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Reforming the United Nations: Back to First Principles

The debate over United Nations (UN) reform is fundamentally an effort to redefine and redesign the role of the Security Council. Understandably, the discussion has focused upon changes in the UN Charter aimed at expanding membership on the Security Council; creating more permanent seats to reflect the world of 2004, not 1945, and giving the Secretary-General the tools—military as well as political and economic—to implement the directives of the Security Council or manage crises when UN intervention could make a difference.

Prospects for Reform

Many of these proposals are desirable but, realistically, are unlikely to be achieved.  Vested interests are likely only to broaden the playing field without materially improving the quality of play.  By focusing almost entirely upon structural reform, the reformists are, perhaps, neglecting the UN’s ultimate authority: the bringing to bear in the court of world public opinion, the moral and humanitarian challenges facing the peoples, not simply the governments, of the global community. Whether the appropriate metaphor is Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit,” or Joseph Nye’s invocation of “soft power,” a UN which more effectively engages world opinion through civil society and not simply member states, might just tip the balance on a variety of issues before or even after they come before the Security Council.

In preparing for the celebration of the year 2000 Millennium, the UN conducted a survey of 57,000 adults in 60 countries—the largest survey of public opinion ever conducted.  The majority of respondents believed that they lived in a democracy and that elections were free and fair.  Yet, two thirds of respondents considered that their country was not governed by the will of the people. This was even true in well-established democracies.  The same survey found that the majority of respondents considered that the main role of the UN is to protect human rights, and that young people felt this most strongly. 

There is a clear connection between these two findings. The empowering idea of human rights could enable the UN to build a constituency for the Charter’s principles among people all over the world—many of whom are looking beyond their governments to meet their aspirations. This will almost certainly require a rethinking of existing international law and institutions. As Robert Kagan notes in an important recent article in Foreign Affairs:

The present international legal structure does not and arguably cannot conform to liberalism’s goal of ameliorating the human condition by securing individual rights for all.

The Millennium Summit Declaration

The report of UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, to the Millennium Summit, informed by his understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the UN, aimed precisely at giving new life to the opening words of the UN Charter—“We the Peoples.” At the core of the policy and institutional reforms endorsed in the Millennium Summit Declaration is a commitment by national leaders to ensuring that the United Nations serves the needs and hopes of people everywhere. Through this Declaration, the United Nations made “putting people at the center of everything we do” its guiding motto for the 21st century.

In the Declaration, heads of state and government called for:

  • More inclusive political processes, allowing for genuine participation by all citizens in all our countries (para. 24); and,
  • Greater opportunities to the private sector, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society, in general, to contribute to the realization of the Organization’s goals and programs (para. 30).

A set of eight Millennium Development Goals (popularly known as the MDGs) was derived from the Summit Declaration. They signaled a new cooperative relationship between the UN and other multilateral bodies, notably the World Bank, based on a shared policy commitment to a people-centered approach to alleviating poverty. The top MDG is to reduce by half the proportion of people living on less than one dollar a day by 2015. Due to their interrelated nature, progress needs to be made simultaneously on all the eight Goals—relating to education, gender disparity, mortality, health and the environment—and all sectors need to be involved: governments, international organizations, business and civil society. The MDGs build upon a rights-based approach to development, which sees extreme poverty as a violation of human rights. It is about putting people at the center of development—not solely as beneficiaries of aid, but as active participants in all aspects of the process.

This approach is reflected in the Millennium Challenge Account, established by the Bush administration, as an instrument for United States (US) support for MDGs. To qualify for funds, countries must demonstrate, in the President’s words, that they are “ruling justly, investing in their people, and establishing economic freedom.” The New York Times on February 21, 2004, reported that the administration has identified 63 countries (not on the State Department’s list of terrorism sponsors) that are eligible for the first round of Millennium Challenge funds because their per capita income levels are below $1,415. Another innovation of the program is that the US will not dictate how the funds are spent; a three-year contract will be signed with recipient governments and the effectiveness of their efforts will be judged by the results. This is a modest but important application of the use of “soft power.”

The United States could be doing a great deal more in partnership with the governments of other wealthy developed countries. Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who is leading the Millennium Project, a team of top academics doing research into how the MDGs can be achieved, believes that $75 billion per year is needed. Relative to the estimated total wealth of developed countries of $25 trillion (of which the US portion is $10 trillion—or 40 percent), this figure represents only 0.3 percent of the total, or to put it another way, 30 cents out of every $100. The amount of money needed is small enough to be barely visible in the world political economy, while its impact on the lives of poor people in developing countries could be enormous.   

The MDGs provide a policy framework for human rights and economic development but there yet is nothing comparable for counterterrorism or nation building in post-conflict situations. Kofi Annan and his colleagues are painfully aware of this. On the occasion of the opening of the UN General Assembly in September 2003, Annan declared that the United Nations had come to a “fork in the road:” following the collapse of the shared vision of collective security contained in the Millennium Declaration, evident in the split within the Security Council over the invasion of Iraq, fundamental choices had to be made about the future of the UN.

The Role of the United States  

Public opinion about the UN will be a critical factor in shaping these choices and the response to them. In recent years, support for the UN within the United States has been wavering. According to a survey released in mid-March by The Pew Research Center for The People and The Press, just 55 percent of people held a favorable view of the United Nations, the lowest since polling began in 1990. The poll, conducted nearly a year after the US led invasion of Iraq, explored public opinion on terrorism and international diplomacy.  The UN enjoys considerably more support across Europe and Russia, with a 71 percent favorability rating in Germany and 64 percent in the United Kingdom. 

While the United States’ policy preoccupation with counterterrorism is well understood in UN circles, it needs to be appreciated by US administrations that the UN’s influence derives not from any intrinsic political or military power, but from the values it represents—its role in helping to set and sustain global norms that find their reflection in the practical work done to improve people’s lives.  It is heartening to know that the UN Foundation has embarked on a nation-wide campaign to educate American public opinion about what the UN is really about, and at the same time challenging many of the ill-informed myths and criticisms that have been gaining currency in American public opinion. 

Mandate for Change

Secretary-General Annan has set up two high-level panels—one on the UN’s relations with civil society, chaired by Mr. Fernando Enrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, and the other on threats to global security, chaired by Mr. Anand Panyarachun, the former Prime Minister of Thailand. Both have a clear mandate to make bold recommendations for change. The two panels are expected to submit their reports this year.   

The impact of both reports is likely to become evident in 2005, when the UN’s 60th anniversary will be commemorated. So pressing is the felt need for change at the UN, that there is already talk of the need for another “San Francisco”-style UN Charter conference to negotiate a new compact, or new  “rules of the game.”    

Without yet knowing what recommendations may emerge from the two high-level panels, the idea that the UN Charter could be set aside and a new document negotiated that would better reflect the changed realities of the 21st century is a tempting but, an unrealistic proposition. The realization that public opinion, not legal precedent, is the UN’s fundamental resource is more likely to gain meaningful traction. From this perspective, the UN’s legitimacy is not based primarily on the assessed adequacy of its capacity to respond to any one conflict situation or threat. Rather, an equally, if not more profound source of legitimacy, flows from the added value that the UN demonstrably provides for the quality of life for men, women and children throughout the world. The question of how the UN responds to the tremendous diversity of needs and aspirations of the world’s peoples is difficult to answer, not least because a large part of the answer rests with the peoples themselves. 

In rethinking the future of the UN, it is useful to re-examine its origins.  Its creation took place in 1945, while the Second World War was still being fought.  It owed much to the vision and determination of President Roosevelt—who had proclaimed the Four Freedoms people everywhere should enjoy: freedom of speech and worship, freedom from want and fear. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just two weeks before the conference in San Francisco opened on April 25 to draft the UN Charter. His last official act, hours before he died, was to approve the design for the first postage stamp to commemorate the establishment of the UN. He believed that his Four Freedoms would become an integral part of everyone’s daily life. It was no accident that the UN Charter was written in the name of  “We the Peoples.” Inspired by the American Federal Constitution, it was intended to serve as a beacon of hope to people all over the world and continues to do so. 

Over the years, the United States has done more to change the world in its own image than any other country. Through the development of the normative frameworks of the UN, the United States has extended its power and influence. 

In his recent book, Act of Creation, Professor Stephen Schlesinger has shown that the San Francisco conference was largely an expression of America’s inclusive vision for a new world order, shared by many peoples around the world. The US delegation “relied heavily on its ability to overcome various obstacles by imbuing the conference with US values and goals…while insistently communicating a public impression that it was just one among many participants engaged in an arduous intellectual process that it did not intend to dominate.”

Significantly, among the many American participants in 1945 were an enormous number of nongovernmental activists, lobbyists, special pleaders and media representatives.  From its birth, the UN, unlike the failed League of Nations, was shaped by the expectations of the public at large. It was largely as a result of the efforts of the non-governmental leaders, that the UN Charter included references to “education,” “human rights”—including the establishment of the Human Rights Commission—and a new Article, Number 71, which would permit the Economic and Social Council to “make suitable arrangements for consultations with NGOs which are concerned with matters within its competence.”

The World Federation of United Nations Associations

One of the first NGOs to be formed was the World Federation of United Nations Associations (WFUNA). On August 2, 1946, in Luxembourg, representatives of United Nations Associations from 16 countries met and adopted a constitution. They proclaimed the aim of the World Federation to be “a peoples’ movement for the United Nations.”

The first United Nations Association (UNA) to be organized was in the USA. It is today the largest grassroots foreign policy organization and the leading center of policy research on the UN and global issues in the United States. It offers Americans the opportunity to connect with issues confronted by the UN, from global health and human rights to the spread of democracy, equitable development, and international justice. The UNA-USA educates Americans about the work of the UN and encourages public support for strong US leadership in the UN. This is participation by civil society in a truly meaningful way.

Today there are United Nations Associations in over 100 countries around the world—and more are in the process of being formed. Each UNA member of WFUNA is entitled to use the UN logo in its letterhead—a remarkable symbolic devolution of power to the people. UNAs in some countries, notably the Nordics, benefit from generous government support, but in many other situations, UNAs raise their own funds from their membership dues and program activities, which may include conducting conferences, parliamentary hearings or advocacy campaigns, Model UN events, global leadership initiatives, production of teaching materials, Peace and Media Awards or commemoration of special days on the UN Calendar.  

A WFUNA Web site has been created to enable people worldwide to participate in campaigns and programs supporting the UN—it receives over 2,500 hits a day. Its bimonthly online newsletter, UN Connections, is disseminated in English, French, Spanish—and occasionally Russian and Persian. WFUNA has given high priority to engaging civil society in the implementation of the Global Millennium Campaign, which grew out of the series of global conferences held by the UN to address global challenges. 

The first conference was held in 1972 in Stockholm, under the able leadership of Maurice Strong, which resulted in the establishment of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In his book, Where on Earth Are We Going?, Strong argues that:

Creating a much closer link between people’s interests and local concerns and the larger global issues that the UN deals with is one of the principal challenges we face in revitalizing support for global cooperation. Better understanding of the local-global connection is essential if we are to develop the will to act on global risks.

Making these local-to-global connections is the goal of an ever-increasing number of community-based, self-organizing groups and organizations that have become skilled in advancing their agenda for change through the United Nations. There were 225 NGOs at the 1972 Stockholm conference compared to over 2,100 NGOs at the Beijing conference on Women in 1995.  In many ways, women led the way.  

The proclamation of International Women’s Year in 1974 led to a series of global women’s conferences: Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), Beijing (1995). In preparing for the Mexico conference, governments felt that they had to show that they had done something to advance the position of women; many adopted legislation (e.g. equal pay for equal work) for the first time or established a senior advisory position.  This pattern continued—each global conference served as a pressure point on governments to demonstrate their support for the advancement of women in their own communities or more widely. This interplay between governments and civil society in the context of the UN led to the progressive development of international norms and institutions capable of shaping possibilities for change at all levels—from the personal to the global. The emphasis has shifted from seeing women as separate and outside, needing special support and programs, to mainstreaming gender considerations into all aspects of policy-making and implementation. 

Many of the innovations and breakthroughs achieved by and for women through the United Nations have been applied to other specific constituencies: children, youth, aging, disabled, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, refugees—and more recently victims of HIV/AIDS, child soldiers and persons who are victims of trafficking.  The goal is a more inclusive form of global governance where everyone’s voice may be heard and respected. It is reflected in the creation of the Human Development Index—and the concomitant effort to focus on alternative approaches to development, centered on human beings and protection of the environment.

The United Nations and Civil Society

Partly as a result of the effort to include the wider civil society in its activities, the UN has never been subject to the kind of virulent “anti-globalization” demonstrations that have been launched against the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. It remains the preeminent international organization for defining and, often implementing agreed societal goals. If the North Atlantic Treaty Organization remains the most respected security-based organization, the UN continues to touch more people’s lives, often without their realizing it, than any international organization in history. 

In many ways, the UN continues to serve as the world stage for the enactment of the great debates of the day—which tend to oscillate between two basic emotions—hope and fear.

Managing the complex interplay between these two powerful emotions requires a complex team of actors. Partnerships will be the order of the future. Not all the partners will be equal. Partnerships seldom are. But partnerships are the only way to achieve equitable global solutions that address the real and diverse needs of  “We the Peoples.”

There is no need to change the UN Charter. Much change has happened and will continue to happen within its framework. Many very worthwhile activities conducted by the UN, including peacekeeping, election monitoring, environmental protection, the law of the sea and population control, find no explicit reference in the Charter. They are all activities that have motivated civil society to engage in meaningful ways with the UN.

There is however a need to develop the capacity of the UN to focus its energies on specific issues on the global agenda with greater precision and purpose. One of the best examples is the campaign to abolish land mines. People from all walks of life came together to focus attention on this issue, built up the necessary political pressure to secure enactment of a new international legal instrument and generated innovative new means of raising funds to ensure that action was taken to abolish land mines. United Nations Associations in the USA, the United Kingdom and Sweden have been actively mobilizing community support for the fund-raising effort through the Adopt-a-Minefield program. (See the Web site at

The UN often acts as a catalyst, to stimulate action by others. Strengthening the UN depends on the willingness of governments, including the American government, to work with others—the private sector, civil society organizations and multilateral agencies—to find consensus solutions that can be effectively implemented in ways that make the world a safer and more peaceful place for everyone.  As an institution, the United Nations has all the ingredients it takes to solve the world’s problems provided much more emphasis is given to public opinion and engaging civil society and less on legalistic tinkering.

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Deputy Secretary-General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations and Director of the New York Office