UN75: ‘Civil society needs to be the conscience of the global community’

To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Keith Best, Interim Executive Director of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy (WFM/IGP), a non-profit, nonpartisan organisation committed to the realisation of global peace and justice through the development of democratic institutions and the application of international law. Founded in 1947, WFM/IGP works to protect civilians from the threat of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity; facilitate transparency in governance; increase access to justice; and promote the application of the rule of law.

Keith best

What kind of relationship has civil society maintained with the UN over its 75-year history?

The relationship of civil society towards the UN has been mostly that of a critical friend throughout its history and WFM/IGP’s experience mirrors that. Often, the feeling has been mutual. I recall vividly when Boutros Boutros-Ghali was UN Secretary-General (UNSG) that in a meeting with civil society organisations (CSOs) he publicly appealed to us all to help him secure the outstanding dues from the USA – which were promptly paid when the US needed support for the Gulf War! Former Executive Director of WFM/IGP, Bill Pace, also wrote that “Kofi Annan was a very important Secretary-General, whom I was fortunate enough to develop both a professional and personal relationship with. Though his legacy is still being debated I think he was committed to standing up against to the big powers and corruption of the principles set out in the charter.” It was through Kofi Annan that the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect was unanimously adopted.

In which ways has the UN made a positive difference? 

There is a tendency to think of the UN only in its peacekeeping role and more visible efforts in seeking to maintain world peace while neglecting the less heralded but sometimes more effective work of its agencies. I shall mention only three. Despite the recent controversy over COVID-19, where the main issue may have been its lack of powers and coordination, the World Health Organization (WHO) has achieved lasting success. It was officially established on 7 April 1948 to achieve “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health,” with health being not just the absence of illness or infirmity but the complete physical, mental and social wellbeing of the individual. Its greatest triumph was the eradication of smallpox in 1977; the global efforts that it has led to end polio are now in their final stages. In the past few years, the WHO has also coordinated battles against viral epidemics of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Zika in Brazil. It will be a disaster if the USA withdraws from it instead of helping it assert a better warning mechanism and distribution of medicines following a pandemic of which, assuredly, there will be more.

Another unsung hero is the Food and Agriculture Organization, which has done much to enhance the lot of small farmers, conservation and improvement in agricultural methods and report on biotechnologies, among other things. Also the UN Development Programme, founded in 1965, promotes technical and investment cooperation among nations and advocates for change and connects countries to knowledge, experience and resources to help people build a better life for themselves; it provides expert advice, training and grants support to developing countries, with increasing emphasis on assistance to the least developed countries. Some of these agencies have been criticised not so much for the work that they do but for the manner and actions of some of their officials. The way in which some are selected is unfinished business for WFM/IGP.

Largely though the work of the UN we now have the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Responsibility to Protect – both major advances. The ICC, building on the recommendations of the International Law Commission and the Nuremberg, Tokyo, Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals, has enshrined for the first time in history the individual accountability of heads of state and others for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide and, more recently, the crime of aggression. In the colder light of reflective history this will be seen as a major development in global responsibility which, hitherto, had attached only to states but not to individuals. The concept of Responsibility to Protect, endorsed overwhelmingly in 2005 at the UN World Summit – the largest gathering of heads of state and government in history – turned on its head centuries of obligation of the citizen to the state – an obligation not just to pay taxes but, ultimately, to give one’s life – by reversing that responsibility onto the state to protect its citizens. Its potential is to end 400 years of the inviolability of the state to answer to its peers as enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia, while the concept of non-intervention has not survived the last century.

What things are currently not working and would need to change, and how is civil society working to make it happen?

The disappointment, of course, has been the inability of the UN to reform itself effectively from within and, mostly through the major powers having vested interests in maintaining the status quo, rendering itself unfit for purpose in the modern world, exemplified particularly by the UN Security Council (UNSC) and the use or threatened use of the veto. The P5, its five permanent members, still represent the victors of the Second World War, with the People’s Republic of China substituted for Taiwan/Republic of China in 1971, and, until Brexit, two seats held by member states of the European Union. Neither the world’s most numerous democracy, India, nor the third-largest economy, Japan, are there. In recent years the use or threat of use of the veto have made the UN unable to prevent conflict in many situations. In a recent book, Existing Legal Limits to Security Council Veto Power in the Face of Atrocity Crimes, Jennifer Trahan explains that this abuse of power is, in fact, contrary to the spirit and letter of the UN Charter. There is mounting pressure from other states to curtail such abuse, and we hope that a civil society campaign can bring such change to fruition.

Another thing that needs to change is the way in which the UNSG has been appointed, which in the past has been secretive and arguably failed to canvass all suitable candidates. But thanks to the 1 for 7 Billion Campaign, in which WFM/IGP was active alongside many others, including governments, the process by which the UNSG is selected has arguably changed forever, as the previous arrangements conducted by the major powers were wrested away from the UNSC to the UN General Assembly (UNGA). The present UNSG, António Guterres, has frequently praised and supported the new process by which he was selected. This was the result of a number of organisations led by an informal steering committee of Avaaz, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung New York, United Nations Association-UK and WFM/IGP, supported by over 750 CSOs with an estimated reach of over 170 million people, coming together. Many of them are now hoping to breathe new life into a renewed campaign to consolidate and improve on the gains so far. One of the delicate issues is that the original campaign favoured a lengthier single term for UNSGs rather than two potential terms, and this will remain an objective but, hopefully, without the current incumbent thinking it a threat to his own position.

Many are now calling for a review conference under article 109 of the UN Charter, but we should be careful what we wish for. In the current climate dominated by narrow nationalism and populism we might well end up with a watered-down version of the current Charter. Far better to encourage evolutionary and incremental change which is likely to be more long-lasting.

Do you think it is both necessary and possible to make the UN more democratic?

Indeed. The main weaknesses in the UN system are not only the much-needed reform of the UNSC so that its permanent members – and many argue that there should be none or at least no new permanent members – more accurately reflect the economic and diplomatic power in the world but also its often lack of transparency and accountability and the absence of a democratic element, hence the 1 for 7 Billion campaign.

For the foreseeable future the UN is likely to be based on the nation state – the equality of which in the UNGA is one of its more endearing features – but increasingly there is a call for greater democracy to give effect to “we the peoples of the united nations” as opposed to just the governments. Hence the call for the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly, perhaps created under article 22, which would start not as a legislative body but a scrutineer of the UN and its agencies, given that any attribution of legislative powers would ensure its failure through states’ opposition at the outset. When so many international organisations and treaties have a parliamentary assembly – with varying powers – attached to them, there should be no reason, other than electoral mechanics, why it should not happen at the global level.

What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change in the aftermath of this crisis?

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has concentrated minds, but it remains to be seen whether it is sufficiently cataclysmic to become a main driver for change, of which the stimulus in the past has been world wars. The pandemic has emphasised that we are ‘all in this together’, that an animal-human crossover or the development of a new virus in a remote part of the world can soon translate everywhere, and no national borders will stop it. It has highlighted that the most affected are the already most vulnerable, poorest, most ill-prepared and most medically ill-equipped societies. It is telling that the pharmaceutical companies are teaching ethics to the politicians in the way of equitable distribution of remedies and ensuring that it is not wealth that should determine availability. That is a lesson that has a wider application. It has highlighted the need for enforceable global decisions in the interests of humanity as a whole – a message, again, that has wider relevance in the environmental and climate change context.

Much of the idealism of the 1960s and 1970s, which were exciting times for those of us involved, has been translated into a realism of the current era. There is no harm in that as these matters need to stand up to adverse scrutiny and a hard-nosed approach. Technology has brought home the fact that wars are now fought against civilians and not uniformed soldiers and that cyber attacks on energy and water supplies are more likely to achieve the incapacity of a foe than armaments, which are now so expensive as to be both limited in their sustainability and only useful to those states that can afford them. The world has indeed shrunk to a situation in which we are more likely to know what is happening on the far side than in our neighbour’s home. Through digital means the voices of the people are ever more articulate and widespread and the people want their voices to be heard. Satellite technology enables not only precision take-out of individuals but also the observation of actions down to that level: there are now no places to hide. If used in an accountable way in the furtherance of international justice according to universally accepted norms, such modern technology can be a force for good – but if misused, it can also lead us to destruction.

The challenge of multilateralism today is to spread these messages of interdependence and make clear that, increasingly, to achieve their desires and the aspirations of their citizens states have to work in combination, partnership and common understanding. That realisation in itself will lead inevitably to the need for enforceable mechanisms of managing our climate and our behaviour, in the knowledge that my action will have a reaction elsewhere which is likely to haunt us. Whether it is the destruction of the Amazonian rainforest or the impoverishment of a people through rapacity and failed autocracy, these will impact on the rest of humanity. Poverty destroys markets for manufacturing nations, which then creates instability, resulting in increased expenditure on conflict prevention or resolution. The answer to migratory flows is not encirclement and strengthened borders but addressing the causes of migration in the first place.

We live in the fastest-moving age in history in which still recent certainties become questioned and outmoded. That is disruptive but can also open new opportunities and ways of doing things. In such a political climate the capacity of WFM/IGP and civil society to be the conscience of the global community and to point to a better federalist form of governance, giving voice to the people at the basic level, is greater than ever.

Get in touch with the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy through its webpage or Facebook profile, and follow @worldfederalist on Twitter.



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