 16—which upheld the importance of gender equality as a means of reaching development goals—overwhelmingly passed a vote, it did not get the full support of all Member States. The HLPF ultimately adopted the Ministerial Declaration as a whole with 164 votes in favor, 2 against, and no abstentions.

Though the adoption of the declaration reaffirmed most States’ commitment to pursuing global economic and social development, the Ministerial Declaration’s unprecedented vote rather than an adoption by full consensus may have established precedent for future discord. While tackling poverty, eradicating HIV, protecting forests, and expanding access to clean water are shared goals, disagreement over cross-cutting social and political issues as well as differences in implementation approaches may make the HLPF a more contentious forum in coming years.