Analysis & Opinions - Munich Young Leaders

Micro-Multilateralism: Cities Saving UN Ideals

| Sep. 19, 2019

The UN Charter focuses on states as the central actors in the international system, defining as a multilateral action when three nation-states cooperate in a field of common interest. Today, nation-states are increasingly paralysed into inaction due to political divisions or great power rivalries. Hence, they are failing to effectively utilise collective action. Subnational entities are stepping into this vacuum to deliver on core functions embedded in the UN Charter, redefining effective collaboration on a transnational scale – what we call micro-multilateralism.

Cities have emerged as particularly skilful champions of micro-multilateralism, even though their role as independent actors is not specifically addressed by the UN Charter. With 70 per cent of the world’s population projected to be urban by 2050, cities are now effectively tackling transnational issues once the prerogative of states.

Though the UN system has actively fostered connections and collaborations between cities for decades – in the Sustainable Development Goals, as part of the UN Human Settlements Programme (UNHabitat) and the UN Safer Cities Programme, for example – these have all been top-down efforts, where the UN structure has served as the convening entity. Cities remained a subset of the nation-state rather than actors in their own right.

But now, we are witnessing rapid growth in a different model of urban collaboration: cities have realised that migration, climate change and the threat of pandemic disease and terrorism will affect them disproportionately compared to other areas in nation-states, because urban density magnifies and catalyses the negative impact of these transnational phenomena. Driven by a newfound sense of self-interest and a sense of urgency, cities are forming their own transnational action networks. The most prominent example concerns the fight against climate change: the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40).

Launched in 2005 by the then mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, as a loose convention of megacities, C40 has evolved to include over ninety cities – including Paris, New York City, Cairo, Beijing, Dhaka and Medellín – with a total of 650 million inhabitants. It now maintains a permanent secretariat in London, it participated in the UN climate change negotiations and it has initiated concrete, local, scalable projects that contribute to the goal of combatting the impact of climate change.

In its earliest incarnation, C40 served as a platform for cities to showcase – in a friendly form of competition – their ideas for reducing CO2 emissions, driving down the temperature in cities, creating resource efficient waste and water management systems and designing transportation infrastructure that minimise congestion and emissions. Over time, the network has transformed itself into a hub that provides a suite of services to support cities in addressing their most urgent problems, including offering technical assistance, peer-to-peer exchange mechanisms, communications and lobbying tools, and research and knowledge-management services. This helped cities develop a metrics- and results based collective voice to demand greater action on the nation-state and supranational levels.

The achievements of this collaboration are impressive. For instance, 27 of the world’s largest cities, all members of the C40 network, recently reported that they had successfully reduced emissions over a five-year period by 10 per cent due to this multilateral action. City halls in places like Berlin, Warsaw, Los Angeles and Melbourne have reached this crucial milestone despite increasing population numbers while still providing robust urban economic growth. These cities have continued to decrease emissions by an average of 2 per cent per year since the 2012 peak, while their economies grew by 3 per cent and their populations by 1.4 per cent per year on average.

In short, by creating issue-specific networks like C40, cities are taking concrete action where many national governments are falling short. In so doing, they are forcing state-based multilateral organisations like the UN to sit up and listen: a delegation from C40 has presented and represented the achievements of cities at every Conference of the Parties since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015.

The decision by US cities large and small to adhere to the Paris Agreement (for instance, by reducing methane leaks or accelerating electric vehicle adoption) in spite of the federal government’s withdrawal from the global climate pact is proof that urban networked cohesion is not only real but is also internationally powerful. And it has the capacity to engage actors of the next highest order: states such as California have joined forces with cities as part of “America’s Pledge”, creating a momentum that would not have been possible were it not for the city networks’ efforts to develop global standards for reporting progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What does it take to build lasting networks among cities to address integrated, international public policy problems? The C40 example highlights that it takes a strong sense of urgency, which generates sufficient political will and leadership to commit resources, as well as a clear focus, concrete goals and metrics, and a clear sense of how collective action can overcome individual limitations.

Mayors are all too aware of the detrimental effects that climate change has on their cities. Climate change exacerbates all manner of urban governance challenges, including cities’ abilities to provide economic development, affordable and durable housing, and health and basic services (especially water and waste management). For C40, focusing on mitigating and countering the adverse impact of climate change has created a clear focus, while the metric-based approach centering on CO2 levels and temperature containment as an initial goal has provided a set of anchors to keep network participants focused. The clever infusion of a sense of healthy competition around the achievement of these goals has allowed city halls to attract the attention of urban citizens and create wide buy-in among their populations.

And while metrics fulfill an important accountability function for networked action on issues such as climate change, other, less quantifiable policy areas are also making their way onto the urban collaboration agenda. More specifically, cities are joining forces to tackle the issues at the very heart of the UN system: the protection of human rights.

Mayors of major European cities have taken initiative in the field of human rights. Incubated as a network platform in 2011, eight cities are at present self-declared human rights cities – York, Middelburg, Barcelona, Utrecht, Lund, Salzburg, Vienna and Graz – seeking to give human rights an urban face. Its goal is to “pursue a community-wide dialogue and actions to improve the life and security of women, men and children based on human rights norms and standards”, in each of the participating cities. Similarly, the larger network of “European Conference Cities for Human Rights”, which brings together 235 European cities, has committed itself to upholding human rights in urban policies in the “Barcelona Agreement”.

These two examples of urban-incubated collaboration in the area of human rights underline attempts at creating new norms with qualitative rather than quantifiable impacts – in contrast to the C40 metrics. Laudable as these efforts are, could more be done on a concrete “operative” action level? Could sub-state become independent actors in the human rights arena next to states? The answer is yes, if we take a look at a prominent example of micro-multilateralism between a German federal state and its cities: with the active support of 22 of its urban communities, the German federal state of Baden-Württemberg created deliberate and concrete sub-national human rights-based action by integrating more than 1,000 Yazidi women persecuted in Northern Iraq. One of these women is 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad. With the federal state serving as the convening entity, cities supporting one another coalesced around human rights principles. Canada found this example of local action so inspiring that it followed suit, with Toronto, London, Calgary and Winnipeg serving as host communities. Building on these examples, otherGerman federal states, including Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and Berlin, reached similar decisions of their own. While the primary actors here were federal states, they were reliant on collaboration with urban leadership to integrate Yazidi women into their communities – without such efforts, these humanitarian measures would have failed.

There is obvious potential here for mayors to expand collective action in the human rights area by making use of their collective power. With their 650 million constituents, cities could bring about qualitative and measurable action in this area, while amplifying human-rights protection on the international stage, similar to the C40’s wider impact. In the process, collective urban-centered action could help reinvigorate UN goals and force more action in this arena: from sanctions targeting the use of products from dictatorial regimes by municipal institutions to collective pressure from cities to preserve press freedom, for instance.

Cities could do more if they realised that cooperation on human rights issues is just as much in their interest as combatting climate change, pandemic proliferation or home-grown terrorism.

Micro-multilateralism offers a promising antidote to a number of current ills in the international system. Emerging city networks – if fostered and scaled – can serve as a powerful buffer to assaults on international treaties, such as the Paris Climate Change Agreement or the Geneva Refugee Convention.

  – Via the original publication source.

About This Analysis & Opinions

Micro-Multilateralism: Cities Saving UN Ideals
Daniela Haarhuis
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Clüver Ashbrook, Cathryn and Daniela Haarhuis.“Micro-Multilateralism: Cities Saving UN Ideals.” Munich Young Leaders, September 19, 2019.

The Authors