A Response to Jean-Marc Coicaud by Ramesh Thakur

by Melbourne Journal of International Law

Dr Jean-Marc Coicaud is one of the more thoughtful and reflective UN officials, and his response shows why. Broadly speaking, I agree with all three of his comments

The conceptual, political and operational relationship between law and legitimacy will be treated differently by political and legal theorists. For some, lawfulness is both a necessary and a sufficient condition of legitimacy. For others, it is neither necessary nor sufficient, as captured in the phrase ‘I answer not to law but to my conscience’. My instinct is that, at least in relation to organized political communities, including the international community as symbolized by the United Nations, law is a necessary but not sufficient condition for legitimacy. Perhaps the UN University could undertake a project devoted to the theoretical exploration of the relationship by a team of political scientists and international law scholars.

Second, rather than the relationship between legitimacy and justice, that between power and justice or, even better, between realism and idealism, will prove more fruitful in the UN context. The organization needs to achieve a better balance between the wish of the peoples and the will of governments; between the aspirations for a better world and its performance in the real world; between the enduring political reality enveloping and at times threatening to suffocate it and the vision of an uplifting world that has inspired generations of dreamers and idealists to work for the betterment of humanity.

The UN Charter was a triumph of hope and idealism over the experience of two world wars. The flame of idealism flickered in the chill winds of the Cold War, but refuses to die out. The economic, political and military realities as well as the vision of a good international society have changed since 1945. Yet the imagined idea of a universal organization dedicated to protecting world peace and promoting human welfare has survived the death, destruction and disillusionment of armed conflicts, genocide, persistent poverty, environmental degradation and the many assaults on human dignity of the 20th century.

The UN is still the symbol of our dreams for a better world, where justice and fairness is dispensed even to the weak and the law of the jungle gives way to the rule of law. It remains the symbol of lofty aspirations and the locus of collective action. As the repository of international idealism, Utopia is fundamental to its identity. It is still our best hope for unity in diversity in a world in which global problems require multilateral solutions.

Third, the UN record shows a surprising capacity for institutional innovation, conceptual advances, policy adaptation and organizational learning. Yet, simultaneously, it has also proven remarkably resistant to major and necessary change. The reforms of 2005 were a great disappointment when set against the needs, the expectations and the major resources and efforts that had been invested in the exercise. Is the UN reform-proof and, if so, what does this mean for reorganizing the institutional basis of world order?


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