The role of regionalism in the restructuring of the United Nations

Author: Prof Anél Ferreira-Snyman
Professor, Department of Jurisprudence at the University of South Africa

One of the most pressing current international issues is the restructuring of the United Nations (UN). The changing international realities since its inception in 1945 have had a significant impact on the functioning and structure of the UN and reform of the international institution is therefore increasingly proposed and debated.

Included in these changing realities is the (renewed) process of regional integration in various parts of the world. States transfer certain aspects of their national sovereignty to regional organisations, as they realise that there are certain issues of common concern that they cannot address independently.


Globalisation and regionalism go hand in hand. Like globalisation, so-called new regionalism is a fairly recent development which rose to prominence in the mid-1980s in Europe and is slowly turning into a truly world-wide phenomenon. The continued process of regionalism seems inevitable: The compelling pressures of globalisation on the various regions of the world means that states will have to engage in a process of deepened regional cooperation or regionalisation in order to prevent the risk of marginalisation (see M Schültz, F Söderbaum & J Öjendal Regionalization in a globalizing world: A comparative study on forms, actors and processes (2001) 3; 263).

In its 2005 report the Commission on Global Governance also stressed that regional organisations should become an integral part of a more democratic system of global governance (see Our global neighbourhood: Report of the Commission on Global Governance (1995) chapters 1 and 4).

Regionalism and the UN

During the negotiations surrounding the drafting of the UN Charter, the struggle between universalist and regionalist sentiments was prominent. Although the Charter displays distinct universalist features, subsequent practice indicates that more weight has been given to regionalism by the UN than a plain reading of the Charter suggests. The composition, structure and decision-making processes of the UN display certain regionalist features. For example, the composition of the Security Council (SC) displays a regionalist character by allocating the ten non-permanent seats to specific regions. The current debate on the restructuring of the SC not only includes demands for a better representation of certain regions, but also suggestions that genuine permanent and non-permanent regional seats should be created (see C Schreuer ‘Regionalism v Universalism’ 1995 European Journal of International Law 478-480).

The role of regionalism in the restructuring of the UN

In order to restructure the UN, the underlying relationship between the nation state, regional organisations and international organisations needs to be clarified. Because issues that were previously exclusively entrusted to international institutions (and specifically to the UN) are also now within the mandate of related regional and even sub-regional organisations, a re-evaluation of current international structures is required in order to clarify the relationship between these institutions, as well as to accommodate the growing importance of regional organisations and the consequent diminishing role of the nation state.

Despite certain problems associated with regionalism, its advantages cannot be denied. The existence of some or other common denominator (for example, Pan-Africanism in the case of the African Union) is an inherent characteristic of all regional organisations. Experience has shown that decision-making on controversial issues is enhanced when only a limited number of states bound together by a common interest are involved, as opposed to a large number of states with divergent interests.

In employing regionalism within the restructuring of the UN, one’s point of departure should be that the disadvantages of regionalism can to a large extent be mitigated by retaining an international institution, while at the same time revisiting its composition. In this sense, both regionalism and universalism have an important role to play in the current world order. In view of the growing importance of regional organisations, it is suggested that serious consideration be given to eventually restructuring the UN as an international organisation consisting of “sovereign” regional organisations. States invested with the basic aspects of sovereignty will then enjoy representation on the regional level only, as it is at this level where their interests can best be served. One may expect that on the international level issues of international concern will be more effectively and expediently decided upon by only a limited number of regional organisations. As part of the restructuring of the UN, consideration should also be given to the possibility to transform international courts into courts of appeal with the jurisdiction to hear appeals from regional courts.

An international discourse on the role of regionalism in the restructuring of the UN should take place. In this discussion aspects that will need clarification include issues such as the future of the nation state as the locus of sovereignty, the composition and functions of regional organisations, the requirements regional organisations must fulfil in order to qualify for representation in the proposed international institution and the functions and authority of the proposed international body.

About the Author:
Anél Ferreira-Snyman obtained the following degrees, all cum laude, at the former Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education (now the North-West University): B Juris in 1998, LLB in 2000 and LLM in 2001. In 2010 she was awarded the LLD degree at the University of Johannesburg. The title of her LLD thesis is “The erosion of state sovereignty in public international law: Towards a world law?”. She started her academic career as a locum tenens in the Law Faculty of the then Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education in 2001 and commenced with a full-time academic career in the Department of Jurisprudence at the University of South Africa in 2002, where she is currently a Professor. She is responsible for the module on the rights and duties of people living with HIV/AIDS in the LLM with Specialisation in Legal Aspects of HIV/AIDS. She also acts as supervisor for a number of LLM and LLD students. Her fields of research mainly include Public International Law, the African Union and Comparative Law and she has published a number of research articles and presented a number of lectures on subjects related to these research areas.

3 Comments on “The role of regionalism in the restructuring of the United Nations”

  1. Magnus Killander says:

    Apart from being unrealistic I’m wondering how states being represented at the United Nations by regional organisations would be more effective than the present system. States would still have to negotiate common positions within the regional organization that the representative of that organisation would then present there. Theoretically I can see the advantages in relation to negotiation capacity of small states with limited resources but in practice I don’t think it would make much difference.

  2. Gadsden Gurl says:

    What right does the UN have to govern over a sovereign nation such as the USA? NONE. REJECT THE UN, and one world government.

  3. Jambaye says:

    Preparing something for the New Shape Competition, will share

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