The United Nations reform drive: a response to Ian Williams

Julie A Mertus
15 September 2005

Ian Williams, in his openDemocracy essay “It’s the nations, stupid!”, hits the nail on the head when he writes that “the reason most of the world loves the (United Nations) and the American right hates it is not necessarily because of what it ‘does,’ but because of what it stands for, and the global order that has been crystallising around it.”

The UN is like grandpa’s fancy car, stripped of its tyres and set up on blocks. As a remembrance of where we came from and where we want to go, we’re glad its there, but when we need a ride, we tend to look elsewhere for transportation.

UN reform efforts are an attempt to get the car off the blocks and headed down the highway.

Julie Mertus teaches international relations at the American University in Washington, where she co-directs the ethics, peace and global affairs programme. Among her books are Kosovo: How Myths and truths started a War (University of California Press, 1999), Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2004), and The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a New Era (Routledge, 2005).

The state most likely to demand control over the steering-wheel is also the state determined to sabotage work on the highway. Williams does a good job explaining how the United States will do what it can to thwart structural reforms that alter power-balances at the UN. Proposals to change the voting structure of the Security Council in particular are non-starters.

President Bush knew what he was doing when he appointed John Bolton as chief party-spoiler. The man’s reputation as a difficult bully who is ruthless in pursuit of his goals is well earned. As Williams correctly notes, Bolton is completely oblivious to the kind of community pressure weighing down on other government delegates to the UN because he does not see himself as part of that community. “The problem facing the United Nations and its members,” Williams observes, “is how to run a collective body when one of its most important members refuses to accept the rules.”

Williams aptly dissects the “Bolton factor.” In so doing, however, he overstates Bolton’s actual power – and, by extension, the power of the US – to thwart UN reform.

United Nations reform is not occurring at a single moment in time; rather, it is a process that has been underway since the establishment of the organisation. While the US may have pressed its allies into joining it in spoiling many of the suggestions under consideration this week, it has proven unsuccessful in stopping the general process of reform – one that occurs more quietly and on a daily basis as UN staffers, through their work in the field, continually give meaning to the UN’s collective governance.

The great fanfare at the UN in New York this week at the sixtieth session of the general assembly should not drown awareness of the many significant ways in which the UN has already reformed itself, turning itself into “a crucial part of a cooperative world.”

The new landscape of human rights

The human rights arena provides a good example of this quieter, incremental kind of change. The proposed Human Rights Council would indeed be a giant step forward, especially if it is funded adequately and if the proposed amendments that would undercut its authority are rejected. But this step would not be under consideration without the slow but dramatic evolution of the UN human-rights system over time. Together, the developments that have given rise to the UN human rights system have led to real change in terms of the organisation’s self-conception and daily operation.

The architects of the UN human-rights machinery never anticipated the evolution of their project. Once a guaranteed political dead-end, the system is now a dynamic space in which an array of actors use different tools to address human wrongs and to advance the building of a global human rights culture. To be sure, many aspects of the system are ineffective, unresponsive, susceptible to political manipulation, or otherwise in need of reform. Yet, the system has worked well in many cases, offering protection for individuals and groups and redress for wrongs.

UN human-rights practice used to happen where the nameplate on the door said “human rights.” So, human rights were almost entirely contained within a limited set of specific human-rights bodies. This is no longer the case. Today, virtually all UN bodies and specialised agencies, including the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, undertake efforts to incorporate the promotion or protection of human rights into their programmes and activities.

Even as the space for international application of human rights has expanded, so too has it on the domestic front. The UN has increasingly recognised that the international human-rights system would fail without domestic implementation of human rights. UN human-rights bodies have thus become more involved in the establishment and strengthening of national human-rights institutions, the creation of national action plans, and civil society capacity-building at the national level.

Mary Robinson of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, former United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights (1997-2002), speaks to openDemocracy about the expanding understanding of human rights:

“Making ‘global’ and ‘ethical’ rhyme: an interview” (December 2003)

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Contemporary UN human-rights practice also addresses issues once deemed to be the province of other fields, such as development, humanitarian and refugee affairs, trade, labour and security. In the past, development organisations often sacrificed human rights in the name of development. Today, however, many development organisations, including the UN Development Programme, have publicly embraced the integration of human rights into their work.

NGOs in the driving-seat?

Central to the expansion of human-rights practice has been the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the focal point for all UN human-rights activities since its establishment in 1993. The commissioner’s extensive involvement in technical assistance projects in country and field offices reflects a shift in UN human-rights practice from the monitoring of violations to the building of institutions and capacities to facilitate compliance.

Today, UN human-rights practice is as likely to address issues as wide-ranging as human-rights education programmes for police officers, projects to combat trafficking in women, efforts to limit the use of child soldiers, electoral assistance, and other field-oriented, in-country endeavours.

Another significant development overlooked in Williams’ analysis is the increasingly important role played by non-governmental groups in human rights promotion. The UN reform ceremonies in New York this week are largely the result of NGO organisations which have tirelessly pressed for serious UN reform. These groups have grown in sophistication and their work has achieved great impact as their access to the UN has expanded over time.

The US has not been able to derail any of these changes and, regardless of the outcome in New York, the organisation will continue to define its role as a significant collective decision-making body.

Perhaps it does hold more promise than grandpa’s tyreless car set up on blocks.

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