“The UN was created after the carnage of two world wars as a means of finding normative frameworks that could serve us all better in our problem solving,” said Guillermo Rishchynski, the Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations. “But equally, it has a responsibility to bring to bear collective action in response to the problems that either are residual or emerging going forward.”
Speaking to Global Observatory editor Marie O’Reilly, Mr. Rishchynski said the UN has been successful in the development and humanitarian areas in setting new norms that allow the multilateral system to better respond to today’s challenges.
However, he argued that the organization has fallen short at times in safeguarding the normative frameworks in place. “The normative reality changes over time, and as the normative reality changes as a function of perception… one has to then be in a position to permit and take on board the need to change the action requirements in support of those norms,” Mr. Rishchynski said.
On the issue of legitimacy, he believed that the UN has a difficult task of balancing both the states and the people it aims to serve. “The hard reality is that both are constituencies that need to be understood and need to be factored into the way the UN goes about its business,” he said.
The conversation was part of a series of interviews done on the sidelines of the inaugural retreat of the Independent Commission on Multilateralism (ICM) on February 19-20.
Listen to the interview:
We’re here at the first retreat of the International Commission on Multilateralism discussing new global challenges, threats, and opportunities for the multilateral system, and in the first session this morning there was a lot of discussion about the role of the UN, whether the UN is an agency, a system for setting norms or whether it’s an organization that should be focused on collective action—really taking action and addressing specific challenges. I’d love to get your take on that, Ambassador.
Well I think from the perspective of our own country, and from myself personally, I think it’s both, and I don’t think it is an either-or kind of situation. I think the UN was created after the carnage of two world wars as a means of finding normative frameworks that could serve us all better in our problem solving, but equally, it has a responsibility to bring to bear collective action in response to the problems that either are residual or emerging going forward. So I think it is a bit on a conundrum that it has that duality. It’s difficult at times to find the organic links between the two, but I think part of why ICM was created is to look at that and try to come up with the crossover points where in fact these two concepts can come together, and we can look at both existing in future requirements of the multilateral systems in terms of meeting the responsibilities in both areas.
In which areas would you say the UN has been most successful in setting new norms?
I think the UN has in the development area succeeded, in the humanitarian area succeeded in setting normative frameworks that allow us to respond better to the challenges that exist around the planet. I think in international peace and security it’s much more complex, and it’s something that we need to try to get our heads around better. There’s a lot of review going on right now for those specific purposes. I think at the macro level in disarmament, the UN did a reasonable job for many, many years in normative setting, but it has fallen short in terms of the action necessary to buttress that, and that’s what I think the organization at times forgets that one doesn’t set norms and simply leave them in a sort of static fashion. That the normative reality changes over time, and as the normative reality changes as a function of perception, a function of emergence of new players or actors, one has to then be in a position to permit and take on board the need to change the action requirements in support of those norms, which is sometimes a more difficult task than what we’re prepared to consider.
So if part of the difficulty in terms of collective action on peace and security issues has been perhaps a lack of collective understanding of the norms that should underpin responses to particular global threats, what area would you say is the lack of collective understanding most significant and really hampering action?
I don’t think there’s any one issue that stands out more than another. I think in terms of the kinds of actions that we’re going to require for the survivability of the planet, for example, the challenge presented by the climate phenomenon, I think this is crucial. Allocation of resources, depletion of resources, I think, is another area that we’re going to have to get our heads around in a very, very fulsome kind of way. With a population growing to nine billion and finite resources to support a population of that type, either we find methodologies to share what we have better, or these will inevitably become sources of conflict, so I think if we keep our eye on that reality in the context of the work that we’re doing, hopefully we can come up with at least conceptual approaches, if not solutions, that allow us to address it better and show incremental progress over the longer haul, and I think that is what it’s about. It’s not about finding silver bullets, it’s about finding methodologies that allow us to incrementally improve at a perceptible level the response that we undertake to those collective challenges that we face.
There has also been a lot of discussion about a crisis of legitimacy at the UN at many different levels, and part of that is the perception that at the state level, a lot of people no longer feel that their governments are necessarily representing their interests. And I’m curious when we talk about UN reform, and reform in the multilateral system, a question has arisen of "Are we serving states or are we serving people?" What’s your take on that?
Well, it is an organization of states that ostensibly represent people—that’s the simple definition. The hard reality is that both are constituencies that need to be understood and need to be factored into the way the UN goes about its business, as it were, and I think on the issue of legitimacy—as it reflects states—clearly the structure that existed in 1945 is very, very different today. So some attempt in my judgement has to be made to try to address that in a fashion that permits not only greater legitimacy from the point of view of representation, but, with legitimacy, greater accountability with respect to the people dimension of it. The actions that the UN undertakes in terms of facing up to the daily challenges of survival across our planet, whether you are in a developed or developing context, I think are issues that they need to continue to prioritize from the point of view of where resources are dedicated and where programming is conceived and then implemented from the point of view of responding to those imperatives at the level of people. So I think the organization has a very, very difficult task as times in balancing both, and one doesn’t want to fall into the trap, if you will, of choosing whether you have a tyranny of states on the one hand or a tyranny of popular aspiration on the other—and that’s not an easy task.
Ambassador, thank you very much for speaking with me.
You’re very welcome.