LSE: New survey finds public support for increasing UN authority over member states

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There is widespread public support for increasing, or at least maintaining, United Nations (UN) authority over member states and for making its structures more directly representative of member state citizens.

These are some of the key findings from a new survey designed to gauge public opinion on UN reform proposals, led by academics at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the University of Oxford, Lund University (Sweden), and Griffith University (Australia).

With the UN facing long-standing calls for structural and procedural reform and with the UN General Assembly due to discuss the reform of its institutions at its next plenary session on 13-27 September, this is a pressing issue.

UN Secretary-General Guterres recently called the upcoming session “a moment of transformation” and Ukrainian President Zelensky called on member states “to do everything in our power to pass on to the next generations an effective UN with the ability to respond preventively to security challenges and thus guarantee peace.”

To gather public views on UN reform, the researchers conducted an international survey in six countries, representative of the general populations in terms of age, gender, and region.

Respondents in Argentina, China, India, Russia, Spain, and the United States were asked to choose between different combinations of UN design features including decision procedures, the bindingness of decisions, enforcement capabilities, and sources of revenue. Survey options included design features expanding powers, limiting them, and maintaining the status quo.

Overall, the researchers found that respondents supported strengthening or maintaining the current authority level of the UN, and making its structures more representative of the world population.

For example, at the moment, UN decisions are binding on every UN member state only on matters of international peace and security. The survey showed respondents were supportive of making decisions binding on more areas including important security, environmental, and economic matters. In contrast, the option of making decisions binding only on those states that voluntarily accept them was the most unpopular proposal across all survey countries.

On the issue of delegates, the researchers posed two reform proposals: a second chamber composed of directly elected representatives and one composed of national parliamentarians. Both proposals were received more positively by the public than the status quo where the highest decision-making bodies of the UN include only representatives from national executives. However, people clearly preferred a second chamber with directly elected representatives to one with national parliamentarians.

The researchers found diverging views on reforms to be associated with home country characteristics such as membership status in the Security Council and personal political values such as cultural libertarianism versus traditionalism.

In the paper, the researchers note: “Often the most popular option is not the one represented by the current UN.” On the whole, they find public opinion to lean toward the positions of those reformers who have advocated for the UN and related global institutions to move closer to supernationalist and cosmopolitan ideals.

They add: “Our findings are consistent with recent research that highlights the importance of institutional design features to public perceptions of the legitimacy of international institutions.”

Commenting on the findings, paper co-author Dr Mathias Koenig-Archibugi from LSE said: “Publics around the world are often portrayed as hostile to international institutions and keen to loosen constraints on national leaders. Our survey disproves that perception. Far from supporting attempts to weaken and undermine the UN, they want this global organisation to have more power to address today’s security, environmental, and economic challenges. But they also want to choose who represents them at the centre of the UN rather than relying entirely on their governments for that.”

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