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Mandeep Tiwana is chief programmes officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He heads CIVICUS’s UN liaison office in New York.
– This September, New Yorkers will be a lot less annoyed. They’ve been spared the annual disruptions from road closures, sirens and movement of security forces accompanying world leaders who attend the UN General Assembly. By largely moving online due to COVID-19, the world’s most significant gathering will be missing some of its excitement even as the UN celebrates an important 75th anniversary in 2020.
In a departure from tradition, flowery addresses and passionate perspectives on global affairs, are being shared through pre-recorded speeches and teleconferences delivered from home rather than the UN’s headquarters. Face-to-face interactions between politicians, civil servants and civil society workers that animate annual UN gatherings are absent when solidarity and understanding are most needed to overcome the ravages of a global pandemic.
The UN is already facing a crisis of sorts from chronic underfunding and from the inability of governments who shape the UN’s agenda to see eye to eye on the big challenges facing humanity. This is casting a shadow on the UN’s work and mission, prompting Secretary General Antonio Guterres to make a plea for ‘renewed and inclusive’ multilateralism.
The UN was conceived as a ground-breaking experiment in global cooperation and people-centred multilateralism. Born out of the ashes of the Second World War, its Charter outlines four lofty aspirations in the name of ‘We the Peoples’.
These are to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war; reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, dignity and equality; establish conditions for justice under international law; and promote social progress and better standards of living.
Is the UN still fit for purpose? To answer this question, my colleagues at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, asked thought-leaders and activists to reflect on the UN’s achievements, challenges and prospects for change.
Experts drawn from a diverse array of organisations that work closely with the UN opined that while millions of people around the world have benefitted from the UN’s activities there needs to be a major shake-up in how the UN operates.
Significantly, the UN has helped prevent and resolve conflicts. It has provided humanitarian assistance to people in desperate need following natural and human-induced disasters. The UN has arranged food and shelter for vulnerable populations during crises while enabling joint action to overcome the fallouts of pandemics and climate change. The conditions of many of the world’s excluded people could have been far worse were it not for the UN’s interventions.
The UN has also produced strong and continually evolving human rights and gender justice norms. Following the Second World War it helped usher in the great wave of decolonisation and self-determination that swept much of the global south.
More recently, the UN has stewarded an ambitious and universal sustainable development agenda. In each of these endeavours the UN and its member states have relied on activists and non-profit organisations for innovative ideas, complex problem solving and service delivery.
This 75th anniversary offers a unique opportunity to examine the UN’s failings and reflect on ideas to improve its functioning. Experts and practitioners agree that urgent change is needed to enhance the relevance of the UN to people and their organisations around the world.
A major criticism of the UN is that its panoply of systems and structures seem both bewildering and self- serving to outsiders making it difficult to work through them. The UN’s bureaucracy is sprawling and often slow-moving. Its structure is rigidly hierarchical and powerful institutional inertia makes reform hard.
Civil society activists and organisations seeking new forms of people-centred engagement to meet contemporary challenges find themselves stymied by outdated UN procedures with their attachment to precedent and lack of imagination.
Accreditation with the UN can be politically loaded and many human rights organsations struggle with it. This means that the UN loses out on opportunities to hear vital voices. Further, many of the UN’s key agencies and departments are based in global north countries with discriminatory visa regimes that exclude the vast majority of people of the global south.
These failings are not merely procedural. They point to a deeper dysfunction of obstructionism and failure by UN member states to live up to and support the UN’s founding values. The consequences are profound for some of the world’s most persecuted peoples, including Palestinians, Uyghurs, Rohingyas, Sahrawis and Tibetans.
They have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in just this past decade in conflicts in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The UN Security Council, whose primary responsibility is to maintain international peace and security, is hobbled by the irresponsibility of its five permanent member states. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States owe their special status at the Security Council to having emerged victorious in the Second World War.
They are among the biggest global producers and proliferators of weapons of war. Their politicking and posturing have allowed commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on an industrial scale.
Today, there are nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people around the world. Global military expenditure has soared to a mind-boggling US$1,917 billion. One in nine people on the planet face chronic undernourishment despite an exponential growth in wealth.
On each of the above issues, there is plenty of civil society expertise, as well as numerous policy proposals and momentum to demand change, yet when activists and organisations have engaged with international decision-makers they have often found themselves left out from key deliberations.
The UN’s state-centred procedures and exclusive decision-making spaces controlled by government representatives sit at odds with the people-centred aspirations of the UN charter. Some progress has been made to enhance people’s and civil society participation at the UN but much more needs to be done to address asymmetries within various UN forums, departments and agencies.
Notably, the Declaration to commemorate the 75th anniversary includes a solemn promise to “upgrade the United Nations”. In this spirit three proposals to advance the people-centred aspirations of the UN Charter are worth considering.
First, an office of a people’s or civil society champion could be created to identify barriers in participation, spur inclusive convenings and drive the UN’s outreach to the public and civil society organisations.
Second, a procedural mechanism in the form of a citizen’s initiative could be established to mandate key UN bodies including the General Assembly and Security Council to act on matters of global importance following submission of a joint petition by a certain number of global citizens.
Third, people across the world should be given direct representation and voice at the UN through a parliamentary assembly.
In 1945, the UN recognised that we live in a world of diverse but interrelated cultures and geographies. The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated how easily problems in one part of the world can spill over into others.
Today, as we face down an epic global health crisis and an impending massive economic recession, international cooperation that promotes people-centred multilateralism will be needed more than ever. Global challenges are too big for states and their agents to solve alone. Organised civil society and active citizens have a key role to play but first we have to transform the spaces within which decisions are made.