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ImpactCitizenship

How Global Citizens Helped Change the Face of the UN

By Natalie Samarasinghe, executive director, UNA-UK and co-founder of 1 for 7 Billion

António Guterres, the former Portuguese Prime Minister who led the UN Refugee Agency for a decade, is set to become the next UN Secretary-General. He is widely seen as a strong choice – an outspoken leader and passionate advocate for the vulnerable with a track record of standing up to powerful states.

His nomination, following the most transparent contest in UN history, is a success for 1 for 7 Billion campaign, which saw UNA-UK, Global Citizen and others join forces to push for an open, inclusive and merit-based selection process.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power has linked the outcome to our efforts, saying that Guterres had his “breakthrough” moment when he put in a strong performance at his General Assembly candidate hearing, fielding questions from states and civil society. This was a key part of our campaign: pushing for public sessions with candidates that would enable them to present their vision to the world, and give their most important constituency – the world’s 7 billion people – a chance to engage with them.

The road to success

When we started the campaign three years ago, hardly anybody thought we would succeed. Could a bunch of NGOs break the stranglehold of the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) over this decision? Could we really change a process that had defied reform for 70 years?

It has never been more obvious that the challenges we face – be it climate change, extremism, mass displacement or pandemics – require an effective UN, led by a visionary leader. We had to try.

We were also told repeatedly by governments that so-called ordinary people wouldn’t support us, that who becomes the UN’s leader is irrelevant to them.

Read More: Is bribery commonplace at the UN?

They couldn’t have been more wrong. People understand far better than their governments that the world needs global solutions. A farmer in Sri Lanka knows that her country cannot protect her crops from climate change. A father fleeing Syria knows his family’s best hope is the UN Refugee Agency. UNA members in London know how much we all benefit from the UN’s efforts to protect everything from our rights to the environment.

And sure enough, within months, our supporter based had swelled to 750 NGOs and some 200 million people worldwide.

Transforming the process

Over the next two years we worked to build support for our proposals in New York and outside the UN bubble. By 2015, our movement included the majority of UN member states and even a P5 insider, as the UK reversed its position and became a vocal proponent of change.

Read More: UPDATE: We shared your petition signatures with the UN

Later that year, the UN adopted a groundbreaking resolution, which saw many of our proposals realized, including a public list of candidates, their CVs and vision statements; and public hearings that allowed for some civil society interaction. Not satisfied with “some,” we organised three debates with candidates that were entirely based on Global Citizens’ questions. Over 35,000 of you got involved, helping to make sure that the issues you care about were put to candidates.

Next steps

Appointing a good Secretary-General cannot, of course, guarantee that the UN will work better. Like his predecessors, Guterres will not be able to compel states to act differently. He, too, will need to rely on moral authority and soft power. This is where we come in: we must continue to push for the voices of Global Citizens to be louder at the UN – appointing an Under-Secretary-General for civil society would be a good place to start.

Thank you!

All of us at UNA-UK are tremendously grateful for your support. Not only have you changed the face of the UN (literally!), you have opened the door for greater public engagement and you have shown that “ordinary people” can make a difference against all odds.

Please visit www.una.org.uk to find out what we’ll be up to next – such as ensuring that "global citizen" doesn't become a derogatory phrase in the UK – and how you can support our work.

About the Author:

Natalie Samarasinghe is Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK), where she has worked since 2006. She is the first woman to hold this role. She speaks and writes regularly on UN issues, and has produced a number of publications, including the eight-volume SAGE Major Work on the United Nations.
Natalie also serves as: a trustee of the Association for Citizenship Teaching; a member of the World Federation of UNAs Executive Committee; a member of the Steering Committee for the International Coalition for RtoP; and an advisor to the Sri Lanka Campaign. In 2013, she co-founded 1 for 7 Billion, a global campaign to improve the selection process for the UN Secretary-General.