What the United Nations Really is: A Battlefield

Every issue that turns up in the news sooner or later ends at the United Nations (if it didn't actually start there). Recent examples? The killing of Cecil the lion and President Obama's decision to tighten fossil fuels regulations.

Regarding the latter, announced over the week-end, Obama appears determined to make of these new regulations  the second signature policy of his presidency - the first being of course Obamacare, the extension of health coverage to millions of Americans that didn't have it.

How does all this relate to the UN?

First, Cecil the Lion. In the midst of the scandal raised by Cecil's shameful killing by an American dentist and the announcement that Zimbabwe would ask for his extradition and the US Fish and Wildlife Service would launch an investigation (see here), the United Nations General Assembly adopted on 30 July, the "first ever" resolution on 'tackling illicit trafficking in wildlife' with a high number of co-sponsors, including all European Union member states, the United States, Canada and Australia, among others:

Draft Resolution circulated to the UNGA on 15 July - adopted on 30 July 2015 (screenshot) It shows the list of states sponsoring the Resolution
Please note that the "wildlife crisis" - and the need to protect biological diversity, a key element and "irreplaceable part of the natural systems of the Earth" - had been an on-going subject of debate at the UN long before the Cecil tragedy drew the world's attention to the damage done by Big Hunters. And the push to regulate illicit trafficking in wildlife will now continue long after everyone has forgotten about Cecil. Year in, year out, the UN General Assembly is tasked by the Resolution itself to review progress and is in fact expecting concrete proposals from the UN Secretary General next year.

UN staff is working on it along with partners: in 2009, an international consortium of five major agencies (ICCWC) was created to fight wildlife and forest crime:

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (see UNDOC's Annual Report 2014) was asked to take the lead and has a 4-year Global Programme for Combating Wildlife and Forest Crime:

Second, the new set of US environmental regulations. Meant to combat climate change, they are placing the US in the driving seat  at the Climate Change Summit (COP 21) to be held in December in Paris. As Obama says in this video, "climate change is not a problem for another generation, not anymore" and he wants to turn the US into a leader in the fight against Climate Change :

That Climate Summit in Paris will surely see much heated debate among the 50,000 participants it is expected to attract, including 25,000 official delegates. A major bone of contention is likely to be, as in the past, demands from developing countries who are attached to the so-called "principle of common but differentiated responsibilities" which establishes that “while all countries are responsible for contributing to sustainable development, countries that have been historically richer have additional responsibilities.’ Additional responsibilities for addressing Climate Change that, of course, they are not willing to accept without a fight.


Everytime, a major issue affecting humanity is raised, it reaches the UN, turning it into a  battlefield.


Because there are three broad categories of "users" of the UN system - or stakeholders - with different mandates and interests, and within each, there are special interest groups.


1. Government delegates guided by national interests; and among them, two major groups that do not see eye-to-eye: developing vs. developed countries - though, overtime, this has been an evolving scenario, as certain countries emerge and join the developed West; further breaklines occur when one of the Big Five uses his veto power at the Security Council, as Russia recently did in the matter of the Malaysia flight shot down over Ukraine (see related article below);
2. UN Secretariat and UN agency staff generally guided by the values of the UN Charter and the specific mandates of UN agencies with the occasional exception of UN managers that have been dropped in their high-placed positions by political agreements, explicit and implicit, worked out among delegates. 
3. Civil society, a rising stakeholder since the 1990s: (1) charities and NGOs; (2) people's movements (e.g. indigenous people); (3) businesses, including green business and ethical business. The three groups do not share the same objectives, they do not normally communicate with each other, and their participation in official debates is largely mediated by UN staff. At the upcoming Climate Summit in Paris, it is remarkable how much effort is expended to ensure a high level participation of business: 

These are the players in the UN game. Their interaction - endless debates, numerous resolutions, programmes, development agenda, field projects to demonstrate pilot approaches to sustainable development etc etc - all this, overtime, has a consequence on the international political scene. It adds up to what I would like to call the United Nations' "soft power".

More about that in future posts, as I work on the concept for my upcoming book on the United Nations.