Shortly after moving to the UK, I attended a screening of Gaylene Preston’s documentary My Year with Helen tracing the former NZ Prime Minister’s unsuccessful bid to become the next United Nations Secretary General in 2016. What became apparent throughout this documentary, was that the United Nations is neither a democratic nor meritocratic organisation. Instead it is a body where decisions are made by those nations with veto powers, or who’s economic and military might needs appeasing. And the selection of people for leadership roles is an exercise in horse trading, not selecting competent or experienced leaders.
Helen Clark has now been appointed Co-Chair the review of how the World Health Organisation (WHO) responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be an interesting review, as clearly there were many ways in which the WHO could have responded better to the pandemic. However, much of the failing was that many nations ignored WHO guidance or acted independently rather than be part of a global response to the pandemic.
As I posted back in April one of the single most irresponsible actions during this crisis was the decision by United States President Donald Trump to de-fund the WHO. The Trump administration having ignored WHO guidance caused many thousands of preventable COVID-19 deaths within the United States. In cutting funds to the WHO during a global pandemic, they have also undermined the global effort to minimise the spread of this dangerous virus.
The United States undermining global governance structures and pursuing its own political agenda ahead of everything else is nothing new, and certainly not something limited to the Trump administration. Nor are the United States the only nation guilty of this. China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States all have the power of veto meaning they can block any resolution from the UN General Assembly, even if it has majority support. These nations are permanent members of the UN Security Council and can veto any nomination for UN Secretary General.
There are countless examples of one nation being condemned by the United Nations for breaching human rights conventions, yet another nation can do far worse and the UN will take no action when a nation with the power of veto is protecting them or is in fact the nation breaching human rights. Any hopes that in the post-Cold War era the United Nations would become a stronger more united entity have been long since dashed.
A similar situation exists with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) where hundreds of very worthy conventions protecting the rights of workers all over the world have been agreed by member nations, then subsequently ignored. My recent post on global unionism outlined the problems these organisations have getting ILO conventions to be upheld, especially in regions of the world where sweat shops and low paid manufacturing are common.
On the issues of climate change, human rights, workers’ rights and economics global governance is crucial. The nation state as we know it today is a human construct only a few hundred years old, and it already is out of date and not fit to meet the challenges of the modern world. This is not to say nations should not have governments, but that trying to solve the big problems facing the modern world through national governments will not work. And we see on issues like climate change, national governments have failed to respond appropriately as the world lurches towards a crisis.
The recent rise of nationalist politics has seen a retreat away from globalism. In part this is due to a rejection of free market economics being foisted on the world through a process called “Globalisation” prior to the 2008 economic crisis. This agenda tried to merge an economic ideology of Neo Liberalism, with the inevitable trend of Globalism whereby enhancements in technology mean travel, communication have become much easier and subsequently more common. Sadly, this coupling of the free market and globalism, has meant the inevitable rejection of the former has seen a decline in support for the latter.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union can be seen as one example of this rejection of internationalism. Though the EU being a continental/regional rather than global governance body means the issues are more complicated, as one reason for Brexit was a desire of some in the UK for Britain to have a stronger global voice independent of the EU. Another factor though for Brexit support was the ineffectiveness of the EU, both in terms of democratic structures and results. Similar criticism can be made of global governance organisations and has resulted in a decline for their support.
There is no easy solution to the question of enhancing global governance to make it more effective. Were the five nations with Veto powers to relinquish this stranglehold, the UN may stand a fighting chance of gaining more legitimacy. However, the prospect of this happening in the short term is unlikely. This does not mean the power of Veto should not be constantly challenged and called out whenever one of the five nations uses this power.
Removing veto powers will not in itself resolve the pressing issue of establishing global governance structures that have the power to make decisions that are desperately needed right now. Trying to establish a global democratic structure, when many of the nations who belong to it are in no way democratic is a difficult contradiction to overcome. Further, the logistics of trying to engage people across the planet in a democratic global governance structure would be complicated. The risk is that yet again, those most engaged would be those from economically better off countries and their interests would continue to dominate the global political agenda.
The other difficulty will be getting nation states to relinquish certain powers to a global governance structure. It would make sense for the WHO to take control of the global response to COVID-19 and this would have most likely resulted in greater consistency and many thousands of lives being saved. But politically, few governments want to give up power and nor would their citizens likely accept being governed by an international force even if the motivations are good. Getting people to accept global governance and allowing it to have greater power would require a profound shift in public opinion throughout the world.
These are big questions, with no easy answers. The concern right now is that the future of global governance is not being discussed or debated nearly enough. Having a US President de-fund the WHO during a pandemic is shocking, but far worse is that few seemed terribly bothered or concerned when this happened. The challenges facing humanity in the 21st century require strong global governance and addressing this challenge should be a top priority for all policy makers.