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Understanding United Nations reform. Ten theoretical clues: (3) Legitimacy above all

Published on 02 February 2015
Updated on 05 April 2024

As is the case for all public institutions, reform offers to the United Nations (UN) an opportunity to update and reaffirm the legitimacy of its mandate. This pre-requisite does not work in crisis situations only, but also in qualifying, in general, the sense of all its activities. While the UN reform means change, in generic terms, its directions should not only be feasible and useful, but legitimate as well. For example, member states cannot keep avoiding a clear-cut response to queries about the need of a UN role in promoting certain economic or development policies. Once it has established areas for legal action, the organisation can envisage the means to achieve its goals. What is important is that the source of legitimacy be recognised by all member states. Their will and consensus give the measure of the impact on reality, and they are all the more necessary when development goals are at stake.

The whole UN architecture, as it looks today, is based at its origin on cultural affinities, a shared historic experience, and some similar political traditions, which united the first drafters of the UN Charter. Yet, what was acceptable for the respective states is not necessarily considered alike by others. Therefore – and I need to emphasise – legitimacy will depend, to a considerable extent, on the capacity of the UN to reinforce universal values acceptable and beneficial to all societies, irrespective of their geographical position and cultural heritage.

Legitimacy is not just a theoretical construct. The UN is the only intergovernmental organisation with a universal mandate, which deals with both peace and security, on the one hand, and economic and social issues, including human rights, on the other. This gives the organisation a unique leeway to generate a vision about the world, with the expectation to harmonise the two categories of issues. Indeed, nothing of the characteristics of our contemporary reality challenges the legitimate role of the UN as a factor of influence on the manifestations of globalisation. On the contrary, globalisation can stimulate a new profile of concerted action, based on multilateralism, democracy, solidarity, and dialogue. Despite all its imperfections and shortcomings, the UN system is the only institution able to attempt to manage the complex phenomenon of globalisation.

Globalisation has brought us at a turning point. We cannot take for granted that the possible result of the influence of the era of globalisation would be the recognition of an enhanced UN legitimacy. In this light, a proactive stand implies the need for a responsible and unambiguous positioning in the whole existing system of global governance.

The strengthening of the legitimate and irremovable role of the UN in handling global affairs is indeed desirable. As interaction among various other protagonists increases, it becomes obvious that multilateral organisations are necessary to keep together a framework in which all new relationships develop in an orderly and coherent manner.

Yet, this hypothesis does not materialise spontaneously or mechanically.  It needs a conscientious process of structuring and assuming responsibilities. If we fail to do so, prolonged ambiguities and hesitations may lead to unwanted denouement: weakening the UN’s role, or dispersing the protagonists, or fragmenting the expected reaction to the challenges of globalisation … or a bit of all.

See: Multilateral diplomacy course


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