Nicola Bullard*

(A short version of this paper was published in “ONU: droits pour tous ou loi du plus fort? Regards militants sur les Nations Unies,” CETIM, Geneva, 2005. Contact Julie Duchatel for more information [email protected] or their website http://www.cetim.ch/fr/publications_details.php?pid=115)

“Ask not what you can do for the United Nations but what the UN can do for you,” with apologies to John F Kennedy.

When US president George W. Bush announced that he would invade Iraq, with or without the support of the United Nations Security Council, he repeatedly drew attention to the weaknesses and failings of the United Nations. In effect, he threw down the gauntlet to the UN and, in so doing, inadvertently revived debate about the role of the UN and especially the need to reform and “strengthen” the UN as a foil to US unilateralism.

This debate has become even more alive in the lead up to the UN’s 60th anniversary in September this year. It has been fuelled by scandals over the oil for food programme, allegations of nepotism and corruption, release of the high-level report on global security and jockeying for seats in the proposed expanded Security Council. Throughout, the US has maintained an attitude of belligerence and self interest: an attitude underscored in a recent report “American Interests and UN Reform” which confirms the US’ lack of vision when it comes to the UN. President Bush’s decision to appoint John Bolton as his ambassador to the UN, despite failing to get approval from the Senate, indicates that this posture will continue.

The UN has been in need of reform from the day it was founded because of its “fatal flaw”: that the Security Council institutionalises the post-World War 2 balance of power. Throughout the Cold War era, East-West politics were played out in the UN, and were particularly evident in the functioning of the Security Council. Along with its veto power in the Security Council, the US has always used its financial leverage to serve its interests inside the UN. Nonetheless, despite the power plays, stand-offs and bureaucratic sclerosis, there remains a considerable degree of support for the UN amongst some governments, especially those for whom “one country one vote” in the General Assembly is the rare opportunity to be heard on the international stage.

The UN also has many supporters amongst NGOs and some sectors of civil society who believe it has the potential to curb excesses of power, redress injustices and to form the basis of democratic global governance. Some support it simply because their own existence is tied to the fate of the UN.

The prospect of a reformed, democratic and powerful UN is, of course, very tempting: not only as a means of reining in the US but because the global problems of violence, war, inequality, environmental degradation, exploitation and insecurity, desperately need concerted, international action.

But before we jump on the “save the UN” bandwagon, we should ask the simple question: is the UN worth saving? Whose interests does it serve? Would a “reformed” UN have the capacity to deal with pressing global concerns? Where is the potential for democratising the global system when the main sources of the “democracy deficit”- the market and militarised, globalised capitalism – are outside the UN system? Is it realistic to imagine that the UN could “control” the market and curtail the world’s superpower? And, most importantly here, what sort of reforms, if any, would address the concerns of peoples’ organisations and social movements, especially those struggling for basic rights such as land, water, work, housing, health and education?

Given the enormity of the power imbalances in the global system, I do not believe that reform of the United Nations is where we should be focusing our efforts. This conclusion is based on an assessment of the present situation, of which there are four important characteristics.

First, the inter-state system on which the United Nations was founded has changed radically in the past 15 years resulting from the processes of economic integration and globalisation in the post-Cold War era, and where US hegemony has no challenger. The consequences of this for UN reform are significant given that states themselves have unequal economic and political power and, as economic integration deepens, fewer and fewer possibilities to shape their own economic and political destinies.

Second, states are no longer the main interface between their citizens and the world beyond their borders. This function is now shared by transnational corporations and financial markets, the Internet and the media, all of which contribute to transforming the consciousness of citizens about their location in a global system. The borders of the nation state no longer exclusively define our physical, political, economic and psychological horizons.

Third, many of the proposed reforms of the United Nations system, such as an expansion of the Security Council or establishing an Economic Security Council, do not address the underlying balance-of-power dynamic that shapes all decisions of the UN — that is, the balance of power between the US and the rest of the world, and between the globalised capitalism and citizens. Until these fundamental imbalances are resolved, the United Nations will be nothing more than the ineffective “conscience” of the world.

Fourth, the foundations of the United Nations – the Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the derivative human rights conventions – are potentially powerful tools for emancipation. However, while the UN has been exemplary in establishing norms, it has failed, almost without exception, to develop effective instruments to monitor and prosecute states, institutions, individuals and corporations that fail to meet their obligations to uphold individual and collective rights. (1)

Finally, it is impossible to build the superstructure of international democratic governance when the basic conditions for peoples’ democracy are so lacking. Creating new means for social movements (2) to defend their rights within an international and universal framework would provide a more solid foundation for the long-term project of global democracy.

Therefore, I suggest that the starting point for democratising the international system is not reform of the UN but instead to find innovative and effective ways to guarantee that social movements have the means available to them at the local, national and international level to defend and protect their rights. That is, rather than using our time and creative energies on cosmetic reforms, we need to find the means by which social movements can use human rights as a tool in their daily struggles and, by doing this, build democracy from the bottom up.

The extent to which the United Nations is now lumped together with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as apologists for neo-liberal globalisation and United States imperialism should not be underestimated. Nor should the validity of the experience that leads many social movements and activists to that conclusion.

Since the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the founding of the UN, many Third World countries have seen their sovereignty subverted by Cold War rivalries, often played out in the global political space of the Security Council and the United Nations, and their economies gutted by structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF and the World Bank.

In the early 1990s, the UN tried to capture the goodwill unleashed by the end of the Cold War to build a new international agenda of cooperation and common values. Throughout the decade, the UN sponsored a series of summits, dealing with everything from the environment to racism. (3)

The agreements reached in these unwieldy and frequently contentious conferences established a new set of international norms, based on the human rights declarations but elaborated and expanded to include key concerns, such as gender, environment, development and indigenous rights. Each of these summits has been followed-up with five-yearly reviews, often revealing the weakness of government implementation and even resulting in a dilution of previously agreed commitments. (4)

As the 1990s rolled into the 21st century, many of the previously agreed values that underpinned the United Nations — such as multilateralism and the universality and indivisibility of rights — were systematically attacked and undermined by right-wing governments and ideologues, as well as by corporations and the financial markets. Indeed, as the speed of global economic integration accelerates and as transnational corporations and finance capital seek to conquer every aspect of human activity, the possibility of achieving human rights, let alone the right to development or peoples’ democracy, became an even more distant hope.

To make matters worse, the United Nations propagates the view that it is possible to give “globalisation a human face” by mitigating the worst excesses of market failure without addressing the causes of these excesses.

The scepticism about the UN is deep and justified. For, so long as the Food and Agriculture Organisation advocates genetically modified organisms (GMOs) under pressure from agri-business; so long as the UNDP promotes public private partnerships in basic services such as health and water under pressure from services industry; so long as the UN fails to sanction Israel for repeatedly abusing General Assembly resolutions; and so long as the United States is able to stand outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, the UN (and indeed all international institutions) will be seen as simply another arm of US and corporate domination.

Efforts by the UN to present itself as the only thing standing between US unilateralism and chaos are at least partly motivated by organisational self-interest. The fact is that we already have “chaos” (if by this we mean war, poverty, and amoral economic and political systems) and we already have US unilateralism (although this is nothing new – the opportunistic use of unilateralism and multi-lateralism is a long tradition of US foreign policy).

There is no reason to believe that either a “strengthened” or a “reformed” United Nations would make any difference given that any reforms or increased powers will be subject to what is effectively a US veto (by one means or another). From the viewpoint of the UN however, reforms are necessary simply to hold on to what they have. Or, as the Prince reflects in Guiseppe di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardi “If we want things to stay the same, they are going to have to change.” (5)

Faced with this record of failure, why should social movements – who are already over-stretched with their own struggles for land, water, food, shelter, work, social security, freedom from oppression and self-determination – spend their time “saving” the UN?

However, rather than be accused of throwing out the emancipatory baby with the reformist bathwater, it might be useful to ask whether a “reformed” UN would be useful for social movements.

This raises two questions: (i) what is the basis and character of the relationship between social movements and the United Nations and (ii) how could the UN be used to advance the interests and demands of the impoverished and marginalized who comprise the vast majority of “we the peoples.”

To start answering these questions in a very tentative way, let’s consider what “we the peoples” means 60 years after the words were first written. (6)

In 1945, “the people” were exclusively the subjects of the state, and all the ensuing institutional and legal constructions were based on a monogamous relationship between the state and its citizens.

These days, we are all “global” citizens in so far as global processes, such as the all-encompassing market, effect us all. However, we are far from being global citizens in terms of rights, either at the national level or at the international level, not least because the market effectively obliterates or subordinates any notion of universal rights by placing everything – whether it’s water or knowledge – in the economic realm.

Nonetheless, as mentioned above, we are living in a time when our collective consciousness of being global citizens has never been greater. The global social justice, anti-war and alter-mondialist movements tap into and reinforce this consciousness, and it is here that we should look to build the foundations of global democratic governance.

“We the peoples” in the 21st century is a powerful idea because it is a self-definition that arises out of this consciousness, one which is generated and reinforced by collective action and solidarity. The elegant opening words of the UN Charter have become alive and manifest in the diversity of social movements and NGOs that constitute the “movement of movements.” (7)

The “movement or movements” includes the global justice, anti-war, anti-globalisation, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements. It includes workers and women and migrants and peasants and young people and indigenous peoples and all who are struggling for peace and justice. It defies a single category or morphology and encompasses the local and the global, the vertical and the horizontal. It displays a tremendous capacity to create its own organisational forms and processes based on an ever-widening commitment to pluralism and democracy.

What, then, does this have to do with the UN?

Or, to put the question another way, what is the relationship between the emerging (potentially democratic) political and social “culture” of, say, the World Social Forum (as the most visible representation of the “movement of movements”) and the declining (and increasingly undemocratic) culture of inter-state elite diplomacy represented by the United Nations.

Or, to put it yet another way, is the 1950s inter-state model of the General Assembly where everyone wears a suit and diplomats rule, relevant to the multi-coloured “assemblias” of the multitude?

Or, more concretely and positively: Does the essence of the United Nations and the universalism of the Declaration of Human Rights, speak to us in new ways?

The question is potent for social movements, which are, by definition, engaged in the struggle for rights. Whether farmers defending their right to seeds, women demanding control of their own bodies, landless claiming land, or unemployed marching for work and a living wage, social movements exist because people organise and mobilise to defend or demand their rights.

In most cases, achieving their demands is only one aspect of the organising and mobilising effort. Social movements also give identity and voice to sectors of society that are marginalized, silenced and forgotten. This is as true of the dalits in India as it is of the homeless in Europe. Transformation of social, and hence power, relations is inherent in the mere act of organising those parts of society that “polite” society (and that, almost by definition, is the part of society that runs the UN) would sooner forget.

In their day-to-day struggles, social movements use the language of rights and responsibilities to pursue their demands, often borrowing from the UN declarations to provide a legal (as well as a moral) base for their claims. The common language of rights also cuts across and (potentially) unites the masses or multitudes. However, in terms of translating the language of rights into actions and results, there are profound weaknesses. While the UN is exemplary at establishing norms in all areas, from the right to development to gender equality, it is particularly weak when it comes to establishing the means for their implementation.

The power for this resides exclusively with the state, yet the state itself is subordinated to the market. The political will and the economic means to “progressively realise” human rights have been decimated by the market, the “economisation” of social policy and the commodification of public goods and services. In a market economy, rights exist only for those who have the means.

Therefore, social movements struggling for their rights find themselves confronted not only with the failings of the state, but also with the formidable task of overcoming the power of the market and global capital.

Clearly, both the state and the United Nations are out of kilter with the realities of a globalising world where power operates through diffuse and unaccountable processes such as the financial markets, transnational corporations, and the media. State power in the Hobbesian sense still exists, but in the age of globalised capitalism hegemony can be exercised through many channels and often with profoundly undemocratic effects. (8)

Hardt and Negri argue that we should learn from the past. “Just as it was illusory in the eighteenth century to repropose the Athenian model on a national scale, so too today it is equally illusionary to repropose national models of democracy and representative institutions at an international scale.” (9) They suggest that rather than generating reform proposals, we must develop “experiments for addressing our global situation.” (10)

Much of the discussion about reforming the UN system misses the point about the current construction of power and, more importantly, how social movements themselves are attempting to restructure and redefine power. It is not the task of the social movements to build international institutions, no matter how “democratic” they might be. The work of the social movements is to shift power or – as the Zapatistas would have it – to redefine power.

The universal rights scripted within the UN system provide an invaluable tool for social movements as they confront the market, the state, landowners, the militia, international financial institutions and corporations. In Bolivia, for example, the language of “rights” – such as the right to water, the right to self-determination, and sovereignty over resources – are powerful mobilizing tools that have been used to great effect by the farmers, indigenous, workers and urban poor to redress wrongs and reclaim rights. And it is powerful because it taps into deeply held beliefs and emotions.

It is difficult to imagine what sort of institutional reforms would be useful in this struggle. What use would be an expanded Security Council to the coca farmers of Bolivia? Would an Economic Security Council defend the peoples’ resources against the multi-nationals? It seems most unlikely. However, the still potent and universalising morality of the human rights discourse is one aspect of the United Nations that must be defended because it can be a genuinely powerful tool (albeit largely rhetorical) for social movements in their struggles.

We have the elements of a common global agenda amongst social movements, regardless of their sectoral or geographic concerns. This agenda includes rolling back the powers of the corporations and the financial markets, reasserting public services and community control of water, forests, land and natural resources, eliminating debt and expanding economic and social policy space at the national and local level. In the framework of “deglobalisation” (11) this is seen as “deconstructing” the power of the markets and the institutions of neo-liberalism and “reconstructing” communities and livelihoods, local economies, nature and culture. In an attempt to manage this huge agenda, human rights could be an entry point.

But first, the responsibility for protecting and promoting human rights must be extended beyond the states to include corporations, business entities, financial markets, militias, and the international financial institutions. This is not based on a belief that these entities are “reformable” or that they can be “socially responsible” but simply because we need legal mechanisms with binding rules and enforceable penalties to curb the power of those who are presently virtually unaccountable.

As a starting point, the initiative to create the “Norms on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights” through the Commission on Human Rights deserves our support, but the campaign also needs to be greatly strengthened to counter the current attempts to weaken or destroy it. Kofi Anan’s appointment of John Ruggie as Special Representative on “human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises” is an ominous sign given that Ruggie’s main claim on the job is his experience as architect of the Global Compact, the UN’s non-binding and non-enforceable “code of conduct” which is widely regarded as a corporate “bluewash”.

Although it would be politically and, one would hope, legally useful to expand the ambit of human rights to include corporations, approaches based in international law are just one element of a larger strategy that must be based in building movements and campaigns at every level to resist power and to regulate and roll-back financial markets and corporations. However, doing this in the framework of rights can potentially build a unity that is not possible in campaigns based on defending sectoral interests (for example workers or peasants) or ideological positions.

Similarly, elements of the Universal Declaration provide the “language” to defend and “de-commodify” human rights such as food, water, health and education. Indeed, work being done in the Commission on Human Rights (should it survive the swingeing reforms proposed by the Bush administration) by the special rapporteur on the right to food provides a powerful case for a complete transformation and de-commodification of agriculture and food production. (12)

The Commission’s work on human rights and trade, debt, intellectual property, health and housing, amongst others, is equally useful.

However, the challenge of bringing those who operate comfortably in the quasi-legal world of international human rights together with the social movements remains. Indeed, as professor of international law Yash Ghai observed “a major weakness of the human rights movement has been the inability to involve the masses as subjects rather than objects of rights.”(13)

Therefore, the task is not to “reform” the United Nations but to join arm in arm with the social movements and communities to build the political and institutional tools so that “we the peoples” can, ourselves, fulfil the promises made by the UN 60 years ago. Our work is to transform “we the peoples” from being the objects of an imaginary benevolent state to “we the peoples” who are the active subjects in building global democracy.

How to do this could be one of the common agendas for discussion at the World Social Forum and in the many local and national forums that are blossoming across the world. It is not an abstract proposition, but one that can and must be based in concrete campaigns and struggles. It would be a lot more interesting and useful that (yet) another session on the Millennium Development Goals, and almost certainly a more effective way to achieve them.

* Nicola Bullard is a senior associate with Focus on the Global South.

1. The International Criminal Court may prove to be an exception, however the fact the United States refuses to recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC is evidence of the US’ willingness to put narrowly defined national interests ahead of all else. Unsurprisingly, the recent report “American Interests and UN Reform” refers continually to the need to prosecute war criminals but makes no reference to the ICC.
2. In this paper, the term “social movements” is used in a descriptive and non-theoretical way to denote groups that are organised to defend and claim their rights, in particular social, economic and cultural rights. The list is long, but includes women, indigenous, “sans papiers” and migrants, landless, communities, workers and unemployed, and so on.
3. The list is long: World Summit for Children (1990), the World Conference for Education (1990), the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (1992), the World Conference on Human Rights (1993), the International Conference on Population and Development (1994), the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), the World Summit for Social Development (1995), the UN Conference on Human Settlements (1996), the World Food Summit (1996), the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (2001) plus a string of “+5” and “+10” follow-up conferences. See Alison van Rooy, “The Global Legitimacy Game: Civil Society, Globalisation and Protest,’ Palgrave, London, 2004, page 20.
4. For example, at the WSSD +10 in Johannesburg in 2002 there was significant “backsliding” with corporations making major inroads into the sustainable development agenda by pushing for the adoption of “solutions” such as “public private partnerships.” Similarly in the women’s and population review conferences, a great deal of political energy was spent simply maintaining a minimal line on reproductive choice in the face of the reactionary onslaught from the US and the Vatican.
5. Guiseppe di Lampedusa, “Il Gattopardo,”1958, quoted by Jose Saramago in “The Least Bad System is in Need of a Change,” Le Monde Diplomatique, August 2004.
6. The opening lines of the Charter of the United Nations says: “We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourges of war, which twice in our lifetime have brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and the worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small and, to establish conditions under which respect for justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
7. Notwithstanding the need to update the Charter to incorporate gender, environmental sensibilities.
8. For example, the financial markets were able to force Brazil’s popular, but as yet unelected, presidential candidate Lula de Silva to adopt market friendly economic policies even before the election was contested.
9. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, “Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire,” The Penguin Press, New York, 2004, page 307
10. Ibid, page 305
11. What is deglobalisation?
12. “The Right to Food: Report submitted by the special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Zeigler, in accordance with the humans rights resolution 2003/25,” Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2004/10, 9 February 2004
13. Yash Ghai, “Human Rights and Social Development,” Democracy, Governance and Human Rights Programme Paper Number 5, UNRISD, Geneva, October 2001, page 43.