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Paper Presented at the Colloquium towards

“The Reform of the United Nations”

Nigeria Institute of International Affairs, Lagos, June 23,2005.




The vision of United Nations is believed to be that of a world in which the human rights of all are fully respected and enjoyed in conditions of global peace and freedom, and its Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is mandated to keep that vision in the forefront through constant encouragement of the international community and its member States to uphold universally agreed human rights standards, alerting Governments and the world community of the daily reality that these standards are too often ignored or unfulfilled; and to be a voice for the victims of human rights violations everywhere; to promote universal ratification and implementation of human rights treaties; and to press the international community to take the steps that can prevent violations, including support for the right to development; thus protecting and promoting all human rights for everyone. OHCHR is guided in its work by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, subsequent Human Rights instruments, and the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.

The founding members of the United Nations made the following resolution:

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedomAND FOR THESE ENDS to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoplesHAVE RESOLVED TO COMBINE OUR EFFORTS TO ACCOMPLISH THESE AIMS.”---(UN Charter, 1945).


At its inauguration, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.”

The human rights so declared and to which the member nations are covenanted include:

-          The right to life, liberty and security of persons

-          The right to be treated with dignity and be protected equality under the law

-          No one shall be held in slavery or servitude

-          No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

-          No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile

-          The right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State

-          The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the right to change religion or belief, and to practice this religion or belief in private or public

-          The right to freedom of opinion and expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers

-          The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

-          The right to participate in the governance of one’s country, directly or through freely chosen representatives, including the right to change such representatives through periodic elections

-          The right to equal access to public service in one’s country

-          The right to work, to free choice of employment and to just and favourable conditions of work and protection against unemployment

-          The right to equal pay for equal work

-          The right to social security and such economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for one’s dignity and free development of one’s personality

-          The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and his/her family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care, and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his/her control.

-          The right to education. Education shall be free (and compulsory), at least in the elementary and fundamental stages.

-          Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this declaration can be fully realized.

One of its roles is to be a global watchdog of the human rights and freedoms enunciated above, and to help guarantee for humanity a life of Freedom with Dignity.  Yet the world of today is plagued with violence on all fronts and we are witnessing newer and more deadly dimensions of violence such as global terrorism. The gap between the rich and the poor nations has widened astronomically. And even though the wall that separated the East and the West have crumbled, new walls of hatred are being erected here and there.

While life expectancy, on average, has gone up more in the last 40 years than in the previous 4,000, in Africa, it appears to be plunging. And while we live in an age driven by information technology, with near universal access to every information via the internet, the information gap is widening for many in Africa due to poverty and infrastructural decay. We find ourselves in a high tech world, which has never before seen such amount of wealth, but the scandal of today is that poverty holds half of humanity in chains. Half of humanity gets along on the equivalent of $2 a day, or less. Some 1.5 billion people are ''still lacking access to safe water, and hundreds of millions of children are still not able to go to primary school! Individuals and minority groups are having their rights trampled upon and their freedoms violated in newer ways on daily basis, and the United Nations seem to be unable to do much about them. The reality on the ground indicates that as presently constituted, the UN is not equipped to take the nations of the world through the 21st Century in mutual respect, wholesome development, peace and security for everyone.

When the UN was established, its founders unfortunately created no effective and lasting institutions for world economic, social and cultural governance. They did not put in place adequate institutional frameworks for protecting the poor and weak peoples of the world from the excesses of the rich and powerful who may seek to manipulate, exploit, and subjugate them. Fifty years on however, such institutions at the global level have become imperative. And there are other reasons why such institutions should be put in place:

  • neither national governments nor markets fully take into account what happens beyond their borders – for example, global pollution and the gradual depletion of the ozone layer, or the effect of interest rate regime in one country on capital flows elsewhere;
  • some activities cannot be controlled nationally: for example international movements of labour and capital which governments may wish to regulate or tax; and
  • there are worldwide agreements that extreme poverty should be ended, and yet many governments lack the resources, or power, or will to act.

The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan’s proposed reforms which we are reflecting upon today include re-organising the Secretariat and strengthening coordination among the UN's many programmes, funds and agencies, towards the emergence of a more dynamic and effective global body and the promotion of larger freedom, greater peace and security and a more wholesome existence for everyone.

With globalisation, there has been a huge change in the nature of economic activity over the past few decades. With globalisation has come the growing importance of international linkages – of finance, trade, technology transfer and migration – stemming from the accelerating expansion of global markets in response to technological advancement and trends towards deregulation. Trade has grown rapidly but unevenly, in favour of the rich industrialized nations. The poor nations are continually experiencing a decline in commodity prices and export earnings and in this way the mass of their populations are condemned to life below the poverty line. While globalisation has expanded economic and cultural opportunities for some countries and peoples, it has not done so for others. Thus we require today at the level of the United Nations institutions and instruments that will address and as much as possible checkmate the international imperialism of money as well as the threat of a new political and cultural domination that are possible fallouts of the phenomenon of globalisation. Individual nations that are victims of this new global reality can often not help themselves. They need the help of transnational regulatory institutions to be put in place. There are evidently a number of important economic, social and environmental issues for which global action is needed, yet, despite their large number, the present set of international institutions don’t seem to be able to meet the challenge of forging a world of larger freedom and equitable access to global resources by all.

These are some of the ways in which the UN can promote larger economic freedom, and not the present order whereby the prescriptions of IMF and the World Bank are sometimes uncritically and arbitrarily executed on poor countries, thereby perpetrating a peculiar form of neo-imperialism (or is it neo-slavery) among the poorer nation. Today many debtor-nations are condemned to indefinitely paying capital and servicing costs for monies that were borrowed by thieving leaders who were very actively aided and abetted by the self-serving, yet self-righteous, ultra-liberal capitalists that have provided the ideological base for the UN as presently constituted.

There is an urgent need for the establishment of a UN Economic and Social Security Council (ESSC) to cover economic, social and environmental issues, with a mandate to legislate like what the Security Council does over security matters. Such a structure will deal with issues of world economic governance and promote positive and affirmative action on global and African poverty, social needs, cultural rights, sustainable development and environmental governance, in a systematic and politically realistic way. Membership should reflect the realities of power, yet ensure equitable representation for states at the global level, and the process of decision-making should be such as to ensure the consent of both the economically developed and developing countries.

Whereas there are formal agreements, embodied in the International Covenants on Human Rights, as well as a number of other legally-binding agreements, that people throughout the world are entitled to the protection of a range of human rights including political liberties and access to social and economic goods, and whereas there is worldwide acceptance that extreme poverty should be eliminated wherever it occurs, and that certain human rights abuses, such as have recently occurred in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Kosovo, or Iraq, are not to be tolerated, national action cannot, on its own, always be relied on to secure these rights and objectives, either because the governments in question lack the resources or power (financial, administrative or political), or because they lack the will. International action then becomes imperative; and potently effectual international institutions are needed to implement or supervise such action. For example the inability of the UN to stop the unilateral US invasion of Iraq exemplifies the utter impotence of the UN before imperialistic super-members. The new UN of our dream will have to put in place institutions and frameworks to make such international banditry impossible.

Nigeria is a member state of the United Nations and a signatory to most of the covenants and treaties of the global body regarding the social, political and economic rights of individual human beings and groups. We cannot run our country in isolation. There are minimum standards that we must apply in our social, economic and political relations if we are not to condemn ourselves to a pariah status in the comity of nations. Thus, as we reflect on the proposed reform of the United Nations along the perspective of larger freedom and respect for the human rights of everyone everywhere in the world, we must also take a critical look at the Nigerian situation and assess where we are in the human rights index and in our journey towards the fulfillment of the much celebrated millennium development goals. 

It should be a matter of urgent concern to all stakeholders within and outside Nigeria that in spite of the huge amounts of money we are making from the sale of crude oil (whose price has reached an all-time high in the last few months), the lot of the poor masses continue to worsen. Over 60 percent of our people, including most scandalously the people in the Niger Delta region from where our crude oil is obtained, live in absolute poverty. Infant and maternal mortality is still very high in our country. And in spite of all the treaties and conventions of the United Nations concerning the rights of the child, the Nigerian child has no right to free education or free health care. Many of them have never seen the four walls of a school. Instead, hordes of them could be seen on the streets of many of our cities running after moving vehicles, selling their miserable wares. And the young adult does not fare better, as millions of them are unemployed and lack social security of any sort. As a member state of the United Nations, Nigeria also has a long way to go in its journey towards genuine democracy, the conduct of free and fair elections, the eradication of corruption in public life and the promotion of the rule of law. What we often have in place is culture of impunity, the economics of exploitation and the politics of acrimony. All stakeholders in Nigeria must consider these problems a major challenge, and all hands must be on deck to overcome these challenges if we are to be credible members of the new global body in larger freedom, human rights, security and peace.


The ongoing process of globalisation increasingly requires certain ground rules, and a neutral and benevolent referee is increasingly necessary to moderate the socio-political and economic relations of countries and peoples. The noble and generous principles contained in the United Nations Charter could serve as universal terms of reference for a world that has fallen short of a global utopia. But how can we rally under a common umbrella if we have different dreams? The principle of sovereignty must be adjusted to the realities of a world that has rapidly globalised. And then the inescapable power of the US has to be reconciled with the need for the UN to command the respect and obtain the support of those countries that see such power as a threat. Finally, the popular call for a less unequal and unstable world must be given adequate attention by a reformed UN in its organs, programmes and strategies. We need the breath of Human Rights, Freedom, Dignity, and solidarity to get life back into this world of economic greed, political manipulation and environmental degradation.

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