The record of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is in many ways similar. The organisation’s powerful Dispute Settlement Mechanism is obliged to take any treaty obligations between disputing states into account, but has not so far applied this provision in relation to human rights treaties. Nor has it allowed non-state actors to submit materials. Economic and social rights activists do not have a common position on how trade should relate to these rights. While some would like to see the WTO take human rights obligations on board (Howse and Mutua 2000), others treat the idea of a ‘merger and acquisition’ (Alston 2002) of human rights by trade lawyers with suspicion, for the same reasons that Uvin treats the co-option of rights by the World Bank with scepticism. For the time being, they need not worry. The official stance of WTO has not shifted. Nonetheless, an important concession to what can only be described as a regard for the right to health has been made, as the result of massive civil society pressure, at the WTO negotiations in Doha: developing countries are allowed ‘flexibility’ in importing and exporting generic drugs when they can demonstrate that a national health crisis requires it (WTO 2003).

We should recognise at the outset that many of the world’s most important political and economic actors benefit enormously from the processes and practices that create climate change. Most systems of large-scale industrial production and energy provision are based on the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. To the extent that climate change highlights the unsustainability of the fossil-fuelled growth trajectory that underpins the contemporary global economy, it focuses scrutiny on the economic growth strategies promoted by the world’s leading global economic institutions, most notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Because of the enormous global climate footprint that results from the increased movement of goods transported around the world as a result of lower trade barriers, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the governments that created and sustain it necessarily also enter the spotlight. Internalising the externality of dangerous climate change amounts to demanding that the richest and most powerful economies of the world transform the economic structures that have brought them their economic wealth (the abundant supply and exploitation of cheap reserves of fossil fuels). We should not underestimate the political obstacles to doing this. The threat that action on climate change poses to traditional patterns of economic production and energy consumption is evident in the response of the Bush administration in the U.S to the Kyoto Protocol.

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.