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General Assembly Considers Strengthened Role of U.N. in Economic Global Governance


Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Economic growth has lifted many boats. Capital has  flowed in great abundance to emerging markets and developing countries, helping to generate double-digit growth rates over extended lengths of time. Developing countries, in turn, have started playing a much bigger role in the global economy. But even as globalization has worked certain wonders, let us recognize that there is also a downside. Not all countries have shared in the benefits. And while we are all in the same boat, not all have a say in how to steer it.

~ Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General, United Nations, on the current economic architecture, during the United Nations General Assembly 65th Session Thematic Debate on the United Nations in Global Governance, June 28, 2011.

The 2008 global financial collapse highlighted the increasing interconnectedness of the world’s economies and resulted in calls for a major overhaul of the existing international economic framework, with the U.N. system, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization playing significant roles. In response to the collapse and subsequent calls for reform, in December 2010, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution, "The United Nations in Global Governance," that emphasizes the tremendous challenges posed by the modern global economy and reaffirms the central role of the U.N. in ongoing efforts to find common solutions.

To help justify a lead position for the UN in developing and managing global economic policy, the resolution requests the Secretary-General to submit a report to the 66th Session of the General Assembly, starting in September 2011, focusing on reforms of, and the U.N.'s role in, global economic governance. Information for the report will be drawn from several U.N. bodies, including the General Assembly, that focus on economic issues. In an effort to secure material for the report, General Assembly President Joseph Deiss has instituted a series of thematic debates at the General Assembly on the issue of global governance, the latest of which took place on June 28 in New York.

Like the meetings that have been held on global warming, the June 28 debate, as explained in the Matrix of Human Rights Governance Networks, is part of a "cycle of global debate," directed by the U.N., that is used to frame issues, define norms and targets, put the norms and targets into practice, and monitor compliance, review experience, and revise strategies. While several targets were defined at the June 28 debate (including reforms of the U.N. Security Council), two in particular, if put into practice, would give the U.N. a much more prominent voice in global economic policy, and thus, a greater role in global economic governance.

The first of these targets, advocated by Pascal Lamy, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, aims to strengthen the U.N. Economic and Social Council ("ECOSOC") and secure for it a political prominence commensurate with the U.N. Security Council. Mr. Lamy explained:

What I believe we need today is to turn the ECOSOC into a Council that would have the same political prominence as the Security Council — for economic, social and development issues are today the foundation of peace, in a globalized world which is very different from what it was 60 years ago. A Council that would, of course, be representative of today’s geopolitics. A Council that would be tasked to assess the overall state of the world economy; to provide a long-term strategic policy framework and policy direction in order to promote stable, balanced, and sustainable development; to ensure consistency between the activities and policy goals of the various international organizations dealing with economic, social and development issues, including the Bretton Woods Institutions and the WTO. A Council that would be a genuine forum for reporting, debate, policy setting and coherence setting. Such a reform is in my view the gateway to adapting the UN mission to today’s realities (emphasis added).

In addition to strengthening ECOSOC, the U.N. envisions a role as "legitimizer" (or overseer) of G-20 actions and policies, the second of two noted targets defined at the latest debate. According to President Deiss, the G-20 "had demonstrated its ability to deal quickly and in a coordinated manner with the economic and financial crisis in 2008, but questions remained regarding its legitimacy. Indeed, efficiency did not always bestow legitimacy; that legitimacy was the sole preserve of the General Assembly with its principle of 'one State, one voice.'" Deiss underlined the importance of finding ways to legitimize the G-20's decisions, noting attempts to bring that Group closer to the Assembly. Debate panelist Amar Bhattacharya, Director of the Group of 24 (G-24) Secretariat, expounded on this issue, saying that the G-20 had been tentative on issues of trade, tax cooperation, climate change and migration, which pointed to a global governance agenda that had outgrown its institutions. He added

[W]hile the G-20’s first crisis response had been “quite spectacular”, it was unclear whether it could now step up to other challenges. Amid those developments, it was important not to shift decision-making from the United Nations to the G-20 (adding that he had long advocated that the G-20 needed much stronger links to the United Nations as the world’s most legitimate body). While there had been significant progress on that front, the United Nations must now determine its strategic agenda in its engagement with the G-20. It must be the voice for reform and inclusion, especially through the Economic and Social Council. (emphasis added).

While a stated purpose of the June 28 debate was to generate material for the Secretary- General's report due in September, the event itself and the two noted targets defined therein are just steps taken by the U.N. in a decades-long process to globally govern economic issues. Moreover, they confirm the UN's ambitions in the area of modern international economic policy. The Secretary-General's report will provide further evidence and details in that regard.