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The United Nations at 70

(By Professor W. Andy Knight, PhD, FRSC)

The United Nations system embodies concepts of international cooperation and multilateralism. It is the only true universal multilateral body our world has ever seen, and it celebrates its 70th anniversary this month.

The UN is generally considered to be an organization that expresses and articulates the interests of the globe. But, in reality, it is still very much a state-centric institution, controlled largely by the Permanent Five powers. I have made the argument in several of my writings on the UN that this organization is largely a “decision frozen in time.” Yet, it has tried to reflect the interests of its 193 member-states and has adjusted in ways not envisioned by its founding Fathers.

Today, seventy years after its founding, the pressure is on the UN system to transform itself, rather than simply tinker around the edges with reform.

Why? Because the world has undergone tremendous change since 1945 when the UN was founded. We have moved from a largely state-centric world to a multi-centric one, from modernity to post-modernity, from traditional politics which tended to be preoccupied with issues of national interests to a post-modern form of politics which attempts to address concerns expressed by a transnational and truly “global” society.

The new type of politics requires different forms of multilateral institutional expression than the ones created in 1945. The UN System needs to transform itself into a body that articulates and addresses the interests of the globe, including that of both sovereignty-bound and sovereignty-free actors. It has to accommodate for what I like to call “bottom-up global governance.”

We have seen signs in recent times that this transformation is actually happening. The UN has opened up “political space” in which non-state actors, particularly in the areas of human rights, development, gender equality and ecological issues, have been allowed to articulate demands and agitate for a greater role in decision-making within the world body. The alternative to such accommodation, quite frankly, would be a UN system that is increasingly irrelevant to what is going on in the world.

We now live in a globalized and complex interdependent world in which technological advances in communications and transport have resulted in: the uniting and fragmenting of global audiences (fragmegration); the exacerbation of social cleavages as well as the development of mechanisms through which such friction can be resolved; the erosion of national boundaries as well as the increase in ultra-nationalism; and the rise in political cynicism as well as the increase in the level of civil society’s political consciousness.

The overall impact of globalization and complex interdependence has been a shrinkage in social, political, economic and cultural distances. Formerly dense and opaque frontiers are being dissolved. And the traditional Westphalian notion of inside vs. outside is no longer a reality. National boundaries are no longer able to divide friend from foe, and there has been a virtual collapse of dividing line separating the domestic from the external. I use the term “intermestic” to reflect that new reality.

As the world changes, so will be the pressure on multilateral institutions, like the UN System, to adapt their processes and structures to accommodate that change. I would argue that the UN organization needs to transform itself into a third generation multilateral body— the 1st generation being the League of Nations; the 2nd generation being the 1945 UN System. To do so, the UN needs to move from merely tinkering to a complete overhaul.

But to make such a transformative institutional change is like changing the wing of an airplane while it is still in flight. It has to be accomplished through careful strategies that will allow the organization to continue its important work in maintaining global peace, advancing human rights and strengthening its development pillar. It requires regional organizations like CARICOM and the ACS, in spirit of Chapter VIII of the United Nations Charter, to ease the pressure of work on the UN System by embracing the principle of subsidiarity governance.

Furthermore, it requires that UN offices in the field, like yours here in Trinidad, work to “deliver as one” with the help of national governments of the region, private entities and civil society.

I want to encourage you to continue the fabulous work you are doing by collaborating not only with the national governments in the Caribbean region but also by building capacity of the private sector and civil society to address and articulate the concerns of our people.

The UN System will need help from all Stakeholders if it is to build on the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and complete those goals that have not yet been achieved. Meeting the 2030 targets of the sustainable development agenda cannot be accomplished by a state-centre institution acting on its own. It requires the assistance of private sector firms, civil society groups and individuals like you and me.

To me, your Head, UN Resident Coordinator Richard Blewitt, represents the ideal of the kind of UN civil servant that is required at this historical juncture of change and transformation. As the former CEO of HelpAge International, Richard has also worked for the International Federation of the Red-Cross and Red-Crescent and has had assignments with the Save the Children Fund. His ability to understand the needs of both Governments and their civil societies is what makes Richard the ideal UN civil servant for these transformative times. In a sense, he is able to straddle the fence of “top-down” and “bottom-up” governance. I therefore see him as a transformational change agent; someone who has come along at the propitious moment. And I have enjoyed collaborating with him immensely over these few short years.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to say these few words on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the UN System. I wish you and the world body many more birthdays.

Dr Knight is the Director for the  Institute of International Relations at The University of the West Indies.
Professor Knight recently addressed UN staff at United National Development Programme in Trinidad on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the UN System.

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