The United Nations University (UNU) and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) organized a panel discussion on ‘Putting Ideas to Work: The impact of powerful ideas on international reforms’, on June 21, 2005. The seminar intended to examine the opportunities and limits of the academic community in the shaping of the evolution of global governance. In the current context of debate on the reform of international institutions, the panel sought to assess the potential of ideas and knowledge of UN reform and the benefit these hold for member countries and their people.

Six presentations were made on the basis of nine UNU Press publications.* The aim was for the authors/editors to address the main ideas of their respective books, to highlight what intellectual
and/or political value added those ideas convey, and relate them to the current debates of UN reform.

Presentations were made by Simon Chesterman, Executive Director, Institute for International Law and Justice, New York University; Jean-Marc Coicaud, Head, United Nations University Office at the UN; Andrew Cooper, Associate Director, Centre for International Governance Innovation; Ramu Damodaran, Chief, Civil Society Service/Outreach Division, Department of Public Information, United Nations; Jessica Green, Research Associate, United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies; and Paul Heinbecker, Distinguished Fellow in International Affairs, centre for International Governance Innovation, and former Canadian Ambassador to the UN.

A few opening remarks were made by Jean-Marc Coicaud, explaining how the UNU mandate seeks to provide a bridge between global and local thinking. UNU Press and its publications were presented and more specifically, the often co-edited UNU volumes were mentioned as a good way of fulfilling the goal of bringing people together. When an actor or an institution, e.g. the UN, is politically important but also politically weak, it needs to be strategic not only to survive, but also to argue its case. Thus, it needs to identify good ideas, that is to say workable, realistic and yet inspiring ideas.

The floor was handed over to Ramu Damodaran who discussed what appeared to him, as the fundamental text of the UN, namely the UN Charter. The Charter places tremendous expectations and responsibility upon the Secretariat which is specifically listed as one of the six principal organs of the United Nations. This gives the Secretary-General the opportunity to initiate ideas for political consideration, as Kofi Annan, in particular has often done. In this, sound academic argument and scientific study are essential; both the 2000. We the Peoples report and the 2005 In Larger Freedom reflect this vigor. Similarly, other reports issued by the Secretariat on a range of specific subjects are informed by the precision of fact and scholarship.

The Economic and Social Council is one of the institutions that put ideas to work and has, indeed, been mandated by the Charter to work with both specialised agencies and with nongovernmental
organisations and, inded, with the Security Council. Such collaboration, effectively ensured, would help define a greater global coherence that comprehends the political, technical, academic and civil society sectors for the betterment of the human condition. Its experience underscores the fact that if ideas generated by academic research are to be brought into a globally and politically workable framework, Member States must be seen as both partners and instruments in change even as civil society is given opportunity to address non-national issues from the greatest common denominator base of peoples. And that experience would certainly seem capable of elevation to the universal political level that the United Nations as a whole represents.

Andrew Cooper began by warning of clichés when discussing ideas. Reform usually refers to structure whereas as with our body and mind, there is a vital link between the structure and the ideas of the organization. The structure of international organizations is not all that matters, individuals can make a difference. Elaborating on International Commissions and the Power of Ideas, commissions serve as an inter-connected process shaping the mind and the architectural body of global governance. Cooper encouraged more balance within international organizations; between the commissions and the constituency, as well as between the North and South countries. International organizations have to pass from the idea of working as a club, to a network-oriented understanding of themselves. The idea of the L-20 and Reforming from the Top: A Leaders’ 20 Summit (2005.), is more representative of the 21st century world balance of power than the Security Council. It might present a feasible framework of cooperation for the future of international community.

Simon Chesterman underlined the necessity to build discussions and debate around scholarly publications in order to bring out the important ideas to a greater audience. It is crucial to demonstrate that international organizations and governance instances in general, understand that they can ask for help and expertise when they face a problem. For example, a grouping of international law experts came up with reforms that could be implemented in about a week to show to the UN that is not alone. In Making States Work: State failure and the crisis of governance (2005), UNU and the International Peace Academy attempted to abandon the traditional state failure literature. Referring to Somalia, Chesterman explained that the notion of the state is under-theorized and that it is not the state as an institution of governance that fails but rather, its responsibility is incumbent upon either a government or groups of people. Hence, three conceptual barriers to answering the question of what makes a nation or a group of people succeed in state building arise.

First, there is no consensus on what success is and there is a need to move away from the prevalent Tolstoï notion that all successes are the same, while all failures are different. Does success in Costa Rica mean the same as success in Singapore? Knowing that it was the Marshall Plan that to a large extent reconstructed Western Europe after World War II, can one really advocate that state success supposes little governmental involvement in economics? Secondly, there is a need to realize the limited capacities of so called outsiders undertake state-building as this should not be supply, but demand-driven. A strong leader, around whom populations can rally, seems necessary but the problematic issue is to then move the attention from an individual, to institutions. Finally, a tactical or strategic problem is only to expect when six years after for example the Dayton accords, the regime established in Kosovo still perpetrates the state of crisis. This structural problem is highly visible in the lack of coordination between NGOs in the field, as well as in the lack of cooperation between international and local actors.

Paul Heinbecker
underlined that there is a large variety of ideas that go unnoticed which, in the context of the UN, could mean the questioning of whether the UN is indispensable or irrelevant (Irrelevant or Indispensable: the United Nations in the 21st century – 2005.) Although some politicians seem to believe that they can dispense with the UN without much difficulty, Heinbecker pointed out how people who created the UN were neither dreamers, nor obsessed with national interest. A multilateral system, which ought to be in the interest of us all, is not the concretization of a value or a thought, but it is the outcome of an interest. Various factors were mentioned that could help make the UN, and its ideas, turn to concrete realities such as; an enhanced budget, more public relations towards populations (the Sachs commission report made the clear choice to use words that people could actually understand), working with the US when possible and around it when not, make the UN reform a public issue of the public agenda, and think of the UN Security Council outside the framework of its enlargement.

Jean-Marc Coicaud dealt with two UNU Press publications. The Globalization of Human Rights (reprinted - 2005) looks into the development of the social, economic, civil and political human rights regimes at the national, regional and international level. It also treats the interplay between developed and developing countries and the role it plays in the spread of human rights values and norms worldwide. In regards to UN reform, the book brings out two central questions: 1) who should be the main implementer of human rights, the state or the international community? and 2) what obligations really lie behind the idea of humanitarian intervention? As states remain the ultimate player in human rights, the national interest can strengthen the role of these rights. Indeed, violations of human rights ultimately weaken the legitimacy of the leader and the sovereignty of the nation domestically, but also and maybe more importantly, internationally. Yet, it was added that skepticism about achieving the international responsibility to protect –the idea that the international community has the responsibility to intervene to hinder massive violations of human rights endorsed by the SG report on UN reform– needs to be translated into willingness of the member states to stop genocide. To achieve such an international commitment, more thinking has to be done on how to make issues of solidarity as strategic of an issue, as traditional security.

It is to a large extent the debates on humanitarian interventions in the 1990s and the ones on the war against Iraq in 2003 that have made the issue of The Legitimacy of International Organizations (reprinted –2005) a central concern. Coicaud supported the view of both the SG Report and the Report commissioned by US Congress on UN reform published early this June by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), that a distinction should be made between the legitimacy of the UN and the more general question of international legitimacy. To improve the legitimacy of the UN, the USIP report more so than the SG report, insists on increasing the efficiency of the UN and its ability to deliver. As such, the need for better human resources management is underlined. The UN as a global organization will never be able to project strongly externally if it continues to be weak internally. Besides, improving human resources means neither defending security of UN careers at all costs, nor promoting flexibility of careers at all cost. As for general international legitimacy, Coicaud stated that each of the key international principles at heart of international law, such as respect for human rights, national sovereignty, self-determination but also good faith, peaceful settlement of disputes and others, are part of international legitimacy. Thus, the ability of the UN and its member states to project a sense of international legitimacy is based upon finding the balance between these principles, which are in fact, partly compatible and partly in competition. This fundamental question of where to draw the line between principles is the core of a UNU project underway, called Fault Lines of International legitimacy. A project that tries to indicate how the sense of what is politically right at the international level is negotiated and evolves over time.

Jessica Green’s remarks draw on Reforming International Environmental Governance: From Institutional Limits to Innovative Reforms (2005), a UNU Press publication based on a threeyear
collaborative project on reforms and new forces in environmental governance. International Environmental Governance (IEG) suffers from several limitations. It is fragmented by a multiplicity of environmental agreements in a large body of law and many negotiating actors. The concentration effort recommended by the SG report In Larger Freedom will not be sufficient to solve IEG’s problems if it remains isolated from larger issues of sustainable development. The overlap between treaties is an opportunity for conflict (especially between trade and environmental regimes) and until coherence is achieved, uncertainties on the application of environmental law will subsist. A reexamination of the priority granted to international governance is needed to ensure that IEG no longer be neglected. Moreover, the issue of compliance was identified as crucial to IEG reform. Environmental law is often characterized as weak due to the absence of mechanisms for dispute settlements such as the ones in place for trade disputes.

In an attempt to modify IEG, some proposals have gained attention in academia and among negotiating actors. Clustering appears as an answer to fragmentation. The environmental legal achievements could be organized according to the substance of the agreement (e.g. water) or to the function of the agreement (e.g. monitoring, compliance, review). The idea of the creation of a World Environment Organization also emerged, with support from both France and Germany, as a possible answer to fragmentation. The Organization would coordinate all multilateral environmental agreements, UN bodies, etc. Its concretization is currently facing some political difficulties. A final proposal is to strengthen the UN Environment Program (UNEP), and hence make it the cornerstone of IEG by turning it into a UN specialized agency (and alleviate some of its financial constraints) creating a legal arm to the Global Ministerial Environment Forum. Regarding the issue of compliance, the creation of a World Environment Court that would hold both states and the private sector accountable for any damageable environmental behavior, is under discussion. Another possibility is a revamped and reformed UN Trusteeship Council in charge of environmental matters which do not fall under national jurisdiction but which are still a concern of mankind. Finally, the mandate of the UN Security Council should be expanded to integrate environmental security.

The floor was opened for questions and answers. Following is a selection of the discussion they initiated.

Responding to the idea of a Tobin Tax financing the UN, Simon Chesterman answered that although it would be appreciable for the UN to gain some financial independence, financing through the member states is a form of accountability. Therefore, not only is the idea of a Tobin Tax somewhat idealistic, but it might also modify countries interest and diminish their involvement in the organization as they see a change in the weight of their financial contributions.

To the statement that member states should send higher ranking and better qualified diplomats to the UN, Heinbecker answered that allowing the political machine to materialize into appointing mechanisms does not necessarily lead to unjustified appointments. The member states representation at the UN is comparable to the ones of the embassies.

To the question of what could be done to enhance the independence of the Secretariat, Heinbecker confirmed that the Secretariat has to assure the dual function of being a leader and run the house including the responsibility of logistics (of which head of states are liberated). The idea of a Chief Operative Officer taking over the management function of the Secretariat is currently actively discussed. Moreover, it was suggested that the UN be financed through the creation of an endowment that would be aligned on the market and that would therefore not depend on member states grace and favors.

On the question whether the UN should simplify its rules and ideas so as to popularize its message to people, Ramu Damodoran acknowledged that a lot of people in the world are simply unaware of the UN’s work. It is incumbent for the Secretariat not to behave and see itself only as an organ of the UN, but also to turn to external stakeholders, such as civil society and academic entities. Yet, he wondered how easy it would actually be to communicate the message if some are not listening. Andrew Cooper noted that on this communication aspect, the UN has a lot to learn from think-tanks.

A member of the audience questioned the distance and differences that are often said to exist between governments and civil society. She pointed out that NGOs in the US has a strong impact on the government policies and also noted that, after all, civil society and voters include the same people. Ramu Damodaran explained that to a large extent, the divide can, as far as the UN is concerned, be traced back to the very architecture of the organization. He mentioned an idea currently envisaged, to include NGOs in national delegations. Some NGOs however may refuse such an involvement as they consider their mandate and mission to go beyond national interests and frameworks.

Another member of the audience mentioned the idea of the UN turning to vote rather than consensus as the reason for most of the UN’s immobility. Heinbecker agreed that consensus increasingly meant that if no reform is undertaken, some countries (including Pakistan, Cuba and Lybia) would systematically oppose UN actions, especially on matters related to security. However, the advantage of consensus is to avoid the tyranny of the majority. Besides, the US as the main contributor to the UN, would be reluctant to relinquish this element of control and there is also the idea of a weighted voting power. The issue has been put to the forefront with Secretary General Kofi Annan who argues that a consensus on the UN reform would be desirable, but that the process may go through a vote should no consensus be reached.

The question of what incentives could be used towards a country that refuses to take part in major international environmental agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol, was raised. Green admitted that there is no possibility to this day to force such an involvement. Two steps in the right direction have however already been taken; 1) the instauration of flexible mechanisms and 2) the clean development mechanism (developing countries obtain credits for running clean projects), both which will continue even if the Kyoto agreement does not. She assured that market mechanisms, such as labeling, take on a life of their own and bring some hope for the future of IEG, despite certain difficulties of matching the magnitude of the challenge.

* related UNU publications :
- John English, Ramesh Thakur and Andrew F. Cooper eds., Reforming from the Top: A
Leaders’ 20 Summit (2005)
- Simon Chesterman, Michael Ignatieff, and Ramesh Thakur eds., Making states work: state failure and the crisis of governance (2005)
- Ramesh Thakur, Andrew F. Cooper, John English eds., International Commissions and the Power of Ideas (2005)
- Andrew F. Cooper, Tests of Global Governance : Canadian diplomacy and the United Nations World Conferences (2005)
- Andrew Cooper, John English, and Ramesh Thakur eds., Enhancing Global Governance : Towards a new diplomacy ? (2002)
- W. Bradnee Chambers and Jessica F. Green eds., Reforming International Environmental Governance : From institutional limits to innovative reforms (2005)
- Jean-Marc Coicaud and Veijo Heiskanen eds., The Legitimacy of International Organizations (reprinted – 2005)
- Jean-Marc Coicaud, Michael W Doyle, Anne-Marie Gardener eds., The Globalization of Human Rights (reprinted –2005)
- Paul Heinbecker & Patricia Goff eds., Irrelevant or Indispensable : The United Nations in the 21st century (2005)

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.