Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation
Justice, Peace, Integrity<br /> of Creation

What do the members of the UN think about UN?

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 21.09.2023 Minh-Thu Pham Translated by: Jpic-jp.org

Do the UN members inside of it, have the UN same perception as the street peoples from outside of it? Minh-Thu Pham recently joined as a non-resident scholar in the Global Order and Institutions Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She has been working at the UN several years.

D/. What was it like to work at the UN, based on your years in the Secretariat?

A/. It was both inspiring and humbling—inspiring because you get to help the community of 193 nations try to uphold the values they agreed to, and humbling because you (or at least your boss, the Secretary-General) have no power and very little influence. Everything you do is shaped by dynamics among member states, and the success of your efforts ultimately depends on whether they agree with one another or not. But when member states see it’s in their interest to cooperate, it can be pretty cool.

Still, my experience was somewhat unique. I arrived at the Executive Office of the Secretary-General in January 2005, during a period of deep crisis. Under questioning from the press, then secretary-general Kofi Annan said the Iraq war was not in accordance with the UN Charter and therefore illegal. Typically tensions arise at the UN as a result of disagreement among states, but here it was between the UN’s most powerful member state (the United States) and its top official who works at the behest of its members.

That led to several U.S. congressional investigations into the UN, threats to withhold UN funding, and an independent inquiry, among other things. I was charged with staffing the UN’s response. That included several reforms, and in the end, we got agreement on the principle of Responsibility to Protect, important institutional changes on human rights and peace-building, and measures to improve management and operations.

Q/. How relevant is the UN today, nearly eight decades after it was created?

A/. The UN’s relevance has been a question almost since its founding, but major powers ultimately decide that it’s to their benefit to try to work with it. Coordinating policy through an institution with global reach can be more efficient than working bilaterally.

That said, right now trust between governments seems to be reaching a breaking point, and the legitimacy of states such as the United States that helped establish the world order is being seriously questioned. This is happening at just the moment when global cooperation is needed the most.

Alternative clubs and pop-up alliances, while useful for certain purposes, also reflect the power transition we’re in. The expansion of the BRICS can bring those countries greater leverage at the UN, which is the only forum where the rest of the developing world is represented alongside the most powerful. At least in the medium term, I think governments will still go to the UN. If BRICS+ and others want to lead or influence the so-called Global South, they need to go where those countries are, and that’s the UN.

Q/. What explains the UN’s failures? Is it capable of reform, at least at the margins?

A/. The UN has contributed to dramatic failures—often as a result of indecision, either when member states can’t agree, as in the war in Syria; when their agreement falls far short of what’s needed, as in Bosnia or Rwanda; or when they selectively apply, or don’t apply, international norms to suit their interests, as in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Reform can mean different things—from ongoing debate about Security Council expansion to significant but less glamorous institutional changes to help the UN better deliver. Getting countries to agree on major changes depends on trust between member states and on whether there’s a broad coalition of committed states, backed by a solid political strategy and pressure from outside.

Ultimately, reform is about changing how the UN works in order to improve it.


Q/. What’s one aspect of the UN that’s flown under the radar that you wish more people knew about?

A/. I thought the relatively open process of creating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was itself a reform of UN decision-making and a story worth understanding. (That may be self-serving, since I was deeply involved.)

But what happened wasn’t a rule change but rather a practice change. In the process of deciding on the goals, member states took into account ideas and evidence from governments (including local and regional bodies), UN agencies and programs, non-UN organizations, and new stakeholders that all helped to popularize the goals and whose expertise we need to implement them. It was “networked multilateralism” in practice, and I don’t think UN decision-making can go back to being closed to the people most affected.

Yes, we’re off-track for achieving the goals—which were always ambitious—and the coronavirus pandemic set us further back. We’ll need the solidarity demonstrated in 2015—in the SDGs, the Paris climate agreement, and the financing for the development agenda—and more to get us closer.

Q/. What do you make of the often-ambivalent relationship between the UN and the United States?

A/. It’s a tension built into the UN’s fabric. The United States helped create the UN and the existing world order, including the norms and principles that shape state behavior and the institutions that support them. Washington abides by those norms, at least most of the time, because it’s in its interest for others to see that it does and others should as well. Ultimately, the United States goes to the UN if doing so will accomplish its objectives. However, it should keep in mind that when it doesn’t go to the UN, there’s a trade-off. If the United States doesn’t go when it should, or doesn’t uphold its end of the bargain, it erodes its legitimacy as the underwriter of the global order. That’s one reason for the crisis we’re in.

Q/. What will be your focus at Carnegie?

A/. I’m interested in how international organizations like the UN can better deliver, especially in response to profound change and compounding crises. How should these institutions adapt? The people and countries most impacted by the crisis have had very little say in what happens to them, but they will find ways to be heard. How will that play out, especially as authoritarianism is taking hold in many parts of the world, and people don’t trust their own governments to represent them or deliver for them?

See, A UN Expert on the Institution’s Successes, Failures, and Continued Relevance

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