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Regional Organizations Remain Vital to the UN


Alicia Barcena of ECLAC and Jan Eliasson of the UN
Alicia Barcéna, executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, and Jan Eliasson, deputy secretary-general of the UN, left, at a meeting in January 2013. CARLOS VERA/ECLAC

Formed as a “club” of nation states, the United Nations took some time to find out that cooperation with regional organizations might be of some use in improving social and economic living conditions as well as maintaining international peace and security and safeguarding the enjoyment of human rights.

It was not before the economic crisis of the 1980s in Latin America took place and massive problems in peacekeeping in Africa in the 1990s turned up that the UN realized that closer cooperation with regional groups should be exercised. Today, this cooperation is common practice; one example is the array of African peacekeeping missions that work with the League of Arab States, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States and others.

Has this cooperation between the UN and regions become a successful model or beset with problems and even failures? The book “The United Nations and the Regions,” edited by Philippe De Lombaerde, Francis Beart and Tânia Felício for the United Nations University series on regionalism, explores this topic through more than 20 essays. The book is divided in three parts: “Regional Actors and Representation,” “Regional Organization and Peace and Security” and “Regional Organizations, Human Security, Sustainable Development and Human Rights.” The contributing authors come mainly from academia, while others belong to regional organizations.

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As one main aspect of the book, it analyzes different forms of regional representation within the UN — the economic regional commissions and the so-called “regional groups” for electoral purposes.

The economic regional commissions of the UN, founded as functional bodies by the Economic and Social Council and expected by the developing world to become intellectual and political sources of strength in global negotiations on their role in world trade, have not fulfilled these goals: they have remained mostly think tanks without real political function. Only the Latin American and Caribbean commission, called ECLAC, has succeeded, for a limited period in the 1960s and 1970s, in playing a leading role in international trade negotiations and achieving the establishment of the UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1964, as Edgard Jiménez describes in his essay.

While the regional economic commissions are official organs of the UN, the five overarching geographical groups of the UN (the Group of African States, the Group of Latin American and Caribbean States, the Group of Eastern European States and the Group of Western European and Other States) are unofficial entities, established informally in 1963 by UN member states to organize the distribution of the nonpermanent seats of the Security Council according to the “equitable geographical distribution” prescribed by the UN Charter. Since then, these regional groupings have played a decisive role in UN elections by making preliminary decisions on the composition of nearly all important UN organs. 

They have also played a decisive role in the past in consensus-building processes in the UN system regarding political decisions. However, as Robert Kissack illustrates in his contribution on cross-regional coalitions and human rights in the General Assembly, the regional groups seem to have lost in the new millennium part of their power through the rise of cross-regional coalitions, such as the field of human rights in the General Assembly.

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Kissack writes, “The recent strategy of the EU member states and others to support progressive human rights promotion in the UNGA [UN General Assembly] has been to build a large coalition across the five UN regions.”

As Richard Gowan and Franziska Brantner observe about the Human Rights Council in the book, the regional groups are now often useful in overcoming “ideological divisions” in preparing compromises within the regional groups, which function — according to Gowan and Brantner — to some extent as “self-regulating entities,” limiting ideological conflicts among the different regions.

The focus of the book lies, however, not on the role of regional representation in the UN, but on the cooperation of the UN with outside regional organizations, mostly in peacekeeping and development cooperation. In peacekeeping, the UN founders provided for the participation of “regional arrangements or agencies” in efforts for peaceful settlements of disputes as well as enforcing measures decided by the Security Council to maintain or restore international peace.

With the increase of peacekeeping missions since the early ’90s, this aspect has gained importance: the UN peacekeeping system has in the two decades since then cooperated with numerous regional organizations, such as the European Union, NATO, the African Union, the Organization of American States, the Arab League and subregional security and economic groups.

While there seems to be no alternative for this global-regional cooperation, the book draws up a mixed balance sheet in terms of its practical value, saying that there “have been both successes and failures.” The success depends obviously on the credibility, military and economic power of the regional actors, but also on the quality of communications with the relevant UN organs, the clarity of the mandate and the principle “that it is essential for the UN to continue to play a central role.”

While regional organizations have proved in peacekeeping to be of some value for the UN, cooperation in the work for sustainable development remains mostly unsatisfying, yet that is not the fault of the regional organizations but of the UN’s structural complexity. Dozens of UN funds, programs and agencies work in this field and are not much interested in coordinating and cooperating with one another. This is where UN reform efforts will take time.

All in all, the book makes it clear that the UN has good reasons to cooperate with regional organizations in solving global problems, but it should keep its expectations modest, because their political and economic weight and financial resources often limit their capacity to act considerably. And, as the editors emphasize in their concluding remarks, the useful cooperation with the regions should not “weaken the role of the UN.”

“The United Nations and the Regions,” edited by Philippe De Lombaerde, Francis Beart and Tânia Felício; ISBN: 978-94-007-2750-2

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We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (

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