Norms back in the spotlight

At the heart of Europe’s centre for international governance, the Foundation organised a conference on the UN’s normative role in an ever more complex world.


It is a new year and many of us have reawakened to a changing world. One that many of us are uneasy with, where nationalism, populism and protectionism are challenging the norms that have guided the international community for decades. Basic norms such as human rights and international humanitarian law, established in the United Nations Charter more than seventy years ago, are disregarded at all levels, from the local to the international.

“At a time of increased empowerment of the individual and a more general fragmentation of power at a global level, many agreed norms and rules are being challenged,” said Michael Møller, Director-General of the United Nations Office at Geneva, when speaking at a conference organised by the Foundation just before the end of the year. “Norms need to be flexible enough to accommodate change while being strong enough to persist in spite of challenges. This is a delicate balance.”

How the UN can strike this balance and strengthen its normative role in a changing global climate was debated during the recent conference in Geneva. Organised together with the Graduate Institute of Geneva, the conference brought together well over hundred participants from the UN system, Member States, academia, civil society and the private sector, and it examined the UN system’s normative work, specifically in view of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Leaving no one behind

Panellists present emphasised that the new UN leadership needs to embrace a powerful norms narrative. Globalisation is a process which is seen as having big winners but also big losers. Norms provide a framework for an inclusive globalisation and are not the playpen for the rich rigging the system. Norms help leave no one behind.

“We cannot underestimate the role of normative work if we are to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals,” noted Gilbert Houngbo, Deputy Director General at the International Labour Organization.

Nikhil Seth, (UNITAR)This was reinforced by Nikhil Seth, Executive Director at UN Institute for Training and Research, who stressed that there has been enough emphasis on developing norms and that the UN needs to focus on implementation and monitoring, as well as building national capacity to carry out Agenda 2030.

On the other hand, it was recognised that today’s existing norms are not only not being implemented but many of them are being contested, sometimes for the first time.

“Norms can be contested. They can decay and even be replaced. It is important that we articulate, defend, and maintain them,” said Thomas Biersteker, Director of Policy Research at The Graduate Institute. He also underscored that a changing world needs its norms (rules of the game) to be adjusted and adapted and that presents major challenges.

Meanwhile,  Gilles Carbonnier, Professor of Development Economics at the Graduate Institute of Geneva highlighted that in a time when fundamental UN norms are increasingly being challenged and violated, the unanimous adoption of Agenda 2030 provides a “vision for the future of collective action and a common framework for state and non-state actors”.

While it was noted that no SDG target fell below already agreed upon norms and many went beyond existing soft law, one important gain of the Agenda was not norms-creation, but bringing norms together under one comprehensive development framework.

Re-thinking how the UN operates

The conference also looked at whether the UN is equipped for strengthening its normative role and to meet the demands of Agenda 2030. In this regard the current split between normative and operational work and the way the UN organises itself, as well as the lack of agreed definitions and credible data on normative activities in the system was identified as problems that need to be addressed.

Virginia Cram-Martos, (UNECE)Virginia Cram-Martos, Director at the UN Economic Commission for Europe, also underscored the need for high-level and systematic inter-agency cooperation and coordination in the UN, such as the work of WHO and ILO on health, employment and economic growth. She also emphasised the challenge and opportunity in developing new methods for “knowledge management and improving solutions uptake” by sharing information across the UN system.

Bruce Jenks, senior advisor at the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, highlighted that financing normative work is a also critical challenge, and this challenge is linked to the lack of both definitions and data. Importance was attached to the issue of looking at the appropriate types of financing for normative activities.

What was commonly agreed by all panellists was that Geneva plays a unique role as a center for normative activities at the UN. As underscored by Møller, “…here in Geneva, we have a rich ecosystem full of positive examples that we must use to better to explain the direct and beneficial impact of crucial norms on every individual.”

This will in fact be decisive for the UN for we are now experiencing a defining moment for the future of multilateralism. The UN needs to seize this window of opportunity to not only prove the relevance of its norms but also validate its distinct role in their development and implementation.