The multilateral decision-making enabled by the United Nations (UN), as the world’s only forum for negotiating agreements between almost all countries, has been both fertile and frustrating for advancing women’s rights. The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing, held at a post-Cold War high point in international co-operation, generated a significant political settlement on women’s rights, the Beijing Platform for Action. Twenty-five years later, however, that agreement is out of date. Not only has progress in implementing it stalled, but the very notion that advances can be made in women’s rights through multilateral negotiation is in doubt because of the illiberal and antifeminist agendas of some particularly influential countries. On top of this, the lack of an effective multilateral response to the current COVID19 global crisis has put in question the continuing relevance of UN processes. Misogyny and homophobia also characterise the rhetoric and goals of some sectors of civil society that target multilateral processes, such as the annual Commission on the Status of Women. The sense of intensified polarisation on gender equality has informed a decision not to hold a fifth UN World Conference on Women, in spite of the fact that gender equality remains an urgent and under-actioned global priority. The 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference will be marked instead by a collaboration between UN Women, Mexico, and France, with civil society input, to foster a global conversation for urgent action and accountability for gender equality, while avoiding the kind of multilateral review and consensus that fuelled action in the aftermath of 1995. This article asks whether the UN is still ‘fit for purpose’ as an engine driving women’s rights gains. It outlines four ways in which multilateralism and the UN’s unique convening and normative authority can be repurposed, with feminist civil society support, to drive feminist social justice agendas more effectively.
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