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A United Nations Renaissance: What the UN is, and what it could be

John Trent/Laura Schnurr
A United Nations Renaissance

“Politicians, pundits, and publics are moving inward and building walls whereas addressing global threats requires moving outward and breaking down barriers. More than ever, multilateralism is essential for problem-solving, and more than ever we need a fitter-for-purpose United Nations. Trent and Schnurr provide a persuasive and userfriendly introduction for a new generation of change-makers.”

Thomas G. Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science, The CUNY Graduate Center, Past President International Studies Association

“More than a simple forum or arena for confrontation of opposing interests, the United Nations must become an instrument for world governance. This excellent book, from Trent and Schnurr, goes a long way to push forward this idea.”

Modesto Seara-Vazquez, Professor of International Organization, and Rector Oaxaca State University System, Mexico

“The United Nations remains an essential global institution for advancing the values and practices of cooperation, development, and human rights, but it also needs reform; and especially it needs realistic proposals that give a way forward while still retaining and promoting the ideals of the Charter. This new volume places the UN in historical and contemporary perspective, identifies its critical strengths, challenges, and flaws in a balanced analysis, and suggests clear and constructive arguments and ideas for the changes that are needed.”

Alistair Edgar, Professor of Political Science, Wilfrid Laurier University, Executive Director, Academic Council on the United Nations System

“The UN is being put to the test in today’s jumbled and fractious global system. There is a foreboding over the growing trend among many member states including three of the permanent members of the Security Council towards anti – internationalist sentiments and the undermining of norms of global cooperation. As the title of this book signals, it is time for a UN Renaissance. This will only happen if there emerges a coalition of key member states, civil society groups, international institutions and good advocacy in the media and from the academic world.
This book makes clear why this is such an important cause for our time. And its focus on mobilizing young people to the cause is a worthy recommendation.”

Lloyd Axworthy, Past President, University of Winnipeg, former Foreign Minister of Canada

“Global issues require well-functioning global institutions. The United Nations and it’s agencies are critical global players that are needed more than ever given the increasingly interconnected world. The UN is vital in helping to create and support the right operating environment so that the Red Cross and Red Crescent and other organizations are able to fulfill their humanitarian mandates. Trent and Schnurr have written a concise and readable publication that should be read by young people the world over. It is hoped future generations would be encouraged to join the ranks in helping to rejuvenate an essential institution.”

George Weber, Secretary-General Emeritus, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Federation; CEO Royal Ottawa Hospital

John Trent
Laura Schnurr

A United Nations Renaissance

What the UN is, and what it could be

Barbara Budrich Publishers
Opladen • Berlin • Toronto 2018

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

List of Abbreviations


Achieving the unthinkable

The global governance deficit

The United Nations’ balance sheet

Empowering youth

Objectives of the primer

Chapter 1 – Evolving International Organizations: the UN Past and Present

Early international cooperation efforts

The Concert of Europe

A note on the creation of the League of Nations

The League of Nations as an institution

From the League of Nations to the United Nations

Introducing the United Nations

The principal organs of the United Nations

The Security Council

The General Assembly

The Economic and Social Council

Trusteeship Council

The International Court of Justice

The Secretariat

Beyond the organs

The Secretary-General

UN budgets

The UN System

International financial institutions and other international actors

Chapter 2 – Peace and Security: Fixing the Security Council

The Security Council’s functions and activities

Security Council strengths

Security Council weaknesses

The UN’s peace operations

The Security Council and the future

Chapter 3 – Social and Economic Development

Understanding ‘development’

The first 50 years

Development in the early years

Expanding development efforts

The North-South divide

Millennium Development Goals

Tallying up the results

Sustainable Development Goals

A changed world

More voices at the table

Financing the goals

Looking ahead

Partnering in a new era of development cooperation

Role for private sector

Role for civil society

Innovation and technology

What role for the UN?

Is the UN prepared?

Streamlining the UN development system and ‘Delivering as One’

Improving business practices

Focusing on strengths and priorities

ECOSOC reform

Is reform possible?

Chapter 4 – Promoting and Protecting Human Rights

Human rights: one of the UN’s great ideas that too many countries fail to respect

The fundamental paradox

International human rights law

Contradictory interpretations

The tremendous cost of violations

The United Nations’ Record in Upholding Human Rights

From the Commission on Human Rights to the Human Rights Council

The Secretary-General and the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Dealing with the worst violations: the International Criminal Court and ad hoc tribunals

Responsibility to Protect and human security

Migration, refugees and the humanitarian response

What next?

Reforms: big and small

Can change happen?

Chapter 5 – Workable Global Institutions: How to Get from Here to There?

What we have learnt about understanding world institutions

Reviewing the literature on revamping the UN

Nine popular proposals to transform the UN

1. A more legitimate Security Council

2. A more balanced and focused General Assembly

3. An Economic, Social and Environmental Council

4. A reconfigured Human Rights Council

5. Improved staffing and management practices

6. Autonomous emergency services for the UN

7. Financing the UN

8. Principles and criteria for the Responsibility to Protect

9. The dispersion and control of global power

Sequencing reform proposals: where to start

Four steps for how can we help bring about workable global institutions



[9] List of Illustrations

Box 1         Understanding ‘sovereignty’
Box 2Strengths and failures of the League of Nations
Box 3The General Assembly’s six Main Committees
Box 4Understanding ‘international law’
Box 5Secretaries-General, 1945-present
Box 6Other ‘actors’ enter the world stage
Box 7The UN’s record of achievements in peace and security
Box 8The Security Council’s challenges, problems and failures
Box 9Putting the environment on the agenda
Box 10UN Women
Box 11Global health crises—Ebola response
Box 12Key characteristics of human rights
Box 13Categories of human rights
Box 14Select examples of current human rights issues
Box 15Key terms related to the movement of people
Box 16Improving the working methods of the Security Council
Box 17Ideas for reforming the Human Rights Council
Box 18An NGO coalition that made history
Figure 1Evolution of international organizations, until 1945
Figure 2The United Nations System diagram
Figure 3United Nations Development Group members (excluding regional commissions and secretariat bodies) by year established
Figure 4Millennium Development Goals
Figure 5Sustainable Development Goals
Figure 6Key differences between the MDGs and SDGs
Figure 7Populations of concern (refugees, asylum-seekers, IDPs, returnees, stateless persons) from 1951-2015

[11] List of Abbreviations

CSRCorporate Social Responsibility
DACDevelopment Assistance Committee
DESADepartment of Economic and Social Affairs
ECOSOC         Economic and Social Council
ECOWASEconomic Community of West African States
ESECEconomic, Social and Environmental Council
FAOFood and Agriculture Organization
FUNDSFuture United Nations Development System
G20Group of 20
G77Group of 77
G7Group of 7
GAGeneral Assembly
GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
GDPGross Domestic Product
GNIGross National Income
IBRDInternational Bank for Reconstruction and Development
ICCInternational Criminal Court
ICISSInternational Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty
ICJInternational Court of Justice
ICTInformation and Communications Technology
IDAInternational Development Association
IDPInternally Displaced Person
IFADInternational Fund for Agricultural Development
ILOInternational Labour Organization
IMFInternational Monetary Fund
IMOInternational Maritime Organization
ITUInternational Telecommunication Union
LGBTLesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender
MDGsMillennium Development Goals
MOOCMassive Open Online Course
NAMNon-Aligned Movement
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
NGONon-Governmental Organization
ODAOfficial Development Assistance
OECDOrganization for Economic Development and Cooperation
OHCHROffice of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
P5Permanent Five, members of Security Council
R2PResponsibility to Protect
[12] RwPResponsibility while Protecting
SCSecurity Council
SDGsSustainable Development Goals
SGSecretary General
UNAIDSUnited Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS
UNCTADUnited Nations Conference on Trade and Development
UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme
UNEFUnited Nations Environment Fund
UNEPSUnited Nations Emergency Peace Service
UNESCOUnited Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
UN-HABITAT   United Nations Human Settlement Program
UNHCRUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
UNICEFUnited Nations Children’s Fund
UNIDOUnited Nations Industrial Development Organization
UNIFEMUnited Nations Development Fund for Women
UNODCUnited Nations Office on Drugs and Crime
UNOPSUnited Nations Office for Project Services
UNRISDUnited Nations Research Institute for Social Development
UNWTOUnited Nations World Tourism Organization
UPRUniversal Periodic Review
WFPWorld Food Programme
WHOWorld Health Organization
WMOWorld Meteorological Organization
WTOWorld Trade Organization

[13] Introduction

Welcome to this short, analytical primer on the United Nations as it is and as it could be. It is short, because its first task is limited to only providing essential information about the UN. Analytical, because its second aim is to try to understand how we can think about global institutions. The United Nations is an international organization set up by a treaty between states in 1945 to help them cooperate on peace, development and human rights. Today the word ‘international’ has been expanded to become ‘global’, signifying that it is no longer limited to states but now includes other actors and activities beyond politics. We are witnessing the birth of global institutions whose task it will be to manage and govern the increasingly integrated global system. To understand the United Nations, we must understand its historical and global context and analyze its relationships with states, regional organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), multinational corporations, and religious and cultural organizations. We must also study its strengths and weaknesses and its potential for the future.

Achieving the unthinkable

The world has never been a better place. We live in the most peaceful and prosperous era in human history. More than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in the past 25 years. From the early 19th century to the mid-20th century, the vast majority of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty (Roser and Ortiz-Ospina, 2017). We have not experienced a war between major powers in decades. The majority of people live in democratic countries, compared to just over 10 per cent of the world population a hundred years ago. Technological advances have rapidly spread across the globe, with more people connected to one another and to information than ever before. Tens of millions of lives have been saved from small pox, polio, measles, malaria and tuberculosis, while HIV/AIDS infections and deaths have dropped substantially. More people have access to education and basic health care, and incomes in the developing world are rising.

We often forget this as we are constantly fed a stream of bad news from the media and from politicians eager to stoke fear and insecurity. We urgently need perspective.

None of this means we should sit back contently, satisfied with the headway we have collectively made. Climate change has exacerbated risks such as water crises, food shortages, social cohesion, livelihoods and security. Terrorism poses a very real threat to our security and stability. Intrastate conflict is [14] devastating for individuals affected while also having regional and global consequences. We remain far from an adequate solution to the migration crisis caused by political and economic instability in the Middle East and North Africa. We need to respond rapidly when global pandemics occur, as they can spread like wildfire. There is no guarantee that we will avoid another global financial crisis similar to the one experienced in 2008-09.

The threats of our time are not like those of past eras that could often be solved by individual states alone or perhaps by a few states within a region. The diverse challenges we face today do share several common characteristics: they are increasingly complex in nature and they transcend national borders. Consider the hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees who entered Europe in 2016 by crossing the Mediterranean Sea and arriving in Italy, Greece, Spain and Cyprus. Or the rapid spread of the Zika virus, which was confirmed to be present in Brazil in 2015 and by September 2016 had reached 48 countries and territories in the Americas and 10 countries in the Pacific, Asia and Africa (PBS Frontline). We know that the so-called Islamic State has developed a global network, to a great extent through social media, that has allowed it to recruit a large number of Western fighters to carry out terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels, while having branches around the world including in Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and West Africa. Similarly, climate change knows no borders; with rising sea levels, we have seen how carbon emissions in the one part of the world have threatened the very existence of island states on the other side of the globe.

These transnational issues require a deeper level of cooperation and coordination between states. They call for strong international laws and norms. Most importantly, they demand effective global institutions to develop and deliver coordinated responses. Yet few would disagree that such institutions remain a distant vision and that in its current state, the United Nations, the only international organization of its kind, is not up to the task.

So, with all this discouraging news, why did we begin this book on a positive note? The answer is simple: given the magnitude of our problems and the barriers we need to overcome, it is useful to remember that we have achieved incredible progress in recent decades—progress that previous generations would likely never have imagined possible. Just as we have surpassed expectations in creating peaceful continents and in advances in areas such as health, development and technology, we are equally capable of reforming the United Nations system so it is able to meet present and future challenges. Filling the emerging void in effective global governance will certainly not be easy, but history tells us it is possible.

[15] The global governance deficit

How has the world changed since 1945? Has it changed to a degree which requires us to transform the international institutions that were created at that time? We argue that it indeed has. That our present challenges are as much global as they are national or local is a powerful rationale for improving our institutions, but it is not the only one.

The world is far more complex than it was during the post-war period. Some 51 countries came together to form the United Nations in 1945. Today, there are 193 member states. And great power politics have shifted tremendously since that era. Bipolar or unipolar global order has been replaced by one that is multipolar, with all that portends for instability.

When the UN was established, state governments were the dominant actors in the global sphere. While it may be too early to declare even the partial demise of the state-centric world, power is increasingly shared with other nonstate actors, such as NGOs, foundations, multinational corporations, religious communities, regional coalitions or blocs, intergovernmental organizations, and groups of major economies such as the G7 and G20.

Economic, social and cultural globalization has meant that we are more connected than ever. Greater ease of transportation has facilitated global trade of goods and services. The same is true of the movement of people, resulting in rising migration and international travel. Rapid and complex communications provide new sources of knowledge and instantaneous access to information. Most people’s lives have been affected by globalization in some way, but the extent varies significantly. And the gains from deeper integration have not been evenly spread; there are distinct winners and losers. Social and economic inequalities have reached new heights and capital is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few, with just one per cent of the world’s population controlling more than 50 per cent of the wealth. The global society we live in today is by no means a global community.

By contrast, international institutions and their capacity for governance have not changed substantively. Established in 1945, the United Nations was designed for a different era. Its institutional structure and culture still reflect this past era, rather than the realities of the 21st century. It has not kept pace with rapid globalization and change. This stunted institutional development has led to its marginalization, with states looking elsewhere to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. Observing this trend, many fear that the UN will slide into irrelevance unless it adapts to the times.

Sadly, at a time when we are in desperate need of greater cooperation and global governance, we are witnessing rising nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism in many countries. Accelerated globalization and integration, which for decades were assumed to be unstoppable, are being met by a new wave of resistance; leaders and politicians favouring nationalism and isolationism over [16] multilateralism are gaining support. We saw this when voters in the United Kingdom opted to leave the European Union in June 2016, and again less than five months later when voters in the US elected Donald Trump as their next President. The rise of nationalist political movements, on both ends of the political spectrum but particularly on the far right, is undermining international institutions such as the UN.

The United Nations’ balance sheet

To properly diagnose what is wrong with the United Nations and what possible reforms could improve its ability to govern, we need to study its achievements and failures.

As this primer will explore, the UN has had numerous successes in its over 70-year existence. These range from the public achievements attributed to the UN, to the everyday governance that is rarely associated with it, to its effects which cannot easily be measured and rarely make headlines.

The contribution that the UN has made over its lifetime to creating a more peaceful, just and sustainable world is so immense that it would be impossible to cover everything. It has unmatched legal legitimacy and global convening power and has been indispensable in shaping international law, rules and norms through adopting treaties and other legal instruments. From the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1968, it is responsible for a considerable body of international law that guides states’ behaviour. Several other treaties relating to the rights of indigenous peoples, persons with disabilities, children, refugees and other minorities have ensured that specific rights are outlined for individuals or groups that are particularly vulnerable. The UN has made real progress in tackling climate change between the Kyoto Protocol, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Most recently, the Paris Agreement succeeded in getting member states to commit to much-needed emission reductions. Beyond climate change, it has provided leadership on other environmental issues, from curbing ozone layer depletion, to protecting biodiversity and encouraging alternative energy.

While the UN cannot take credit for all the progress in socio-economic wellbeing and health, it has made enormous contributions. Its humanitarian programs deliver vital services to those in need, saving countless lives and improving the conditions of many more. It has been instrumental in shaping and implementing a global development agenda, as we witnessed with both the Millennium Development Goals in 2000 and the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. The UN has done much to promote gender equality, including establishing key international norms and creating UN Women in 2010.

[17] Beyond this relatively visible work, most international economic and political activity takes place fairly seamlessly thanks to a host of UN regulatory institutions. The result is that nearly all of us interact with the UN on a regular basis without recognizing it. Organizations such as the International Postal Union, the International Telecommunications Union, the International Civil Aviation Organization, and the International Maritime Organization are critical in a globalized world, yet we tend not to think of the UN each time we fly across a border, buy imported goods, make an international call or mail a postcard to another country.

Then there is the fact that the UN has been a stabilizing force contributing to global order for more than seven decades. It is the world’s most important diplomatic forum. It has helped avert another world war, managed nuclear proliferation and helped prevent a nuclear weapons war, and reduced and ended internal and international conflicts through numerous peacekeeping operations and political missions. The nature of this work usually does not lend itself to public recognition. This is partly because we simply do not know what wars or conflicts have been averted due to the presence of the UN and its unending diplomacy, negotiations and mediation. Successful prevention rarely makes headlines as the absence of an event is unknowable and causality is difficult to determine. In the end, the UN is often taken for granted and does not get the credit it deserves, especially for its record in fostering peace and security. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that without the UN the world would have to depend on increasingly brittle state-to-state relationships. Even with all its flaws, it remains far better than the alternative.

Despite all its achievements, even the most ardent supporter of the United Nations would not claim it is, or is even close to being, a perfect institution.

In the peace and security realm, the UN has been dealt multiple blows in recent years following a series of crises where it either failed to act or was bypassed altogether, along with a couple of highly publicized scandals. When the US and a few other states decided unilaterally to invade Iraq in 2003, they set a dangerous precedent in a world where only the Security Council was seen as capable of authorizing military interventions and the use of force. When the UN was not present at the 2015 negotiations on the Iranian nuclear agreement, it sent a powerful signal to the organization, which for decades has been pushing for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. For several years now the Security Council has failed to act in Syria, where a prolonged civil war has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions. The international community has tried to step in, but Russia and China have used their veto power to halt the attempts. The ability of the Security Council’s five permanent members to veto resolutions helps explain why the UN is not always able to deal effectively with crises such as Syria. The UN’s failure to counter the rising threat of terrorism has further damaged its image as the world’s upholder of peace. On top of all this, reports of sexual abuses by UN [18] peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic along with findings that the peacekeeping force in Haiti was responsible for the cholera outbreak after the 2010 earthquake have together served to tarnish the reputation of the long-admired blue helmets.

On the human rights front, the UN has been inconsistent in its approach to dealing with grave violations and has let politics trump principled action nearly every time. This has severely affected its legitimacy and credibility as a human rights defender. It has proven unable or unwilling to prevent mass atrocities including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, in Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia, and Syria, among other places. At the same time, it has not been successful in coordinating an international response to the migrant and refugee crisis in terms of mobilizing the required resources and getting states to accept more people in dire straits.

The diffusion of the Responsibility to Protect norm has succeeded in making the principle of state sovereignty and nonintervention conditional rather than absolute. Yet politics and national interests still determine which situations will receive attention and which will be ignored. Meanwhile the International Criminal Court—a promising innovation created to prosecute the worst human rights offenders—struggles to remain relevant as some countries have chosen not to join while others are exiting.

The UN has had its share of troubles in advancing sustainable development too. The lofty goals set out in the post-2015 development agenda require far more resources than are currently available. At the same time, the complex UN development system made up of numerous organizations and agencies, often with overlapping mandates, has resulted in inefficiencies, duplication, lack of coherence and competition for scarce resources. Its standing as a global health leader has been jeopardized by its slow and inadequate response to pandemics such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2013-14, where its organizational culture was largely to blame. And the Economic and Social Council, the UN’s principal coordination body for all economic, social and environmental matters, is in urgent need of reform.

With other regional and multilateral organizations, such as the World Bank and regional development banks, as well as private, philanthropic actors like the Global Fund and the Gates Foundation, being perceived as more efficient and responsive than UN agencies, the UN risks seeing development funding diverted elsewhere. Finally, as we look ahead it remains unclear whether it is fit to broker and manage 21st century partnerships for development that require deeper collaboration between public, private and civil society actors, while harnessing innovation and technology to enhance its development impact.

The urgency of current global challenges alongside the failures of the UN and the growing tendency for states to circumvent it suggest that action is needed now. There are a range of options available, varying from minor tweaks to the existing form and function, to rebuilding the organization from the [19] ground up. If the latter were possible, the potential for a better global institution would be limited only by our collective imagination. But a healthy dose of pragmatism is advisable. We must recognize the hurdles that are to be surmounted; perfect cannot be the enemy of good.

Nevertheless, the demands on the UN system require more than a series of incremental improvements. The UN’s structure, functions and allocation of resources have undergone reform over the years but not to the degree necessary to keep pace with rapid change. The organization today is not ‘fit for purpose’. Yet there is no shortage of proposals for improving the dated institution. Scholars, UN officials and other experts are continuously developing workable reform ideas. Often, there is general consensus around what should be done. Though even in these cases, making change happen is no easy task for a host of reasons. When it involves a slow, bureaucratic and political organization like the United Nations it becomes harder still. Ultimately, no individual actor can do it alone. A concerted effort is needed to transform its institutional deficits. This could take the form of a multi-stakeholder coalition between willing states, NGOs, UN officials, independent experts, and other players. Now is the time to mobilize diverse actors, identify common goals and develop and implement an agenda for change.

Empowering youth

We equally cannot achieve the transformation needed without engaging youth. Home to 1.8 billion young people, the world has never in history had such a large youth population as it has today. One quarter of the world’s population is between the ages of 10 and 24. Nine out of ten youth are in developing countries, many of which are experiencing a growing youth bulge while most developed countries tackle issues stemming from an aging population (UNFPA 2014). These young people, who are more informed, engaged and globally connected than ever before, should become the next generation of leaders who will shape our common future.

In his address to the 71st UN General Assembly, former US president Barack Obama praised the youth of our time, stating, “I have seen that spirit in our young people, who are more educated and more tolerant, and more inclusive and more diverse, and more creative than our generation; who are more empathetic and compassionate towards their fellow human beings than previous generations.” He went on to say that because of young people’s access to information about other peoples and places, they have “an understanding unique in human history that their future is bound with the fates of other human beings on the other side of the world.”

Indeed, today’s youth have incredible power to craft a more peaceful, just and sustainable world. The 2016 High-Level Segment of the General [20] Assembly saw an unprecedented number of world leaders acknowledge this, with 59 member states emphasizing the crucial role of youth in their national statements (United Nations Youth Envoy 2016).

The UN itself has taken note. In his second term as secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon made working with and for young people one of his top priorities. He established the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth and chose Ahmad Alhendawi of Jordan to serve as the first-ever UN Envoy on Youth beginning in 2013. At 28 years old, he was the youngest senior official in the history of the UN. He was mandated to harmonize youth development efforts across the UN system, enhance the UN response to youth needs, advocate for addressing the development needs and rights of young people, and bring the voices of young people to the UN (Youth Envoy website).

Despite a series of public statements and gestures recognizing the immense potential of youth, there are too many young people around the globe who live in poverty and countless are being denied the opportunity to pursue their education and find decent employment. The number of children and adolescents out of school is on the rise, and reached 124 million in 2013. There are over 73 million unemployed youth worldwide. At 13 per cent, the overall youth unemployment rate is three times the adult rate, though it is even higher in some regions (in two thirds of European countries the youth unemployment rate exceeded 20 per cent in 2014; the figure is close to 30 per cent in the Middle East and Africa) (ILO 2015). The reality for girls and young women is even more troubling. Secondary school enrolment rates are often lower for girls than boys and only about two out of 130 developing countries have achieved gender parity at all levels of education. Unemployment affects young women more than young men in almost all regions, while in North Africa and the Arab States the female youth unemployment rate is almost twice that of young men (ILO 2016). Those in countries affected by conflict are also worse off than most.

Meanwhile, many countries are failing to give a voice to their youth; two out of three countries do not consult young people as part of the process of preparing poverty reduction strategies or national development plans (United Nations Youth Envoy 2014). Youth participation in national parliaments is low, with less than 2 per cent of parliamentarians globally under 30 years old (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2016).

It is little wonder, then, that, despite their potential, youth often feels disempowered. Voter turnout among 18-25 year olds continues to be lower than other age groups and a lack of civic engagement among youth is common. But young people cannot afford to watch from the sidelines. They need to press for action and positive change. They need to better the world for themselves and for future generations. With political rights come responsibilities. More than ever, the world needs its youth to elect good leaders, get involved in politics, expand their understanding of global problems and develop solutions.

[21] Objectives of the primer

This primer on global governance and United Nations reform analyzes the organization in its current form while offering alternatives for the future. It aims to provide the fundamentals to those who are relatively new to the subject. It seeks to be informative and thought-provoking while remaining accessible to a broad range of audiences, varying from students to practitioners.

It is designed to:

• provide an overview of essential information about the United Nations system including its historical and global context;

• delve into the UN’s record on its three ‘pillars’: human rights, peace and security, and development;

• introduce various ideas and proposals for renewing the organization so it can better meet the demands of tomorrow; and

• explore the role of norms, values and attitudes as well as diverse actors in building a movement for a UN renaissance.

We take the notion of renaissance to have two meanings. First, it is used to refer to renewal, rebirth, revival or even spring, which leads us to think about change, reform and transformation at the UN. The second sense refers to the essential meaning of the historical renaissance as ‘a return to origins’. Dotted throughout the book are references to the UN’s founding objectives, which included preventing the scourge of war, getting great powers to cooperate on essential decision making, striving to protect human rights, and ensuring economic coordination. This book is dedicated to a renewed search for the initial aims of the United Nations: peace, development, cooperation and human rights—and, indeed, much more as the world has continued to evolve. Thus, we use renaissance to call for a transformation of the UN that remains deeply rooted in its original lofty goals.

We hope this book prepares and inspires readers to join and expand existing efforts to achieve this renaissance.

[22] Chapter 1 – Evolving International Organizations: the UN Past and Present

“[He] wondered why men could rarely harness this same sense of oneness toward good ends. Men would sacrifice their own interests, even their own lives, welding themselves together with bonds that far surpassed ordinary life, toward the purpose of killing one another. But when it came to creating beauty and life and love, too often men were left to act alone, their every act weighed against self-interest and simple inertia. If men were as good at creating heaven on earth as they were at creating hell, it would be a very different world.” Rachel Lee (2007: 474)

To really understand the United Nations it is not sufficient just to describe its structures, personnel and activities. It is first necessary to explain its beginnings and the intentions of its founders. And then the hard part begins: we have to weigh its strengths and weaknesses and analyze its components. This is the plan for this chapter.

Early international cooperation efforts

The United Nations is not the first but the third in a series of international organizations that date back to 1815. To give some historical context to the establishment and workings of the United Nations as it is today, the first part of this chapter describes these organizations and the key events that led to their creation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Evolution of international organizations, until 1945


[23] The Concert of Europe

The Concert of Europe was founded by the Treaty of Vienna, which put an end to the Napoleonic Wars that had lasted nearly 20 years. In many ways it set the mold for its successors: the League of Nations and the United Nations. Like these last two, the Concert was founded in the aftermath of a devastating war waged by a group of allies to stop one nation from trying to set up an empire to dominate the world. The word ‘concert’ was intended to mean a bringing together of states in a concerted effort to work on common concerns. It was a radical departure from the past. At the time, it was called “a principle of general union, uniting all the states collectively with a federative bond, under the guidance of the five principal Powers” (Mazower 2013: 4). Up until the Napoleonic Wars, Europe (as other parts of the world) was ordered by an ever-changing “balance of power” by which each sovereign state attempted to maximize its own interests and stop any state or group of states from obtaining overwhelming dominance. This was the continually shifting basis of foreign policy. Napoleon’s France had upset this balance. The allied powers wanted to re-establish it on a permanent basis.

Thus, the Concert of Europe was like a continuing coalition of the Great Power victors of the Napoleonic Wars (Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great Britain, plus the newly monarchical France). Its role was to convene meetings on a regular basis or upon need and to include other smaller countries to discuss overlapping interests and their efforts to maintain stable European relations. The Concert’s two major functions were to maintain peace between countries and to ensure the internal stability of the established monarchical governments against nationalist, liberal and democratic revolts. Consultation often checked aggressive impulses. It generally achieved its twin goals for more than a half century from 1815 until the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-71.

The Concert of Europe sought to manage the affairs of the continent by binding all states to the rules of the international game. Sometimes this could only be achieved by intervening in the affairs of others. In fact, the word ‘international’ was a relatively new concept that suggested there were ongoing links between states despite their past habit of just wanting to ‘do their own thing’ based on their sovereign independence. This right of sovereign nationalism harked back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia—which itself put an end to Europe’s Thirty Years War. Nevertheless, on several occasions after the French Revolution, the Concert did not hesitate to interfere in the internal affairs of states to enforce a conservative restoration. For instance, in 1823 Concert members invaded Spain to drive a revolutionary government out of Madrid.

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