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Understanding United Nations reform. Ten theoretical clues: (1) The relevance of the current mandate

Published on 07 January 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

‘Reform’ is a very fashionable term. No respectable statesman or head of an organisation would speak about their leadership intentions without a generous use of the notion. Yet, with the word reform on everyone’s lips and for over-extended periods, the concept takes many shapes and sometimes the various meanings attached to it can even be contradictory.

The same goes for the United Nations where the reform flag has been flying for decades. Lacking a definition, all member states give their own definition to the notion of ‘reform’ and measure their willingness to implement it accordingly.

It is from that perspective that some purely theoretical assumptions might be useful to help the observer understand the claims made about reform, at best, if not to add to the confusion.

1. The relevance of the current mandate

If the aspiration of the reform is for the United Nations to play a more significant role in the context of globalisation, the organisation should do more than permanently improve its functioning mechanisms. While this is indeed a first basic condition for reform, it is not sufficient.

The second way to serve the purpose is to reflect the comprehensive phenomena which portray contemporary globalisation in its current forms. For globalisation is, I dare say, the third fundamental change of the context in which the scope and objectives of a reform of the United Nations needs to be redefined, coming as it does after decolonisation and the end of the Cold War.

Among the numerous manifestations and consequences triggered by globalisation or conducive to it, I identified two major vectors which undoubtedly make reform necessary: the erosion of national sovereignty and the emergence of new power holders in global governance.

The importance of these vectors is given by their direct bearing upon the original mandate of the organisation. Globalisation is at the origin of the need to reconfigure the international system of values and priorities. At the same time, globalisation offers the means for possible surfacing of new principles and dimensions of global governance. Looking again at the original mandate reminds us that the United Nations was created to serve the interests of a certain group of states, the victors in the Second World War, among which the Western powers prevailed. Some of them possessed colonies. Since then, the world order has been transformed by universalising participation, by enriching the agenda in such a way as to reflect multiple global links, and by coagulating the forces unfettered by liberalisation, deregulations, and privatisations. From that angle, the United Nations reform means, on the one hand, bettering the capacity to face traditional threats to international peace and security and, on the other hand, the prompt and efficient reaction to new dangers, some of them directly significant for the very survival of the human species.

The third prerequisite is that the concept of reform not be determined by existing limitations and obstacles, but mainly by the anticipation of future challenges. For example, a new pattern of global development might be inspired by a democratic blueprint, having as a main goal raising the quality of living for all citizens of the world.

As the international partners are not equal, the changes are inescapably dependent on the will and readiness of rich and powerful states to uphold international institutions for global governance. While such readiness can start from the elements of an abstract solidarity, strengthening the platform of common interest and values is essential. By its defining characteristics, universality and legitimacy, the United Nations has the potential to upgrade its mandate to the expectations in the collective efforts to solve contemporary global problems. The organisation has proved the needed capacity to that effect, by developing and adapting its general and specialised means of action over 70 years of work, from mere awareness-raising to the codification of international law.

In other words, some building blocks remain constant in any equation of change. Among them, the nature of the substantive mandate ascribed to the organisation, the political confidence, and the volume of resources entrusted to the United Nations are vital.

See: Multilateral diplomacy course


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