The United Nations (UN) has been a key driver in shaping global norms since its establishment in 1945. While these norms have successfully guided the international community's expected behaviour and fostered external change, the UN itself grapples with internal norm formation due to the rigidity of its founding document, the UN Charter. However, we can address the reasons behind these struggles by examining the UN's success in creating external norms thus far in human rights, economic and sustainable development, and maintaining international peace and security through peacekeeping, peacebuilding, and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Finnemore and Sikkink's model of norm changes, including norm emergence, norm cascade, and norm internalisation, will help shed light on the discourse.
The UN has played a crucial role in establishing norms, institutions, and activities to ensure universal human rights. The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) exemplified the emergence of human rights norms. With its 30 articles defining the essential contents of human rights and fundamental freedoms, the UDHR has become a guiding principle for member states. The Human Rights Council (HRC) has further contributed to norm formation by expanding human rights standards to encompass issues such as discrimination against women, vulnerable groups, and Indigenous Peoples.
Despite the progress, the UN faced challenges in protecting the rights of minority groups, particularly Indigenous Peoples. The rigidity of the UN Charter hindered the direct participation of Indigenous Peoples in the norm-setting process. However, they became norm entrepreneurs by categorising Indigenous Peoples as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), effectively advocating for their rights internationally. Indigenous Peoples formed coalitions, engaged with UN mechanisms, and leveraged their unique cultural perspectives to influence the development of norms addressing their requests. This external engagement contributed to norm production and recognising Indigenous Peoples' rights within the UN system.
Although not explicitly mentioned in the UN Charter, peacekeeping has become a crucial external norm in maintaining international peace and security. United Nations peacekeeping operations are mandated by the Security Council, often under Chapter VII, and resolutions regularly assign thematic tasks to address issues such as women's participation and protection in conflict zones. On the other hand, peacebuilding focuses on addressing the root causes of conflict, offering long-term investment by the international community to support political reconstruction. The UN's normative framework for peacebuilding has evolved, incorporating lessons learned from past conflicts. The establishment of the Peacebuilding Commission in 2005 further emphasised the importance of sustained engagement in post-conflict societies to prevent relapses into violence. Norm entrepreneurs, including international NGOs, civil society organisations, and academic institutions, have played a vital role in shaping the discourse on peacebuilding, advocating for inclusive processes, and promoting the integration of social, economic, and political dimensions in rebuilding societies.
The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) emerged in response to failures in protecting civilians during conflicts and aims to prioritize the security of both sovereign states and individuals. R2P has gone through various stages in the norm life cycle, from its initial articulation in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document to its endorsement by the General Assembly. This external norm places a responsibility on states to protect their populations from mass atrocities and calls for international assistance and intervention when states fail to fulfil their obligations. The successful integration of R2P into the UN's normative framework demonstrates the organisation's ability to respond to global challenges and establish new norms through external engagement.
The United Nations (UN) has played a crucial role in promoting economic and sustainable development as global norms, aiming to address poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. One significant milestone in this effort is the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015. The SDGs serve as a comprehensive and integrated framework for action, guiding member states and other stakeholders to work towards achieving sustainable development on multiple fronts.
The SDGs have 17 interconnected goals, addressing various social, economic, and environmental challenges. These goals include eradicating poverty (SDG 1), ensuring quality education (SDG 4), promoting gender equality (SDG 5), fostering sustainable economic growth (SDG 8), combating climate change (SDG 13), and protecting biodiversity (SDG 15), among others. By encompassing various aspects of development, the SDGs recognise the interdependence of social, economic, and environmental dimensions. Through adopting the SDGs, the UN encourages member states to align their policies, plans, and programs with the sustainable development objectives outlined in the goals. This alignment promotes a holistic and integrated approach to development, emphasising the need to address the interconnected nature of social, economic, and environmental issues. Member states are urged to integrate sustainable development principles into their national strategies and engage in collaborative partnerships to foster collective action. The SDGs also underscore the importance of leaving no one behind, emphasising inclusivity and equity. The goals recognise that sustainable development cannot be achieved without ensuring equal opportunities, social inclusion, and the empowerment of marginalised and vulnerable groups.
Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been accompanied by significant challenges. Insufficient funding poses a major obstacle, as the resources needed for SDG implementation surpass the available funding, particularly in developing countries. Inequality and marginalization hinder progress, as discrimination and exclusion based on various factors leave vulnerable populations behind. Climate change and environmental degradation undermine several SDGs, requiring urgent action. Conflicts and fragility disrupt social and economic development, impeding poverty reduction and stability. Data and monitoring gaps limit progress assessment, while policy coherence and implementation across sectors and governance levels remain a challenge. Lack of awareness and participation among communities further hinders SDG achievement. Addressing these challenges necessitates collaborative efforts, enhanced partnerships, and innovative approaches from governments, international organizations, civil society, the private sector, and individuals to accelerate progress towards the SDGs by 2030.
The United Nations (UN) has been at the forefront of creating norms to address women's issues and promote gender equality globally. One of the significant achievements in this regard is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Adopted in 1979 as an international treaty by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW aims to eliminate discrimination against women and ensure their full participation in all spheres of life. It covers various areas, including political, economic, social, cultural, and health-related rights, emphasizing the importance of addressing gender disparities in healthcare. In supporting the implementation of international norms and conventions related to gender issues, including health, UN Women is vital as the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. Through its work, UN Women works tirelessly to advance gender equality, empower women, and protect their rights globally. The United Nations (UN) has encountered several challenges in spreading and implementing norms addressing women's issues and promoting gender equality. These challenges include deeply rooted cultural and traditional practices perpetuating discrimination, legal and institutional barriers hindering the alignment of norms within national frameworks, limited resources and funding, resistance and opposition from various stakeholders, and the need for effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms. Despite these challenges, the UN remains committed to collaborating with member states and other actors to overcome these barriers and advance gender equality globally.
External engagement has been vital in shaping these norms. The UN engages with specialized agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization to foster collaboration and ensure coherence in promoting economic and sustainable development. Non-state actors, including businesses, civil society organizations, and grassroots movements, contribute to norm formation by advocating for sustainable practices, influencing policy decisions, and raising awareness about pressing issues such as climate change and social justice.
However, the UN faces internal challenges in implementing these norms. The complexities of coordinating diverse actors and reconciling conflicting interests among member states often impede progress. The UN's consensus-based decision-making process can lead to compromises that dilute the effectiveness of normative actions. Nevertheless, external engagement and the involvement of non-state actors help bridge the gap between internal constraints and achieving sustainable development goals.
The United Nations has successfully shaped global norms through external engagement despite its internal normative constraints. By addressing issues related to human rights, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, R2P, and economic and sustainable development, the UN has created a framework for addressing global challenges. While internal challenges persist within the UN's normative framework, recognizing the organisation's capacity for external norm formation helps understand its ability to drive change. By fostering cooperation with specialized agencies, regional organisations, and norm entrepreneurs, the UN can continue to play a significant role in shaping global norms and addressing pressing global issues in the years to come.
The UN's struggle with internal norms can be mitigated by engaging with external actors, including civil society organisations, non-state actors, and regional organisations. By leveraging these actors' knowledge, expertise, and advocacy, the UN can strengthen its normative framework, adapt to evolving global challenges, and effectively implement established norms. Through this collaborative approach, the UN can unlock its full potential in driving global change and shaping a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world.
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