Understanding the Legitimacy Crisis of the UN — The Next Steps: A Response to Ramesh Thakur by Jean-Marc Coicaud
[Dr Jean-Marc Coicaud is the Director of the United Nations University Office at the United Nations in New York.]
Professor Thakur highlights what he claims to be today the weak legitimacy of the United Nations. He does so not only by stressing the gap between the principles upon which the legitimacy of the UN is meant to be based and reality, but also at times by questioning the principles themselves. Professor Thakur concludes that the United Nations, and even the international system it is part of, is suffering a significant crisis of legitimacy.
Such an assessment is by and large correct. The recent rise of the G-20 as a possible alternative to the United Nations is one indication, among others, that the UN is not in a position of strength, in a position to meet the challenges of today’s world. That said, beyond describing the limitations of the United Nations, there are a number of issues that Professor Thakur alludes to but does not expand on in his article which are worth exploring. Indeed, a more systematic examination of these issues would probably help in acquiring the analytical clarity that is required to overcome the policy and political problems that the weakened legitimacy of the UN entails. Three issues come to mind.
First, the relationship between law and legitimacy needs further elaboration, in particular the ways these are intertwined and interrelated. For example, on the one hand, legitimacy is more than law since a law with no legitimacy does not have much authority – a situation resulting from the fact that the values at the core of legitimacy give law its mandates and guidelines. On the other hand, legitimacy is less than law since without the “officialization” and the operational dimension that law constitutes, legitimacy is no more than an idea and cannot be made a reality.
A second element which requires further elaboration is the relationship between legitimacy and justice. Professor Thakur alludes to the link between justice and legitimacy, the latter being namely an expression of the former. But what about the connection between power and legitimacy and what this means for legitimacy’s ability to serve a justice agenda? After all, norms of legitimacy are more often than not associated with a situation of hegemonic power. In this context, how does one ensure that the power origin of legitimacy does not hamper the ability of legitimacy to express and serve justice?
Third, there is the question of change. For if the reality of the UN does not fulfill legitimacy expectations, it becomes imperative to not only find out what needs to be changed in the United Nations and the environment in which it operates, but also how change can be realized. In other words, the problem is not simply to identify what needs to be changed and what needs to be kept. It is also to find out how to engineer change, from the normative, policy and political points of view.
Unless we answer these questions now, it will be difficult to go beyond a mere description of the crisis of legitimacy the UN is currently facing.