Regional organisations and UN reform: towards Multilateralism 2.0

Chapter VIII of the UN Charter foresees a role for regional arrangements in global governance […]


Chapter VIII of the UN Charter foresees a role for regional arrangements in global governance of security, especially the peaceful settlement of disputes. The Charter though also foresees a clear hierarchy between the global and the regional levels: any enforcement action that involves a regional organisation can only be organised under the authorisation of the UN Security Council. The proposal here advanced however is to engage in a process of networking the UN with regional organisation as a stepping-stone to Multilateralism 2.0.

Since the time when the UN Charter was drafted, the world has become more and more regionalised, and today a considerable number of regional and sub-regional organisations are active around the world, making important contributions to the stability and prosperity of their members. But these regional organisation (RO) are not necessarily what the drafters of Chapter VIII had in mind. For many regional organisations, the main mandate is not peace and security, but trade and economic cooperation. Nevertheless, some ROs such as the EU or the African Union have in common with the UN the fact that they are intergovernmental organisations with some ambitions in the area of peace and security.

There have been several attempts to connect the global scope of the UN with the endeavours of regional organisation. But political reality has always been a spoiler for any form of co-operation or division of labour. Only since the end of the cold war has there been room for a re-vitalisation of Chapter VIII. For some, Chapter VIII is to be regarded as an opportunity to reform the UN without changing the Charter, with the prospect that it could make the UN more inclusive and might help in raising the capacities and resources of the UN.

Meanwhile, other developments have opened new possibilities for enhanced collaboration between the UN and regional organisations. The first of these developments is the changing nature of security threats. The initial ambition of the UN was clear: avoiding or stopping armed conflicts between states. Today however, that ambition is much wider and includes different aspects of human security such as fighting climate change or pandemics. This opens the door for enhanced collaboration and coordination.

The initial ambition of the UN was avoiding or stopping armed conflicts. Today however, it is much wider and includes fighting climate change or pandemics.

The second development is the changing nature of governance. From a concept guided by the principles of sovereignty and subsidiarity, governance has evolved to a system of networked actors that have various statehood properties. According to Anne-Marie Slaughter, the future is a “network mindset” that replaces the old “chessboard” emphasis on states, sovereignty, coercion, and self-interest, with the web’s orientation toward connections, relationships, sharing, and engagement.

The added value of the regional organisations to global governance is straightforward. On the one hand, there is the cultural affinity, shared history and deep ties that make regional organisations better placed than the UN to grasp local situations on the condition that there is a legitimation and that impartiality is preserved. On the other hand, there is a possibility of burden-sharing. The enduring scarcity of resources for UN activities (such as peacekeeping) could be remedied by cooperation with regional organisations. But this does not mean that regional organisations are to be regarded as entities that are there to serve the UN. They are also autonomous actors with their own agenda, and in that sense, they have to be regarded as equal to the UN. 

Talking and walking the partnership

In an attempt to forge partnerships between ROs and the UN, the secretary-general Kofi Annan called in April 2003 for the UN and regional organisations to “redouble their efforts” to ensure international peace and security. But the gist of this and other messages has mostly been that regional organisations should work for and in the UN and that it should be clear that regional organisations can only act under a mandate by the Security Council – not exactly a partnership on equal footing. This process has culminated in the adoption of Resolution 1631 (2005), which clearly states that it is the Security Council that invites regional organisations to place their capacities in the framework of the UN.

Most attempts, however, at forging partnerships between the two entities, at first glance, look more like streamlining the presence of ROs within the UN structure than a real networking. If the latter is to be achieved, then the UN needs to be prepared to go further than consultation and looking at how regional organisations implement Security Council decisions.

The ambitions re-visited

When the UN was set up in 1945 it had 51 members. Today there are 191 members, and the security threats are different (for example, climate change, pandemics, scarcity of resources, and biodiversity). The growing awareness of the threats due to the current weaknesses of multilateralism, together with the opportunities related to the regionalisation and networking of the world, are creating the political possibility for change. The key issue in reforming the UN is that it has to find a way to create a balance between the UN’s responsibilities and its representation of people on our planet. Such a complex balance cannot be found in reform proposals that are merely based upon nations as the sole building blocks of multilateralism. States have to adjust to a world where other units of governance, from the vey local to the global level, will have statehood properties. This creates a complex level of governance called multi-level networked governance. Two of the key questions are what should be tackled at the global level and what should be left to regional organisations; and what kind of interactions are needed between the actors.

States have to adjust to a world where other units of governance, from the very local to the global level, will have statehood properties.

A more structured relationship between the UN and regional and other intergovernmental organisations needs to be developed, which guarantees greater coordination and cooperation in both policy and action. It is time to re-think the relationship between the UN and the ROs, both inside and outside the canvas of Chapter VIII, and to work towards a new networked partnership based upon equality.

Advocating the role of regional organisations in the UN is not new, but a new start is needed based upon a clear conception of the added value of the process to the Security Council, to the relevant UN departments, to the Ros, and to the member states. 

The proposal here advanced is to engage in a process of networking the UN with ROs as a stepping stone to Multilateralism 2.0. This process should be guided by a series of principles and a clear vision of why this networked partnership is necessary. It should also be guided by a set of operational steps to realise the proposal 


Principle 1. The UN and ROs should play complementary roles in facing all global challenges including international peace and security.

Principle 2. Although for traditional peace and security issues, the primacy of the Security Council needs to be preserved at all times, the coordination and cooperation between the UN and the ROs  can be organised without such a hierarchical relationship for all other global issues.

Principle 3. Pragmatism is key. A new partnership should be built on the comparative strengths of each organisation. Geographical proximity and close historical, economic and cultural ties amongst members of regional organisations lead to a potentially better understanding of the root causes of regional conflicts and thus to developing peaceful solutions to them. Similarly, regional organisations are perhaps best placed to operationalise policies to deal with global problems.

Vision of the added value 

The raison d’être of such a networked interaction could be to create:

  1. a forum of trust-building between the different regional organisations and the UN at the highest level in all its agencies. In some cases, the UN can also provide legitimation to interventions from ROs;
  2. a mechanism of learning transfer from one case to another. Regional organisations can provide the UN and other ROs with insights from on the ground;
  • a knowledge hub on regional capacities. While some ROs can deliver military capacity to the UN, there should be increased collaboration between the United Nations and regional organisations in order to maximise efficiency of cooperation and coordination in all domains of the UN, in particular through exchange of information, and sharing experience and best practices.

Strengthening the relationship between the UN and regional organisations should be done in the spirit of a networked governance structure and geared towards all human security problems.

The cooperation between the UN and regional organisations should contribute to enlarging the UN from an intergovernmental organisation to an open organisation where all relevant actors for peace and security can meet. This not to say that the Security Council needs to be transformed as from tomorrow. But expanding it into a hybrid platform with a mixed membership is perhaps feasible: partly countries, partly regional organisations.

A final word on how to implement such a reform process is that it can only be done by an actor that operates within the UN and that is a power itself outside the UN. Of all the ROs operating today, only the EU seems to have the capacity and the capability of driving the process. But does the EU, and thus also its Member States, want to use soft power to be a change agent in the UN? In this context it is good to remember that the UN and the EU both have their roots in the thinking about a future governance structure after the second world war. And as Winston Churchill famously said: “There is no reason why a regional organisation of Europe should in any way be in conflict with the world organisation of the United Nations. On the contrary, I believe that the larger synthesis will only survive if it is founded upon coherent natural groupings.”

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