The UN and its emphasis on voluntarism

In a modern age, it appears that the UN's emphasis on volunteerism has sustained itself well.


The United Nations (UN) has been in existence for 71 years. Over that time, it has overseen a great deal of economic, social, and political change.

From the decline of nationalism to the rise of terrorism, and from the incorporation of universal human rights to the fight against AIDS, the UN has been able to reshape itself to play a significant role in overcoming global challenges. That the United Nations continues to be largely relevant and a force for good today says a lot about the vision of its founding fathers.

Essential to the United Nations has been the theme of intergovernmental collaboration. This approach has sought to assimilate and synthesise the values and principles which its member states subscribe to, rather than prescribe ones of its own.

Implicit in this is an acknowledgment of the particular needs, concerns, and aspirations of individual nations at the same time as striving for a general consensus on future global development. Together, this has ensured that the UN remains not only relevant, but also a sustainable source of international discussion.

Against the backdrop of Brexit – Britain’s exit from the European Union – there is much worry about the continuity of other global institutions such as the UN. Indeed, the English School of International Relations has traditionally argued that international anarchy is at the centre of the global community.

Expanding upon this, theorists such as Hedley Bull have argued that from this sense of lawlessness within the international system, global norms have developed to capture the ‘common interest’ of all nations – protection against the fear of unrestricted violence amongst nations and cultural imposition.

The UN’s emphasis upon voluntarism has been essential to overcoming this charge of supranational power, and in turn has contributed towards its overall long-term success. The role of voluntary contributions and participation can be seen throughout the range of operations and organisations that make up the UN.

Just one example of this in action is the United Nations Universal Periodic Review, which regularly examines the human rights performance of all 193 member states. Whilst this aims to promote the “universality, interdependence, indivisibility, and interrelatedness of all human rights”, nations are only included if they volunteer to join.

The strength of this is that member-states are given a real ‘buy’ into the UN’s activities rather than becoming the passive recipients of a detached and impersonal system that overlooks the particular concerns that national representatives may have. In turn, this has the potential to increase the social bonds between member states, and encourages a wider sense of mutual collaboration between those who have an interest in the UN’s future.

Perhaps the greatest project to have developed from the UN is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Although this was not originally a legally binding document, the majority of member-states have subscribed to it in essence, if not yet also in reality.

As one of the founding father’s of the UDHR, Jacques Maritain, once claimed; “we agree on the rights, but on condition no one asks us why.” The truth of the matter is that whilst the majority of nations have a motivation to collaborate internationally, those reasons are not uniform and differ from nation to nation.

As the UN recognises that it’s member states have a multiplicity of reasons for remaining part of it – whether that be trade relations, protection from war, enshrining human rights, or overcoming disease and famine – it has been able to remain largely relevant to all. Subsequently, this has secured its long-term sustainability, and has the potential to secure it even further.

History, however, has not been universally kind to the UN. Far from collaborating over global sustainable development, the UN has been accused of being occasionally fractious, and fundamentally divided upon some of the most pressing events.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to issues of selectivity in relation to humanitarian intervention. For instance, the lack of a UN-led response to genocide in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1994 led to accusations that the UN were inconsistent in making decisions on intervention. Likewise, the UN’s condemnation of Vietnam’s intervention in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge led to the view that the UN may even be more passive towards some human rights violations than towards others.

Nonetheless, there are areas where the UN has succeeded, and has championed some incredibly worthwhile causes in the international arena.

Through its agencies such as UNICEF, it’s children’s emergency fund, and UNAids, it has championed the voices of minorities, and has enhanced social inclusion through education and awareness. Through its joint action on AIDS, it has enabled 17 million people to access treatment, the majority of whom are living in poorer parts of the world where medicine is simply not affordable. In just four years, it has reduced the number of babies born with HIV in South Africa from 58,000 down to fewer than 6000.

In this increasingly globalised world, issues are simply much wider than national boundaries, and we must look much wider than our own front doorstep for solutions to problems we face.

International collaboration, through organisations such as the UN, builds and develops a consensus upon important issues whilst also recognising the individuality of its member-states. This has entrenched a spirit of sustainable voluntarism within the EU, and allows it to remain a force for good in our world.

In the end, it will be this overriding theme of voluntary international collaboration which will ensure that the UN is there to support future generations, wherever and whoever they may be.


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