IHSA Conference 2018 | A failing UN and the prospects of world citizenship by Antonio Donini

The UN in its current form does not serve the citizens it promises to protect. Is it time for a UN 2.0 that puts citizens at the centre? This article explains why the current international system is becoming irrelevant. A world citizenship approach must urgently be explored. This blog is based on a presentation delivered at the International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference held in August 2018 at the ISS.


When the founding fathers—and the single founding mother—were assembling the building blocks of the United Nations in the waning months of WWII, they were spurred by narrative of ‘never again’. Jettisoning the lofty Wilsonian ideals of the League of Nations, they expressed their notions of peace and security through a mix of functionalist ideas (strongly influenced by David Mitrany) and the victors’ can-do capitalist spirit—a sort of Fordism applied to international relations: the right mix of money and technical expertise would set the scene for peace and development ‘in larger freedom.’ The notion that collective action problems (i.e. politics) could be solved or at least defused by depoliticising them through technique is one of the great contributions of the UN to international cooperation. This approach worked more (decolonisation) or less (superpower crossed vetoes) for some 50 years. Then something broke.

Despite the heart-warming rhetoric of ‘we the peoples’, the unit of measure in the international system was definitely the state. Sovereignty was worshipped in the UN. It became the Temple of States. But while states were busy honouring and polishing the Temple’s tabernacle, the world had moved on. The post-WWII order built on sovereignty, triumphant capitalism and superpower rivalry collapsed with the Wall, but the institutions established to ‘manage’ this order hardly noticed. It became progressively clear that the ‘system’ was constitutionally unfit to deal with transnationality and that ‘sovereign’ states were unable to rein in unregulated transnational capitalism and globalisation, not to mention radicalised non-geographical armed groups and movements, the havoc they and the GWOT wreaked, population flows (forced and voluntary), and climate change. Trump and the demise of multilateralism are but an epiphenomenon in the collapse of the so-called rule-based world order.

What did the UN ever do for us?

A system of global order based on the idealised notion of sovereign states, and their power configurations as they stood 70 years ago, are poorly equipped to deal with collective action problems that are transnational at their core. Moreover, citizens have no say whatsoever in how these institutions are run and for whose benefit. All attempts to reform the UN have failed. Yet it rambles on with its tiny brain and huge dyslexic body to which additional appendages are added as soon as a ‘new’ problem hits the headlines. Conventional wisdom has it that only a WWIII might provide enough motivation and vision to equip the UN for the future. Let’s not go there. Instead, let’s think outside the box.

If UN reform is pointless, then DRUNSA is the answer: Don’t Reform the UN, Start Again.[i] Build something in parallel; if it works, it will move centre stage. There is a research agenda here on how to make transnational citizen participation the cornerstone of any institutional reform.

The argument goes like this: the Temple of States was not conceived as a tool to deal with transnationality. It sacralises sovereignty and demonises the individual with or without citizenship. Yet in transnational times, states are unable to cope with crises, and citizens have no say on the consequences of transnational forces that affect them directly. Citizenship, for now, is inherently linked to the nation-state. But if the nation-state is no longer able to respond to citizens’ needs and is downright hostile to those seeking refuge or lack citizenship, perhaps the time has come to redefine citizenship by de-linking it from territory.

For now, this is little more than a pipe dream. But shouldn’t the question of the participation of human beings on matters that affect them directly be put on the agenda? And if this agenda cannot be handled by the UN because it goes against the grain of the outdated power dynamics of a sclerotic organisation, shouldn’t citizens and civil society start thinking of a UN 2.0—or better still a UCO (United Citizens Organisation)? This UCO would be based on the principle that “as a citizen of the world, I should have a say on anything that affects me”. In an extreme example, “if democracy is supposed to give voters some control over their own conditions … should a US election not involve most people on earth?” [ii] This is actually not such a revolutionary idea. It has been around for a while.[iii]

The point here is that mainstream international institutions are increasingly less relevant to the nature and scale of the conflicts and crises of the early 21st century. The toll on civilians caught up or trying to flee vicious wars is particularly high. Armed conflict itself is changing and so is its cortège of humanitarian consequences. We are in a pre-Solferino moment where the old laws no longer work and new ones adapted to the current dispensation have yet to emerge.

The humanitarian internationale suffers from similar ills as the state-based international “system”. Its very makeup is consubstantial with the state system as it is based on the triad of western donors, UN agencies, and prevalently western NGOs (in ethos if not in terms of nationality). It may have reached its structural limits. Humanitarian principles have stood the test of time but it is unlikely that they will survive the current wave of transnational crises and conflicts.

 A good place to start DRUNSA is by bringing the citizen into the decision making around humanitarian action. Rhetoric around participation and accountability to affected communities abounds, but the stubborn reality is that the humanitarian enterprise is anything but accountable or participatory. It continues to be an establishment—some say a club—in which the rules have been set, so to speak, by absentee feudal landlords who have no clue about how the land is tilled.

To sum up, it is dubious that nation states can have durable success in combating transnational forces (of capital, finance, ethno-religious millenarism and the like). These movements are better countered transnationally through an UCO or coalitions of civil society groups or similar citizen-driven initiatives.

United Against Inhumanity: citizens at the centre

And this brings us to United Against Inhumanity (UAI), an emerging global movement of citizens and civil society who are outraged by the inability and unwillingness of the formal international system to address the causes and consequences of armed conflict. One of the goals of UAI is to work with citizen and civil society organisations and to put the citizen at the centre of efforts to combat the inhumanity of warfare and the abomination of measures that deny those in need of refuge the right to seek asylum. It aims to increase the political and reputational damage to perpetrators and to support civil society mobilisation actions on the inhumanity of war and the erosion of asylum.


[i] Kudos to Martin Barber for having coined the acronym and set up the DRUNSA organisation of which as far as I know he and I were the only two members.
[iii] R.Dasgupta, “The demise of the nation state”, The Guardian, 5 April 2018.

hqdefaultAbout the author: 

Antonio Donini is a humanitarian researcher and one of the initiators of the emerging United Against InHumanity movement. This blog is based on a presentation he gave at the 2018 IHSA Conference. He can be reached at: antonio.donini@tufts.edu.

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