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The UN is thus part of the wider politics of legitimation that are a constant feature of international politics – actors strive to use the UN to legitimate their preferred policies or representations. The UN (or its component sub-institutions) would exhibit a legitimation deficit if the audience stopped responding to them – that is, if people no longer thought it worthwhile to invoke the UN as part of their strategies of legitimation, and if people no longer took seriously those invocations. I don’t see much evidence of this happening, as states seem as eager as ever to win support for their policies from the UN GA or the SC. Moreover, many of the specialized and other agencies of the UN appear to have an increasingly high public profile that in turn makes them more useful for states and others to associate with as a means to legitimation.
The Security Council example also neatly shows that while an institution may have absolute legal authority over an issue (which it have by virtue of the UN Charter) in practice things may look very different. If the ‘state’ is understood as a centralization of authority, then it becomes an empirical rather than a hypothetical question whether we have a world state. I think there is strong evidence that we already have a world state over many important political issues – and so a ‘deepened and widened concept of global governance’ may be precisely what is meant by ‘world state’. But it is also true that having a hierarchical authority over an issue does not end contestation and manipulation over and through that authority. In practice, legal authority does not translate directly into control; this is what makes the world so interesting.
Ian Hurd: The General Assembly, despite its very limited legal authority, provides much of the political energy and legitimation that exists in the United Nations. Its more open and accessible terms of reference compared to the Security Council allow it to take up a wide range of issues that reflect the real concerns of many governments. It therefore can be a place of dynamism. However, it remains a collection of governments, closed off to both citizens and NGOs. This is not likely to change in any conceivable reform of the UN.
The problem of how the UN relates to individuals is a deep one, with manifestations in an increasingly wide range of high-profile instances – these include due process and targeted sanctions, the responsibility of the UN for harms caused by its officials and operations, sexual misconduct by peacekeepers, and more. In all these areas, the state-centric United Nations has uncertain legal relations with individuals and other kinds of agents other than its member-states. The conceptual, legal, and political relations between the UN and individuals is likely to cause increasing tension in the coming years both within the UN organization and in its interactions with its constituents.
This helps show how powerful these ideas and rules are as legitimating devices: all sides see a benefit from using these rules to explain and justify their conduct. The contestation over the meaning and application of the rules follows from their inherent ambiguity, and the ambiguity in how they can be interpreted to suit a new situation – much of this contestation cannot be resolved in absolute terms. But the use of these rules to legitimate competing policies and outcomes shows their importance and power in global politics.
Ian Hurd: I participated in one Model UN conference as an undergraduate in Canada. It was an opportunity to combine an interest in international affairs with the interesting challenge of trying to adopt the positions of a national delegation – and to experience the reality that different delegations may have profoundly different perspectives and interests on a problem; these are real and cannot be wished away. The Model UN experience was also a good introduction to the procedural issues that regulate many UN meetings and operations, which are rarely in the news but are an important part of the knowledge needed to function at the UN.
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