Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Celestino MiglioreJune 20, 2005

Some suspect that the Holy See has no interest in United Nations reform. To be sure, the Holy See is not a full member of the United Nations; it holds the status of special observer. This status does not diminish its interest in the reform of the United Nations. At the United Nations, observer states, like member states, have the right to speak, to take the floor to address different agenda items and to participate in shaping debate. What distinguishes them from members is that they are not directly involved in the U.N. electoral system, and they are not part of the rotating membership of the Security Council. Sitting on the Security Council and exercising the right to vote are, of course, expressions, if not tools, of power. Nevertheless, they do not exhaust the importance or the relevance of the United Nations.

The Holy See takes special interest in U.N. reform. This interest stems not only from a need to streamline some of its bodies and to adapt and update its working methods, but also from the context of global governance as a whole. As Pope John Paul II noted in his message for the 2003 World Day of Peace, there is a serious disorder in world affairs, requiring a “new constitutional organization” for the world community. So the question becomes: what kind of order can and should replace this disorder, so that men and women can live in freedom, justice and security?


The reasons for the reform of the United Nations do not come uniquely or even primarily from the convenience of sharing power across a wider group of countries, but from a real need for participatory ways of exercising political authority, as well as for transparency and accountability at every level of public life. In other words, the need for reform is found in global governance itself. It is global governance that badly needs reform and reorientation.

The question that comes up in international contexts, at national and local levels, and in various focus groups throughout the world, is whether or not the world is still really governable and, if so, according to what rules and using which models. Many agree that globalization needs governing, informed and channeled by democracy and solidarity—but how is this to be achieved? The United Nations is trying to give an answer by means of a fuller and more fruitful version of multilateralism.

The term “multilateralism” has usually meant interaction between governments. It used always to be governments that indicated priorities, conducted negotiations, arrived at consensus or majority decisions and then put them into practice with the collaboration of local and regional powers and others such as nongovernmental organizations. Today, however, with the clear emergence of many other actors in national and international public life—that is, civil society, public and private enterprise, national parliaments, N.G.O.’s—the new multilateralism must in some way take account of these new actors in all the phases just mentioned. The debate about human society’s most pressing questions will take place less and less in formal international settings. It will favor regional conferences or in any case those whose participants represent the interests being discussed.

The Duty to Protect

Another strand of reflection leading the United Nations to adopt new measures in order to confront today’s problems comes from the issue of collective security and the responsibility to protect, which is the duty of the state, but which must be exercised by the international community, using precise rules, when individual states are incapable, powerless or even unwilling to assume this duty. Criteria for the legality and legitimacy of the use of force have been re-examined in the light of an emerging conviction that there exists a responsibility to protect not only the stability of a country, but first and foremost the populations threatened by man-made catastrophes like genocide, mass killings, serious human rights violations, the starvation of entire populations and so on.

Security and Development

A third strand of thought inspiring U.N. reform singles out the two major preoccupations of our time, namely security and development, and then links them in a paradigm of collective security.

Linking these two things means that security can no longer hijack the place of development and concentrate just on repressive military replies; rather, it will be obliged to recognize that if we truly wish to construct lasting security, then development will have to come first and be conceived and promoted in all its aspects, so that the deep causes of insecurity that lead to terrorism are uprooted once and for all.

Linking development to security means recognizing the human potential of the world’s peoples. The symptoms of instability—insecurity, tensions; the global consequences of local difficulties like the outbreak of epidemics, corruption and organized crime; environmental degradation, the plundering of primary resources, exclusion and social injustice—these symptoms will not be neutralized just by force, bigger and better planning, legal conventions and vast sums of money. They must be defused at their source with the direct and primary collaboration of individual members of society; with the education that families give their children; with the spirit of initiative that exists everywhere, even among the poor, and that needs only encouragement to be released, and with the sense of responsibility that must be instilled into every citizen. This is why the reform of the United Nations has to start with the human and moral dimensions, and from the attention and appreciation paid—to use a little biblical language—to the smallest and the most humble people. It will not work if international organizations, government administrations and the various components of civil society always insist only on their own particular, politicized point of view of the “promotion of rights,” while ignoring the corresponding duties—that is, the personal and social responsibilities that go with them.

Sixty years ago the United Nations Charter, against the backdrop of two world wars and a cold war between the Soviet bloc and the West, spoke of security in terms of defense in response to an act of aggression by one or more states. Today that concept has become much broader. Threats now come not only from other states, but from non-state actors as well, which are much better organized, financed and operational than some states, in addition to the fact that they are often difficult to find and pin down. The origin of these threats is to be found in the everyday life of ordinary people: in the production and distribution of food, in access to local natural resources, in people’s health care, in the organization of social life and in the rapport between different cultures and religions.


Five years after the launch of the Millennium Development Goals, an “agenda reducing poverty and improving lives [of the poor] that world leaders agreed on at the Millennium Summit in September 2000,” the United Nations gave an update on whether these eight goals are being achieved or not, and the report’s conclusions are not at all encouraging. It is not a complete tale of woe—because the situation is generally under control in the world’s so-called developed countries, while in the most problematic parts of the world, some occasional success can be seen. The real problem is the inequality within individual countries and the inequality among states. Globalization does not appear to be bringing any harmonization between developing and developed countries, or a more equal distribution of wealth and income. It has not resulted in a more natural dialogue and cooperation between cultures and civilizations or a peaceful and fruitful sense of interdependence. On the contrary, the resentment generated by the continually increasing inequality gap could easily give way to a refusal of interdependence, which could turn into instability and downright revolt.

This means that the system of international solidarity has to be reviewed. We are a long way from reaching the goal of 0.7 percent of G.N.P., which, according to precise international agreements, including that of the Monterrey Conference of 2002, each country should be setting aside for official development assistance. Happily, the tendency now seems to be less to invest in grand infrastructure schemes that rely on astronomically large investments with big organizations and more to aim at things like microcredit and assisting the work of those who actually know the country, the local situations and the people. It is to invest with those who can assure that help starts from the bottom up, by aiming assistance at the real needs of the people and helping meet their aspirations. It should also be said that countries benefiting from such schemes, for their part, need to assure good governance and the serious policing of corruption.

It’s along these lines—participation, security and development, solidarity in a world of inequality—that the Holy See believes it can glimpse the efficacy of a reform that might be able to redirect and regulate global governance.

No Super-Government

In its thinking during the 60 years of the United Nations’ existence, the Holy See has never wished to see the creation of a global super-government that would exercise international sovereignty, which might limit or even bypass national sovereignty. On the other hand, the thought of the popes during this period has constantly sustained the idea of an international institution with structures capable of intervening through appropriate arbitration in conflicts of various kinds—in military, economic, trade and cultural fields—conflicts that arise between nations, with each nation maintaining its own rights to reach just agreements and peaceful settlements, and always with respect for the rights of others.

When we speak of the reform of the United Nations, the really big question is: Can a formula be found so that all its resolutions are respected? Only in this way might we begin to glimpse a renewed and truly efficient United Nations. This current reform effort is intended to make the United Nations more efficient in its working methods, more rapid in responding to peacetime and development emergencies, and more authoritative in its decision-making. But the very real question of the implementation of its resolutions continues to be related to the political will of individual states and their desire to cooperate with one another. For this reason, when we speak of the reform of the United Nations, we mean above all the injection of a huge dose of bold political will on the part of the member states into global governance.

The Millennium Challenge Goals

1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
Target for 2015: Halve the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day and those who suffer hunger.

2. Achieve universal primary education.
Target for 2015: Ensure that all boys and girls complete primary school.

3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
Targets for 2005 and 2015: Eliminate gender disparities in primary and secondary education, preferably by 2005 and at all levels by 2015.

4. Reduce child mortality.
Target for 2015: Reduce by two-thirds the mortality rate among children under five.

5. Improve maternal health.
Target for 2015: Reduce by three-quarters the ratio of women dying in childbirth.

6. Combat H.I.V./AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Target for 2015: Halve and begin to reverse the spread of H.I.V./AIDS, malaria and other major diseases.

7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
Targets include: integrating sustainable development into government programming, supplying clean water and making improvements in living conditions for 100 million slum dwellers.

8. Develop a global partnership for development.
Multiple targets include: an open trading and financial system, addressing the needs of landlocked and island states, alleviating the debt of developing countries, youth employment, affordable drugs for poor countries and transfer of new technology. 

Source: United Nations Development Program
Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

U.S. President Joe Biden, right, bends down to greet Pope Francis with their foreheads touching, ahead of a working session on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Energy, and Africa-Mediterranean, during the G7 summit at Borgo Egnazia, southern Italy, on June 14, 2024.
Pope Francis met with President Joe Biden and several other world leaders at the Group of Seven summit.
Pope Francis, seen from behind, sits at a working session during the G7 summit in Borgo Egnazia, Italy. The session discusses AI, Energy, Africa, and the Mideast. The background features a blue screen with the G7 Italia logo, and several attendees and photographers are visible.
The pope addressed leaders at the G7's special "outreach" session dedicated to artificial intelligence.
Pope Francis met with comedians to discuss the importance of humor, specifically as a tool for unity in the face of darkness and conflict.
“Sister Act” embodies the welcoming spirit of a church willing to go out into the street.
John DoughertyJune 14, 2024