Rethinking the UN System: Prospects for a World Federation of Nations

By Murithi, Tim | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Rethinking the UN System: Prospects for a World Federation of Nations


Murithi, Tim, The World and I


Tim Murithi is a program officer for the Program on Peacemaking and Preventive Diplomacy at the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) in Geneva, Switzerland.

On Tuesday, September 23, 2003, the secretary-general of the United Nations opened the fifty-eighth plenary session of the United Nations General Assembly by stating that "we have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself, when the United Nations was founded."1 He went on to observe that the time has come to decide whether it is possible to continue on the basis which the United Nations system established at that time or whether "radical changes are needed." Further the secretary-general proposed that "the role of the United Nations as a whole in economic and social affairs, including its relationship to the Bretton Woods institutions, needs to be re-thought and reinvigorated."

Given events since the end of the Cold War, we are faced with a series of questions about whether the international system that we currently have can effectively address the problem of peace and security which continues to confront humanity. By the international system here we are referring primarily to the political structures United Nations system. That is to say, the member states in the form of the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Secretariat, the Economic and Social Council, which are tasked with promoting international peace and security.

Some argue that there is no need to change the system but only a need to mobilize political will to make the system work better for humanity. Others argue that if you try to change the system you will end up weakening it and making it less functional and effective. Another school of thought maintains that the UN system and more specifically the Charter is outdated and needs to be reviewed. This position further argues that new institutions need to be established to better address the challenges that we are faced with in the twenty-first century. Ultimately, the challenge is to find a better match between institutions and emerging global problems in order to deepen democracy and improve humanity's collective ability to address these issues by including newly emerging global and local actors in decision-making and policy implementation.

Questioning the system

To further interrogate this issue, the best way to proceed is to pose the questions and see whether we can generate responses which will help us to clarify our thinking on this issue.

These questions include:

a. In what way has the system failed in promoting peace and security that requires us to re-think the system? What are the limitations that require us to re-think the United Nations system in the context of enhancing peace and security?

b. What are some of the new or emerging challenges that we are faced with and is the system adequately designed to respond to these challenges?

c. Can the current state-centric system promote peace and security?

d. Is the nation-state still the preferred unit of formal governance or has globalization from below and globalization from above brought about the need to re-think the primacy and dominance of states within this system?

e. How effectively is the current system relating to the emerging nonstate actors who are now actively engaged in promoting international peace and security including nongovernmental actors, ecumenical groups and other associations and networks.

f. With regard to enhancing the effectiveness of the present system, will simply reforming be enough? It may be necessary to transform the system in order to strengthen its ability to promote peace and security.

g. If the current system evolved out of earlier systems does it not follow that the present system will also evolve into a new system in order to effectively address the problems of peace and security, including: environmental protection, international migration, international trade and development, global public health issues like HIV/AIDS, weapons of mass destruction, cross-border terrorism, and so on?

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