October 7, 2015

“We the Peoples”?: The United Nations on Its Seventieth Anniversary

James A. Paul

Seventy years ago, on October 24, 1945, the United Nations Charter came into force. The Charter’s framers, powerfully speaking as “We the Peoples of the United Nations,” announced their determination “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war,” “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights,” to advance justice and “respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law,” and “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”

This anniversary presents a suitable occasion to consider how well the United Nations have lived up to the lofty ideals expressed at its founding, how it has adapted to a changing world, and to what degree this organization has been an effective force for a more peaceful, just, sustainable, and democratic world.

In this study, James A. Paul, the Executive Director of the Global Policy Forum from its founding in 1993 until 2012, charts the evolving nature of the United Nations. As a major figure in the UN NGO community, who has served on numerous boards and committees and written countless articles, reviews, policy papers, and books on international relations and global politics, Paul brings decades of experience as an advocate and observer of the UN to this task. By combining an insider’s knowledge with a healthy critical distance, Paul helps us to see the UN as a flawed but indispensable institution.

Based on a solid understanding of what the UN is and how it actually functions, this publication provides a critical overview of the UN’s social and economic policy, including its role in decolonization, shaping world trade, setting development policy, conducting research and analysis, and convening influential global conferences. The most powerful member states have always had an outsized role at the UN. In recent years, they have been joined by corporations and the mega-rich, who have made sure that their priorities and pet projects are funded even as more accountable UN agencies make do with inadequate financing.

Despite its flaws, the UN retains enormous public legitimacy and is singularly well situated to address myriad, intractable, regional and global crises and conflicts. Paul concludes with a rousing call for renewal. A well-financed, democratized, and revived United Nations is needed to mobilize its peoples for social, economic, and environmental justice. And the energy needed to drive this transformation will not come from the governments of the world. Rather, the citizens of each nation—“we the peoples”—will need to work together to reclaim the United Nations as an effective force for the common good.