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The UN conference process and the new themes of international cooperation for the 21st century

The UN called "conference process" the series of nine intergovernmental conferences it organized immediately after the fall of the Berlin wall, between 1990 and 1996. The goal of the process was to build a “new global consensus”.

In the course of the process, governments member-states of the UN (192), adopted common policies determining the new priorities, norms and values of international cooperation.

In six years’ time, the conferences covered the main themes of international cooperation:

  • Education
  • Children
  • Environment
  • Human rights
  • Population
  • Social development
  • Women
  • Housing
  • Food

These themes had remained marginal for governments during the cold war, then busy containing the threat of a nuclear war. After 1989, they imposed themselves as the central and priority themes of international cooperation for the post-cold war era.

The areas that were not the object of a conference, such as health, the business enterprise, global ethics or culture, were integrated in the corpus of the global consensus through the normative work of UN bodies between 1990 and 2000.

The new global consensus was conceived as a system: it claimed to be totally inclusive and to offer a new Weltanschauung, a new ethical synthesis, a new global architecture for the 21st century. In the mind of the consensus-builders, the components of the consensus were indissoluble and interdependent. It was not possible for them to separate one element from another or from the whole. The word “holistic” they used expresses the systemic aspect of the new consensus.

The conferences were conceived as a process, each one “building” on the “gains” (a word expressing the existence of a combat against cultural or ideological resistance) of the preceding conferences. Again and again in the course of the conference process, the UN and its partners repeated that everything was related to everything, that the conferences inscribed themselves in a continuum.

At the Millennium Summit (New-York, 2000), Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the UN, said that the new global consensus was “normative”: although not legally binding governments, the UN conferred to the “consensus” a morally binding character, in virtue of which it imposed itself with “authority” and has never been put into question.

The UN conferences of the 1990s were not isolated events, but belonged to a long-term program. Their implementation has been “monitored” by the UN and its partners five, then ten years after they took place. The goal was to firmly establish the consensus and its values in global governance and in regional, national and local institutions, to “imbibe” all cultures with the ethic of the new consensus.

The eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) formulated by the UN Secretariat in 2001 incorporate the objectives of the conference process. The reform of the UN currently underway is founded on the new normative framework that the “consensus” of these conferences established.

2015 is the “target-date” for the implementation of the MDGs and of many objectives of the conference process, particularly those of the Cairo conference on population.

© 2009 Marguerite A. Peeters
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