Santa Clara University


The United Nations and Supranational Organizations

The Westphalian system that resulted from the Thirty Years War (1618-48) emphasized the sovereignty of national states. Indeed, J. Bryan Hehir terms the system as built on two explicit propositions (state sovereignty, non-intervention) and one implicit idea (secularization of world politics). Only following World War I did decision-makers seek to add a specifically international component, the League of Nations. After its failure and the devastation of World War II, the United Nations formed in San Francisco in 1945.

The primary objective for forming the U.N. was a negative one, to prevent World War III, so the five major victorious powers all received a veto in the fifteen-member Security Council. All nations were represented in the General Assembly. The Secretary General ran the bureaucracy and exercised moral suasion, but did not have significant executive power. The names of those who have held the office of Secretary General, however, remind historians and the general public of the policy agendas of those particular periods as the United Nations became more involved with numerous international questions. The Secretary Generals were: Trygve Lie (Norway), 1945-52; Dag Hammarskjöld (Sweden), 1953-61; U Thant (Burma), 1961-71; Kurt Waldheim (Austria), 1972-81; Javier Pérez de Cuéllar (Peru), 1982-91; Boutros Boutros-Ghali (Egypt), 1992-96; Kofi Annan (Ghana), 1997-2006; Ban Ki-Moon (South Korea), 2007-. In the beginning of the Cold War, the most desired U.N. stand seemed to be “impartiality,” often associated with Swedish leadership. This touchstone has been succeeded by the notion of “credibility” which includes the idea of “fairness” to all.  

Overall, the United Nations has done a lot of good through relief and development organizations like Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, currently led by Ruud Lubbers (Netherlands). With limited resources, the U.N. has produced a mixed record on both peacekeeping and human rights. Many institutional reform proposals have been advanced since 1945, but especially since the end of the Cold War in 1989. One partial reform was the changing of the Human Rights Commission to the slightly smaller Human Rights Council (see recent article below). The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights leads the global articulation of these issues in New York and in field offices throughout the globe. Since the establishment of the post as a result of the World Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, 1993), it has been held by José Ayala Lasso (1994-97), Mary Robinson (1997-2002), Sergio Vieira de Mello (2002-3), and Louise Arbour (2004-8), Navi Pillay (2008-). The U.N. also hosts periodic global conferences which influence world public opinion, for example, the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), and the U.N. Millennial Summit (New York, 2000).

In terms of other supranational organizations related to the U.N., those with economic portfolios tend to have the most executive authority: International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Labor Organization (ILO), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO). Select development organizations are the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) administer specialized portfolios. Most people found out about International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in the run up to the United States attack on Iraq in 2003, but it is the supranational organization on the issue of proliferation.

Knight and Masciulli (below) place the United Nations at the juncture between the system of sovereign nation states and the multi-centric transnational system in the following section. Their book offers a seven-rule learning process of reform based on “the solidarity of strangers” and subsidiarity, assigning a task to the lowest possible effective level of governance.

A Global Ethic and The United Nations.

A Short Introductory Course:

Nowak’s chapter presents a fine analysis of the entire topic. The collection by Knight focuses on the changes in the international systems that influence reform. The conclusion by Knight and Joseph Masciulli is particularly good at making the case for the necessity of the U.N. and its reform in the contemporary global system. Kennedy and Traub offer excellent contrasting and complimentary views of the possibilities of such reform at the present moment. Both also provide a fine historical introduction, with Traub focusing on the recent relations of the U.N. and its most powerful member. The Kille volumn discusses the ethical role of U.N. Secretary Generals.

Chapter Four, “The United Nations,” in Nowak, Manfred. Introduction to the International Human Rights Regime (Leiden: Matinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2003), 73-156.

W. Andy Knight, ed. Adapting the United Nations to a Postmodern Era: Lessons Learned (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

Kennedy, Paul. The Parliament of Man: The Past, Present, and Future of the United Nations (New York: Random House, 2006).

Traub, James. The Best Intentions: Kofi Annan and the UN in the Era of American World Power (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).

Kille, Kent J., ed. The UN Secretary-General and Moral Authority: Ethics & Religion in International Leadership (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2007). The book asks, "Does the ethical fremework of an individual office holder impact the role played by a secretary-general?" It argues for "a combination of personal values that establish the beliefs, forms of reasoning, and interpretations of the world that guide an individual in making judgments about proper behavior in specific contexts." (p. 20). There are individual chapters on Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold, U Thant, Kurt Waldheim, Javier Perez de Cuellar, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Kofi Annan, and three integrating chapters.

Other Resource Materials:

Chapter Two, “The United Nations Human Rights System,” in Buergenthal, Thomas, Shelton, Dinah, and Stewart, David. International Human Rights, 3rd ed. (St. Paul, Mn.: West Group, 2002), 27-70. Very good on key documents and cases.

Ramcharan, Bertrand, “The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law,” occasional paper No. 3 of the Harvard University Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Resolution (Spring 2005). Ramcharan is the former Acting United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Schrijver, N.J. (Professor, Law, Leiden), and van der Bruggen, Koos, “The United Nations and the Evolution of Global Values,” project submitted for funding. 

See Markkula Links for United Nations (6 entries)

A Global Ethic And The United Nations.

Recent News Articles:

“U.N. Is Gradually Becoming More Hospitable to Israel,” New York Times, October 11, 2005. Kofi Annan has reduced marginalization in last eighteen months.

“Principles Defeat Politics at the U.N.,” New York Times, March 5, 2006, op-ed by Nobel winners Jimmy Carter, Oscar Arias, Kim Dae Jung, Shirin Ebadi, and Desmond Tutu, supporting the proposed Human Rights Council.

“Dithering Through Death,” New York Times, May 16, 2006. Op-ed by Nicholas D. Kristof, criticizing U.N. inaction on Darfur. U.N. has done better in organizing security for elections, and best in humanitarian aid, for example, World Food Program, UNICEF, and school-feeding program. But on military intervention, the action is in national capitals.

“U.N. Urges Tripling of Funds by ’08 to Halt AIDS,” New York Times, June 1, 2006. Annan advocates $22 billion by 2008.

“The downside of U.N.-bashing,” op-ed by James Traub in Los Angeles Times, June 10, 2006. “Because the U.S. can’t do without it,” but fails to acknowledge publicly.

“Annan Cautions Rights Council To Avoid Rifts,” New York Times, June 20, 2006. Secretary General Kofi Annan addresses first meeting of new U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. It replaced the slightly larger Human Rights Commission in a partial reform. Countries like Iran and Venezuela were excluded, but China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba belong. Meeting time has been doubled. The U.S. was one of four countries that voted against the change as not enough reform.

“On His Ancestors’ Wings, a Korean Soars to the U.N.”, New York Times, December 22, 2006. Background of new Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

"Catholic efforts bolster U.N. resolution," National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008. Article by John Allen, Jr. on Catholic support for Dec. 18 vote of General Assembly in favor, 104-54, with 29 abstentions, of a global moratorium on the death penalty. Eight of ten co-authoring nations are Catholic majority states. Vatican declined to support Egypt's "killer amendment" that would have added abortion to the vote. Community of Sant-Egidio played major role in World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Such an effort failed in 1994 and 1999, showing change in world public opinion, even if vote is not binding.

"'Padre Miguel' takes a world stage," National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 2009. Article by Patricia Lefevere on life and initiatives of President of 63rd General Assembly, suspended priest and Maryknoller Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann of Nicaragua. 

Other Supranational Organizations

Select Supranational Organizations

Recent Articles:

“Trade Talks Fail Over An Impasse On Farm Tariffs,” New York Times, July 25, 2006. WTO Doha Round talks suspended over farm subsidy impasse. Positions of major nations and blocks.

“Agricultural Discord Stymies World Trade Talks’ Revival,” New York Times, September 11, 2006. G-20, led by Brazil and India, meets at Rio. U.S. and E.U. joins, but unable to reach agreement.

See also this site's entry on "Social Justice in the Global Economic System" in Section One.

November 6, 2009.