At the global level, campaigning for a UN complaints procedure for individuals, to be established via an ‘optional protocol’ to the Covenant, has since 1993 become one of the main focuses of the human rights community. Numerous unofficial drafts exist. Nonetheless, it was not until 2003 that the UN Human Rights Commission established an ‘Open Ended Working Group’, that is, a talking shop, to consider such a protocol. The year 2006 will be crucial for the individual complaints procedure. After three years of deliberation, the Working Group will hold its last session, and the first session of the new Human Rights Council, convening in June 2006, is expected to decide whether or not to go ahead with drafting a protocol. If there is not enough support, there will be no individual complaints procedure in the foreseeable future (ESCR Protocol Now URL).
Meanwhile, developing countries sought to add another right to the international catalogue: a United Nations resolution adopted in 1979 said that ‘the right to development is a human right and that equality of opportunity for development is as much a prerogative of nations as of individuals of nations’ (quoted in Sengupta 2002: 863, emphasis added). Given the confusion between ‘states’ and ‘nations’ that is inherent in the very name of the United Nations, this statement transformed development from a human into a state right, more specifically a right of poor states. Thus, it was closely related to the idea of the New International Economic Order. The 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the UN General Assembly, puts more emphasis on the individual level, while also spelling out that there are multiple duty-bearers in relation to human rights. But the Declaration has little legal status and little implementable detail. To this day, independent experts, open-ended working groups and UN task forces are making little-noticed attempts to clarify (or obfuscate) the right to development (Salomon 2005).
But as with the global parliament or UNEPS, that is the point! The resistance to the Tobin Tax is not about money, it is about power. The main geopolitical actors are unwilling to allow the UN to become an independent actor that can fulfil the goals of the ‘responsibility to protect’ ethos in an efficient and a political manner. It is unlikely that independent financing for the UN will occur without a major global civil society movement that would have to be on a scale comparable to that which brought the International Criminal Court into being. In most respects the ICC would seem far more threatening to statist prerogatives than would independent financing for the UN. In this sense, the political will of global civil society must be strengthened if such an indispensable reform is to become a live political project in the years ahead.
The structures and norms of the world have altered so much since 1945 that it is tempting to suggest that the United Nations inscribes within its multitude of actors and operations a set of arrangements that no longer reflect the fundamental characteristics of world order, and that it might be best to redesign a world organisation that takes proper account of the emergence of global civil society, of market forces, and of radical shifts in relative power among states and regions. That is, UN reformism is not responsive to the real challenge of adjustment, which is structural renewal, or at least transformation. Such an outlook makes sense from the apolitical perspective of pure reason, but it is not worth seriously entertaining, as starting over is at this point completely beyond the horizons of possibility, and any such advocacy by civil society actors would exhibit a spirit of futility. The only practical course is to strengthen the United Nations as it has evolved over the course of its history. Such an effort is difficult enough if ambitiously conceived, and may turn out to be also impossible, as it must overcome the resistance of entrenched interests to reforms that are otherwise widely supported and seem sensible. For instance, enlarging the permanent membership of the Security Council is opposed in some governmental quarters because it will allegedly produce a more unwieldy body less able to respond effectively to crises. At the same time, recasting the composition of membership within the scope of the present frame of 15 members seems virtually impossible due to the refusal of Britain and France to give up their individual status and agree to a consolidation of European membership. This would dilute their independent roles as permanent members, but greatly facilitate the restructuring of the Security Council. In effect, widely needed and generally accepted reforms are often blocked by the entrenched vested interests of particular members in retaining outmoded features. The nationalist myopia of a single country can often outweigh the more general interest of all states in enhancing UN effectiveness and legitimacy. The Security Council expansion debacle shows the most dysfunctional features of the UN reform process.
It was only, however, with the onset of global conferences on policy issues, pioneered and prefigured by the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1971, that the UN became a major arena for transnational civil forces, both as a source of pressure exerted on intergovernmental activities and as an occasion for transnational civil society networking and organising. Unlike the earlier low-profile roles intended to hide the influence of the NGOs in intergovernmental negotiations, here the intention was primarily to exert highly visible influence on the most powerful states and to gain attention for dissident views in the global media assembled to cover the event, although the supportive NGO roles of providing information and analysing policy options continued to be an invaluable equaliser on such occasions. This dynamic reached a climax in the 1990s with a series of high-profile UN conferences that featured strong and vivid participation by civil society actors, and the early articulation by commentators on the international scene of the presence of new political formation identified as ‘global civil society’ (Pianta 2001; Box 5.1). The very success of this informal penetration of UN processes induced a backlash on the part of several leading governments that sensed a loss of control by states of the policy-forming process, which made the holding of such conferences politically difficult. Representatives of large states described these conferences as ‘spectacles’ and as ‘a waste of money and time’, but the real objection was their showcasing of the vitality of civil society actors and networks that so often put governments on the defensive with respect to global policy debates. In effect, civil society actors were creative in their discovery of ways to make effective use of the United Nations to promote their aspirations, but the statist and geopolitical structuring of influence at the UN, which endures, also displayed its capacity to hit back, to control the purse strings of global diplomacy, and essentially to shut the off these informal, yet effective, channels of civil society access with respect to global policy formation on major issues.
Perceptions and representations
There is also the highly contested terrain of representation as it pertains to the United Nations. The UN is represented variously by its most ardent supporters as offering by far the straightest road to peace, justice, and global governance. The UN is generally represented by its fiercest critics as a dream palace of illusion, as ‘a dangerous place’ where ‘irresponsible majorities’ rule the roost, and as an irrelevant talking shop when it comes to the critical challenges of global security and the world economy. Richard Perle, an influential neoconservative, and Dore Gold, a leading Israeli diplomat, illustrate how far this hostility to the United Nations can be carried (Perle 2003; Gold 2004). This spectrum of representations explains why it seems often impossible to achieve a consensus on the content and character of global reform. Both clusters of representations, the favorable and the critical, tend to proceed from the premise that the UN is the boldest global experiment ever in establishing a normative framework and an institutional authority that challenge the primacy of the sovereign state. Such talk about the UN seems inflated, even grandiose. It overlooks the extent to which the boldest and most consequential organisational initiatives on an international level, at least with respect to overriding sovereignty, can be more convincingly associated with either the European Union or the triad of international financial institutions – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – rather than with the UN (Falk 2004: ch. 3). The IMF and World Bank are nominally linked to the UN but are operationally autonomous, while the WTO was deliberately established with no formal link to the UN. At this stage of history even governmental critics treat the UN as a sufficiently important arena for achieving the legitimisation and implementation of policies that they rarely advocate the policy option of withdrawal. But acknowledging this importance is not the same as a shared commitment to a stronger or more effective organisation in relation to the Charter (the goal of genuine UN reform, as distinct from the United States’ geopolitical or hegemonic understanding of effectiveness). It is this encounter in the realm of representation, and related imaginaries of world order, that has made previous reformist efforts in the UN setting so often founder. Such a realisation of these difficulties erodes commitments to reform and suggests the need for a politics of reform for the UN on the part of those who believe that the UN has the potential to contribute more to peace, justice, equity, and sustainability in the world.
The subject of the reform of the United Nations, the embattled target of neoconservative wrath that has been given a new intensity by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s criticism of the Iraq war, is bound to be a site of struggle in the current period. On the one side are these efforts, led by the Americans and given a sharp edge by the designation of John Bolton, a leading critic of the UN, as the US representative, to marginalise the United Nations generally, but especially in relation to peace and security and the work of the specialised agencies dealing with poverty, health, and children. On the other side are the great majority of UN members, led by moderate governments, receptive to the outlook of Kofi Annan, who seek to bring the UN into the twenty-first century in a manner that is consistent with humanitarian values, development and democratization priorities, and security concerns, exhibiting sensitivity to the problems and interests of weak and strong members alike. Representatives of global civil society have much at stake in this debate over the future of the United Nations. Although it has been assumed that civil society actors have been generally perceived as supporters of a strong UN, and could be expected to stand shoulder to shoulder with Annan and his governmental allies, it is also true that influential NGOs in the United States, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and, less visibly, Move America Forward, have long had the UN in their sights, and regard the Bush presidency and the UN oil-for-food scandal as an opportune moment to promote vigorously their anti-UN agenda.