Time to Relocate the UN Agencies Globally

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

The location of an international organization is a matter of high political and diplomatic significance. There has always been a great competition to secure the hosting of the headquarter of major international institutions. In this regards, the United Nations and its Agencies have always been a target of particular ambition for many countries given the centrality of the UN in international affairs.

Ultimately, the decision on where to locate international institutions has usually been taken on the ground of power politics through sophisticated diplomatic negotiations. Standard realist theory holds that countries establish their status of great power typically by winning a war and subsequently creating a new institution to crystalize their positional supremacy. By “inviting”  the other countries (both the allies and the defeated nations) to accept the membership of the organization, the great power minimize the cost of political control by spreading the mechanisms of regulation through legal procedures. By being the legislator of the new (often discriminatory) norms (classic example is the veto power of the Security Council of the United Nations), the great powers gain an extraordinary advantage vis a vis the other following countries.

The western powers (with this I mean namely the US and the European countries) have secured the hosting of almost all major international institutions created during the XX century, especially after WWII. The XX century allocation of international institutions to the west mirrored perfunctorily its political dominance at the international level. The other major bloc of power, i.e. the one linked to the URSS, was unable for different reasons to secure any major headquarter. A case of its own has been the decision to place international institutions in third, neutral countries such as Switzerland (at the geographical center of the West, anyway). In a way, the fact that all major international institutions were in the west in a world dominated by the west was perceived by many (in the west, at least) as natural.

Today the situation is very different. We live in a world that is changing very rapidly. The once western-centered world is becoming more and more a world in which power is diffused. Non only the so-called emerging powers are gaining centrality, but also a plethora of non-state actors from multinational corporations to non-governmental organizations are increasingly playing a relevant role in the international public policy dynamics. While many crucial decisions are still in Western hands, we are witnessing a progressive relocation of decision-making power to the other areas of the world, especially to Asia.

In a de-westernizing context such as the present, having all major institutions located exclusively in the west is perceived as something anchored to a past era, as something that is increasingly unreflective of the present political and economic circumstances, and it is thus both illegitimate and inefficient.

Having major institutions in one single area of the world is illegitimate insofar as not only the representation within the international institutions, but also the location itself should be fairly distributed globally in order to allow for the maximum degree of inclusiveness and sense of ownership. Only by having international institutions present in all major areas of the world can a genuine feeling of attachment and loyalty be nurtured in a sustainable way for the future to come.

At the same time, having all institutions in one single area is arguably also inefficient insofar as their capacity to attract support remain limited both in political and financial terms. Take the case of Switzerland. Genève hosts an high number of international institutions, both UN affiliated and independent. Due to the high number, the Swiss government and the City Council are unable to offer much financial support (the truth is actually that international institutions often need to pay high rental prices for their real estate). Moving any of those institutions to another country would allow for an immediate and substantial support from the local government, that is expectedly eager to accrue the prestige of hosting an international institution.

Signs of increase discontent with the situations are growing. As recently as last May, Qatari Government officially submitted a bid to relocate the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to his country in 2016, offering generous financial incentives. ICAO headquarter is in Montreal since its inception in 1947, but now there is growing coalition of Arab countries advocating for its relocation to the Middle East. Qatar rallied to put together those 115 votes that are necessary for moving the headquarter, but eventually failed and dropped (at least for the moment) the bid.

Had Qatar succeeded, this would have set an important precedent that might have threatened the countries currently hosting the headquarters of the major international institutions. But even in the case of failure, as it indeed happened, the simple attempt to raise the issue is going to have anyway long lasting consequence: as a minimum, this political competition for securing the headquarters of international organizations is likely to generate an improvement in the political and financial support that host governments presently provide to the institutions located in their countries.

Time has come for a fairer distribution of the headquarters of the major international institutions. The first step should involve the UN agencies, since the UN is the central organization in international affairs. Its quasi universal membership makes the UN the primary object of concerns in terms of location justice. A fairer re-distribution of current UN agencies should be implemented as well as a decision to place new would-be UN agencies in countries outside the west.