What Can Institutions Do?

Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, genocide, international criminal networks: the nature of threats to collective security in the twenty-first century is changing both the practices of international institutions and the principles guiding them. New threats have highlighted critical shortcomings in the UN. As a global institution can only be effective when there is agreement on which values it embodies, discussion of the values guiding UN reform must start with honest, open questions about the role we wish the UN to play in the world. This part of the Ethics in a Violent World initiative thus seeks to identify and clarify the competing moral principles at work in proposals to reform the United Nations. We focus on three crucial issues:

  • How to deal with the emergence of nonstate threats
  • How to implement the responsibility to protect doctrine
  • How to deal with the United States' neoconservative challenge to the traditional UN norms on the use of force

First, nonstate threats—from civil war, durable poverty, and climate change to biological and nuclear terrorism—have changed the way we think about collective security. Many of these "threats," however, are not intuitively of international concern. By what criteria are nonstate actors or phenomena to be defined as "threats"? And when, then, is "a threat to one a threat to all"—thus meriting the attention of the international community? Finally, how should the significant rise in nonstate threats qualitatively change the concrete practices of collective security? The ways in which we conceive of international institutions to deal with these threats in an effective and principled manner depends upon answering fundamental questions such as these.

Second, in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, the international community proclaimed, "Each individual State has the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. This responsibility entails the prevention of such crimes…." How, exactly, can the UN begin to fulfill the requirements of its responsibility to protect? Proposals for a Human Rights Commission and a Peacebuilding Commission are in place; but only concerted action on the part of the Security Council can prevent "future Rwandas" or "future Kosovos." When political will and capacity to act fall far short of lofty principles, what are we to do?

Third, the "elephant in the room" with respect to any proposal to reform the UN is the United States. The US's increasing willingness to act outside of the traditional norms of the use of force—laid down by the UN Charter—must give pause to efforts to strengthen the UN collective security regime. We ask: Are neoconservative proposals superior—whether morally, politically, or practically—to the original Charter norms? If not, then what can be done to shore up the status quo?

In addressing each of these core issues, we emphasize that a principled response must also be an effective one—but that in matters of policy and institutional design, neither of these should be elevated above the other.

Read More: UN, Global Governance

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