The United Nations Charter begins with the words, "We the peoples of the United Nations...." The word "peo-
ples" is an unusual choice. The word "people" already suggests the plural, and "peoples" suggests the plural of the
plural. The term is purposefully ambiguous. It gives the impression of drawing authority and legitimization from "the
people," as was done with the United States Constitution, when in fact it draws its authority from the governments that
comprise the world body. And these governments may or may not be chosen democratically, that is, basing their
legitimacy on a grant of authority from the people.
The United Nations was established by treaty. Its Charter is, in fact, an international treaty that now has the adherence
of 185 states. It is nearly universal in respect to the adherence of states, but this does not necessarily mean that it is
based upon the will of the people of the world or even the "peoples."
There is much talk at the United Nations about the spread of democracy. It is a favorite theme of the current
Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Recently, at a meeting of non-governmental organizations affiliated with the
United Nations, the Secretary-General said, "Democratization serves the cause of peace because it offers the possibility
of justice and of progressive change without force."
The spread of democracy is a noble concern, one that the United Nations has advocated seriously for its member states
but not for itself. The United Nations unfortunately is not a democratic institution. Democracy requires participation in
decision making, transparency in the decision making process, and accountability for wrongdoing. The General
Assembly of the United Nations is composed of all 185 member states, but this is not where decision making occurs.
The General Assembly can pass resolutions, but these lack binding force or effect. They provide a sense of the positions
of the member states, but they do not bind them to action. On the other hand, in the Security Council where
actions are taken, there are only 15 members and, of these, five are permanent members: the United States, Russia,
United Kingdom, France and China. Moreover, these five states the victors in World War II are given the exclusive
power to veto any proposed action. Decisions of the Security Council are discussed in closed sessions, and only the
votes are made public. Therefore, decisions made by the Security Council are open to neither the public nor other states.
At present the United Nations has no effective means of holding either states or individuals accountable for crimes
under international law, even for the most heinous crimes such as genocide. The International Court of Justice does not
have compulsory jurisdiction over international disputes. As yet there is no permanent international criminal court that
could apply the principles established at Nuremberg to individual violators of international law. Steps in this direction
have been taken, however, with the establishment of the ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda.
Nation states are the members of the United Nations. They are "the peoples." When "the people" come to the United
Nations, we come as visitors or, at best, as second class citizens. This must change. This will change, though it will be
a slow and perhaps painful evolution as it is in any institution when power is tightly held.
Fifty years ago when the United Nations began, it was comprised of 51 states. Today it has 134 additional member
states, many of which were colonies when the United Nations was formed. The evolution has been toward
inclusiveness, and in only 50 years the Organization has become nearly universal. In its next 50 years, its emphasis must
be on its own democratization in addition to all the other responsibilities given to it. This would dramatically empower
the Organization to act for the benefit of humanity, and would take it a long way toward fulfilling its noble aims of
assuring peace, human rights, and respect for international law.
Fifty years is not old for a global institution. It is certainly not middle aged. In some respects, the United Nations is
barely an adolescent. Without a doubt, it is the most important institution in the world, and fulfilling its purposes is
essential to securing a decent and healthy future for ourselves and our posterity. The United Nations should be honored
for its achievements in its first 50 years. In the next 50 years we should do our best to put "the people" into the "the
peoples," and to make the Organization itself truly democratic.