Professor John Trent. United Nations Reform and NGO Action

Structural Changes in the U.N.

John E. Trent sets out there are times; often in the early period of the coming of a new Secretary-General of the United Nations; when there are discussions of structural changes in the U.N. We are in such a period today, and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has started discussions among Member Governments; with some possibility for representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in consultative status to join in. Since the more politically influential States; find that they can safely manipulate the U.N. system as it now is structured; real reforms will have to come from the efforts of NGO representatives. John E. Trent sets out well why this is so.

         Professor John E. Trent; of the Department of Political Science, University of Ottawa, Canada; sets out clearly the possibilities and limits of structural changes with in the U.N. “Time and again, our international organizations have proven they cannot reform themselves.  The reasons are manifold.  There is no political will among their members.  Due to built-in interests and habits, transformation of human institutions is always long and arduous.  Nation-states concentrate on their own national interests.

Need of Radical Reform.

Politicians and diplomats are so busy managing the system that they have little time to think about its reform. Because of a lack of information, most citizens in most countries are unaware of the nature of international institutions and politics, and therefore feel uninvolved and incapable of influencing the global future” (1)

        However; when Kofi Annan became Secretary-General, he proposed a number of reforms.  Kofi Annan said in his 2003 Report to the General Assembly “We can no longer take for granted that our multilateral institutions are strong enough to cope with all the challenges facing them.  I suggest in my conclusions that some of the institutions may be in need of radical reform.”

High Level Panels

         Kofi Annan was the only U.N. Secretary-General to have spent his whole career within the U.N. system; first in Geneva and later in New York.  He knew well what changes he could make on his own authority as Secretary-General and those changes for which he would need larger intellectual consensus which he tried to develop with the creation of High Level Panels of largely retired government leaders and diplomats such as the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change and a High Level Panel on Civil Society.

Lastly, there were the reforms that required a vote of governments within the General Assembly such as the transformation of the Commission on Human Rights which was a sub-body of the Economic and Social Council into the Human Rights Council now on the official U.N. structure chart at the same level as the Security Council and the Economic and Social Council. 

         Yet very little came from the proposals for reform that arose from the High Level Panels, and they had little impact on the policy of NGOs.

The Large Transnational Associations.

         If governments have no desire for structural reforms to whom can we turn to transform our international institutions?  Trent replies “Only one group has the competence and resources to influence government and public opinion both at the national and international levels.  This immense group is composed of the large transnational associations.  They have demonstrated that they have the capabilities, the specialized knowledge, and the altruistic reputation to lead governments and the public on the long complex journey to global transformation. 

They have the potential but not yet the organizational will and muscle to do the task…  History shows us that it was leading citizens and groups, not governments, who were primarily responsible for the origin and evolution of international organizations. Governments react to threats and opportunities.  Civil society entrepreneurs act on foresight and principle … Not only have international non-governmental organizations become legitimate, recognized international actors, but the current confluence of the global system opens up opportunities… Will civil society entrepreneurs seize the opportunity?  Will they mobilize public opinion to oppose international domination by the few and seek more representative global institutions and governance?”

Sidney Tarrow. “Campaign Coalitions”

         As Sidney Tarrow points out in his The New Transnational ActivismEven as they make transnational claims, these activists draw on the resources, networks, and opportunities of the societies in which they live.  Their most interesting characteristics is how they connect the local and the global.  In today’s world we can no longer draw a sharp line between domestic and international politics…Acting collectively requires activists to marshal resources, become aware and seize opportunities, frame their demands in ways that enable them to join with others, and identify common targets.”

Tarrow stresses the importance of what he calls ‘campaign coalitions’ which may be the wave of the transnational future.  Their focus on a specific policy issue, their minimal institutionalization, their capacity to shift venues in response to changing opportunities and threats, and their ability to make short-term tactical alliances according to the current focus on interest.” (2)

The World Needs Far-Sighted Visionaries

       John E. Trent   adds that “In such a sprawling world the advantage goes to those who can organize widespread networks.  Leadership has fallen to international non-governmental organizations that have the knowledge, time and money to experiment and the latitude to operate outside the interests of single countries and to develop long-term strategies.  The power base of these global associations and more generally of civil society is their specialized information, technical expertise, telecommunications, networks and relative ease of public participation and access.”

         As John E. Trent concludes “It is probably true that the world needs far-sighted visionaries who can set the agenda for the future. But we also need to find a way to bring the various sorts of reformers together so that differences can be debated and perhaps overcome, and effective paths to the future elaborated.”


1) John E. Trent. Modernizing the United Nations System: Civil Society’s Role in Moving from International Relations to Global Governance (Opladen, Germany: Barbara Budrich Publisher, 2007)

2) Sidney Tarrow. The New Transnational Activism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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