- Published on Tuesday, 14 February 2012 15:55
- Written by Erik de Ridder
It has been over a month since the end of the United Nations (UN) climate negotiations, COP17, in Durban. The outcomes and official spirit at closing were positive, while the unofficial spirit amongst NGOs and civil society did not present quite so optimistic a view. The event no longer seems newsworthy, but the issue remains a stark contemporary reality and reflection on the structure of the process, if not so much the outcomes, is necessary.
In physics, Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object will continue in its state of being unless subjected to an external force. This property causes something to keep on going until something else intervenes in the present, so as to alter its future course.
The Second World War catalysed the birth of the UN and, even before then, supernational governance seemed an inevitable and necessary consequence of a world becoming globalised. Since then, its structure has remained the same, even though the world has changed dramatically.
The UN’s platform has come to be seen more as an opportunity for member states to advance their national interests than one which works towards better conditions for the entire globe. This is the reason parties engaged so fervently about the most minute details at COP17: not because the main concern is the planet, but because the tension between over-arching cause and the varieties of national interest is resolute.
The forces of WWII set the UN in motion, and more than half a century’s worth of organisational inertia has turned it into the largest bureaucracy in history. It must be rebuilt to take cognisance of the world in the 21st century, while necessarily keeping intervention programmes intact to avoid human costs. Conferences that produce unworkable outcomes seem a redundant form of organisation and agency.
UN conventions do not have mechanisms to account for some of the biggest players, such as Walmart or BP, where executives make decisions of far greater consequence than the leaders of most countries. While these non-state actors are still subject to the laws of countries in which they operate, such a third-tier arrangement seems irreconcilable in the age of global capitalism.
A move for conventions towards a dynamic model, such as that employed by the World Economic Forum (WEF), may prove more effective and relevant.
The WEF is the meeting ground for individuals and companies that shape the world in which we live. The debate surrounding the “decline of the nation state” has been raging for decades, but perhaps it can be recognised that transnational concerns and challenges can no longer include only politicians as actors, while relegating civil society and big business to the sidelines.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 was criticised as illegal in terms of the statutes of the UN, and a cited reason for the war was al-Qaeda, a non-state actor.
Although climate conventions seem a far cry from the Security Council, this incident illustrated two important lessons in the fight for climate justice. It illustrated that it is possible to show little regard for UN sanction with negligible consequence and that the growing importance of non-state actors affects structures of governance, the rule of law and the contemporary reality for citizens of the world.
It is apparent that large-scale innovation of the UN has become overtly necessary. The window of opportunity to apply the necessary forces of change and pressures, to intervene in the present towards fairer and better systems, is increasingly narrow, as the challenge continues to develop.
In order for this generation to alter the future course of global governance, responsibility in developing that opportunity would need not only be acknowledged, but also acted upon.