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Reforming the United Nations:
A Global Civil Society Perspective



Richard Falk, TFF Associate


September 23, 2005


I. The Background of UN Reform

As portrayed in the media, the issue of UN reform is often reduced in public discussion to 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 World War II or situated in then colonized Third World regions a proper place at the head table of the United Nations.

This persisting preoccupation also illustrates the disabling 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 in 2000. These difficulties apply even to basic reforms that were almost universally accepted as necessary. More recently, it has been recognized 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 21st century.

Of course, the United Nations is used to designate a complex assemblage of distinct actors, organizations, programs, 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. To talk about the reform of the United Nations is rather ambiguous in its intended meaning.

In this essay reform is understood to refer to basic adjustments needed to ensure continuing 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 specialized agencies and the organizational 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, are daunting tasks, each of which is complex. The agenda of UN reform can only be touched upon impressionistically, and in light of the apparent priorities of global civil society, which center more and more on the democratization of global political spaces.


The problem of presentations of the UN

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 a straight road to peace, justice, and global governance. The UN is often represented by its fiercest critics as a dream palace of illusion, as 'a dangerous place' where 'irresponsible majorities' rule the roost, and as a site of irrelevance when it comes to the critical challenges of global security and the world economy. This spectrum of representations explains why it seems often impossible to achieve a consensus as to 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 experiment ever with respect to the establishment of institutional authority that challenges the primacy of the sovereign state, thus overlooking the extent to which the boldest initiatives of this sort should be associated with either the European Union or the triad of organizations( IMF, World Bank, and WTO). The first two are nominally linked to the UN, but 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 legitimation of policies that there is rarely advocated the policy option of withdrawal. But to acknowledge this importance is not the same as a shared commitment to a stronger or more effective Organization, the goals of genuine UN reform. It is this encounter in the realm of representation, and related imaginaries of world order, that has made reformist efforts in the UN setting so often come to grief. Such a realization 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.


Kofi Annan: "The UN has come to a fork in the road..."

The profound character of the reformist imperative was most dramatically articulated by UN Secretary-General, 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 Organization]. History is a harsh judge: it will not forgive us if we let this moment pass."

In effect, the Secretary General was saying the UN must change to survive and flourish as the institutional centerpiece of hope for a better world. Such a call, made beneath 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 had himself publicly declared it 'illegal.' The invasion of Iraq violates the core conception of the United Nations as an organization dedicated, above all, to the prevention of war (allowing only a narrow exception for wars of self-defense) based on an unconditional prohibition on unilateral recourse to war.

The UN was also under a 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, and as raising difficult questions about the nature of wars undertaken in the name of self-defense.

Such a realization 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 indicated the importance for 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 foundation for global governance in an era of multidimensional globalization.

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 21st century, as well as fulfill its potential contributions to the widespread calls for democratic forms of global governance. [See David Held, Global Covenant: The Social Democratic Alternative to the Washington Consensus (Polity, 2004)]


Realist and idealist aspects of the UN-civil society relations

The relation of civil society actors to the United Nations has been complex and problematic from the time of 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 warless world governed by the rule of law, especially with respect to the use of force to resolve international disputes. The UN was seen in 1945 as an idealist dream coming true, and as offering the best prospect of curbing the international behavior of sovereign states.

The long strategic and ideological conflict associated with the cold war often resulted in stalemates within the Organization, and suggested that the important developments in the area of peace and security were carried on by traditional modes of statecraft. It also became painfully clear that the voices of civil society, although acknowledged as formally relevant, were not 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 of geopolitics as the foundation of world order in the decades following upon World War II.

No feature of the UN better expressed this geopolitical character of the Organization than the veto power given to the permanent members (P-5), which effectively acknowledged the inability of the UN to address threats to global security generated by the most powerful states. Such a constitutional limit on authority was both 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 leading states that they could not count on the UN to uphold their vital interests, including their self-defense. 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, as well as an insistence by peace and justice forces that all members live according to the guidelines of the Charter.

Throughout the period of the cold war civil society actors increasingly disregarded the United Nations, concentrating their energies on issue areas such as human rights, environment, 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 East and West in collaborative undertakings that defied the rigid boundaries of the cold war, epitomized the Berlin Wall. [Kaldor & Falk; Keck & Sikkunk, Activists Across Borders]

What is notable about these developments is that they took shape almost entirely outside of the United Nations. At the same time, some NGOs and private citizens were advising government delegation, and providing them with valuable information, behind the scenes at major lawmaking conferences sponsored by the United Nations, particularly assisting understaffed and inexperienced Third World countries to be better informed about proposed treaty arrangement 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 that 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 problems associated with civil wars. 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.


From Stockholm 1971 onwards the relationship matured

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 inter-governmental activities and as an occasion for networking and organizing. Unlike the earlier low profile roles intended to disguise 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 quiet NGO roles of providing information and analyzing policy options continued to be an invaluable equalizer 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.'

The very success of this informal penetration of UN processes induced a backlash on the part of several leading governments, sensing a loss of control by states of the policy-forming process, and making 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 composition of 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 civil society access with respect to its major undertakings.


The facilitating Secretary-General and the recent - disappointing statist - reports

The Secretary General, as political leader and moral authority figure, has struggled to balance the contending forces and aspirations of the Organization. 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 Brasil, and was charged with looking into to the relations between the United Nations and civil society. It issued its report of June 7, 2004. ["We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations, and global governance," Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations, A/58/817] 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, was similarly constituted, chaired by Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand, submitted its report on December 4, 2004 to the Secretary General. ["A more secure world: Our Shared Responsibility," Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change," UN Publications, 2004].

This latter 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 does 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 inter-governmental institutions, and the 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-defense may be justifiable in a post-9/11 world, but that the legitimacy of such a claim depends on Security Council authorization, thereby acknowledging the substantive merits of the Bush Doctrine (of preemptive 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.

In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their energies and resources to this debate on UN reform, or concentrate their efforts on grassroots contributions to human betterment. This is an old debate that revives the view that the civil society effort to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission led nowhere, and was largely ignored within the United Nations itself. [The report was published under the title Our Global Neighborhood (Oxford, 1995) on behalf of the Commission on Global Governance.] The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to discourses on 'global governance.' - examples include Falk, On Humane Global Governance; Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton, 2004); Amitai Etzioni, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations (Palgrave, 2004); David Held, Democracy and the Global Order (Polity, 1995).]

It is notable and appropriate that the Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead contribution an essay 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, " NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world&emdash;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." [26-39, at 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 realist counsel to civil society actors to focus their efforts and resources in ways that ensure greater 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 criticize 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. At 37-38.] 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 must content themselves with services to humanity performed in the niches of relief work and by mounting grassroots protests directed at particular projects.


Informal reforms - examples that have worked well

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 by 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 2/3s 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 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 to represent 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 decide if the permanent members do not cast a negative vote, which is quite a reform of the veto power as expressed in the Charter provision.

The other 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, which 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. [Uniting for Peace Resolution, GA Res. 377A, 3 Nov. 1950]

In a sense, 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 there occurred a loss of assured majorities in the General Assembly due to expanded membership of formerly colonized countries.

A second example is the significant development of coercive peacemaking under Chapter VI of the UN Charter during the tenure of Dag Hammarskjöld in the 1960s, described at the time as an 'innovation' being neither prescribed nor proscribed by the Charter, but useful in dealing with situations other than warmaking, 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) to refrain from intervention "in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of sovereign states." Such a conception of Westphalian deference to territorial sovereignty reflected the ethos of 1945, but as civil wars became internationalized and as acute violations of human rights, particularly 'ethnic cleansing' and genocide, became challenges to the organized international community, the UN non-intervention norm 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.' [See Responsibility to Protect, Report of the International Commission on Intervention and StateSovereignty (International Research Development Centre, 2001); see also the report of the Independent International Commission on Kosovo, Kosovo Report (Oxford, 2000), especially 163-198.]

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-defense 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 international law experts, it has not been directly challenged as by the recent Panel until now.] 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 last presidential election affirmed that the United States would not await UN authorization to pursue its security interests.

What is most relevant here is that the High-level Panel recognized 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.

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, that the poster child of reform, restructuring the Security Council with respect to membership, size, and availability of the veto, does depend on a formal amendment, but it is also made problematic by an absence of agreement among members as to the specifics of the reform measure. And finally, 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.


Is the UN and civil society inherently beneficial to the world?

There is often implicit in discussions of 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 'human global governance.' [Falk, On Humane Global Governance (Polity, 1995); The Declining World Order: America's Neo-Imperial World Order (Routledge, 2004)] In both instances, such an assumption is misleading. Any political actor, however benign its mandate, can be twisted by pressures 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 twelve years with a program of sanctions despite evidence of severe harm to the civilian population of Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. 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 that 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 globalization 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 well as on accommodating the participation of global civil society within a structure that was made by and for sovereign states.


II. A Reformist Perspective

How should the 'citizenry' of global civil society, acknowledging multiple identities, think about the reform of the United Nations? This overall questions 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 as individual subjects and as members of various communities? And secondly, how the role and worldviews of global civil society be made more effective within the United Nations, including the participation of its representatives in the work of the Organization? Responses to these questions are made against the background of the discussion in the prior section.

The magnitude of the changes in 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 organization 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 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 such advocacy by civil society actors would exhibit a spirit of futility. It is necessary to work 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 fifteen members seems virtually impossible due to the refusal of Britain and France to agree to a consolidation of European membership, which would dilute their independent roles as permanent members.

In effect, widely needed and generally accepted reforms are often blocked by the entrenched vested interests of particular members, especially those enjoying veto power, in retaining outmoded features. This nationalist myopia can often outweigh the more general interest of all states in enhancing UN effectiveness and legitimacy. The Security Council expansion debate is helpful in illuminating these various aspects of the UN reform process.

The establishment of the UN in the first place was only feasible because of the historical climate that existed immediately after World War II 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 effect of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. It is 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 were intended to build upon and correct the deficiencies of the League of Nations that had emerged after World War I 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 realize the aspirations announced in the Charter, but what was agreed upon in San Francisco would itself have not been possible 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 that the United Nations would have been established in any form, and world order would have been entirely based on regional groupings of states and traditional alliances.

And the period following the cold war is no more favorable to UN reform despite the disappearance of 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 of the United States, as well as the neo-liberal 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 arenas removed from Third World influence such as the G-8 annual economic summits or the annual meetings of World Economic Forum at Davos.


Obstacles should not obscure the potentials of the United Nations

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 organization 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 sixty years contrasts with the experience of the League, where leading states, such as the United States, never joined, and important countries withdrew their membership out of disgust, such as the Soviet Union.

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 mobilization of opposition to the Iraq War, climaxing in the February 15, 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, 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 inter-governmental level of participation by sovereign states, currently the only members of the Organization. The expansion of the Security Council is a prototype example of a horizontal reform, making the system more responsive to the relations among sovereign states.

Such reforms are not irrelevant by any means to civil society to the extent that anything that makes the UN more effective and legitimate helps realize a central goal of a more humane and reliable approach to global governance depends on the appropriate participation of states. At the same time, the most direct concerns of civil society are associated with vertical reforms, taking account of other actors and social forces than states reflecting the growing obsolescence of any system of global governance that relies exclusively on a Westphalian conception of world order.

Thus, the remainder of this essay will be mainly devoted to exploring this vertical approach to UN reform, but will devote some attention to the proposed direction of horizontal reforms touching on interests of global civil society, especially as affected by the proposed recommendations of the Secretary-General's High-Level Panel on Security.


III. 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 Third World perspectives within the UN in relation to the right of development were resisted by the North as being essentially anti-capitalist. This resistance expressed itself by efforts within the UN to marginalize certain institutional influences, for instance, UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade and Development), ILO, and others. It also expressed itself through the successful effort of the United States to terminate altogether the UN Center of Information of 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 as oppositional to the precepts of a neo-liberal world economy, it was regarded as a threat to the sort of 'club' that some of the leading states wanted the UN to remain.


Contrasts in the treatment of corporations and civil society organisations

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 given full recognition to 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, has been able to find spaces for multinational corporations to participate in diverse ways: by receiving funds for specific programs, by establishing advisory bodies drawn from the world of business (as in relation to environmental policy), by creating a global compact that allows companies to agree voluntarily to pledge adherence to international standards bearing on human rights, labor practices, and environmental protection.

By contrast, the informal efforts of global civil society to participate in UN activities has been treated by the mainstream media as confrontational, especially with respect to global policy conferences such as the Copenhagen Social Summit (1995) and the Durban Conference on Racism (2001). These concerns about the outlook of global civil society were confirmed for conservative statist and economistic forces by the street demonstrations at UN events, starting with the opposition to WTO December 1999 meetings in Seattle. The visibility of the non-state presence, the articulation of demands that appeared critical of and hostile toward corporate globalization and American geopolitical leadership produced an anti-global civil society backlash. This found tangible expression in efforts to eliminate UN arenas where civil society voices and networking were taking place, especially the large conferences on major global policy issues.


The Cardoso Panel

In the spirit of Annan's fork in the road speech UN reform needed to explore, among other topics, that of facilitating a better connection between global civil society and the Organization. As mentioned earlier, in 2003 Annan established "A Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations" under the chairmanship of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (hereinafter referred to as the Cardoso Panel). The Cardoso Panel Report emphasizes intangible encouragements to civil society by way of calls to the UN System to consult more with multiple constituencies additional to governments affected by policy and to establish a spirit of engagement at the level of international institutions and national governments. [Cardoso Panel Report, A/58/817 (2004)].

Among 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. Proposal 4 is indicative of the approach taken, one mindful of geopolitical skepticism 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" (italics added) in circumstances where public understanding and opinions is important as the basis for "concerted global action." Further, that "[t]he participation of civil society and other constituencies should be planned in collaboration with their networks." Here the word 'planned' acknowledges statist concerns with 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."

This is a catchall bureaucratic consolidation that draws inspiration from trendy 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 connections between constituencies that might otherwise be devoting their energies to adversarial activities. [See Anne-Marie Slaughter, on the reshaping of global policy formation and implementation by networks that disaggregate the state as unitary actor]

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. The reliance on consultation and exhortation to engage civil society is not likely to produce relations of trust or to establish significant channels of influence. The Cardoso Report as a whole, despite its consoling rhetoric with respect to the significance of civil society, can be read as more of an effort to achieve 'pacification' and minor bureaucratic adjustments rather than 'reform.' None of the real priorities of civil society with respect to the UN are addressed in a positive and direct way, if at all: for instance, a regular mode of participation on an annual basis either by way of ad hoc assemblies of civil society representatives or a parallel organ to the General Assembly as a way of allowing the voices of non-state actors to be consistently heard at a level that acknowledges the political weight of these perspectives. The proposal for the establishment of a World or Global Peoples Assembly, on a basis analogous to the European Parliament is not even mentioned in the Cardoso Report despite the emphasis given to such an institutional innovation by civil society advocates.


IV. UN Reform from the Perspective of Global Civil Society

Aside from participation and influence within the UN System, 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 of the UN, seeking to prevent aggressive war, to promote a more equitable 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.


Another statis report: A More Secure World: Our Shared Responsibility

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. The Report is comprehensive, and can only be discussed selectively, in relation to its central concern with expanding the understanding 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 inter-governmental thinking about the role of the United Nations in the 21st 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 future discussions of UN reform.

The two main premises of A More Secure World are 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, acute oppression. In the words of the Report "the indivisibility of security, economic development, and human freedom" (p.1) must be the basis for UN thinking about effectiveness. In a nod to civil society perspectives, there is acknowledged the new orientation toward security implied by the nomenclature of 'human security.'

While affirming the role of the UN in addressing the security challenge, the Report argues that it is "the front-line actors" that "continue to be individual sovereign States" bear the main burden of responsibility. Further that security rests on "three pillars:" threats to security are interconnected and require attention at national, regional, and global levels; that no state can address these threats on its own; and that not every state has the capacity to uphold its responsibilities to its own people or to ensure that harm to neighbors will not be done. [all references are to p.1]

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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 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." (p.4)

The Report advocates no structural changes, but a more adaptive use of existing institutional mechanisms. While recognizing the need to think of self-defense in light of changing technologies and conflict patterns, there is affirmed the adequacy of the Charter framework, which conveys both faith in the susceptibility of the text to interpretation and the difficulty to prescribe any formal changes that would call into play the cumbersome amendment process embedded in the Charter. In essence, the preemptive thinking of the United States after 9/11 is affirmed, but its unilateral enactment is rejected.

In relation to Iraq this would mainly suggest that the United States was wrong to invade Iraq without Security Council authorization. It is also possible for Washington to read the Report as saying that the Security Council should not have withheld its authorization 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.

There is set forth in the Report a set of 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. (p.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.

The Report also endorses the approach to humanitarian intervention adopted by the International Commission on State Sovereignty and Intervention, which is not surprising considering that the forceful co-chair of the latter was Gareth Evans, who was also a member of the High-level Panel. [See Report of the Commission, "The Responsibility to Protect."] In essence, 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 in the Report: We endorse the merging 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." (p.66) There is no mention of what is the status of a claim 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 question has proved decisive in relation to Kosovo, Rwanda, and more recently, the Sudan.

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 Force that could implement the responsibility to protect norm, and thereby somewhat diminish the problems poses by the 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. There has been floating around in civil societies for decades several variations on the initial proposal of a 'Tobin Tax' on transnational currency transactions.


Statist versus reformist approaches

Such desirable reforms, which also seem necessary if the goal of UN reform is to make the Organization 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 mount a climate of opinion that weakens or circumvents them?

The successful movement to establish an International Criminal Court 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 during the latter years of the 1990s, likes to tell the story that he was advised by many within the UN that the project was impossibly utopian given the firmness of US opposition.

The mobilization 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 is not entrusted with indictments and prosecutions in the coming years. 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 the legality of the Israeli security wall; the push for a treaty of prohibition on the use of anti-personnel land mines; and widespread adherence to the Kyoto Protocol restricting greenhouse gas emissions.

Such successes should not be overstated. The opposing states can still nullify the 'success' by refusing to comply, 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 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 center of security discourse. At this point, within UN circles, especially the Security Council, the notion of security, despite some willingness to acknowledge the wider reach of security, remains preoccupied with 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 Organization depends on support from major states, and this support is forthcoming or not, mainly on the basis of 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 response to genocidal threats in Rwanda, Sudan, and even Bosnia, with the response to the tsunami.


V. Conclusions

Of course, part of the glory of global civil society is its diversity of viewpoints, priorities, goals. This essay 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.

Further, no effort has been made in this essay 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 abandoning those features of existing world order that hold some promise for the present and future. The United Nations, despite limitations and disappointments, remains a source of hope about improving the circumstances of humanity. It deserves the attentiveness 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 reform of the UN is an integral aspect of any plausible program for the extension of democracy to regions and to the world, and to the thinking of 'the cosmopolitian democracy' school of thought.

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 pronounced as 'impossible' by custodians of the reasonable, and if their counsel had been heeded, East 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 not mean an embrace of phantasy, 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, realizing that we will never know without such a struggle what are the true limits of the possible.

Such an orientation toward the lifeworld should also guide our thinking on this crucial topic of UN reform.

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