New priorities for the United Nations

March 17, 2017


United Nations Office

The UN must change in order to be relevant and to serve humanity. The world order of 1945 or before exists no longer. We must try to make the UN a new and vibrant organization that responds to the challenges of this new era. The lives of millions of refugees, migrants and ordinary citizens of every nation depend on it.

We begin 2017 with a new UN Secretary- General, António Guterres. He arrives at an important juncture in the ever-changing international landscape, where his leadership is much needed to guide the world organization. The international order requires dialogue, restraint and consensus, all of which are difficult in a world dominated by competing interests that, in many cases, prevail over principles and international law.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus noted that change is the fundamental essence of the universe. Human society is ever-dynamic, which makes it difficult for a static or permanent world order to exist; especially when, for example, society confronts change with adverse reactions, including war.

Thus, the UN must change in order to be relevant and to serve humanity. The world order of 1945 or before exists no longer. We must try to make the UN a new and vibrant organization that responds to the challenges of this new era. The lives of millions of refugees, migrants and ordinary citizens of every nation depend on it.

When member states created the UN, they intended it fundamentally to be an inter-governmental body. It has evolved, however, into a more complex entity, with some characteristics not necessarily intended by the governments that created it. For example, in the world society of today, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are sometimes more powerful than nation states. The international community today also consists of transnational corporations that, in many cases span the globe, and which have certain capacities that states do not. The lack of resources and the lack of will by member states to fund the UN has lead to the creation of public-private partnerships between the UN and its agencies. These PPPs need orientation and vigilance. In the field of human rights, the UN and many regional organizations have made it possible for individuals to take their country, or a third country, to task. And finally, we now have the legal standard of international treaties and their international monitoring bodies, which seek to ensure member state compliance with treaty obligations.

The difficulties we face as an international community are daunting! The people and governments of the world look to the UN as the forum for discussion and for consensus on how to meet these transnational challenges.

The Three Pillars of the UN – Human Rights, Peace and Security and Sustainable Development – encompass such a huge spectrum of human endeavors that, on a given day, dozens or hundreds of meetings take place around the world to try to reach agreements among the different areas. Negotiation is the basis for these agreements, and we need professionally capable individuals in state delegations and in the UN to go beyond the talk and to walk the walk. I believe that we must make those outstanding agreements realities on the ground. We must be pragmatic and try our best to meet the needs of those brothers and sisters who desperately need our commitment.

The UN is at its best when members can reach these agreements. I have participated in countless meetings in New York, in Geneva, and around the globe, and have witnessed the efforts towards these agreements. It is not an easy task; for many, often, the obstruction of agreements, the lack of consensus and the unwillingness to go beyond narrow interests impedes multilateral solutions that would benefit millions or even billions of persons. A clear example is the Conference on Disarmament, where more that fifteen years have passed with no agreement on topics that are vital for human survival.

My experience chairing the Ad-Hoc Working Group (from 2002 to 2005) that elaborated the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (PWD), demonstrates that world society can be changed. Indeed, more than 170 states have signed and ratified obligations that have changed the world for billions of PWD and their families. This experience compels me to defend what is possible rather than resort to eternal skepticism like many others. Results like this are the UN at its best!

For an international system that seeks to address all of human activity-certainly a worthy endeavor-prioritizing is a difficult and complex process. The integration of international variables in all human activity is a consequence of the new international order, which some do not understand and try to prevent. The internationalization of internal variables, on the other hand, has influenced the dynamics of global multilateral negotiations where the interests of the more powerful prevail or try to prevail. The only current forum where all nation states can express their concerns and those of their people is the United Nations and the multilateral organizations. Some states believe that if the UN or regional multilateral organization does not serve their interests, these institutions should be eliminated or at least restricted. Such a proposition is an easy way out to satisfy internal political agendas.

In a world that needs global leadership to meet the challenges of more than six billion people, we must foster for political will, cultivate a vision to change, and address the need to restructure the organization and its workings. The international community clamors for a more democratic world system, one that can complement intergovernmental negotiations with the participation of civil society and all other stakeholders. We must ask governments to be willing to look beyond their internal political interests, giving way to understanding rather than obstruction, confrontation and war. We need a more efficient UN that can deal with a new and ever-changing world. We ask for a more just world order, one where human rights are understood as universal, where development meets the needs of billions, and in which the security and peace of one is the security and peace of all.

In the long run “We the People of the United Nations…” must prevail. That is our motivation. That is my hope.

Ambassador Luis Gallegos has been Permanent Representative of Ecuador to the United Nations in New York and in Geneva, as well as Ambassador to the USA, Australia, El Salvador, and Bulgaria. He is currently a Fellow of Harvard Law School, President of the Institute of Public Policy and Disability at American University, President of the Global Initiative for Inclusive ITCs (G3ICT), Honorary Chair of the Universal Design Commission, Member of the Board of Special Olympics International, Member of the Board of the Advisory Group of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Special Advisor of the Nippon Foundation.