The Politicization of United Nations Conferences and Institutional Change


Subject Matter

The increased presence of non-state actors in global politics, seeking access to international deliberations and interest accommodation, draws continuing attention to the role these actors now play in global governance. The effectiveness and democratic legitimacy of international institutions are increasingly called into question, but does the proximity and access of non-state actors to global forms of governance really constitute evidence for a transformation of the constitutive principles and practices of international political life?

This project places the more general concern with the dynamics of international institutions into the context of United Nations global conferences and summits. Recent UN conferences can be seen as models representing novel forms of interaction between states and non-state actors enabling them to better cope with the challenges inherent in an evermore global polity and economy. The 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, for example, is often referred to as a milestone in the participation of non-state actors as observers of the policy process and the diffusion of considerable speaking and submission rights. The enhanced role of these non-state actors is, however, not necessarily met with openness towards new views and perspectives on the part of state actors; indeed, and to the contrary, the tendency 05 also move from inclusion to exclusion at crucial stages of the policy process.

Analysis of the dynamics of international institutions in the context of UN conferences starts with tracing the historical development of non-state actor involvement. Evaluation of the extent and significance of their role in UN conferences is based on the assumption that history matters, but the path taken is vulnerable to change. The project therefore aims to identify the mechanisms for continuity of institutions and to reveal the conditions under which departure from the path is possible. Focusing on the ways in which state and non-state actors in UN conferences stick to those institutional rules and routines they cannot change, while attempting to harness others in novel ways or to establish new ones, the claim is that transformative change is possible despite partial or symbolic continuity of the path-dependent involvement of non-state actors.

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Program

The project is embedded in the TKI research unit’s commitment to understanding institutional change. It draws on the claim in the unit’s program that the increased relevance of international institutions to issues of global governance raises expectations of societal actors which are inevitably disappointed. In the face of politicization, institutional adaptation appears to be the only option. The project complements other work on path dependence and change in international governmental institutions.