by Otto Spijkers
The United Nations is often criticized for being a paper tiger, without any teeth. All the United Nations does, so it is said, is produce paper, lots of paper. This paper is filled with declarations of aspirational principles about a better world, carefully translated into all six working languages of the United Nations – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. State representatives from all over the world fly to New York – business class, of course – to draft these declarations, supported by an expensive international bureaucracy, i.e. the United Nations Secretariat. The representatives sometimes bicker over one single term for days, and then, when they are exhausted and just want to go home, they reach some watered-down compromise, which satisfies no one, but at least it does not offend anyone either.
Usually these declarations are legally non-binding, and thus unenforceable, and many of them fall into desuetude the day after they are adopted.
One of the most recent such declarations is the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, adopted by the General Assembly on 17 December 2018, in which all States pledged to “respect, protect and fulfill the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas.” Did this declaration make headlines? Did it drastically alter States’ policies? Did it improve peoples’ lives? So why bother?
In fact it is actually a very valuable thing to have representatives from all countries in the world come to New York and jointly produce legally non-binding declarations such as the one referred to above.
The process of making these UN declarations is the closest thing we have to a global town meeting, in which a global consensus takes shape on how to tackle the most important global challenges. Facilitating this town meeting is the Organization’s main strength. It is what the UN is good at. As Jan Pronk pointed out some years ago, the United Nations is, above all else, a “values community.” Pronk was The Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation and later Minister of Environment. He was also Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Sudan, and is thus also familiar with the inner workings of the United Nations civil service.
Since its foundation in 1945, the United Nations has facilitated an ongoing international dialogue, resulting in an impressively rich global consensus on shared values, purposes, principles, and norms. This dialogue resonates with citizens around the world, in part due to a feeling people have that they need to justify their behavior also at a global level. Social media, the internet, etc. has expanded the global audience, and we thus increasingly relate our behavior to the whole world.
And that requires a common language, a common moral language. The only way to develop such a common moral language is through a global gathering of the world community, a “town meeting of the world.” Only a continuous discussion between people from different ways of life will reveal which values are universally shared, and which are not. To be successful, such a discussion has to include the views of all the individuals of the world in some way. There is no better place for the evolution of global values than in a deliberative organ where the views of all the world’s citizens are represented.
Any meaningful discussion about global values must also be a genuine discussion. All the participants must bear the global interest in mind, and show consideration not only for themselves and for their own lives, but also for others, ultimately for the global community as a whole. This should not be understood to mean that, as soon as all the participants have the global interest in mind, there will be no more conflicts about values. Practice shows that the opposite is true. In addition to the challenge of reconciling the global language of values with the language of all the local communities of this world – with their own culture, traditions and language of values – there is an equally formidable challenge of resolving the conflicts between the global values themselves. These conflicts are probably unavoidable; they constitute an intrinsic, irremovable element in human life. The challenge is therefore to find an uneasy equilibrium between conflicting global values, an equilibrium that is constantly threatened and in constant need of repair.
I my view, the United Nations is the most suitable candidate to provide such a process of value-based, authoritative decision making. With regard to the inclusive character of the UN’s discussions, it is true that representatives of colonial peoples, the Axis powers, and those States that refused to declare war against these Axis powers, were all absent at the San Francisco Conference, where the UN Charter was made. So that was not a particularly good start. However, this lack of inclusiveness was corrected in subsequent years, when all States ratified the UN Charter, thereby adhering to the UN purposes, principles and values. Over time the cursory references to human rights and self-determination were interpreted broadly and flexibly, allowing the Charter to also play a key role in those fields which had been largely neglected by the “founding fathers” in 1945. These examples also show the practical importance of the inclusive character of the debates: it was only when the developing States became Members of the United Nations, that the Assembly concentrated intensively on international development assistance. And it was only when some of the liberated peoples were admitted, that the Organization became seriously engaged in the decolonization process.
Every year, all the world’s States send their representatives to the UN Headquarters in New York to collectively seek global solutions for global challenges. The UN Charter is used as the legal framework. This explains the central role played in those Assembly discussions by the values and value-based norms defined in that document.
As regards the genuine character of the discussion, it must be acknowledged that the sincerity of the statements made in the Assembly is often questioned. Do they really mean what they say? Do they act accordingly? Are those grandiose statements not examples of hypocrisy? How does the United Nations ensure that States are actually encouraged to do more than pay lip service to the norms and values mentioned in the General Assembly’s declarations? There are various ways in which promises made in Assembly resolutions can have consequences. For example, various non-governmental organizations and the global media closely scrutinize what is going on in the Assembly. It is increasingly difficult for any State representative to make a promise in the Assembly and assume that no one has heard it or cares about it. In 1951, the instrument of “naming and shaming” had already been described by the President of the International Court of Justice as being more powerful than most legalistic methods of “enforcement”; and this is even more the case today.
When the role of the Assembly is characterized in this way – as a global discussion about values – various possibilities can be suggested to strengthen the capacity of the Assembly. For example, the Assembly could be made more democratic to improve the inclusive character of the debates. The Assembly delegates could be selected on the basis of popular elections, similar to the European Parliament.
Larger countries, such as China, could possibly be given more votes than smaller States, such as Nauru. The UN’s deliberative, values-based system can and should continue to evolve and be improved.