The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

If our goal is to develop new models that will support better global coordination, what existing structures can we build on? The United Nations – the current hub of global governance – has had a number of at least partial successes over its seventy years of existence that we can learn from and improve upon.

The United Nations is the central hub of the existing system of global governance. It was established in 1945, in the aftermath of World War II, and currently has 193 member states.

The basic document defining the purpose and regulating membership, responsibilities, organizational structure and operations of the UN is the UN Charter. Echoing the famous first paragraph of the US Constitution, the Charter begins “We the peoples of the United Nations …”.

However, this formulation also reveals a very important difference between the two documents: The UN is a union of “peoples”, not of “people”, and the UN Charter is a set of rules for voluntary cooperation between sovereign states, not a constitution. In line with this, Article 2 of the Charter stresses the principle of “sovereign equality” of all member states, and the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs of member states.

The purpose of the organization is stated in the first article of the Charter: to “maintain international peace and security”, ”develop friendly relations among nations”, ”achieve international co-operation in solving international problems” and to  promote “respect for human rights”. Other central goals for the orgaization today are sustainable development, international law and humanitarian aid.

The UN is a union of “peoples”, not of “people”, and the UN Charter is a set of rules for voluntary cooperation between sovereign states, not a constitution.

The UN consists of six principal organs, with responsibilities, powers and procedural rules defined in the Charter:

  • The General Assembly, which is the main decision making body with equal representation and voting powers for each member state.
  • The Security Council, with five permanent members – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – and  ten non-permanent members that are elected for two year terms by the General Assembly.
  • The Secretariat, led by a Secretary General that is appointed by the General Assembly on recommendation of the Security Council.
  • The Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, which is responsible for issues related to economic and social development as well as environmental issues.
  • The International Court of Justice which is the main judicial organ of the UN, with the task of settling legal disputes among member states and providing the General Assembly and the Security Council advisory opinions on legal questions.
  • The Trusteeship Council. This organ was established in the original Charter, signed in June 1945, with the task of administrating trust territories that lacked a sovereign government of their own, either by being placed under League of Nations mandate after World War I or as a result of World War II. The Trusteeship Council still formally exists, but has suspended all operations since 1994.

Apart from these principal organs, there is also a large number of subsidiary organs, programmes, committees, working groups and specialized agencies. Some of these also have their own subsidiary organs. Thus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, was established jointly by the UN Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization, which is a specialized UN agency. In addition, some UN Conventions have their own separate secretariats, such as the secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, which has a staff of 500 people.

The UN system is thus a large and complex network of interconnected organs and agencies with different mandates, memberships and principles of governance. The organizational map below only gives a rough overview.

The history of global governance is – so far – largely a history of shortage and inadequacy.

Not that there hasn’t been brave ideas and ambitious proposals. Consider for example the various detailed drafts for a World Constitution and the political movement for transforming the United Nations into a World government in the decades following World War II – ambitions that had strong support among scientists, parliamentarians and members of Congress in Europe as well as America.

Nor is there a lack of international institutions devoted to global governance. Think of the UN system with its complicated web of more than 100 interlinked principal organs, secretariats, subsidiary organs and specialized agencies, employing more than 30 000 people all over the world.

Many of these institutions have no doubt made a real difference by offering solutions or partial solutions to specific global problems. The UN has delivered humanitarian aid to numerous crisis areas, saving millions of lives around the world. UN peacekeeping troops have protected civilians – but also failed to protect civilians – against atrocities in more than 50 armed conflicts, and sometimes been crucial for achieving and upholding lasting peace agreements.

Several international conventions addressing environmental issues – from the 1921 Convention Concerning the Use of White Lead in Painting to the 1989 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement – have contributed to at least reducing health hazards, environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources. In some cases, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, they have not solved the issues, but set up conditions for seeking scientific and political consensus on how to solve them.

Still, when it comes to agreeing on and implementing effective solutions to some of the greatest and most pressing threats to humanity, the current system of global governance has proved sadly inadequate. More than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty, with 29 000 children under the age of five dying from preventable causes, every day. Global carbon emissions increase for every international climate mitigation summit that is held, and 15 000 nuclear weapons continue to threaten human existence on this earth.

To amend this obvious deficiency is the great challenge for our generation.
Perhaps some of the historical success stories – partial and insufficient as they are – can provide inspiration and knowledge for this endeavor? And perhaps an institution that was built to solve a problem in one area can be expanded to other problems as well, and thereby offer a realizable route to a successively stronger global governance system? That is how the European Union developed from a six country Coal and Steel Union designed to avoid war between Germany and France to today’s increasingly integrated political union between 28 countries.

Among those partial global governance success stories, we should definitely include the Montreal Protocol, ”perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date” according to former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. It came into force 1989 and has been ratified by 196 countries and the EU. The treaty requires all parties to reduce emissions of chemical substances that contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer.

The background was a growing awareness about the importance of the earth’s ozone layer to protect from harmful UV-B radiation and the destructive effects on the concentration of ozone in the atmosphere from some chemicals used in, for example, spray bottles and refrigerators. In 1985 new alarming results about an expanding hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctica created increased political pressure for effective measures to deal with the issue.

Compliance with the treaty has been broad, with sharp cuts in emissions of ozone depleting substances to the atmosphere. Recent studies show that, as a result of the ban, the Antarctic ozone hole is starting to recover.

Another partial success story is the institution of a permanent International Criminal Court, ICC, to investigate and try war crimes and crimes against humanity. There have been ad hoc courts set up for similar purposes before, beginning with the Nuremberg trials after World War II, and continuing with the UN international tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.

The Court was established by the Rome Statute of 1998, following an international campaign led by a coalition of human rights organizations. 124 countries have signed the Rome Statute and are thereby under the Courts jurisdiction. It has so far tried 23 cases and issued 4 verdicts.

The Court is considered by some to be a historic milestone, ending the impunity of political and military leaders committing atrocities. But it has some serious limitations, most obviously that important countries such as the US, Russia, China and India have not signed or not ratified the statute. NGO campaigns therefore continue in order to expand the jurisdiction of the Court.

An institution that can be cited as both an example of failure and as an example of partial success is the International Whaling Commission, established in 1949 to govern the commercial exploitation of the world’s whale populations. Until the mid 1960s, the organization was dominated by whaling nations and its regulations focused on maximizing economic profits from whaling. During the 1960s, it became evident that whale populations were seriously threatened. Environmental organizations launched international campaigns for saving the whales and the IWC gradually changed its focus toward conservation and protection, and developed methods for monitoring populations and providing scientifically grounded policy advice. In 1982 the IWC issued a moratorium on all commercial whaling, a moratorium that is still in place although contested by some traditional whaling nations. 

Interestingly, the IWC does not have the power to issue binding rules, and membership is voluntary. Some traditional whaling countries have at times chosen to leave the organization and resume whaling, but obviously the price in international shaming is expensive enough to motivate broad enough compliance for the moratorium to be at least partly effective.

Although data are often uncertain, and also contested, there seems to be evidence that the moratorium has allowed some of the species that were previously heavily exploited to slowly recover.

These examples are in no way conclusive. But they show that institutions can be created that allow for responsible governance of global resources and abolish impunity for the worst atrocities. They also provide experiences, good and bad, that the construction of better functioning future system of global governance could build on.

Magnus Jiborn

Magnus Jiborn is a philosopher and a journalist, currently doing research on climate policy and economic development at Lund University School of Economics and Management. He is also founder and partner of Vetsam, a private institute devoted to science outreach. Magnus has a background in the peace movement, leading Sweden’s largest – and the world’s oldest – peace organization in the 1990s. He has previously worked with the founder of Global Challenges Foundation, Laszlo Szombatfalvy, in mapping the history of the idea of global governance.

Folke Tersman

Folke Tersman is Chair Professor of Practical Philosophy at Uppsala University. He is also the initiator of the Journal of Political Philosophy and has led the interdisciplinary research project Democracy Unbound. In 2009, Folke Tersman published the book Tillsammans – en filosofisk debattbok om hur vi kan rädda vårt klimat (Together – A Philosophical Debate Book on How We Can Save Our Climate). He recently returned to Sweden after spending a period of time as guest lecturer at the University of Sydney in Australia.