The UN at 68 and Sustainability

24 October 2013 will mark the 68th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations. The world organization that emerged from the Second World War has survived the Cold War and several smaller hot wars around the globe to reach this mature age. Its achievements in areas as diverse as peacekeeping, humanitarian and development assistance, and human rights are many and worth celebrating. Its shortcomings are also becoming increasingly obvious. Among the latter is an emphasis on protracted negotiations that lead to lengthy outcome texts of little practical value in the real world.

While Foreign Ministries that represent governments at the UN fight it out on the right to development and respect for national sovereignty, countries disintegrate as in the case of Iraq, Syria and Libya; inequalities increase between elites and others within and between countries; planetary red lines are crossed, as in the case of CO2 emissions and climate change; financial crises wipe out people’s savings and jobs; and major divisions emerge, as between the secular and the religious, with terrorism as an extreme expression. The world has not seen a global war since World War II but the UN seems to be sitting on a boiling cauldron that may not take long to explode.

Enter sustainability, a fashionable and newish concept, dating back to the 1980s or even before, but having acquired new prominence after the Rio+20 Conference and the post-2015 process that followed it. A search is going on in earnest for “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), when their implementation period expires end of 2015.

The SDGs are supposed to be universal and adjustable to national circumstances, plus combine the three dimensions of sustainable development (economic, social, environmental), as well as elements of peace and security. If this ambitious effort succeeds it can provide broad goals and more specific targets that will focus efforts and reallocate resources at a major scale around the world till 2030 and beyond.

Will this happen though, or will there be a UN-like compromise and a fudging of real issues? Will this effort be inclusive enough to engage all relevant actors in its formative stages and ensure wholehearted implementation and resource mobilization afterwards? Will it be a UN Headquarters/Foreign Ministry exercise or will it engage the whole UN system, including the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the corresponding ministries in national governments, including Economy and Finance, Agriculture, Employment, Health, Climate and Energy, and the Environment? And will civil society, business, scientists and other stakeholders also be brought in both in the preparation of the goals and their implementation?

Finally, will the world public be engaged, through consultations but also inspiration through a convincing and compelling overall narrative, which will place the negotiating efforts as part of the search for a better life for all?


Something that should not be forgotten while the UN process advances and answers are de facto provided to the above questions: Sustainability and global justice are inextricably linked. No new organizing concept, goals or actions at the global level can last or function smoothly without universal buy-in and a broadly shared sense of fairness. Because justice is not only the object of legal proceedings in cases of distinct crimes, against humanity or otherwise. Justice is also found, or lacking, in a diffuse but still very real way in a sense of equity, dignity, opportunity and respect that people expect. When these are missing, or are underdeveloped or are only paid lip service for other ends, then the stability, viability and sustainability of the system is not guaranteed. And unfortunately these key elements seem to be missing from UN discussions, even if referenced in antiquated debates between North and South, East and West.

To revive the UN and ensure its usefulness for the world today and tomorrow, we need an organizing concept like sustainability, which also includes justice and human security at large. This means justice and equity for all, between individuals around the world and between generations, be they working age, young or ageing, and even still to come.

In turn, if that were the case it would mean a UN that stands by its words in practice, and member states that implement what they sign, internally and externally, and do not abdicate their primary responsibilities for the provision of public goods, regulation and coordination. Hopefully that will prove to be the UN of the years to come, but quite a bit of work is needed before that becomes reality.

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