The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law


A new and increasingly popular way to research the work of the United Nations (UN) is introduced. Instead of seeing the international organization as mainly a political organization, the UN is increasingly seen as a "Town Meeting of the World," i.e. a global debating society, where ideas are discussed and developed by representatives of the international community.

The United Nations (UN) is a political organization, an alliance of all the world’s States gathered together to achieve some ambitious common goals and tackle the most important global challenges. The focus in UN-research is generally on the way the UN has sought to achieve this formidable task, inter alia by encouraging its Member States to actively pursue these common goals.

The Organization achieves this by translating the moral language of global values into the language of public international law. This results in various treaty texts, recommended by the United Nations to its Membership. Many of these texts have indeed become binding international law through the consent of all States party to such treaties. Some of these treaties also establish separate legal regimes, where responsibilities are allocated and various (legal) incentives for compliance put in place.

In the book The United Nations, the Evolution of Global Values and International Law, this process is studied in a non-traditional way. The emphasis is not on the question as to what the existing legal obligations are and how compliance is ensured and how effective these compliance mechanisms are. Instead, the focus is on the role of the United Nations in the articulation and evolution of the goals themselves. The central question is as follows: What is the role of the United Nations in reaching global consensus on what the international community should look like and in which direction it ought to develop?

A detailed examination of the travaux préparatoires of the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945 shows that the UN’s establishment was greatly influenced by global values, i.e. globally shared beliefs that distinguish evil from good, the present from a better world. A common desire to eradicate war, poverty, inhuman treatment and exploitation of peoples, has led to confirmation of the global values of peace and security, social progress and development, human dignity, and self-determination of peoples.

These values can already be found, albeit in rudimentary form, in the UN Charter. Over time, the Charter has proved to evolve, like a “living tree”: although the text of the Charter has not changed significantly, its interpretation has followed the changing conditions of society; this way the norms and values of the UN Charter have always remained topical and relevant. The study charts how the United Nations, and especially the General Assembly, have continuously contributed to the global values debate, and how these values have been translated into the language of international law, including through the introduction of novel legal concepts such as the responsibility to protect, sustainable development, human security and the right to self-determination.

The study shows that the value of peace and security mainly evolved through the UN’s efforts to identify a list of potential threats, such as interstate aggression, civil war, and terrorism. When it comes to social progress and development, the General Assembly has focused on the preparation of a long series of action plans and development programs. Furthermore, there is increasing attention for sustainable development and the legal rights and obligations deriving therefrom. The work of the United Nations on human dignity includes an impressive list of human rights that all countries should respect. The debate on self-determination is still in development. It is clear that it is based on the desire of communities to control their own destiny, without any external oppression.

In examining the intellectual history of the United Nations, one is struck by the abstract nature of the debates. This distinguishes them from the usual inter-State meetings, which have a more political or practical nature. Yet the debates in San Francisco and the General Assembly cannot be characterized as merely theoretical debates. The participants are all representatives of a particular State, with its own cultural and historical traditions and interests. To reach agreement, all representatives - together constituting a colorful patchwork quilt of various cultures, religions and traditions - have to negotiate. The final result is a carefully phrased global consensus on the direction the international community should take. While attempts are being made to achieve this goal, this goal itself - expressed in the language of global values - does not sit still. Instead, it is constantly developing or evolving...