Mobilising for a people-centred United Nations

Guest article by Fergus Watt

It has become commonplace in international politics to bemoan the impacts of rising nationalism and autocracy, particularly among some of the world’s largest and most powerful states. These trends clearly have direct impacts on the workings of the United Nations (UN). Multilateralism, the rule of law and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter have seen better days.

Some governments that have led at the UN are no longer doing so. Its most powerful member state and largest donor, the United States, has withdrawn funding from UN budgets, including the peacekeeping budget, the UN Fund for Population Activities and the UN Relief and Works Agency; withdrawn from important UN bodies, notably the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the Human Rights Council; and withdrawn from multilateral processes, on climate change and migration, among others. The UN Security Council too often remains paralysed with both Russia and the United States casting vetoes to protect their client states. Moreover, Russia and some of its allies have run roughshod over major international legal prohibitions on intervention, in the annexation of Crimea, and on the use of chemical and other weapons of mass destruction. And the current political climate allows China to expand its influence abroad and to restrict civic space even further, including the freedoms of association and expression.

And when major powers, which have important responsibilities under the UN Charter, shirk their obligations, others are tempted to follow suit.

However there is a resilience to the multilateral system. The UN has over its near-75-year history demonstrated a remarkable capacity to adapt - to the end of colonialism, the end of the Cold War and in response to growing commitments to peace operations, human rights and now the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Around the world the UN enjoys strong public support. In the 21st century, the machinery of international cooperation is needed more than ever.

Therefore, even as large powers are doubling down on unilateralism, militarism, nuclear weapons and trade wars, there are a great many small and medium states, as well as civil society and other stakeholder networks, that need and support the kind of rules-based international order that depends on a flourishing and properly functioning UN system. 

At UN headquarters some promising developments include:

  • The determination of a reform-minded Secretary-General, António Guterres, who is doggedly pursuing useful improvements to UN management structures, the coherence of the UN development system and a reorganisation of the UN secretariat’s peacebuilding architecture. The UN has achieved gender balance among senior positions at its New York secretariat.
  • The response of outgoing General Assembly (GA) President Miroslav Lajčák of Slovakia to the current crisis in multilateralism in convening an unprecedented series of off-the-record breakfast meetings for UN ambassadors. Mr Lajčák’s successor, Ecuadorian Foreign Minister María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, will also be someone to watch. Her acceptance speech as incoming GA President in June 2018 identified UN strengthening and reform among her promised priorities.
  • And importantly, a significant number of governments have called for the upcoming 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020 to be utilised as an opportunity to further strengthen the organisation.

This latter development responds to some quiet but persistent campaigning, under the banner of the UN2020 campaign, by civil society organisations (CSOs), including CIVICUS, that have called for an adequately prepared 75th anniversary commemoration of the UN in 2020, to include a meaningful process of stocktaking, review and strengthening of the organisation.[1]

UN2020 campaigners had hoped that language mandating a formal process for a 2020 Summit could be agreed in a GA resolution in September 2018, before the end of the 72nd session of the Assembly. Quite a large number of states had expressed support for such a step, including Canada, on behalf of the Canada, Australia and New Zealand (CANZ) group; Estonia, on behalf of the ACT (Accountability, Coherence and Transparency) group of states; the European Union (EU), plus eight or nine East European states, and EU candidate countries (Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey) as well as potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine); and Brazil, Nigeria, Norway and Uruguay.

However, opposition from members of the Non-Aligned Movement prevented the GA from reaching consensus at this stage.

Nevertheless, with considerable support among a cross-regional group of states, the idea of a 2020 Summit has considerable traction at the UN.

CSOs have recognised the opportunity inherent in a 2020 Summit and have begun to organise. Outreach and planning meetings have taken place, and the mobilisation of civil society networks and initiatives, at the national, regional and global levels, is expected to accelerate.

At the 67th Conference of the UN Department of Public Information NGO [non-governmental organisation] Relations Section (UN DPI/NGO), held in August 2018, upwards of 1,500 CSOs called on UN member states to: “Advance people-centered multilateralism by developing proposals to revitalize the United Nations on the occasion of its 75th Anniversary in 2020.”

The idea of a people-centred UN has become an important framework for the transformation of international politics, and one of the key organising principles for UN2020 campaigners.

The outdated notion that international decision-making on the delivery of global public goods should reflect little more than the outcome of bargaining among sovereign states is wholly inadequate in the 21st century. As we saw in the development of the SDGs, CSOs are essential partners in UN deliberations, introducing ideas, shaping discourse and holding governments and the international system to account.

A 2020 process that includes a review and improvement of the irregular and often-criticised rules and mechanisms for accrediting and controlling participation opportunities for CSOs at the UN would be an important step forward.

Progress toward a more democratic, people-centred UN could also include the creation of an additional chamber at the UN. The Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) has identified step-by-step measures for creating a UN parliament, using Article 22 of the Charter that allows the GA to create subsidiary organs. The International Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, co-chaired by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Nigerian Foreign Minister Ibrahim Gambari, introduced a variation on the proposal for a UNPA, calling for a looser ‘UN Parliamentary Network’, a body that would still have status within the system, after being created by the GA, again using article 22 of the Charter. Both options would enable greater participation not only of parliamentarians, but also of CSOs, as well as business, academic and other networks.

And an agenda for a more democratised and people-centred UN would also include measures to strengthen the GA vis-à-vis the Security Council, make the work of the UN secretariat and budget processes more open and transparent, and introduce fairer, more merit-based processes for the hiring of senior posts at the UN.

Beyond a more people-centred UN, there are a number of other improvements to the UN system that are much needed. Some of these include:

  • Finding ways to improve the indefensibly low levels of funding available for UN programmes and peace operations;
  • Diminishing the overlap and duplication of UN programmes in the field by reducing the national ‘earmarking’ of projects by donor countries and strengthening the system of UN Resident Coordinators at the country level;
  • Strengthening the authority of UN legal and judicial bodies;
  • Protecting the independence of key UN officers - not only the Secretary-General but also the President of the GA and heads of key UN agencies;
  • Creating more autonomous capacities for ongoing UN services such as peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.

The list is not exhaustive. There is a vast literature of sound proposals for creating a better UN. In addition to the above-mentioned Albright-Gambari Commission, a particularly rigorous menu of proposals is included in ‘Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World’, published by The Workable World Trust.[2]

Unfortunately, a strengthening and reform process at the UN is unlikely to involve changes to the Charter. This is due to the deadlock over changes to the composition of the Security Council. There is no consensus on a model of Security Council composition that better reflects the power dynamics of the 21st century. And Articles 108 and 109 of the Charter mean that any Charter amendment must receive the concurring support of the present permanent members of the Security Council.

At this historical juncture, measures for strengthening the UN system will therefore be limited to working within the framework of the present UN Charter.

Ultimately, hopes of a two-year process leading to an agreed outcome for UN strengthening face many obstacles. There are no guarantees, and there are many ways that the process could go sideways or fail.

But what we do have is an opportunity.

Governments and others at the UN increasingly recognise that in the face of very real threats to international diplomacy, they cannot simply do nothing and weather the storm. The idea of a 2020 75th UN anniversary summit offers a political space where those committed to multilateralism can push back, through a dedicated process of stocktaking, re-commitment to the principles and purposes of the Charter, and reforms that strengthen the organisation.

Whether at the local, national, regional or global levels of politics, it is axiomatic that civil society engagement is necessary for democratic, people-centred, rights-based structures to grow and flourish.

For the UN 2020 process to succeed, civil society has a crucial role to play.

About the author and contact information

Fergus Watt is Board Chair of the World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy and Coordinator of the UN2020 Initiative.

To find out more, receive updates and get involved, visit, email , or contact the CIVICUS UN office in New York.


[1] The UN2020 Project is initiated by a coordinating group of civil society organisations including CIVICUS, The Stimson Center, The Workable World Trust and World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy.

[2]Transforming the United Nations System: Designs for a Workable World’, Joseph E Schwartzberg, United Nations University Press, 2013.