Former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, whose centennial is being celebrated this year, deserves to be remembered for upholding the notion that democratic principles, in addition to being valued domestically, should also be observed as tenets of the multilateral system and the international order. This notion can be found in three seminal documents which bear his fingerprints, namely, the 1992 Agenda for Peace, the 1994 Agenda for Development and, lastly, the 1996 Agenda for Democratization – circulated shortly before the end of his tenure. As the international community grapples with renewed tensions among the major powers and the collective security fundamentals of UN Charter are being eroded by unilateral impulses, the opportunity offered by the Summit of the Future, convened by the current Secretary-General António Guterres for September 2024, should not be missed for forging a new, improved, more democratic international order.
Two central issues deserve to be taken into account, in this context: the importance of universal respect for international law; and the need for representative and inclusive decision-making mechanisms including with regard to the promotion of peace and security. Just as it is unacceptable for the most influential citizens in a democratic society to place themselves above the law, it would be intrinsically unfair and undemocratic to admit an international system in which the militarily or economically more powerful disrespect international commitments at their ease. Unfortunately, violations have become almost commonplace, including by those who bear special responsibilities through their status as permanent members of the Security Council. The widely condemned invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation is not an isolated occurrence in this regard.
Post WW II history offers many examples of violations of the UN Charter in its central provisions relating to the inadmissibility of the use of force, except in self-defence or as authorized by the Security Council. Recent decades provide multiple instances of selective approaches when it comes to standing up for territorial integrity or rejecting unauthorized military interventions. This only places heightened responsibility on those who have observed consistency in such matters, who should not hesitate to exercise a leadership role in promoting a recommitment to the non-selective adherence to international law as a necessary step towards building a more peaceful world.
Furthermore, as references to the use of weapons of mass destruction become ominously frequent, there is need for more acute awareness of the threat posed by reckless behaviour that could place humankind’s very survival at risk. Those in possession of such weapons agree that a nuclear war cannot be won. In spite of this recognition, not only horizontal but also vertical proliferation remains a serious concern. It should not come as a surprise that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has now come into force. This illustrates where numerous nations stand in this regard – an important segment that does not possess or intend to develop nuclear weapons and that cannot be simply dismissed. Additional initiatives such as those advanced by the report of the High Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) also deserve consideration. Of particular significance is the proposal for the Summit of the Future to include a commitment to “no first use” of nuclear weapons by nuclear weapon States, combined with full and independent verification processes.
The twin threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and unabated global warming constitute contemporary challenges that no one can afford to ignore. Yet the same level of engagement on the part of civil society organizations is not seen in both issue areas. Three thousand NGOs were accredited to COP 27 at Sharm el Sheikh, last November. Were the same zeal to combat global warming invested in a mobilization for peace and against the use of force in international relations, a virtuous alliance could bring together environmentalism and pacifism. It is always worth emphasizing that, in both dimensions, it is the future of civilization that is at stake.
Moreover, at the level of financial resources, a more balanced approach is called for. As then president-elect Lula da Silva stated in his speech at COP 27 “we spend trillions of dollars in wars which only cause death and destruction while 900 million people in the world go hungry”. Indeed, inflated military budgets absorb increasing proportions of scant resources while the financial means for promoting climate resilient development remains alarmingly insufficient. The 2023 Report by the “Leaders for Peace”, a group presided by former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin which brings together former heads of State, ministers of foreign affairs and other personalities from 40 countries, considers that “a set of priorities that privileges defence expenditure and preparation for war over the commitment to environmental sustainability can only be described as irrational, or possibly irresponsible”. The majority of nations should not be hostage to agendas that do not safeguard the planet or contribute to peace.
The Declaration adopted by consensus on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations stated that international law constitutes the indispensable foundation for a more peaceful, prosperous and just world, as member States committed themselves to strengthening democratic governance and, with it, the rule of law. When it comes to limitations on the use of force, however, the constraints imposed by international law are sometimes perceived as an unwelcome imposition. Professor Ngaire Woods asserts in Foreign Affairs that “the clarity of international law will help even the most powerful to see more clearly”. In a multipolar world her words acquire special resonance.
A commitment to democracy at the domestic level should translate itself into policy agendas favouring the democratization of the international system. This points to the need for reform of decision making mechanisms, whose composition is both insufficiently inclusive and out of tune with present geopolitical realities. Expansion in the membership of the Security Council was already considered necessary back in the 1990s. Frustration with the Council’s performance in a number of instances, from Iraq to Ukraine, has generated widespread support for increasing its composition and reforming its working methods. Nevertheless, resistance to change has become deeply ingrained in certain quarters, creating the perception in many capitals that this is an unachievable objective. Can the Summit of the Future contribute to breaking this deadlock?
The obstacles to expansion and reform should not be unsurmountable. In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, the G20 replaced the G7/8 as the premier forum for international economic coordination without major opposition, as it became clear, that coordination within a small and insufficiently representative group of governments would not ensure much-needed improved cooperation. A dysfunctional moment in global economic governance catalized change and evolution.
It would be ill advised to await an even more dysfunctional moment in the UN collective security system to rise to the challenge of reforming the Security Council. At the same time, a full-fledged reform process need not be concluded for imaginative diplomacy to confront inefficiency and paralysis. Diplomatic resourcefulness can be a powerful tool in overcoming obstruction. The negotiation of the TPNW stands as an example of how civil society can work effectively with governments to achieve substantive results. Boutros-Ghali’s intellectual independence and his commitment to the democratization of international relations will continue to inspire those who see the United Nations as a vector for advancing human civilization.
Respect by all for international law is an indispensable feature of a new Agenda for Peace and Development. Preserving the essential elements of multilateralism, while promoting necessary reforms, is the path towards the promotion of sustainable development and peace. Upholding democratic principles at home and abroad should be our shared guiding utopia.
Antonio Patriota is a Brazilian diplomat and academic. He is Ambassador of Brazil to the United Kingdom. Among many different positions he has been Minister of Foreign Affairs, Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador of Brazil to the United States, Italy and Egypt, and Permanent Representative of Brazil to the United Nations.
This article summarizes an essay published by the author in the The Cairo Review of Global Affairs: Democratizing International Relations (Fall 2022/Winter 2023). Available at: www.thecairoreview.com/essays/democratizing-international-relations
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 Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races (2022).
 High-Level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism (HLAB) (2023). A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future. New York: United Nations University.
 The author has been a rapporteur in the group since 2022.
 Woods, Ngaire. 2022. “What the Might Miss: the Blind Spots of Power”. Foreign Affairs.July/August 2022. www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russian-federation/2022-06-21/what-mighty-miss