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The United Nations and International Norms: A Sunset Institution?

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Although news coverage of the United Nations tends to focus largely on issues of war and conflict, it is development, not war, which dominates discourse and practice throughout the UN system. The debates have at times been bitter and development paradigms have come and gone—temporarily subsuming UN politics and then giving way again to some new challenging thesis. All the while, the gap separating the very rich and the extremely poor has been getting larger and larger.

The dawn of the new millennium witnessed yet another new development synthesis around a more or less coherent and seemingly consensual framework of development goals, objectives, and sectoral policies. The focus is on eliminating poverty and promoting sustainable human development and human security. This new synthesis was embraced by UN member states in the United Nations Millennium Declaration adopted at the 2000 New York Millennium Summit. The Declaration enjoined the international community to eradicate extreme poverty, create enabling environments conducive to development, promote good governance, mobilize financial resources for development, address the special needs of LDCs and heavily indebted developing countries, promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, develop and implement strategies to increase employment opportunities, make essential drugs more widely available in developing countries, develop strong partnerships with civil society and ensure that the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communication technologies, are available to all.

The Declaration also spells out specific goals and associated targets and indicators, the so-called Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). They all originate from the extensive series of global conferences and activities over the past decade and, taken as a whole, can be viewed as being mutually reinforcing, poverty reduction being their overarching objective. Six quantified and timebound objectives focus on the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, the promotion of gender equality, the reduction of child mortality, maternal health, and the spread of HIV-AIDS, malaria, and other diseases. The other goals contained in the Millennium Declaration focus on policy means. They call on governments and the international community to integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programs and reverse the loss of environmental resources; to develop global partnerships based on an open, rule-based, predictable, nondiscriminatory trading and financial system; to make firm commitments to good governance, development, and poverty reduction—both nationally and internationally; to address the special needs of the least developed countries through tariff- and quota-free access for exports; and to develop national and international measures designed to deal comprehensively with the debt problem of developing countries in order to make debt sustainable in the long term and to provide more generous official development assistance (ODA) for countries committed to poverty reduction. Since the Millennium Summit, the MDG process has been accepted throughout the UN system, including the Bretton Woods institutions, as an overarching normative objective as well as a framework for assessing progress.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: January 1, 2006

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