GVI BLOG SERIES: How to co-create a values-driven UN/global system? BLOG V- Build in participation

Do the world’s citizens consider the United Nations “their” organization?

By Otto Spijkers, August 2018, member of the Global Vision Institute Board of Directors

The following is a blog on values and participation as part of GVI’s 10 Solutions on “How to co-create a values driven UN?global system?”.  It responds to key questions from GVI on what the reality is today and how we can move forward, from Otto’s perspective as an expert on “The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law”

Do you think the global values, on which the founding of the United Nations in 1945 was based, still enjoy widespread relevance? Are they under threat? I believe that a growing number of individuals and leaders, in the US and various parts of Europe, presently challenge the UN’s global values discourse and the relevance of multilateral institutions such as the UN and/or the EU, especially if this values discourse and those organisations are perceived to threaten their unilateral, nationalistic aspirations. What do you think?

The global values identified by the United Nations in 1945 are peace and security, social progress and development, human dignity and the self-determination of all peoples. I think these values still have widespread relevance. And they are under threat. In fact, they have always been under threat, since the very beginning, in 1945. But they survived all these challenges. I agree with you that today they are once again under threat. For example, various States now question the idea on which the Refugee Convention is based, i.e. that people fleeing persecution in their country have a right to asylum elsewhere in the world. But I am convinced the values and institutions will survive.

Their enduring character is due to the inclusiveness of the processes at the United Nations. This inclusiveness, in terms of the participation of States, was not shared by its predecessor, the League of Nations. For a long time the “global discussion” excluded most of the international community by formally distinguishing between so-called “civilized” and “uncivilized” nations. The League of Nations explicitly excluded from independent membership nations “inhabited by peoples not yet able to stand by themselves under the strenuous conditions of the modern world” (See Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations). The UN welcomes all States. It is true that the UN Charter formally only welcomes the original Members of the United Nations – i.e. those States that participated in the San Francisco Conference of 1945 –  and “other peace loving States” (Article 3 and 4, UN Charter).

But no new Member ever had to pass an exam in “peace lovingness”. As time passed, universality of membership became the ultimate goal, and references to being “peace loving” faded into the background. This universal membership of the United Nations is considered crucial, especially by the peoples who were marginalized in the past. It is the dominance of a certain world view, rather than overwhelming military or economic power, that most concerns the marginalized voices. The dominance of particular ideas is often the result, not of better arguments, but of military power, used to sustain that ideological dominance. So, if the catalogue of values endures, it is due to the UN’s universal membership.


What do you think are the dominant factors that play a role in the current state of affairs?

One dominant factor is the increasing demand of people to get involved in decision-making affecting their lives. I am referring to decision-making at any level, including the global level. The UN should respond better to such demands. The world’s population should feel that it is involved in the work of the United Nations in some way, irrespective of the official procedures and institutional rules. In the words of the second United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjöld from Sweden: “Everything will be all right […] when people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves.” The UN’s aim should be to ensure that the people of the world can participate in the UN’s work, without formally granting them any decision-making powers.

It reminds me of a remark made by the US delegate at the UN Conference on International Organization of 1945 in San Francisco, when the public participation in that conference was discussed. The suggestion, made by the US delegate at the time, was to give the impression that the people of the world could come to the conference yet not invite them – a difficult thing to do. The UN still has some work to do. From a recent poll done by the Global Challenges Foundation (https://api.globalchallenges.org/static/files/ComRes2018.pdf), it becomes clear that the world’s citizens are very critical of the United Nations.  The poll – an online survey filled in by more than 10,000 people from 10 different countries in April 2018 – shows that a large majority believes the UN needs to be reformed. Most people (69%) go even further and suggest that a new supranational organisation needs to be created. People are not impressed by the way the UN responds to some of the major global challenges, such as climate change, political violence, and weapons of mass destruction.


How do you gauge the level of threat to the UN, in the light of anti-globalization/immigration sentiments and growing nationalism in the US and various parts of Europe? Think of ‘America First’, ‘Italy First’, ‘Brexit’, Poland/Hungary First, etc.

One challenge is that of populism. Populism can be neutrally defined, as “political activities or ideas that claim to promote the interests and opinions of ordinary people” (Collins Dictionary), or as “activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want” (Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary), or as “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups” (Oxford Dictionary). What these definitions have in common, is that they see the “elites” as the bad guys. Populism can also be defined negatively, as “a political approach that seeks to disrupt the existing social order by solidifying and mobilizing the animosity of the “commoner” or “the people” against “privileged elites” and the “establishment” (Wikipedia). Populism is often associated with – or even equated with – a tendency of people to identify with their own particular nation, and place it against the rest of the world.

In the past, lots of people considered themselves World Federalists; now, very few people do. So is this a trend the UN should be concerned with? I believe so. The United Nations always wanted to inspire, not just State representatives, but inspire all individuals in the world. This was the ambition from the very beginning. For example, during the San Francisco Conference, Gildersleeve of the US delegation suggested that the preamble of the United Nations Charter “should be hung up in every peasant’s cottage throughout the world,” as a source of inspiration. I wonder how many peasant’s cottages nowadays have a poster of the UN’s Preamble on their walls?!?



What can be done to reinforce the universal values?

Outreach is key. The United Nations has already realized the importance of the wide dissemination of its work. It has made its documents available online free of charge, and it has developed various ways – mainly online – to present the key documents in the field of peace and security, development, and human rights, in an accessible way. Increasingly, the Organization makes use of the internet to link scholarship to the work of the United Nations. The Audio-visual Library of International Law is an example of this (See http://www.un.org/law/avl/.) The global discussions of the UN General Assembly are public and are observed and scrutinized by non-governmental organizations, academics, bloggers, global pollsters, and so on.

At the same time, in a 2004 report, we read that “governments do not always welcome sharing what has traditionally been their preserve. Many increasingly challenge the numbers and motives of civil society organizations in the United Nations — questioning their representivity, legitimacy, integrity or accountability. Developing country Governments sometimes regard civil society organizations as pushing a “Northern agenda” through the back door. At the same time, many in civil society are becoming frustrated; they can speak in the United Nations but feel they are not heard and that their participation has little impact on outcomes” (We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations and global governance, Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations, UNDoc. A/58/817, distributed 11 June 2004). The same report suggested that global civil society was here to stay. Instead of regretting or even denying this reality, the Member States ought to look for ways to benefit from the new situation. These are the questions raised in the report: “The question is not how would the United Nations like to change? But, given how the world has changed, how must the United Nations evolve its civil society relations to become fully effective and remain fully relevant?” We are still looking for the answer to these questions.



Otto Spijkers is a Lecturer of Public International Law at Utrecht University, Senior Research Associate with the Netherlands Institute for the Law of the Sea, and researcher with the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law, and researcher with the Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law. He is a member of the Committee on the Role of International Law in Sustainable Natural Resource Management for Development of the International Law Association, and guest lecturer for amnesty International The Hague.

Otto was a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta, the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies of Leiden University, Xiamen University’s China International Water Law Programme (China), the China Institute for Boundary and Ocean Studies of Wuhan University (China), the Law School of the East China University of Political Science and Law (ECUPL) in Shanghai (China), the Università degli Studi di Salerno (Italy), and the Association pour la promotion des droits de l’homme en Afrique centrale (APDHAC) of the Université Catholique d’Afrique Centrale (Yaoundé, Cameroon).  Previously, he was a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Grotius Centre for International Legal Studies at the University of Leiden. His doctoral dissertation, entitled “The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law”,  was published with Intersentia in 2011.

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