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Blog | At the UN Civil Society Conference, how can we still accept a system plagued by discrimination between first and second-class nations?

By Colombe Cahen-Salvador, Atlas' co-founder and candidate for UN Secretary-General

The United Nations is under fire from everyone, everywhere. Those believing in the rule of law are appalled by its inability to uphold it in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Superpowers refuse to abide by the majority will within the UN system and veto urgent measures to ensure peace and security.

Citizens have lost faith in the UN's ability to deliver on its mandate, promises, and pretences to include and hear them. Anyone reading the news or contemplating the world around them sees clearly the violence, destruction, and injustice. People are not blind. They know that the UN does not consider them equal based on their nationalities: Kenyans have less power than the French, whose country has a veto vote on anything substantive. 

How could we expect people to back such a system? Well, they don't. On Sunday, as part of my bid to become the next United Nations Secretary-General and ahead of this week's United Nations Civil Society Conference hosted in Kenya, I organized grassroots consultations in Nairobi to understand how the United Nations can best serve the people of Kenya. 

Despite the floods devastating the country, more than 100 Kenyans gathered for five hours and aired out their biggest beef with - what Stella Nderitu, one of the speakers in the opening panel - called the (un)United Nations. The list was long, from unfair access to international financing for African countries, the inability of the UN to stop conflicts or hold governments accountable to the law, or its failure to fulfil its promises and goals in stopping the climate crisis or alleviating poverty.  It was also clear that the United Nations' power structures create a lack of trust and willingness to engage with the system: "It does not serve people but the few countries it is dominated by, none African."

The United Nations is too remote, isolated, and out of touch with the people of our planet. This is not news. But what Kenyans overwhelmingly shared with me is that this could change if the United Nations were willing to take a hard look at itself and evolve, be reborn from its ashes, starting by including those left behind.

First, the Permanent Five structure must die for the United Nations to live long. This, I believe, means abolishing the permanent five and having an elected executive body. However, less radical views include giving the African Union the veto power and representation to rebalance the global power structure. Second, the United Nations cannot continue to operate from what is perceived as its ivory tower: people's voices must be heard, and their priorities must be reflected in the work of the organization. This can happen through the people’s election of the UN Secretary-General and through the implementation of participative tools that form the bedrock of most countries. Finally, the United Nations should put its money where its mouth is: at Sunday's events, citizens demanded to see more direct programmes that would benefit them, from the creation of climate relief funds directly going to those most impacted by extreme weather events leapfrogging national bureaucracies, to direct support for schools and communities.  

Only this way can the United Nations be reborn from its ashes. But to live peacefully and in unity across the world, we must also reckon with the past to move forward. Unity must be built on solid foundations. This means we must address the crimes of colonialism and their lingering consequences through a Global Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

This is no small task. However, the United Nations must be up to the challenge. On the 9th and 10th of May, the United Nations is hosting the UN Civil Society Conference in Nairobi. While no one I know outside of the United Nations bubble has ever heard of this event held in preparation for an equally unknown Summit for the Future, it presents an opportunity to be bold, dream big, and campaign for change. As the website of the Summit states: “The Summit of the Future (September 2024) is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to enhance cooperation on critical challenges and address gaps in global governance.”Yes! But no small incremental step will do anymore. In a system that accepts that the few can veto and set the agenda, why should the many follow? In a system that proves incapable of delivering on its mandate of peace, why should people have trust? In a system in which people do not see their priorities reflected with on-the-ground actions, why should people care?

Civil society has a big task ahead. It must avoid the trap of focusing on the wording of declarations that will hardly improve humanity's lives and think carefully about how its work can deliver for the very real people outside of the gates of the Nairobi compound. 

I wholeheartedly hope this challenge will be accepted and won. The truth is that the United Nations ensures basic human decency with little support, budget or recognition. From its global health initiatives that have almost eradicated diseases such as polio to ensuring that nuclear weapons don't proliferate, the world would be a much more miserable place without it, without its people doing everything they can to alleviate suffering. And imagine the utopic world we could live in if it had the legitimacy, competencies, and leadership to do more.

If you have questions or feedback, don't hesitate to contact [email protected]


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