Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society’s Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance

REVIEWS, 13 Jan 2014

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

John E. Trent, Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society’s Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance (Opladen, Germany: Barbara Budrich Publishers, 2007, 285pp.)

Professor John Trent of the Department of Political Science, University of Ottawa, Canada sets out clearly the framework of this important study of the possible reforms of the United Nations. “Time and again, our international organizations have proven they cannot reform themselves.  The reasons are manifold.  There is no political will among their members.  Due to built-in interests and habits, transformation of human institutions is always long and arduous.  Nation-states concentrate on their own national interests. Politicians and diplomats are so busy managing the system that they have little time to think about its reform. Because of a lack of information, most citizens in most countries are unaware of the nature of international institutions and politics, and therefore feel uninvolved and incapable of influencing the global future…The world is strewn with the skeletons of noble ideas for ‘perpetual peace’ dating from the time of Emmanuel Kant in the 1790s.  Everyone has his pet ideas about specific reforms.”  As the long-time U.N. environmentalist Maurice Strong has said “These reform studies and recommendations have become something of an industry, and the fact that actual reforms have thus far been minimal is not for a lack of ideas but for lack of political will and a sufficient degree of consensus among member governments.”

          Trent provides a useful section on the main areas of U.N. reform which have been proposed by different study groups starting with the Commission on Global Governance and its 1995 report Our Global Neighbourhood as well as many more recent studies.  Websites are given for each study so that the specific recommendations may be analysed.  As Trent says of this list “The above table provides a good sample of the efforts to reform and innovate the international institutional framework, but it does not include the many individual scholars, activists and practitioners who contribute to the growing reform movement.  It is useful to note that some prominent individuals have dedicated a lot of energy to the reform agenda, either through scholarly contributions or advocacy.”

          The book begins with an analysis of the reforms carried out and proposed by the then Secretary-General Kofi Annan whom Trent calls ‘the Reforming Secretary-General’. As Kofi Annan said in his 2003 Report to the General Assembly “We can no longer take for granted that our multilateral institutions are strong enough to cope with all the challenges facing them.  I suggest in my conclusions that some of the institutions may be in need of radical reform.”

          Kofi Annan was the only U.N. Secretary-General to have spent his whole career within the U.N. system, first in Geneva and later in New York.  He knew well what changes he could make on his own authority as Secretary-General and those changes for which he would need larger intellectual consensus which he tried to develop with the creation of High Level Panels of largely retired government leaders and diplomats such as the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and a High Level Panel on Civil Society. Lastly, there were the reforms that required a vote of governments within the General Assembly such as the transformation of the Commission on Human Rights which was a sub-body of the Economic and Social Council into the Human Rights Council so that it now ranks on the official U.N. structure chart at the same level as the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council.  By writing new rules of procedure for the Human Rights Council, the governments were able to destroy all the advances that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had made over the years in the Commission on Human Rights and that NGOs were able to justify by precedent. “If it is done once, we want to be able to continue doing it.”

Government representatives exist to limit the scope and actions of the representatives of NGOs, and I fear that any U.N. “reforms” will find ways to push NGO representatives even further into the shadows.  I believe that advances will come also by precedent-making decisions such as the current use of force by U.N. troops in the Ivory Coast.  If there, why not  in the Democratic Republic of Congo? If there were a U.N. commission set up to consider the use of force by U.N. troops, there would be no decision that would permit U.N. helicopters to fire on troops guarding Laurent Gbagbo’s house.

Very little came from the proposals for reform that arose from the High Level Panels, and they had little impact on the policy of NGOs.

If governments have no desire for structural reforms (other than to weaken NGOs which they can do in other ways), to whom can we turn to transform our international institutions?  Trent replies “Only one group has the competence and resources to influence government and public opinion both at the national and international levels.  This immense group is composed of the large transnational associations and the rest of civil society.  They have demonstrated that they have the capabilities, the specialized knowledge, and the altruistic reputation to lead governments and the public on the long complex journey to global transformation.  They have the potential but not yet the organizational will and muscle to do the task.  But it is not just its new structural presence on the international scene that presupposes a transformational role for civil society.  History shows us that it was leading citizens and groups, not governments, who were primarily responsible for the origin and evolution of international organizations. Governments react to threats and opportunities.  Civil society entrepreneurs act on foresight and principle … Not only have international non-governmental organizations become legitimate, recognized international actors, but the current confluence of the global system opens up opportunities for influence at the multiple locales and levels of global governance (defined as various forms of diverse and overlapping authorities in the world that have legitimacy in their field of endeavour so that their decisions are accepted and carried out.) Will civil society entrepreneurs seize the opportunity?  Will they mobilize public opinion to oppose international domination by the few and seek more representative global institutions and governance?”

          As Sidney Tarrow points out in his The New Transnational Activism (2005) “Even as they make transnational claims, these activists draw on the resources, networks, and opportunities of the societies in which they live.  Their most interesting characteristics is how they connect the local and the global.  In today’s world we can no longer draw a sharp line between domestic and international politics…Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets.”

          Tarrow stresses the importance of what he calls ‘campaign coalitions’ which may be the wave of the transnational future.  “ Their focus on a specific policy issue, their minimal institutionalization, their capacity to shift venues in response to changing opportunities and threats, and their ability to make short-term tactical alliances according to the current focus on interest.”

Trent adds that “In such a sprawling world the advantage goes to those who can organize widespread networks.  Leadership has fallen to international non-governmental organizations that have the knowledge, time and money to experiment and the latitude to operate outside the interests of single countries and to develop long-term strategies.  The power base of these global associations and more generally of civil society is their specialized information, technical expertise, telecommunications, networks and relative ease of public participation and access.”

          Yet as Maurice Strong has pointed out “Civil society is therefore much more diverse and fragmented than governments and international organizations.  This is, of course, one of its virtues, but it leads to difficulty in providing for the participation of civil society in the official processes of governance.  Many civil society groups and organizations hold common positions on particular issues, but it is seldom feasible for them to present a united front. Sometimes the very number of small and fragmented organizations inhibits agreement on common positions.”

          As Trent concludes “It is probably true that the world needs far-sighted visionaries who can set the agenda for the future. But we also need to find a way to bring the various sorts of reformers together so that differences can be debated and perhaps overcome, and effective paths to the future elaborated.”


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 13 Jan 2014.

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