United Nations and Governance

  • Neetu ChoudharyEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_1980-1



“United Nation and governance” indicate the approach and role of the United Nations system in and toward the issue of governance.


The United Nations officially came into existence in October 1945 during the congregation of representatives from 50 countries of the world. United Nations emerged as a system of international governance based on inter-country consensus on the issue of international peace, justice, equality, aide, and development among others. The United Nations is the largest, most internationally represented, and most powerful intergovernmental organization in the world. Its strength lies in its member states whose assessed and voluntary contributions provide finances for functioning of this organization. As an institution of global governance, the objectives of the United Nations have been to maintaining of international peace and security, promotion of disarmament and human rights, fostering of social and economic development, environment protection, and extension of humanitarian aid in circumstances of famine, natural disaster, internal struggle, and armed conflict.

Over the years the United Nations has consistently been working to promote these issues with greater focus now being on the developing and less developed countries. Along with peacekeeping and rebuilding, development of the developing and least developed countries has been one of the United Nations’ central agenda, and several departments dedicated to address different development issues have been created to support and encourage those issues at country level, for example, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment (UN Women), and so on. There have also been separate specialized agencies established under the aegis of the United Nations, such as the Food and Agricultural Organization or the International Fund for Agricultural Development, among others, to deal with specific dimensions of development governance. However, the role and approach of United Nations in international governance have been variable in terms of approach and significance at different points of time. It has been influenced by changing global political context in particular, and the United Nations’ involvement in global governance has undoubtedly been shaped by political conflicts and systemic power relations (Therien 2015).

United Nations and Governance in the Cold World Era (Since Inception Until 1990–1991)

Since its inceptions there are many achievements that the world owes to the United Nations. The number of people dying in conflicts has declined rapidly since 1945 – worldwide, justice has been established, the number of famine deaths has significantly declined, and nuclear disarmament got encouragement among others (Spencer 2015). One of the major achievements of the United Nations was decolonization. The United Nations has been fairly effective in providing a platform to developing countries to formulate and share their agenda and coherent ideas, showing the acceptance of sovereign equality (Krasner 1985).

However, the power clash and divide between the USA and United Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) until 1990–1991 considerably constrained the organization’s ability to function effectively and objectively. Each of the two superpowers focused on preserving order and stability in its own sphere of influence while respecting the other’s bloc (Cassese 2005). In fact, the United Nations was practically able to intervene only in conflicts that were distant from the two countries and their great divide, so as to avoid the allegations of bias and further confrontation (Meisler 1995). Moreover, the United Nations’ mission to preserve world peace was complicated in its early decades by the Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union and their respective allies. Major coercive exercises were undertaken by the United Nations which are also said to have been influenced by the Cold War including those in Korea, Egypt, and Congo (Weiss et al. 1994). In fact, the UN’s deployment of United Nations Operation in the Congo (UNOC) in 1960, which happened to be the largest military force of UN until then, is criticized as having become an enforcement army created through Western support (Weiss et al. 1994). The period between 1956 and 1990 was characterized by a long list of unilateral uses of force by the major powers (Higgins 1995).

Subsequently, many of the United Nations peacekeeping interventions, for example, in the Middle East, Vietnam, and Kashmir, witnessed visible failures (Spencer 2015; Meisler 1995). Due to this and with an increasing Third World presence, the United Nations increasingly brought a shift in its priority to different goals of development governance and cultural exchange. It was under this move that many more specialized organizations were created by the United Nations. By the 1970s, the United Nations’ budget for social and economic development was far greater than its peacekeeping budget. However, the United Nations was not a complete disaster, and undoubtedly the Cold War world was better off with than without it (Weiss and Daws 2007: 11). In fact, it did make important achievements in fields other than the maintenance of peace and security and the settlement of disputes (Cassese 2005: 323)

United Nations and Governance in the Post-cold World Era and Globalization (1990–1991 Onward)

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a marked decline in the unilateral use of force by the USA outside of the United Nations, and in the peace and security area, the talk was now of peacemaking, peace-building, peace enforcement, and humanitarian assistance (Higgins 1995). Today, United Nations’ intellectual leadership is consistently influenced by not only the views and actions of the major Western powers (the USA, the UK, and France, among others) but also those of the emerging countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa or BRICS, among others), and their combined political clout is undeniably greater than that of all the other member states (Therien 2015). After the Cold War, the United Nations witnessed a significant expansion in its role in peacekeeping and democratization in international governance with varying degrees of success. The role of United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia and United Nations Observer Mission to in Verify the Electoral Process in Nicaragua (ONUVEN) at the end of the decade met with a substantial success (Higgins 1995). However, there were major failures in performance of these duties in Somalia, Srebrenica, Haiti, Mozambique, Burundi, and Sierra Leone – by the United Nations for which it also received much criticism (Henderson 2015; Meisler 1995). In the late 1990s and 2000s, international interventions authorized by the United Nations took a wider variety of forms, wherein other international agencies such as North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) role become prominent in (forceful) action. In the year 2003, the Iraq action of the USA without the approval of United Nations Security Council resolution for authorization reinforced the questioning of the United Nation’s effectiveness. In fact, the United Nations’ practice of governance was suddenly restricted to post-conflict rehabilitation and nation rebuilding, police management, and humanitarian operations where its logistical and institutional apparatus, its ability to work closely with nongovernment organizations, and the know-how of some of its specialized agencies (like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Health Organization, and the Department for Humanitarian Affairs) became desirable (Debrix 2005). It was in this context that the issue of reforms in the governance and functioning of United Nations came at the forefront. The then Secretary-General of United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali (1992–1996), kick-started a reform scheme within the United Nations Secretariat. This was taken forward further by his successor Kofi Annan (1997–2006).

Subsequently, the United Nations reworked and almost redefined its agenda to address contemporary challenges of the world and retain its relevance in this regard. The United Nations’ activities since have often been illustrated through the metaphor of a triangle of development, freedom, and peace, and more recently the triangle is reconstructed as the three interconnected pillars of human security, human development, and human rights (Therien 2015). Taking a cue from this triangle, as of now the United Nations may be seen to concentrate its functioning along the following issues of global governance.

Human Security

While in the Cold War era national security was the central notion of security for the United Nations, this notion got weakened with declined probability of conflict between two superpowers after the collapse of the USSR. The quest to redefine human security came to be expressed in 1994 through UNDP’s Report titled “New Dimensions of Security.” The report argued that individuals rather than states should be the referent of security, that threats to security are not just military but multidimensional, and that security should aim both to protect and empower populations (UNDP 1994).

“The notion of human security is based on the premise that the individual human being is the only irreducible focus for discourse on security….The claims of all other referents (the group, the community, the state, the region, and the globe) derive from the sovereignty of the human individual and the individual’s right to dignity in her or his life” (MacFarlane and Khong 2006: 2). The United Nations has implemented its new approach through two types of global policies, i.e., those resulting from a narrow perspective on human security and those emanating from a broad perspective, wherein the narrow perspective is associated with the traditional view of security centered on “freedom from fear” (Therien 2015). Human security now is perceived not just as freedom from armed threat but also as freedom from threats such as food insecurity. Under its various innovations to address nontraditional security threats, the United Nations created Human Security unit and also developed a global strategy for food security.

Human Rights

Although the United Nations’ Charter proclaims the objective of “promoting and encouraging respect for human rights,” for a long time human rights stayed on the periphery of the organization’s work, and their importance was not fully acknowledged until the 1990s, when communism lost the Cold War against capitalism (Therien 2015). The 1993 Vienna Declaration on “All human rights for all” reflects the shift in United Nations’ priority toward human rights issues. Human rights are now considered as cutting across all missions of United Nations and serve as a universal character guiding all other actions. Promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms to all individuals irrespective of their race, sex, linguistic background or religion, or any other such ground has been a concern of the United Nations, despite several ups and downs that it witnessed in its position since its inception. However, human rights have now come to occupy the center stage of United Nations development design – the driving force that has given a big push to the approach of human rights to development. The agenda got concrete force with the creation of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in 1993 to oversee human rights issues for the United Nations, following the recommendation of the World Conference on Human Rights. Boasting much greater resources than those devoted to human rights during the Cold War, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has considerably enlarged the United Nations’ stake in the promotion of human rights (Oberleitner 2007).

In addition, the United Nations has been rather proactive in protection and promotion of the rights of the vulnerable groups such as women and child, and separate declarations/obligations have been created to address concerned dimensions under its aegis. However, it should be kept in notice that it was during the Cold War itself that the foundations were laid for post-Cold War initiatives directed at women and children in conflict along with others, e.g., the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1963), the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1967), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984) (MacFarlane and Khong 2006). Again, the United Nations’ agenda of human rights has not been free from criticism. The emerging developing countries have perceived United Nations’ interference in the name of human rights protection as neocolonialism and threat to their sovereignty. These countries have tended to dissuade United Nations’ human right-related interventions on the ground of being their internal matter.

Human Development Sustainable Economic Development

Another important current area of active engagement for the United Nations is the achievement of international cooperation in resolving international problems related to economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character. For long, the United Nations went ahead with mainstream development presumption and policy that tended to focus on economic growth as the key objective and the major means for raising living standards. However, persistent poverty and deprivation under neoliberalism in several developing and less developed countries despite decent economic growths brought forth the lacuna in growth-oriented development strategy. By the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, the United Nations began to vouch for growth with a human face (UNDP 1994) and underlined the argument that growth is meaningful only if it results in greater well-being of people. Accordingly, efforts were begun in the direction to be able to better assess the progresses of the nations. It was in this context that the UNDP brought out the first Human Development Report (HDR) in 1990. The development of this approach was largely based on the works of economist – Mahbub ul Haq and Amartya Sen. The HDR defined human development as a “process of enlarging people’s choices. The most critical of these wide-ranging choices are to live a long and healthy life, to be educated and to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. Additional choices include political freedom, guaranteed human rights and personal self-respect” (UNDP 1994: 1; United Nations 1994). Clearly, the United Nations emphasis on security in multidimensional sense got reflected here as development as a multidimensional process. Grounded in the belief that global capitalism and social inclusion can be reconciled, human development gradually emerged as the United Nations’ alternative to the development model fostered by the Bretton Woods Institutions (Therien 2015).

In 2000, the United Nations held its Millennium Summit with the prime objective to reflect upon its role and relevance in the twenty-first century. The summit resulted in the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), by all member states of the United Nations. These goals represented global commitment to achieve international development in areas such as poverty reduction, gender equality, and public health. Undoubtedly, this development gave a new direction to the role of United Nations in international governance. For this the already-existing United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was given the leading role. Monitoring and tracking of development and dealing with human rights violations emanating from the denials of right to live with dignity, including the right to food, health, safe environment, etc., are the key activities of United Nations today. Of course, there has been huge inter-country variation in achievements of these goals, and there have been more failures than successes. Yet Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have been able to engage countries simultaneously on relevant development agenda. Subsequently, the Sustainable Development Goals were launched in 2015 to succeed the MDGs, under which various countries are expected to strive for specified targets under these goals.

The UNDP publishes the Human Development Report annually wherein it brings out a comparative measure ranking countries by poverty, literacy, education, life expectancy, and other factors. Alongside, organizations such as the UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund), which was created in 1946 to aid European children after the Second World War, are now increasingly visible in developing and less developed country working with nation states to provide right to health and full growth to their children in the light of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Within the expanded notion of development with sustainability, climate change has come up as a crucial issue where convergent action and cooperation from various countries are indispensable. Given that environment protection and mainstream development practices often conflict with each other, working for the former has been considered as a compromise on the latter. Obviously therefore, despite global climate being a common issue, countries have been reluctant to show required willingness in adopting environment protection norms. The role of the United Nations became important in the light of the need for a platform to negotiate this issue and to bargain on taking necessary steps for reducing climatic change such as carbon cuts, etc. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been a milestone guideline coordinating and building consensus on country initiatives for low carbon emission, despite recurrent disagreements between countries (Bulkeley and Newell 2010).

United Nations on (Development) Governance

The UN has also become an active advocate for democracy after 1990–1991. Going well beyond electoral assistance, United Nations’ programs have sought to reinforce the transparency and the accountability of governance in developing countries (Newman and Rich 2004). With the end of the East–West conflict, the intensification of globalization, the third wave of democratization, and the rise of transnational actors, United Nations’ leaders have gradually come to see democracy as a new legitimizing principle of global governance. This also converged with the neoliberal agenda which needs democracy to facilitate the implementation of market-oriented policies.

As the emergence of neoliberalism tended to minimize the role of state, institutions of United Nations particularly the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) joined the popular discourse which has been speaking more of “quality government” than “all government.” This implied that in a liberal economic framework, scope for government interference should be limited and it is the “quality” of the government that should be the prime concern. Quality of governance in turn highlights the instrumental role of government, i.e., it means a manner of governance that facilitates efficient implementation of market reform through effective political institutions. While on one hand global forces pushed the state for minimal interference in market mechanism, on the other, they expect the state to indulge in good development governance. The latter in terms of the World Bank and the UNDP also means supporting donor agencies’ work through enabling the civil society. The UNDP (1997) even conceptualized the empowerment of civil society as the true guardians of democracy and good governance everywhere. This simply means that the state has to depend upon and partner with various stakeholders – national and international civil society – to fulfil its various development goals. In fact, on the transnational level, the United Nations has set up a range of procedures to increase the participation of NGOs and other non-state actors in the decisions of all United Nations’ bodies, including the Security Council (Therien 2015).

As the United Nations system now is engaging more in promoting development and curbing human rights violations emerging from development deprivation, encouraging the notion of governance or good governance has been its recent tool to seek desired action from its member states. The contention underneath is that development requires limited but good government and rest can be taken care of by the market. The era of Millennium Development Goals and now Sustainable Development Goals laid down by the United Nations has been founded on the philosophy of right to development wherein governance is considered to be the most important requirement for the achievement of these goals. Such governance in turn is based on efficient and effective administration, and elimination of corruption is certainly an important component of good governance. This framework of development governance converges with United Nations’ growing partnership with the civil society, particularly the nongovernment organizations which have come to play key role not only in development within countries but also in rehabilitation activities in post-conflict areas.

Moreover, with the advent of globalization, the United Nations laid fresh emphasis on effective governance based on human rights and the rule of law through sound institutions, which are critical to combat corruption. Subsequently, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention against Corruption in 2003. The convention endorsed that accountable and transparent institutions are the vehicle for delivering services according to human rights and rule of law principles, whereas corruption diverts resources needed for development and undermines the public trust in institutions.

The United Nations has also created space to engage with corporate in its campaign for good governance. Under this, various companies can engage with the UN Global Compact on the three critical governance topics: anti-corruption, peace, and rule of law. As its website illustrates, the expectation behind the UN Compact project is that at the micro level, companies can enhance good governance by integrating corporate sustainability principles into their own operations and relationships, allowing for greater transparency, accountability, and inclusiveness. At the macro level, companies can contribute to the development and implementation of international norms and standards, for instance, as part of their commitment to the UN Global Compact.

The United Nations also established its United Nations Project Office on Governance (UNPOG) headquartered in the Republic of Korea, to assist its member states improve their governance capacity. Since its inception, the UNPOG has conducted research and capacity-building activities and disseminated global and local best practices on participatory, transparent, and effective democratic governance. The Seoul Declaration of UNPOG calls for policy measures to increase transparent and participatory governance, as ends in and of themselves, and also to ensure that the global community can achieve sustainable human development for the benefit of people in all societies.

Criticisms of the United Nations System

As noticed earlier, the United Nations system has also invited criticism for apparent failures in achieving desired goals. Often, member states have shown reluctance to achieve or enforce Security Council resolutions, which has repeatedly constrained United Nations’ ability to fulfil the role it is created for, particularly in conflict management and peacekeeping. This has resulted in failure in several peacekeeping activities, and in fact the United Nations’ own investigations into its failure to prevent mass killings in Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Sri Lanka all identified serial weaknesses, both political and institutional (Ross 2016). Similarly, inertness on the part of the United Nations owing to systemic issues has been held responsible for its failure to complete the peacekeeping operations in 1992–1993 during the Somali Civil War (Meisler 1995). In addition, United Nations’ peacekeeping team members have also been accused of child rape, soliciting prostitutes, and sexual abuse during various peacekeeping missions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other places as well (Spencer 2015; Lynch 2004).

The divide between the views of the countries in the North and the South has also been problematic in United Nations governance system wherein the Southern nations tend to favor a more empowered United Nations with a stronger General Assembly, allowing them a greater voice in world affairs, while Northern nations prefer an economically laissez-faire United Nations that focuses on transnational threats such as terrorism (Fomerand 2009). Tensions between Western governments, which see the United Nations as bloated and inefficient, and developing countries, which regard it as undemocratic and dominated by the rich, have rippled across the organization as ballooning costs drive the push for reform (McGreal 2015).

It is also argued that the council’s founding premise of a world ordered by states no longer holds and the security council has failed to adapt to the changing world where conflicts involving al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or Islamic State originate from particular local circumstances but often have regional and global reach and consequence (Ross 2016). Further, the United Nations system has also been criticized for practices of corruption, for example, in 2004 the United Nations faced accusations that its Oil-for-Food Programme under which Iraq was to trade oil for basic needs to relieve the pressure of sanctions had widespread corruption in it (Spencer 2015). In fact, the traditional multilateral institutions, including the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions, are increasingly criticized for being very bureaucratic, inefficient, and representative enough (McGreal 2015).

The United Nations, however, has begun to respond to these criticisms through various reforms as discussed above, though consensus on a reform agenda and design has been challenging as well. It has been trying to improve its accountability and democratic legitimacy, and in doing so it has begun to engage more with civil society to foster a global constituency. In an effort to enhance transparency, in 2016 the organization held its first public debate between candidates for Secretary-General (Falk 2016). In 2005, the Human Security Report documented a decline in the number of wars, genocides, and human rights abuses since the end of the Cold War and presented evidence, albeit circumstantial, that international activism – mostly spearheaded by the United Nations – has been the main cause of the decline in armed conflict in that period. Various political initiatives and innovative processes have been underway though they do not yet appear to have been fully integrated in the organizational- as well as task-related outfits of concerned United Nations agencies and bodies (Rechkemmer 2005). However, as Michael Fullilove (2012) states, the United Nations is both flawed and indispensable, and its security council is the world’s preeminent crisis management system.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Human Evolution and Social ChangeArizona State UniversityUSA