The Geneva Cities Hub (GCH) held its annual retreat on 11 December. The retreat provided an opportunity to step back and reflect collectively on the role in multilateralism of cities and local governments (‘cities’) and what should be done to enhance it. It began with a plenary debate on how cities can be included most effectively in multilateralism. Two working groups then focused on specific entry points that could enable cities to contribute to Geneva’s multilateral and intergovernmental processes: the follow-up to the UNECE Forum of Mayors and the UN human rights system.

In addition to the GCH Board (the City of Geneva and Canton of Geneva) and its strategic partner (the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs), participants included representatives from international city networks, cities, States, international organizations, NGOs, academic institutions, and platforms and think tanks.

In the plenary debate, participants agreed that cities must be more fully included in what was referred to as ‘new’ or ‘inclusive’ forms of multilateralism. Cities are more than a space in which things happen. They have become actors in their own right that create local expertise and generate solutions to global challenges. They are crucial to implement multilateral agendas; represent the level of government that is closest to people; facilitate crucial multi-stakeholder efforts to address complex issues; and are entitled to speak out on matters that affect them.

The main messages that emerged from the discussion are summarized below:

  • There is a need to identify entry points for cities in formal and informal Geneva-based multilateral processes and find allies in that effort among States and international organizations. The GCH can help to identify entry points and potential allies for cities.
  • The multilateral system has been in dialogue with cities for some time. Through their engagement with the UN leadership at high level, international city networks have contributed to the progress made in recent decades. These efforts must continue and be strengthened at all levels of the system. Additional work is needed to reach the next stage: a meaningful participation of cities in multilateral governance that endows them with decision-making power. Several examples of cities’ participation in multilateral processes were referred to by participants from partner institutions such as UN-Habitat, UNECE and UNHCR, including the Paris agreements, the Sendaï Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Global Compact on Migration. However, as Sami Kanaan, President of the Geneva Cities Hub, noted: “None has given rise to the generalized participation of cities. […] The GCH will work to multiply such opportunities in the future, aiming to change practice.”
  • Participants recalled further that the multilateral system benefits from the participation of cities because they connect the system to realities on the ground and help localize global norms. In exchange, the multilateral system should support cities and provide technical, financial, and institutional capacity so that cities can achieve global and local objectives more effectively. The GCH can help cities and their networks to better understand the work of International Geneva and how that work can be of relevance and use to them.

The participants underlined that it will be a long-term endeavour to address these legal and political issues. To take matters forward, the GCH will convene a wide range of stakeholders in International Geneva to discuss them.

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