Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Economic and Social Council, the Group of Eight and the Constitutional Paradox

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Economic and Social Council, the Group of Eight and the Constitutional Paradox

Article excerpt

AT A GUEST LECTURE I gave at the University of Stockholm in 2004 on the European Union's constitutional development, the audience was fascinated by the description of the discrepancy between "competitive Europe" and "social Europe" as it had developed over time.

On a global scale, the United Nations constitutional paradox can be summarized by the observation that, despite the initial fervour of majority of nations at the United Nations Conference on International Organization in San Francisco in 1945 for a much more equitable distribution of scarce resources, the Charter of the United Nations and its subsequent evolution have given rise to a worldwide setting, where the dominant allocating mechanism of scarce resources is worldwide markets. At the Conference, the United States Secretary of State expressly mentioned the United Nations Economic and Social Council as being of the utmost importance. "Widespread economic insecurity and poverty, ignorance and oppression breed conflict and give aggressors their chance." (1)

Despite the fact that an overwhelming majority shared this view, it was paradoxical that in the UN Charter the Council's powers were merely recommendatory and were not strengthened by the General Assembly's recommendatory powers. In addition, the "relationship agreements" between the Council and the UN specialized agencies were not conducive to its effective coordination of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group. What is equally striking is the constant reluctance of the developed nations to endow the General Assembly, and indirectly the Council, with effective powers on the allocation of international funds while still in favour of retaining the power of the Bretton Woods institutions, over which the Group of Eight (G-8) has effective control.

A complementary development was the establishment of the G-8 in 1975 at the Conference of Versailles and its ascendancy. The conference soon became a yearly event, where Heads of State and Government of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and United States, together with representatives of the European Union, meet in a private setting in order to discuss the most pressing economic and financial policy issues. Because of its enormous influence in the Bretton Woods institutions, the G-8 has been able to effectively coordinate economic and financial developments on a global scale, such the 1985 Louvre and 1987 Plaza Accords.


In contrast to the Economic and Social Council, the Group of Eight is endowed with certain effective institutional characteristics: the small number of its members, which facilitates decision-making by consensus; direct implementation of decisions by the national administrations of its members; and shared interests as major industrialized nations. However, in contrast with the G-8, Gunnar Myrdal's observation concerning the Council is still valid: that it had "sunk to a level of unimportance, which must appear in view of the declared purposes of the Charter". (2) Any Charter or contract between nations or individual/collective parties can be viewed in terms of constitutional investment. If we approach "economic prosperity" in a broader sense, (3) the benefits anticipated at the San Francisco Conference were of "future peace and prosperity".

Constitutional investments are distinguished by three characteristics: Firstly, constitutions, contracts and laws derive their "raison d'etre" from the characteristic that they are not readily renegotiable. The consequence of this inertia, is that constitutional investments become risky. Secondly, they have a "foundation characteristic" to the extent that they serve to effectuate an unknown quantity and quality of other rights, and thereby increasing the uncertainty of future benefits. For instance, once a body is provided with certain mandatory powers, it is not clear how these powers will be used and in what circumstances. …

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