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Monday, July 15, 2024


Global Governance: Time for Reform

Credit: Selcuk Acar/Anadolu via Getty Images

At last the UN Security Council has passed a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. While stopping short of demanding a permanent end to the violence, it goes further than the world’s peak peace and security body had so far managed since the start of the current brutal phase of conflict in October. But the time it’s taken to get to this point signals an ongoing failure of global institutions to uphold human rights.

Today’s conflicts around the world – not just in Gaza, but in Sudan, Ukraine and sadly many other places – are bringing immense cruelty and suffering, targeted at civilian populations and civil society. One in six people are currently exposed to conflict. International rules are supposed to make sure atrocities don’t happen, and if they do, the international community works to halt the bloodshed and bring those responsible to justice. But states are repeatedly flouting the rules.

The latest State of Civil Society Report, from global civil society alliance CIVICUS, highlights how international bodies are flailing as states make hypocritical decisions that undermine the rules-based international order. Belligerents are brazenly ignoring long-established tenets of international human rights and humanitarian law because they expect to get away with it. Civil society has global governance reform plans but isn’t getting a seat at the table.

Powerful states including Russia and the USA are demonstrating selective respect for the rules, shielding allies but castigating enemies. This is clear among the many states that rushed to Ukraine’s defence but have hesitated to criticise Israel. At the basest level, some states are displaying racism as they show concern for white people’s human rights but not for those of people of colour.

The Security Council has moved incredibly slowly, hampered by powerful states using their veto, its resolutions watered down through lengthy processes despite the urgency of the situation. States wanting to see an end to conflicts have taken to other arenas, including the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council – but these lack the clout of the Security Council.

Human rights are supposed to be one of the UN’s three pillars, alongside peace and security and sustainable development. But they’re very much the poor relation. The human rights pillar gets only 4.3 per cent of the UN’s regular budget. Problems with funding were plain to see in January, when UN offices in Geneva shut down temporarily due to a liquidity crisis, unable to meet heating costs at the height of a human rights emergency. Around 50 UN member states were reported to have failed to pay their 2023 contributions fully or partly.

Some states are withdrawing from the UN’s human rights scrutiny, with Uganda and Venezuela insisting on the closure of human rights offices in their countries, Sudan’s military kicking out a UN mission tasked with restoring democracy and Ethiopia successfully lobbying for an end to a commission scrutinising the many human rights abuses committed during conflict.

At the same time, repressive states are retaliating against activists who take part in UN human rights processes. The most recent report on reprisals against people for cooperating with the UN documented that over the last year, 40 states punished people for using the UN to stand up for human rights. Shockingly, 14 of them were members of the Human Rights Council – almost 30 per cent of the body’s members. It’s a disgrace that points to a broader problem of a lack of respect for human rights by many states active in the UN.

It goes beyond a failure to uphold human rights in conflict settings. The short-term calculations of unaccountable leaders are neutralising international agreements forged to tackle major transnational challenges such as the climate crisis and sustainable development, where delivery is falling far short.

Poster for the 4th “Civil Society Forum for Sustainability : Shaping the European Green Deal”, May 2023

At the Sustainable Development Goals summit held last September, civil society put forward innovative ideas to unlock the money needed to finance development and climate resilience, but these were ignored. Civil society is often denied access, forced at best to sit on the sidelines of the annual high-level opening of the UN General Assembly.

Today’s multiple crises are exposing the fundamental design flaws of international institutions, testing them beyond their limit. If trust in the UN collapses, people could embrace more authoritarian alternatives. To prevent this, states and the UN must take on board civil society’s many practical reform ideas. The UN must become more democratic and it must fully include civil society as an essential partner.

It can start by implementing some civil society reform proposals. The first of these, and an easy one to adopt, is to appoint a civil society envoy, someone who could encourage best practices on civil society participation across the UN, ensure a diverse range of civil society is involved and drive the UN’s engagement with civil society groups around the world. At a time when civil society is under attack in so many countries, this move would signal the UN takes civil society seriously and potentially unlock further progress.

Another step forward would be a world citizens’ initiative, enabling people to mobilise to collect signatures to put an issue on the UN’s agenda. This could ensure that matters proved to have a high level of global public support are given consideration, including at the Security Council. Many in civil society also support a UN parliamentary assembly to complement the General Assembly and give a voice to citizens as well as governments. This could serve as a valuable corrective to the state-centric nature of decision-making and act as a source of scrutiny and accountability over the decisions the UN makes – or fails to make.

Civil society will keep calling for a rules-based order where clear laws and policies are followed to tackle climate change, end poverty, address deep economic inequality, de-escalate conflicts and prevent gross human rights violations. The UN Summit of the Future in September 2024 should commit to advancing this vision. Civil society is doing its best to engage with the process, calling not for more platitudes but for genuine reforms that put people at the heart of decision-making.

Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.

Andrew Firmin
Andrew Firmin
  Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief, co-director and writer for CIVICUS Lens and co-author of the State of Civil Society Report.
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