… the UN must undergo the most sweeping overhaul of its 60-year history. World leaders must recapture the spirit of San Francisco and forge a new compact to advance the cause of larger freedom.
Kofi Annan (2005)
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.
Of course, among supporters of the UN there are also crucial divisions among liberals, Third World advocates, and radical transformers. The liberal position, typified by most national chapters of the United Nations Association, draws heavily on the leadership of internationally minded establishment figures, especially former diplomats, and seeks to reconcile an important role for the United Nations with a pragmatic understanding of world politics, which includes an acceptance of the special influence of leading states within and outside the organisation that trumps the sovereignty mantra of ‘the equality of states’. The Third World outlook, which may be grasped by reference to the activities and policy prescriptions of the Third World Network, pays less attention to the UN as a whole than to the policies and role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, as well as to the development dialogue and debate about world economic policy that goes on within the General Assembly and elsewhere in the United Nations. And then there are radical peace groups, possibly best illustrated by Tavola Della Pace, which perceive the United Nations as currently dominated by geopolitics and the manipulations of Washington and Davos. Such groups seek to shift control over UN operations with respect to such issues as war and peace, self-determination (for the Palestinians, for example), and development from the dominant states to popular democratic forces and to the guidance of the rule of law and the dictates of global equity; just such a shift is the goal of their campaign provocatively called Reclaiming the United Nations. Tavola Della Pace also organised every second year in Perugia ‘A United Nations of the Peoples’ that gives voice to grass-roots views on global issues from NGO representatives and citizens from around the world, a contrasting atmosphere and agenda to the statist show put on at UN headquarters in New York City, or even Geneva.
There are also a large number of civil society actors around the world with issue-oriented agendas, especially in relation to environment and human rights. These actors make use of the United Nations to the extent relevant to their substantive preoccupations. EarthAction, World Wide Fund for Nature, and Greenpeace are environmental NGOs that push their causes at the UN whenever it seems useful. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do the same with respect to human rights. One of the oldest and most widely respected organisations, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), has been active especially at the Geneva end of UN operations, but also in UN conferences around the world, particularly if the subject matter bears on feminist concerns or disarmament. WILPF has a civil society presence and possesses a strong internationalist identity that long antedates the establishment of the United Nations. The role and activism of WILPF prefigures in many respects the emergent reality of global civil society.
It is in these ideological and historical circumstances that this chapter considers the issue of UN reform from the perspective of global civil society. It begins by presenting the debate on reform as emerging out of a swirl of conflicting political projects, and then proceeds to discuss how reform has accompanied the evolution of the UN. Because changes in the Charter of the United Nations are often impossible to achieve by formal amendment, the story of reform is often mainly told in terms of shifting patterns of practice, especially in the Security Council and Secretariat, which adapt the UN to changing values and imperatives, and amount to what might be described as ‘reform from within’. This discussion is followed by a consideration of three important reports addressing UN reform produced on the initiative of the Secretary-General. This is essentially a state-friendly approach to UN reform that can be understood as ‘reform from above’. A further section considers some prominent initiatives that emanate from global civil society and enjoy widespread support in the more radical reformist domains, and can be understood as ‘reform-from-below’ (and without), although on occasion with crucial collaborative support from coalitions of governments. It is this pattern of political action that successfully brought the International Criminal Court into being despite intense opposition from leading geopolitical actors. That is, this kind of globalism is a new form of diplomacy that should not be regarded as either traditionally statist in character or a postmodern instance of non-state transnationalism. It is really a diplomatic hybrid that could be tentatively identified as the ‘new globalism’.
Why this sudden interest in reform? The recent flurry of activity related to UN reform arises at this time for a cluster of reasons: the upcoming 60th anniversary of the UN, the expectation that the goals set for the UN at its Millennium Special Session of the General Assembly is scheduled for review in 2005, the frustrations associated with the failure to agree on some plan to make the Security Council more representative of the twenty-first century, and the restless insistence by the United States that making the UN useful requires drastic reform that will make the organisation more responsive to geopolitical realities (UNGA 2004).
The background of UN reform
As portrayed in the media, the issue of UN reform is often reduced in public discussion to this one issue of the enlargement of the permanent membership of the Security Council to make it more representative of the power structure of states in the world as of 2005. There is no doubt that this issue has a significant substantive and symbolic importance in showing the capacity of the UN to adjust to changes in the relations among states, and especially to give states that were either defeated in the Second World War or situated in then colonised Third World regions a proper place at the head table of the United Nations. This persisting preoccupation also illustrates the disturbing inability of the membership to agree upon a solution to the challenge of reform despite a major push in the period leading up to the millennium, and now again five years later. These difficulties apply even to basic reforms that were almost universally accepted as necessary. More recently, it has been recognised that the essential agenda of UN reform runs far deeper and is far wider than an expanded membership for the Security Council, and poses decisive challenges to and opportunities for global civil society in these early years of the twenty-first century.
Of course, the United Nations is used to designate a complex assemblage or system of distinct actors, organisations, and programmes, and a wide range of undertakings. It is a complex system, and has grown more complex during its existence as additional goals and functions have been adopted (see Figure 5.1). The meaning of ‘reform of the United Nations’ is rather ambiguous. In this chapter ‘reform’ is understood to refer to basic adjustments needed to achieve a revitalised relevance to the global problematique. But reform can also be properly understood as pertaining to changes throughout the UN system, including with regard to the activities of the various specialised agencies and the organisational interplay of the various actors. Rethinking the role of the Secretary-General and of leadership within the United Nations, as well as of the principal organs – the Security Council and the General Assembly – is a daunting task, and has many aspects. The full agenda of UN reform can be touched upon only impressionistically, and in light of the apparent priorities of global civil society, which centre more and more on the democratisation of global political spaces. This means access, participation, accountability, transparency, and respect for international law.
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 profound character of the reformist imperative was most dramatically articulated by Kofi Annan when, in a September 2003 speech to the General Assembly, he said:
We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded … I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen [the Organisation]. History is a harsh judge: it will not forgive us if we let this moment pass. (BBC News 2003)
In effect, the Secretary-General was saying the UN must change to survive and flourish as the institutional centrepiece of hope for a better world. His call was made in the shadow of the controversial Iraq war, undertaken by its leading member without the benefit of a mandate from the Security Council, and in a manner so defiant of the UN Charter that Annan himself publicly declared it ‘illegal’. The invasion of Iraq violates the core conception of the United Nations as an organisation dedicated, above all, to the prevention of war (allowing only a narrow exception for wars of self-defence) based on an unconditional prohibition of unilateral recourse to war. The UN was also in the related, somewhat earlier dark shadow cast by the obvious implications of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, indicating the menacing rise of non-state political actors and the related inability, already acknowledged in the 1990s, to treat crises internal to states as beyond the purview of the UN. Such developments raised fundamental questions about contested uses of international force under the Charter and the nature of wars supposedly undertaken in self-defence. Such a realisation of the need for fundamental adjustment in doctrine and practice was also reinforced by the rise of international human rights as a challenge to the territorial supremacy of the sovereign state. Additionally, on several earlier occasions, most notably in the course of talks given at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Annan had insisted on the importance to the United Nations of finding ways to make its structure and operations more receptive to the participation of both global market forces and civil society actors, thereby acknowledging that the 1945 image of world order as constituted by sovereign states was no longer adequate as the basis for UN constitutionalism in an era of multidimensional globalisation. And so there was little doubt that the Secretary-General’s arresting words about a fork in the road were a timely acknowledgement that the UN needed substantial reforms if it were to adapt to the changing needs of the twenty-first century, as well as fulfil its potential to contribute to the widely demanded democratic forms of global governance (Held 2004).
Civil society and the UN
The relation of civil society actors to the United Nations has been complex and problematic from the time of its founding. There is no doubt that the peoples of the world and their associations and representatives, who hoped for a more peaceful, orderly, and humane world, looked upon the establishment of the United Nations as a historic positive step, and believed that over time it would encourage the emergence of a disarmed and warless world governed by the rule of law, thereby eliminating the use of force to resolve international disputes. The UN was seen in 1945 by its champions as an idealist dream coming true, offering the best prospect ever of governing the international behaviour of sovereign states. The long strategic and ideological conflict associated with the cold war often resulted in stalemates within the organisation, and suggested to many observers that the important developments in the area of peace and security were still being promoted by traditional modes of statecraft. It also became painfully clear that the voices of civil society, although given nominal access in the limited setting of the Economic and Social Council (itself a marginal actor within the UN scheme), were not to be noticed, much less heeded, in the conduct of the central activities of the UN. The UN was, as clearly intended by its founding governments, a club of, by, and for states, and dominated by the strongest states, suggesting the persistence, if not the resurgence, of geopolitics as the foundation of world order in the decades following the Second World War. No feature of the UN better expressed the blatantly geopolitical character of the organisation than the veto power given to the five permanent members (P-5), which effectively acknowledged the inability of the UN to address threats to global security generated by the most powerful states and their friends and allies. Such a constitutional limit on authority was both a reassurance that sovereign rights would not be brushed aside by an attempt of a major state to establish a global tyranny under UN auspices and a warning to weak states that they could not count on the UN to uphold their vital interests, including their self-defence. This realist image of the UN sat uncomfortably over the years with lingering idealist expectations, accounting for both disappointments about the failures to implement the Charter, especially in the setting of collective security, and continuing demands by peace and justice forces that all members, including the veto powers, live within the four corners of Charter restraints. At the same time, geopolitical architects are for ever complaining that the irresponsible use of the veto to block the policies of the United States is making the UN again, as during the cold war, of marginal relevance.
Throughout the period of the cold war, civil society actors increasingly disregarded the United Nations, concentrating their energies on issues such as human rights, environment, and social justice, or shaped movements opposing the Vietnam War or building the worldwide anti-apartheid campaign. In the 1970s and the 1980s, civil society energies led to the emergence of both robust anti-nuclear movements and anti-authoritarian networks that proclaimed their belief in ‘détente from below’, joining activists from East and West in collaborative undertakings that defied the rigid boundaries of the cold war epitomized by the Berlin Wall (Kaldor, Holden and Falk 1989; Keck and Sikkink 1998). What is notable about these developments is that they took shape almost entirely outside the United Nations. At the same time, some NGOs and private citizens were advising government delegations and providing them with valuable information behind the scenes at major law-making conferences sponsored by the United Nations, particularly assisting understaffed and inexperienced Third World governments to be better informed about proposed treaty arrangements affecting their interests. One of the first of these settings that demonstrated the invaluable informal contributions of these NGOs was the decade-long negotiations under UN auspices that produced the Law of the Sea Convention in 1982, which has provided the world with an impressive, if imperfect, public order of the oceans. Another instance, although technically outside the formal purview of the United Nations (with the International Red Cross as the formal sponsor) was the effort during the 1970s to supplement the Geneva Conventions of 1949 setting forth international humanitarian law by addressing the newly important problems associated with civil wars (Weston, Falk and Charlesworth 1997: 237–60). Without the informational resources provided by NGOs and individuals recruited from civil society, Third World delegations would have been overwhelmed and easily manipulated by the negotiating positions and pressure tactics relied upon by leading countries, especially the United States. To some extent, civil society initiatives in these settings contributed to levelling the playing field, but by no means to an extent that would achieve the political (as distinct from juridical) equality of sovereign states.
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.
The UN Secretary-General: balancing contending forces
The Secretary-General, as political leader and moral authority figure, has struggled to balance the contending forces and aspirations of the organisation. To gain help and support he constituted two prominent panels to study reform prospects, and to deliver reports in 2004. The first of these panels was composed of ‘eminent persons’, chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, and charged with looking into the relations between the United Nations and civil society. It issued its report, We the Peoples, on 7 June 2004 (UN 2004a). It covers the subject matter comprehensively, offering 30 proposals for reform. The second initiative was charged with reconsidering the role of the United Nations with respect to peace and security. It was similarly constituted, chaired by Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand, and submitted its report on 4 December 2004 to the Secretary-General (UN 2004b). The high-level panel report is exclusively dedicated to the substantive issues associated with the current global setting, and does not directly acknowledge the role or significance of global civil society, but its language and approach do reflect to some degree civil society perspectives, including especially its call for reconfiguring security as ‘human security’ rather than as either ‘national security’ or ‘collective security’. At the same time, both panels were chaired and composed of individuals whose qualifications were based on their statist credentials, having held high positions in governments or intergovernmental institutions; and their recommendations for reform are sensible but not bold or imaginative. The reports also reflect pressures to be geopolitically credible and balanced. For instance, the most interesting and widely noticed discussion in the High-Level Panel on Security is its acknowledgement that anticipatory self-defence may be justifiable in a post-9/11 world, but that the legitimacy of such a claim depends on Security Council authorisation, thereby acknowledging the substantive merits of the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive war while reaffirming the UN procedural role in identifying appropriate circumstances. Credibility with civil society audiences is less crucial but not entirely irrelevant to the prospects for exerting influence.
Kofi Annan submitted his own report on UN reform to the General Assembly, titled In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights For All, on 21 March 2005 (UN 2005). It incorporates the main recommendations of the earlier two reports, giving special attention to the High-Level Panel’s proposals relating to Security Council reform and issues associated with the definition of terrorism and the recasting of the UN approach to claims of anticipatory self-defence.
The Role of Civil Society: UN reform or human development?
In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their limited energies and even more limited resources to this debate on UN reform or concentrate most of their efforts on grass-roots contributions to human betterment. This is an old debate that revives the view that civil society undertaking to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission had led nowhere, and were largely ignored within the United Nations itself (Commission on Global Governance 1995). In contrast, the report by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, essentially a civil society initiative although with ties to states, adopted an approach to humanitarian intervention that has now been taken over by the official bodies developing reform initiatives within the United Nations (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to discourses on ‘global governance’ (examples include Falk 1995; Anne-Marie Slaughter 2004; Amitai Etzioni 2004; David Held 1995). It is notable and appropriate that Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead chapter a contribution by Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff that counsels international NGOs to give up the pretensions associated with claiming the existence of ‘global civil society’ and stop trying to play a role in the construction of global governance. In their words:
. . . international NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world—indeed, devote fewer of their resources to advocacy and more time and care to the actual needs of their actual constituencies, and re-establish their claims of expertise and competence. (Anderson and Rieff 2005: 36)
Such an admonition can be heard either as a rather sinister message to get out of the way of a resilient geopolitically administered world order or merely as pragmatic counsel to civil society actors to conserve their energies and resources to achieve maximum effectiveness. (The advice is rendered more controversial, and in my view dubious, by the authors’ insistence that if international NGOs and their intellectual spokespersons and allies continue to criticise the American role in the post-9/11 world it would be ‘the surest’ way to guarantee the ‘irrelevance’ of civil society perspectives and values; 2005: 37–8. Such a direction of advice would suggest that civil society actors have little or no part to play in shaping the debate on UN reform or, more generally, on the future shape of global governance, but should content themselves with services to humanity performed in the niches of relief work and by mounting local grass-roots protests directed at particular projects.)
There is some confusion here with respect to language. Anderson and Rieff are directing their attention to activist NGOs, whereas international commissions drawing their membership from the ranks of prominent individuals, while being part of civil society, are not regarded as posing fundamental challenges to the established order, but rather appear to be appendages that are seeking helpful adjustments.
The special nature of UN reform
There is a final preliminary issue bearing on the nature of ‘reform’ within the UN context. It should be understood that the basic reformist process has been informal, continuous, and internal to the UN system, filling in gaps by practice and reinterpreting the text of Charter provisions in the light of changing values and norms. This reflects, above all, the difficulty of achieving formal explicit changes due to the cumbersome character of the amendment procedure and a result of the political obstacles blocking the formation of a requisite consensus, especially among the P-5 (Article 108 of the UN Charter requires a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly that is then ‘ratified in accordance with their respective constitutional processes by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations, including all the permanent members of the Security Council’). The informal or de facto process of reform has many important examples. Already in the 1950s the Security Council found a way to circumvent the difficulty of confronting the prospect of blockage due to the Soviet boycott (prompted by the failure to accredit the Communist government in Beijing as representing China) during the Korean War. Article 27(3) requires that decisions of the Security Council on substantive issues be supported by nine members, ‘including the concurring votes of the permanent members’. A common-sense reading of this text would suggest that absence or abstention prevents a Security Council decision, but the practice established the precedent that the Council can reach a valid decision provided only that the permanent members do not cast a negative vote. In the guise of interpretation this is quite a modification of the veto power as expressed in the Charter provision. (For a juridical justification of this interpretation, see McDougal and Gardner 1951.) Another potential way to circumvent a veto was established by the Uniting for Peace resolution which gave the General Assembly the capacity to recommend action in the peace and security context if the Security Council was gridlocked by the veto. This initiative was also adopted in the setting of the Korean War and based on cold war geopolitics in the 1950s, which gave the West an assured majority in the General Assembly and an associated confidence that the outcome of UN action would always be in its favour.
The Uniting for Peace approach was discreetly abandoned by the West as soon as it became apparent that the United States and the West might invoke the veto and that their majorities in the General Assembly were no longer assured as formerly colonised countries expanded its membership. It was the political changed circumstances of decolonisation, and the altered composition of the General Assembly, and not the Charter’s conception of the roles of the main organs, that closed this escape route from the paralysing clutches of the veto in crises of war and peace.
A second example of de facto reform is the significant development of coercive peacemaking under Chapter VI of the UN Charter during the tenure of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld in the 1960s, described at the time as an ‘innovation’ neither prescribed nor proscribed by the Charter, but useful in dealing with situations other than war-making, addressed in Chapter VII, that called for UN peacekeeping. A third example of increasing importance since the end of the cold war is the narrowing of the significance and scope of the prohibition on the UN in Article 2(7) of the Charter to refrain from intervention ‘in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’. Such a strict conception of Westphalian deference to territorial sovereignty reflected the ethos of 1945, but as civil wars became internationalised and as acute violations of human rights, particularly ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide, became challenges to the organised international community, the UN norm of non-intervention was gradually qualified. This process reached a climax in the period after the Kosovo War in 1999, and produced a doctrine of humanitarian intervention rationalized as ‘a responsibility to protect’ (Independent International Commission on Kosovo, 2000: 163–8).
A final unconsummated instance of reform by interpretation, practice, experience, and reasonableness relates to the High-level Panel on Security’s recommended expansion of the idea of self-defence beyond the image in the Charter language that would appear to rule out anticipatory claims. Article 51 appears to limit claims by the words ‘if an armed attacks occurs’ and, although this restrictive language has long been eroded by state practice and by the commentary of some international law experts, it has not been directly challenged as by the recent panel until now (Arend and Beck 1993). As suggested above, it represents a geopolitical compromise that is unlikely to be accepted by the current American political leadership or even possibly by the opposition that in the 2004 presidential election affirmed that the United States would not await UN authorisation to pursue by war its security interests. What is most relevant here is that the High-Level Panel recognised the need for adjustment with respect to this core idea in the Charter, offered a practical suggestion for closing the gap between legal rules and security threats, and explicitly declared in its report that it was not necessary to amend the language of the Charter even when addressing this fundamental matter of discretion to use international force. Presumably, the reluctance to recommend a formal change expresses both the cumbersomeness of the amendment procedure and also the likelihood that such a change would be controversial with a large number of member states.
From the foregoing it becomes evident that, while the case for reform is strong, political obstacles often make formal adjustments by way of amendments difficult, if not impossible. Further, the poster child of reform – restructuring the Security Council with respect to membership, size, and availability of the veto – does require a formal amendment, but it is also made problematic by an absence of agreement among members about the specifics of the reform measure. Finally, UN experience demonstrates that significant reform initiatives can proceed by way of practice and interpretation, which has enabled the UN throughout its history to respond with an impressive degree of flexibility to changes in the global settings. So two conclusions emerge: the UN has great difficulties making needed reforms that require formal amendments; but the UN has devised effective informal approaches that have successfully enabled many adjustments in the framing of UN action.
A critical analytical approach
It is often implicitly assumed in discussions about both the United Nations and global civil society that their influence is inherently beneficial for the pursuit of widely shared world order goals associated with what I have called elsewhere ‘humane global governance’ (Falk 1995; 2004). In both instances, such an assumption is misleading. Any political actor, however benign its mandate, can be twisted by pressures from without and subversion from within to pursue policies that corrupt and deform. The United Nations has not always adhered to its lofty goals, as when for instance it persisted for 12 years with a programme of sanctions despite evidence of severe harm to the civilian population of Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. Other instances involve the inexcusable breaches of discipline by UN peacekeeping forces that have involved alleged sexual exploitation of minors and other vulnerable persons. The Secretary-General in his recent report on UN reform says: ‘I have enacted a policy of “zero tolerance” towards such offences that applies to all personnel engaged in United Nations operations” (Annan 2005: 31). And then there are a variety of bureaucratic lapses. The recent investigation of the oil-for-food programme revealed a series of actions by UN staff that condoned or was complicit in corruption.
Even if civil society actors are restricted to those that affirm positive world order values, the initiatives taken by a given actor or individual may be corrupt, not reflective of democratic procedures, and regressive in impact. Therefore, a critical posture needs to be adopted by those who purport to discuss the United Nations from the perspective of global civil society.
The interest of civil society in a robust United Nations that is strengthened in response to globalisation and the various issues relating to ‘new wars’ is taken as a premise in the discussion that follows. In other words, the focus is placed on the UN system as addressing substantive concerns relating to human security as well as accommodating the participation of global civil society within a structure that was made by and for sovereign states.
A reformist perspective
How should the ‘citizenry’ of global civil society, acknowledging multiple identities, think about the reform of the United Nations? This overall question gives rise to two different concerns: first, how can the United Nations as a generally benevolent element in world order be strengthened to help achieve a more peaceful, fair, sustainable, and just life for the peoples of the planet, considered both as individual subjects and as members of various communities? Second, how can the role and world views of global civil society be made more effective within the United Nations, including the participation of its representatives in the work of the organisation? Responses to these questions are made against the background of the discussion in the prior section.
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.
The establishment of the UN in the first place was feasible only because the historical climate that existed immediately after the Second World War strongly supported steps at the global level to prevent the recurrence of strategic warfare in the form of a third world war. This shared resolve reflected the enormous casualties of the war just ended, as well as the shock of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. It also reflected the capacity of the victorious powers in the war to impose their will on the post-war world. Political space existed, but only for a short time, to institute a new type of global architecture that was intended to build upon and correct the deficiencies of the League of Nations that had emerged after the First World War in a somewhat analogous political climate. The structures embodied in the United Nations, even under these favorable circumstances, were shaped by the persisting primacy of state sovereignty as the constitutive principle of world order. As a result, the United Nations as established fell far short of what would be needed to realise the aspirations announced in the Charter, but even the scaled-back arrangements agreed upon in San Francisco would have been impossible only a year or so later as the hard lines of tension and distrust associated with the cold war began to define the new geopolitical condition of bipolarity. Had the world leaders not seized the moment in 1945, it is rather doubtful whether the United Nations would have been established in any form, and world order would have been entirely based on regional blocs of states and traditional alliances.
The period following the cold war is, disappointedly, no more favourable to UN reform despite the disappearance of the strategic conflict and ideological bipolarity that had earlier blocked agreements associated with strengthening the United Nations. In some ways this is surprising, and mainly reflects what might be best described as the imperial tendencies and lack of constructive leadership in the United States, as well as the neoliberal orientations of the main managers of the world economy, who adhered to the so-called Washington consensus, as modified over the years. In effect, these characteristics of the global setting meant that leaders from the North were reluctant to entrust global policy to the United Nations, preferring either unilateral geopolitics managed from Washington or policy arenas removed from Third World influence such as the G8 annual economic summits or the yearly meetings of World Economic Forum at Davos.
These obstacles to needed UN reform are serious, but they should not obscure the actual and potential roles of the United Nations in promoting goals that accord with the dominant viewpoints of global civil society. The existence of a global organisation with nearly universal membership of states creates a framework for dialogue and initiative that exerts a significant impact on the media and on world public opinion. Such universality, sustained now for 60 years, contrasts with the experience of the League of Nations, which leading states, such as the United States, never joined, and from which important countries, such as the Soviet Union, withdrew out of disgust. The UN Charter, together with lawmaking treaties that bind all governments, provides an authoritative framework for judging whether contested action by a state is consistent with international law, and this is of decisive importance for articulating and unifying the global voices of civil society. The mobilisation of opposition to the Iraq war, culminating in the 15 February 2003 worldwide demonstrations against the war, were greatly facilitated by the existence of the UN norms and by the failure of the Security Council to endorse the proposed US-led invasion of Iraq. The UN has provided crucial support for some of the leading projects of global civil society including decolonization and self-determination, anti-apartheid, democracy, development, human rights, humanitarian intervention, accountability for international crimes, peacekeeping, environmental protection, and consciousness raising with respect to such issues as demographic pressures, poverty, joblessness, migration, refugees, and transnational crime, social and economic justice.
In approaching the subject matter of UN reform from a global civil society perspective, it is helpful to distinguish horizontal from vertical reforms. Horizontal reforms are associated with adjustments at the intergovernmental level of participation by sovereign states, currently the only members of the organisation. The expansion of the Security Council is a prototypical example of a horizontal reform, making the system more legitimate with respect to the relations among sovereign states by enhancing the representativeness of the UN’s most important organ that alone enjoys the authority to render decisions relating to war and peace binding on sovereign states. Such reforms are not by any means irrelevant to the concerns and goals of civil society. Any step that makes the UN more effective and legitimate, especially in relation to peace and security, helps realise a central goal of global civil society to achieve a more humane and law-based approach to global governance.
Despite the diversity of perspectives, there is a rather widespread consensus that the participation of states in governance structures should not be downgraded or bypassed, but remains crucial for the foreseeable future. A role for global civil society actors is to exert influence to ensure that this participation increasingly reflects widely shared humane values such as those enshrined in the Charter itself. In this respect, monitoring the Security Council in relation to the Charter framework and world order values would be itself expressive of a global civil society contribution that is meant to improve the performance of the UN even while conceding its essentially statist modes of operation. Such concessions are particularly relevant in the setting of the Security Council, where governments are most insistent on statist prerogatives, including high levels of non-transparency. The more informal modes of functioning of some of the specialised agencies, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), as well as the back-burner character of the subject matter, allow for a more direct and collaborative interface between these actors within the UN system and representatives of global civil society.
At the same time, the most direct and characteristic UN-related projects of civil society are associated with vertical reforms, taking greater account of actors other than states and recognising transnational social forces whose prominence and role exhibit the growing obsolescence of any system of global governance that relies exclusively on a Westphalian conception of world order. The remainder of this chapter is mainly devoted to exploring this vertical approach to UN reform, but it pays some attention to the proposed direction of horizontal reforms touching on the interests of global civil society, especially as affected by the proposed recommendations of the Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Security. It is also the case that there is often an interplay between global civil society initiatives of a horizontal character and changing perspectives of the United Nations, even in the most recalcitrant context of peace and security. An important illustration of this hybridity arises in relation to the debate on humanitarian intervention that became so significant in the 1990s, especially in light of controversies surrounding the UN responses and non-responses to Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Kosovo. At the instigation of the Canadian government, a commission of eminent persons was formed under the chairmanship of Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, which produced a report under the title The Responsibility to Protect that essentially staked out ground that has emerged as a consensus among members of the United Nations (International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty 2001). The essential move in the report was to shift the language from that of ‘humanitarian intervention’, always threatening to the prerogatives of governments, to that of ‘a responsibility to protect’ on the part of international society those peoples who are vulnerable to an impending humanitarian catastrophe. By situating this duty to act within the international community, the report also moved on to positive ground rather than challenging so frontally the totemic ideal of territorial sovereignty. Beyond this, an independent commission of private individuals (although with strong public credentials) is definitely an example of a vertical undertaking reshaping the diplomacy, and quite likely the behaviour, of horizontal interactions among the membership of the United Nations.
UN reform from the perspective of global civil society
Aside from participation and influence within the UN system, or what is being identified here as ‘vertical reform’, the relations between the UN and global civil society, there is the overall concern with the future role of the UN: seeking to prevent aggressive war, to promote a more equitable and sustainable world economy, to respond more quickly and effectively to humanitarian and natural disasters, to uphold human rights and the rule of law, and to contribute to the emergence of a humane and democratic structure of global governance engages members of global civil society as world citizens. The foundation for such a discussion is provided by the report of the High-Level Panel convened by the Secretary-General issued under the title A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility (UN 2004b). The report is comprehensive, and can be discussed only selectively, in relation to its central concern with expanding the understanding of and approach to the core responsibility of the UN to facilitate collective security. The report is written from a statist standpoint, with issues of feasibility in mind, and only tangentially refers to or reflects the influence of global civil society perspectives. Civil society activists concerned with global policy should read this report both for its conceptual contributions and as an expression of the best intergovernmental thinking about the role of the United Nations in the twenty-first century and of how to depict ‘security’ as a central preoccupation. The strong endorsement of the findings of the report by Kofi Annan also makes its impact likely to be strong in relation to the discussions of UN reform at the 2005 session of the General Assembly dedicated to the implementation of the Millennial goals set five years earlier (Annan 2005).
The main premise of A More Secure World is that it is no longer viable to limit the security concerns of states to conflicts between sovereign states. It is necessary to consider conflicts within states, as well as conditions of infectious disease, extreme poverty, and acute oppression. In the words of the report (UN 2004b: 1), ‘the indivisibility of security, economic development, and human freedom’ must be the basis for UN thinking about effectiveness. In a nod to civil society perspectives, it is acknowledged that a new orientation toward security is implied by the nomenclature of ‘human security’. While affirming the role of the UN in addressing the security challenge, the report argues that ‘the front-line actors’ that ‘continue to be individual sovereign States’ bear the main burden of responsibility. Further, security rests on ‘three pillars’: threats to security are interconnected and require attention at national, regional, and global levels; no state can address these threats on its own; and not every state has the capacity to uphold its responsibilities to its own people or to ensure that harm to neighbours will not be done (UN 2004b: 1).
In its synopsis, there is little doubt that the report seeks to address the United States as primary and controversial actor, exhibiting sympathy with its circumstances but warning against its displays of unilateralism, especially with respect to war making. This spirit is well conveyed by the following sentence:
Recommendations that ignore underlying power realities will be doomed to failure or irrelevance, but recommendations that simply reflect raw distributions of power and make no effort to bolster international principles are unlikely to gain the widespread adherence required to shift international behaviour. (UN 2004b: 4)
The report advocates not structural changes in the UN but a more adaptive use of existing institutional mechanisms. While recognising the need to think of self-defence in light of changing technologies and conflict patterns, It affirms the adequacy of existing Charter language, which conveys both confidence in the susceptibility of the text to interpretation and the difficulty of prescribing any formal changes that would require calling into play the formal amendment process of the Charter. In essence, the pre-emptive thinking of the United States after 9/11 is affirmed as reasonable in concept but its unilateral enactment is rejected. In relation to the Iraq war, the only application of this Bush doctrine to date, the UN report certainly implies, without expressly saying so, that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq without Security Council authorisation. It is also possible for Washington to read the UN report as saying that the Security Council should not have withheld its authorisation given the demonstration of an Iraqi threat, although in light of the failure to find weapons of mass destruction such a reading seems strained, to say the least. The report of the High-Level Panel sets forth five criteria that should be relied upon by the Security Council in debates and discussions pertaining to the use of military force: seriousness of threat, proper purpose, last resort, proportional means, and balance of consequences (UN 2004b: 67) This set of criteria amounts to a revival of a just war approach to the use of force, combining considerations of law, morality, and politics to shape a new perspective on the relation of war to international law and the UN Charter, given post-9/11 realities.
The High-Level Panel also endorses the approach to humanitarian intervention adopted by the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention. This is not surprising considering that the earlier report had been so favorably received in international circles and that the forceful co-chair of the latter was Gareth Evans, who was also a member of the High-Level Panel (International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention 2001). In essence, state sovereignty is overridden if a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding within a state, but the political language of response is shifted from encroachment on the state to the duty of the international community to act. The approach is well-expressed by the High-Level Panel:
We endorse the emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide or other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing or serious violations of international humanitarian law which sovereign Governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent. (UN 2004: 66)
There is no mention of the status of a claim (as was made under NATO auspices in relation to Kosovo in 1999) to protect by a state or a group of states in the event of the failure of the Security Council to mandate action. Does such a residual responsibility exist? This issue has been variously resolved in relation to Kosovo, Rwanda and, more recently, the Sudan, but there is as yet no consensus as to the permissibility under international law of humanitarian intervention undertaken by states or regional actors (Independent International Commission on Kosovo 2000).
Again, the statist constraints on the political imagination of the High-Level Panel are apparent. There is no discussion, much less advocacy, of the establishment of a UN emergency service that could implement the responsibility-to-protect norm, and thereby somewhat diminish the problems posed by an absence of a consensus in the Security Council. Furthermore, there is no consideration of whether the UN could become more effective and legitimate if it could put its funding on a basis that was not as tied to geopolitical control. As discussed below, several variations on the initial proposal of a ‘Tobin Tax’ on transnational currency transactions have been floating around for decades.
Such desirable reforms, which also seem necessary if the goal of UN reform is to make the organisation effective and legitimate in relation to collective security, are not regarded as feasible within the framework of statist geopolitics that continues to set operative limits within the UN system. What should global civil society do about these limits? Respect them or seek to foster a climate of opinion that weakens or circumvents them? These questions deserve widespread debate in civil society circles concerned with establishing global democracy.
The successful movement to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC) is illustrative of a reformist move that came into being, at least formally, outside of these limits on feasibility. William Pace, a leader of the NGO coalition that collaborated with governments in the late 1990s, likes to tell the story that he was advised by many within the UN that the ICC project was impossibly utopian given the firmness of US opposition. In this instance, the mobilisation of global civil society appeared to create a momentum that overcame geopolitical resistance. Of course, the success may be less than meets the eye if the ICC fails to produce significant indictments and prosecutions in coming years. The first real opportunity for the ICC seems likely to arise out of its anticipated role in dealing with allegations of crimes against humanity in the context of the Darfur genocide in Sudan. There are other important indications that civil society initiatives can obtain results despite geopolitical opposition: the separate requests to the International Court of Justice for Advisory Opinions with respect to the legality of nuclear weapons and of the Israeli security wall; the push for a treaty of prohibition on the use of anti-personnel landmines; and widespread adherence to the Kyoto Protocol restricting greenhouse gas emissions. Such successes should not be overstated. A minority of opposing states can still nullify the ‘success’ by refusing to comply with or by simply ignoring the institutional or normative claims. The lesson here is that global civil society, acting in collaboration with sympathetic governments, can pursue reformist projects that stretch, if not break free of, the geopolitical limits on political action, and that such action is an indispensable contribution to the global reform process, within and without the United Nations.
On the central issue of global security, it is important for global civil society forces to unite behind the terminology and outlook of ‘human security’, thereby placing peoples and their concerns at the centre of security discourse. At this point, within UN circles, especially the Security Council, the notion of security, despite some willingness to acknowledge its wider reach, remains focused on war and violence as related to the security of sovereign states. Even with the greater willingness to discuss the responsibility of the UN to protect vulnerable peoples facing genocidal threats, the political will of the organisation depends on support from major states, and whether this support is forthcoming depends on national interests. The situation is more encouraging in the setting of natural disasters, exhibiting more sense of human solidarity, and a willingness of states, regions, NGOs, and international institutions to work together for shared humanitarian goals. The response to the humanitarian catastrophe produced by the Indian Ocean tsunami at the end of 2004 is illustrative of levels of cooperation and rapid response unimaginable in the context of a human rights crisis. It is instructive to compare the responses of the world to genocidal threats in Rwanda, Sudan, and even Bosnia with the response to the tsunami.
Bringing global civil society into the UN: proposals and prospects for vertical reform
There is no doubt that one of the major trends in world politics since 1945 is the complex and contradictory rise of non-state actors as participants in world order. This rise has been celebrated in certain circles as crucial for a positive view of the human future, and bemoaned in others as the onset of global chaos, being prominently described by some influential commentators as an ‘age of terrorism’. All along developing countries’ efforts within the UN to exercise their right of development were resisted by the North as being essentially anti-capitalist. The North used its influence within the UN to marginalise certain arenas receptive to Third World aspirations – for instance the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) and the ILO. This resistance also expressed itself through the successful effort by the United States to terminate altogether the UN Center of Information on World Corporations in 1991, apparently a move that was demanded by Washington as the price for supporting the selection of Boutros Boutros Ghali as Secretary-General. In other words, to the extent that civil society activism, reinforcing Third World outlooks at the UN, was seen to conflict with the precepts of a neoliberal world economy, it was regarded as a threat to the prevailing ideology of the ‘club’ that the leading states in the North wanted the UN to remain. The fierceness of these UN struggles relating to economic ideology subsided after the collapse of socialism, but they could re-emerge at any point, especially if the leftist swing in Latin America continues.
Kofi Annan has tried to mediate between these contradictory tendencies. He has consistently during his tenure as Secretary-General called for the incorporation of civil society perspectives, as well as global market perspectives, into the operations of the United Nations. Annan has also clearly recognised the magnitude of the challenges posed by non-state transnational terrorism and crime, particularly in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The membership of the United Nations, although somewhat divided on how to respond to these calls for adaptive change, has been able to find spaces for multinational corporations to participate within the UN, in diverse ways: by receiving funds for specific programmes, by establishing advisory bodies drawn from the world of business (as in relation to environmental policy), and by creating a global compact that allows companies to agree voluntarily to pledge adherence to international standards bearing on human rights, labour practices, and environmental protection. By contrast, the informal efforts of global civil society to participate in UN activities have generally been treated by the mainstream media as confrontational, especially with respect to global policy conferences such as the Copenhagen Social Summit in1995 and the Durban Conference on Racism in 2001. These concerns about the outlook of global civil society were confirmed for conservative statist and economistic forces by the street demonstrations on the occasion of UN gatherings and those of the organised world community, starting with the opposition to the WTO (technically not part of the UN system) at its December 1999 meetings in Seattle. The visibility of the non-state presence, the articulation of demands that appeared critical of and hostile towards corporate globalisation and American geopolitical leadership produced an anti-global civil society backlash. This found tangible expression in efforts to eliminate UN arenas of civil society voice and networking, especially the large conferences on major global policy issues.
In the spirit of Annan’s fork-in-the-road speech, UN reform needed to explore, among other topics, facilitating a better connection between global civil society and the organisation. As mentioned earlier, in 2003 Annan established a so-called Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations under the chairmanship of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Cardoso Panel). The Cardoso Panel report emphasises intangible encouragements to civil society by way of calls on the UN system to consult more with multiple constituencies in addition to governments affected by policy and to establish a spirit of engagement at the level of international institutions and national governments (UN 2004a). Of the 30 proposals set forth in some detail none is of major consequence, although there is a motif of soft advocacy on behalf of greater global civil society participation as integral to a more effective United Nations in the future. The fourth proposal is indicative of the approach taken, geopolitically sceptical while still promoting a more positive future for civil society activities within the frame of the United Nations. The language of the proposal is revealing: ‘The United Nations should retain the global conference mechanism but use it sparingly to address major emerging policy issues’ (emphasis added) in circumstances where public understanding and opinions is important as the basis for ‘concerted global action’. Further, ‘[t]he participation of civil society and other constituencies should be planned in collaboration with their networks’ (UN 2004a). Here the word ‘planned’ acknowledges statist concerns about spontaneous or uncontrolled forms of participation.
There is also a conscious effort to portray the relations between civil society and the private sector in positive terms based on collaborative action via the embrace of ideas about ‘partnerships’, the Global Compact, and the establishment of a new Office of Constituency Engagement and Partnerships (Proposal 24) that would include ‘a civil society unit’ and ‘the Global Compact Office’ as well as an ‘Elected Representatives Liaison Unit’ (to connect with parliamentary representatives, thereby giving national democracy a global reach), a ‘Partnership Development Unit’ (incorporating efforts to foster private sector partnerships), and the secretariat of the recently established ‘Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues’ (UN 2004a). This is a catch-all bureaucratic consolidation that draws inspiration from fashionable ideas of the 1990s, including ‘stakeholder democracy’ as a self-conscious way of acknowledging the multiplicity of constituencies affected by private and public policy decisions and of new modalities of networking as creating cooperative connections between constituencies that might otherwise be devoting their energies to adversarial activities.
What is missing from the Cardoso Report are bold proposals that would give global civil society and its representatives an assured and distinct role in future UN activities, and reflect the less politically constrained views which prevail in those circles of global civil society that think seriously and positively about UN reform. The reliance on consultation and exhortation to engage civil society is not likely to produce relations of trust or to establish significantly more robust channels of influence. The Cardoso Report, despite its consoling rhetoric about the significance of civil society, reads overall like an effort to achieve ‘pacification’ and ‘cosmetic adjustment’ and minor bureaucratic accommodations rather than the scale of ‘reform’ that seems calibrated to the issues or the demands of reformers. None of the real priorities of civil society with respect to the UN institutional modifications that move towards the consensus goals of global civil society relating to democratisation and effectiveness – namely, participation, accountability, transparency, constitutionalism, autonomy (vis-à-vis geopolitics), and humane governance – are addressed in a positive and direct way, if at all. As well, there is no wider vision of a peaceful, just future based on a broad series of moves in the direction of nuclear disarmament, dialogue among civilisations, and global governance resting on the normative foundations of international law and a non-violent geopolitics.
Three global civil society initiatives
From the perspective of global civil society, the efforts to date by the UN to accommodate the rise of civil society transnationalism or to move towards the realisation of consensus goals are unsatisfactory (Held 2004). In contrast, a variety of bold proposals, some long supported in civic arenas, are favoured by broad sectors of global civil society. The illustrative articulation of some of the more promising proposals is of substantive interest, as well as expressing the spirit of what might be described as reform-from-below and reform-from-without. We set forth the bare outline of three such proposals. Their concreteness should be interpreted as a disregard of the wider challenge of reconstituting a visionary imaginary for the United Nations that responds to the realities of the early twenty-first century.
A UN parliament or assembly
From the perspective of global democracy, there is general agreement within global civil society that the constitution and modus operandi of the UN do not allow for sufficient participation by representatives of civil society. A popular mode of global civil society participation to overcome this deficiency would be the addition of an organ to the UN that would function as a representative body selected directly or indirectly by global civil society. This line of reformist thinking takes comfort from the existence and development of the European Parliament, which in the course of several decades has moved from being a marginalised talking shop to a respected institutional pillar whose democratic character that has enhanced the legitimacy of European regionalism (Falk and Strauss 2000).
There are many approaches to establishing some sort of global parliamentary presence, including proposals that prefer establishment outside the purview of the UN for reasons of effectiveness or feasibility. In this chapter the parliamentary innovation is considered only within the setting of the UN system. The most conservative approach would be to invite national parliaments to designate one or more delegates from their ranks to serve in a UN parliament consisting of such legislative representatives. Presumably, in most cases, these representatives would have been elected by a fair democratic process, and thus would have some connection with popular wishes and the priorities of their national communities. It might be a practical first step to establish a UN assembly on this basis, especially if it included a sunset provision of, say, five years, after which direct elections to the body would be organised in all countries or regions that agreed to take part. More ambitiously, an amendment to the Charter could oblige all members to take part, as well as giving the new body a definite place within the UN system.
The initial point of such an initiative is to establish a distinct and exclusive space for global civil society within the larger confines of the United Nations. If established so as to be a conduit for grass-roots priorities in various locales around the world, its challenge to governmental and market-oriented thinking would likely be vivid and illuminating. For this reason alone, the proposal is threatening to the statist establishment and nationalist consciousness, and is currently not under serious consideration. The experience in the 1990s with global civil society activism at major UN policy conferences gave leading states an unwelcome taste of global democracy, causing a backlash that can be understood only as anti-democratic, that is, as opposed to conferring status and allowing voice to the representatives of global civil society. This backlash has a paradoxical dimension, given the vigorous engagement of these very same states in the promotion of democracy and democratic values at the national level, and their accompanying rationale about thereby promoting regional and global security communities.
In the lead-up to the millennium, Kofi Annan floated a proposal to arrange a one-off assembly of civil society representatives to be organised by and held at the United Nations. But even this gesture proved to be too much for several influential governments evidently worried about any further erosion of their traditional roles as exclusive representatives of their citizenry. In the end, a stimulating set of civil society sessions was held at the same time as the Special Millennium Session of the General Assembly, but informally and not in the UN buildings.
There are undeniably a variety of obstacles in addition to the opposition of those states that seek to keep the world as statist as possible. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to arrange the selection of appropriate representatives from countries that do not even possess democratically elected national legislative organs. It would be burdensome to administer any sort of selection process because of the vastness of the task and the unevenness of circumstances on the ground. Further, there are related problems associated with balancing claims to representation based on population against those based on ethnic, civilisational, and religious identity. It would also be a long struggle to provide such an entity responsive to the peoples of the world with a sufficient budget, and likely an even longer one to confer real functions and authority, and achieve a legitimate stature as a vital element of global governance.
Nevertheless, a campaign on behalf of some institutional presence for global civil society within the structure of the United Nations is likely to build momentum and generate worldwide excitement. Such a campaign would also give tangible expression to the advocacy of global democracy. It is hard to imagine an adequately reformed UN without the establishment of ways to ensure that it was committed to the encouragement of global democracy, and that a key part of that commitment was be to create a political space reserved for representatives of global civil society. While so affirming, the immediate prospects of UN support are not bright. Astonishingly, the Cardoso Report, with its mission of enhancing relations between the UN and civil society, does not even mention the idea of a global parliament. It is doubtful that this was an oversight; it probably reflects the avoidance of proposals that would likely be dismissed by weighty statesmen as ‘utopian’ or worse, and could be read as offensive to the tender sensibilities of the geopolitical patrons of the United Nations. A bedeviling feature of this reformist dynamic is the degree to which supervening political pressures keep the most helpful initiatives from even reaching the stage of preliminary discussion.
United Nations Emergency Service
A working group of peace activists and NGO leaders have been developing for some years a proposal for the creation of a UN Emergency Peace Service (UNEPS). The central idea is to have in being a small, highly trained, professional corps that would be available at short notice and with on longest possible geopolitical leash to prevent and contain humanitarian catastrophes, especially those with genocidal overtones. Undertakings of this sort were done on an ad-hoc basis during the 1990s but without sufficient political will on the part of major states, and thus without an appropriate definition of UN mission and without the provision of adequate capabilities. The UN thus often operated ineffectually in situations of humanitarian emergency, which discredited the UN and provided too little, too late for peoples being victimised. The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 remains a paradigmatic instance of UN failure, and the current feeble response to the mass killings and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region of Sudan is a continuing reminder of how ill-equipped the UN is to discharge its ‘responsibility to protect’ even in response to extreme conditions. It is still relevant to recall the devastating critiques of the UN failures to protect vulnerable peoples in either Bosnia or Rwanda (Rieff 1995; Melvern 2000).
The establishment of UNEPS would provide the UN with standby capabilities to act quickly and within an existing bureaucratic frame, thereby minimising political friction, whenever an imminent threat of genocide or other atrocity-producing situation arose. This capability could be flexibly shaped also to facilitate a usefully quick reaction by the UN to the sort of regional disaster resulting from the South Asian tsunami of December 2004. Of course, it would be naive to believe that the mere existence of UNEPS would ensure effectiveness and legitimacy. Powerful governments would undoubtedly find ways to obstruct UN responses by exerting back-channel pressures and manipulating the purse strings. At the same time, the mere existence of UNEPS would signal a growing commitment by the UN to overcoming humanitarian emergencies in a manner that was far less closely tied to the vagaries of domestic politics. It should be recalled that it took only a small number of American deaths, 18, in 1993 to bring a major peacekeeping operations in Somalia to a sudden halt, contributing as well to a political climate that produced the non-response to Rwanda in 1994 and the woefully inadequate engagement with ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia.
At times, the role of global civil society is to incubate an idea or initiative until the intergovernmental moods shifts into a supportive mode. This occurred in relation to criminal accountability for political leaders. Governments gave the initial push after the Second World War at the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, but then backed off. This commitment to accountability was kept alive in America and Europe by activists during the cold war who relied on this framework of laws to oppose wars of aggression and improper weaponry and military doctrine and tactics. And then in the aftermath of the cold war, with the break-up of former Yugoslavia and the brutalities of the conflicts in Africa, a new intergovernmental set of initiatives revived the idea of accountability, even leading, against some geopolitical objection, to the formation of an International Criminal Court. In relation to UNEPS, it may also be necessary to push the idea and then wait patiently until a propitious conjuncture of happenings engages political forces throughout the world.
A Tobin Tax
One reformist idea that has been around in a variety of forms is a tax on international transactions. James Tobin, a Nobel laureate in economics, initially proposed a tiny tax on currency trading as a way to build up the financial resources of the UN and to create greater independence for the organisation. Variations have been proposed over the years, including a tax on supersonic flight, an energy tax, and a tax on seabed resources. These are all feasible ways to enhance the financial capabilities of the UN and to provide it with a greater degree of independence and institutional self-confidence.
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.
Part of the glory of global civil society is its diversity of viewpoints, priorities, activist styles and goals. This chapter has assumed that it is still possible to write on the basis of ‘an overlapping consensus’ with respect to UN reform, that is, sufficiently shared views on core issues to enable the presentation of ideas and recommendations without detailing lines of divergence. In this sense, while acknowledging the existence of influential anti-UN NGOs in the United States, it excludes their perspectives on reform from discussions of a recommended approach to be adopted by global civil society.
Further, no effort has been made in this chapter to consider radical alternatives such as abandoning the United Nations as a site of struggle for a better world. The slogan of the World Social Forum, ‘another world is possible’, does not entail rejecting those features of the existing world order that hold some promise for the present and future. The United Nations, despite limitations and disappointments, remains a source of hope for improving the circumstances of humanity. It deserves the attention of global civil society, both in appreciation of its substantial achievements and to monitor its failures to uphold the UN Charter and the rule of law. The progressive reform of the UN is an integral aspect of any plausible programme for the extension of democracy and the material foundations of human dignity to disadvantaged states and regions, as well as to the world. In a broader sense, a more effective and democratic UN is indispensable to building a world order premised on the ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ school of thought (Archibugi 2003; Archibugi and Held 1995).
In the end, there is no substitute for encouraging the moral and political imagination of citizens of global civil society to determine the horizons of possibility for the peoples of the world. Many changes that occurred in the 1990s were judged ‘impossible’ by custodians of the reasonable, and if their counsel had been heeded eastern Europe might still be under the dominion of corrupt, authoritarian rule, South Africa could still be a haven for apartheid governance, and the cold war might never have ended.
Given the widely acknowledged transformations of the global setting in the course of recent decades, it certainly seems opportune to give free rein to the imaginative energies of global civil society. And this does not mean an embrace of fantasy but rather an engagement in the struggle to produce the sort of world order that seems most compatible with physical and spiritual survival of the peoples of the earth, in the realisation that we will never know without such a struggle what the true limits of the possible are. Such an orientation towards the life-world should also guide our thinking on this crucial topic of UN reform. In more tangible forms, such an outlook would insist upon serious efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament, the elimination of acute poverty and preventable disease, and the establishment of emergency regimes to avoid climate change, to provide early warning of disasters, and to ensure a viable energy future for the peoples of the world. At the outer horizon of aspiration, voices from global civil society should be exploring and advocating the viability of a non-violent geopolitics that alone has the capacity to revolutionise prospects for a hopeful human future.
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