The Global Citizen

Search form

Category: UN Reform & Revitalization

Is Russia Assaulting Sovereignty?

Pro-Russian Demonstrators Beat an Activist in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 13, 2014 - See more at:

Russia’s intervention into the internal affairs of Ukraine may seem like a breathtaking assault on the international system. After all, Ukraine and its citizens have the right to determine their own future without the interference of other states, an international norm that has also become international law.

But Russia’s rather blatant meddling isn’t so much groundbreaking as it is a feature of the system. The question is less whether we’re okay with Russia breaking what had been a stable equilibrium in Ukraine (we shouldn’t be okay with it, though), but whether we’re okay with a system that favors the powerful, especially powerful states, over the weak, especially those in weak states.

While Russia denies allegations that it is supporting pro-Russian militias and demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine, there are good reasons to doubt those denials. More importantly, the norm of non-interference has clearly been broken: Russia admits to sending forces to Crimea and directly influenced various events leading up to its alliance with Russia; claims that Russia can get pro-Russian militias in Eastern Ukraine to stand down and obvious troop buildups along the border are meant to influence the policies of the Ukrainian government in ways that are typically out-of-bounds for international politics.

Global 911: It's Time for a UN Emergency Peace Force

PHOTO: U.N. peacekeeper walks with children/Wikipedia

Genocide, mass atrocities, violent oppression; these acts, these words, invoke fear, disgust, anger and beg the question why? Human history is littered with examples of these heinous crimes against humanity and yet it took one of the darkest moments in world history to garner a response.

That event? The Holocaust.

An estimated eleven million people died as a direct result of the Holocaust. Of that eleven million, nearly six million Jews were systematically eliminated in what was called the Final Solution.

In the wake of the terror of World War II the world said it had enough. For the first time in history countries came together to lay framework of cooperation, peace, and most importantly, prevention. The United Nations was founded in the wake of the horrors of WWII, a means to protect the human family.

The UN has evolved since its foundation and so has the means by which the UN meets its goals. One of the primary tools of the UN is its peacekeeping function.

Peacekeeping in itself has evolved over time, from observer missions to peacekeeping to building and enforcing. All with two primary goals in mind; prevent a third world war and eliminate the threat of genocide.

While the former has been prevented to date, the latter is far from. Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and the Central African Republic, ravaged by ethnic cleansing and threats of genocide. In these cases the slow response of peacekeeping operations has undoubtedly led to unnecessary loss of life.

Global Justice: The Unrealizable Promise of International Institutions

The "Pale Blue Dot" photo of Earth taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 from beyond the orbit of Pluto. We're the tiny dot.

In recent years, we’ve come to recognize that the world is interconnected, perhaps in ways and on a scale that it never has been before. We live together and affect each other on the same small planet and we are all fundamentally equal regardless of where we are born. Global justice is about deciding how the institutions those interactions create, formal and informal, social, political, and economic, should be managed in a just, equitable way, where everyone is treated fairly and no one is abused.

New international institutions were born in the last century to cope with the consequences of depression and devastating wars in a globalizing world. The United Nations was designed to pursue diplomacy on a variety of issues, and its Security Council in particular was designed to prevent great power war. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were designed to rebuild the global economy and keep it stable, so that every state can participate and so that no single state could make a mistake with its economy so terrible that it dooms us all. Institutions keep being birthed, too: a World Trade Organization has formed to help states better manage the flow of goods and services, an International Criminal Court started work just a decade ago to hold violators of human rights to account for their crimes, and more institutions have been created, including regional courts, issue-focused IGOs, and others.

These international institutions do much good, bringing food and shelter to refugees, helping us understand human rights violations, and helping keep the world stable in ways it may not be otherwise.

On Cooperation Near and Far, Big and Small: One Final Note From Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger was a vocal proponent for UN reform his entire life.

The day he died, my organization got a hand-written letter from Pete Seeger, the 94-year-old iconic folksinger who departed last month after decades of inspiring us onward with his peace and justice ballads.

Now with his loss, we realize it is quite a gap to fill. Indeed, one political cartoon showed a hapless banjo player reading his paper’s page: “JOB OPPORTUNITY: New Pete Seeger needed. Must start immediately.”

What were his final messages to us? In an article last week entitled, “I’m Through With Big Things,” Seeger was quoted as saying, "Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many, many small leaders.” We know of his work to clean up the Hudson River, as well as his call for all of us to get involved at the local level. If he was disappointed in greater things, it was perhaps no wonder—for decades he suffered severe disappointments on the larger scene—a country which blacklisted him, record companies and television stations that marginalized him, and a youth culture and civil rights movement that passed him over when they became enamored by cooler music and more strident activism.

3 Fundamentals for a More Humane World

Prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz at the Nuremberg Trial

Ben Ferencz is an inspiration to many members and supporters of, world federalists and human rights advocates worldwide.  For those unfamiliar with Ben, he was the youngest member of the Nuremberg legal team in 1945 which prosecuted the Nazi leadership.

Like many young men and women in the U.S. armed forces today, he had enlisted as a soldier and served in Europe where he witnessed terrible atrocities being carried out as part of the Holocaust. As the Allies realized the scope of the horrors being committed, a war crimes team was set up. With his law studies background, Ben was assigned to this team, visiting the concentration camps afte their liberation, interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence of war crimes. Following his discharge from the U.S. Army, he was recruited to join the team at Nuremberg and was assigned as the chief prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen trial, the ninth of the twelve Nuremberg cases carried out by the Allies. 

Could a World Parliament on Climate Change help to achieve a breakthrough?

Two days before the close of the COP19 climate conference in Warsaw, hundreds of climate activists left the conference prematurely to protest the lack of progress. This walk-out and the otherwise dismal effort in negotiating a new comprehensive treaty beg the question of how the process could be fundamentally improved.

The UN's framework convention on climate change, adopted in 1992, declares that change in the Earth's climate and its adverse effects are "a common concern of humankind." Yet this overarching perspective is barely represented in the formal UN process. The mission and primary concern of most country negotiators is to pursue vested governmental interests, some of which might not have to do with climate policy at all. 

Another flaw in the process is the requirement of consensus agreements rather than majority voting, which places a heavy strain on negotiators to satisfy all involved parties. The Copenhagen Accord of 2009 couldn't be formally adopted because of the opposition of five small countries. That this minority was able to embarrass the main negotiators sparked suggestions that an agreement might be sought outside the UN framework.

A forum of elected representatives could put the process onto a new footing. This new forum could be set up according to article 7.2 (i) of the UNFCCC which allows the conference of state parties to establish subsidiary bodies "as are deemed necessary for the implementation of the convention."

Saudi Arabia's Rejection of UN Security Council Highlights Need, Opportunity for Reform

Saudi Ambassador to the UN Abdallah Yahya Al-Mouallimi

Last week, Saudi Arabia was one of five states elected to the UN Security Council for a two-year term. In a surprise move, they released a statement to the press the next day rejecting their seat. In what follows, I'm going to explore their decision and why the hierarchical nature of the Security Council is frustratingly difficult to overcome. That hierarchy has a real effect on smaller, less powerful, or historically disadvantaged states, and the Saudis' frustration is the latest sign that Security Council reform has a long way to go.

What Does The UN General Assembly Do When It's Not UN Week?

US President Barack Obama Addresses the 68th UN General Assembly

As delegates have been meeting for the 68th plenary sessions and General Debate (“UN Week”) at the UN General Assembly this week, September 23rd to October 1st, at UN Headquarters in New York City, it's worth taking a moment to focus on the General Assembly as an institution and not just as an annual headline-generating device. It's a great reminder of how far humanity has come these past 68 years in improving diplomacy, collaboration, and peace-building, and yet we still have far to go.

The UN General Assembly is the main deliberative, policymaking, and representative body of the United Nations; it is a deliberative body but not a legislative body in that it has the ability to offer non-binding resolutions to its member states, but it does not make laws. It makes policies for itself and the UN system but does not have the power to compel its member states. Its representation is equal among states: each state has one vote regardless of population, land area, or GDP. The General Assembly does have the power of the purse, as it passes the annual budget for the United Nations and determines how much each member state owes; it also elects the UN Secretary General, the non-permanent (and non-veto-bearing) members of the UN Security Council, the fifteen judges of the International Court of Justice, the fifty-four members of the Economic and Social Council, and new members of the United Nations itself.

What good does this deliberative body do?

Quite a bit.

Syria : Chemical Weapons and Restraints in War

There was a recent political drawing in the International Herald Tribune which showed high piles of skulls with signs on them which said "Killed by Assads Machine Guns", "Killed by Assads Tanks" and two men with UN on their coats saying "If they really were killed by chemical weapons we’ll have to stop Assad."

The accusations of the recent use of chemical weapons (cw) in the Syrian conflict has led to a UN investigation as well as discussions at the UN and in national capitals as to the appropriate response to what has been called "a clear violation of international norms." Yet there has been little discussion of why chemical weapons are prohibited and not tanks, and machine guns which in practice have killed many more people in Syria. To be more accurate, the drawing should have also shown piles of skulls with signs saying "Killed by armed opposition machine guns, snipers etc".

A short review of the prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons, the UN response, and the use of chemical weapons in conflicts in the Middle East may be useful as background to a discussion of appropriate responses.

R2P and Goals the Public Could Support

The Responsibility to Protect

The United Nations has been moderately successful at ending the scourge of war between its member states. It has also shown creative support for human rights by developing norms such as the Responsibility to Protect to assert that people are more important than states—that no member state is to commit gross abuses and violence against its people.

However, action to effectively ensure observance of the R2P norm has been blocked repeatedly by the veto possibility in the UN Security Council. The veto power and the status of Permanent Members of the Council given to the 5 victorious powers from World War II was seen as the only way to get agreement to the San Francisco Charter in 1945, but many scholars believe this was not intended as a permanent arrangement. In fact, the Charter provides that "A General Conference of the Members of the United Nations for the purpose of reviewing the present Charter may be held at a date and place to be fixed by a two-thirds vote of the members of the General Assembly and by a vote of any seven (later nine after the membership of the Council was increased from 11 to 15) members of the Security Council" . . . . "Any alteration of the present Charter recommended by a two-thirds vote of the conference shall take effect when ratified . . . . by two thirds of the Members of the United Nations including all the permanent members of the Security Council."

Because it was not possible for the Security Council to negotiate effectively to prevent the bombing of Kosovo in the 1990s, a coalition of the willing was formed to take action bypassing the veto. Now in Syria, some UN member states have been looking for a way to protect the insurgent groups in Syria against the bombing and the evident use of poison gas by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.