International organizations are spaces of inequality. In forums such as the United Nations (UN) inequalities are documented and debated. They are negotiated, reproduced, contested, mitigated and sometimes transcended. Despite striking commonalities over time, inequalities are changeable and appear in different historical formations depending on the period in question. In the post-1945 era, international organizations have been among the most important settings in terms of bringing global inequalities—whether economic, social or geopolitical—to light.
As such a setting, the United Nations reveals many of the paradoxes that influence the debates on inequality. Inequalities are part of the structures of the United Nations while also addressed in its substantive work. Or, as the International Relations scholar Amitav Acharya
has argued, “The UN
system functions … as a symbol of both global solidarity and global injustice.”1
This seemingly paradoxical—but fair—observation points us towards not opting for either too idealistic or too cynical understandings of the UN’s historical role. Instead, it may allow for a more subtle approach to analysing how inequality is addressed as part of the dynamics of international organization and how multilateralism interacts with global political processes or transformations.
In his insightful book International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy
, Vincent Pouliot
argues that the practice of multilateral diplomacy does not only produce inequality in relations—reflected in political hierarchies—but that it also produces complex and contradictory social effects.2
The point is that while inequality in power relations exists, the outcomes of political processes are invariably more complex and not always predetermined by the inequalities in global governance. There is variation and political manoeuvring space for less-powerful actors to shape international politics which again make international organizations and multilateralism more interesting as subjects of historical study.
operates with an important distinction between the notion of “hierarchy” and the affiliated notion of “authority.”3
Hierarchy and authority can co-exist without one necessarily being subsumed by the other. Hierarchy stipulates one way of structuring power relations and stratification in the setting of international organizations. Authority draws on a more legitimate, socially acceptable form of stratification where in the multilateral domain alternative leaders can emerge in setting agendas, shaping discourse and securing political outcomes. This is what happened in the example of the UN’s
early work on discrimination which is featured in this chapter. Tackling discrimination at the UN
represented a form of global inequality politics and, as such, affected state’s political interests. However, the highest-placed actors in the political hierarchy—based on their military power and reflected in the privileged position as veto powers in the UN Security Council
—could not so easily dictate how this body of work evolved, how it came to shape the international organization that the UN
was and how it influenced external developments. These processes determined outcomes and they shaped the politics of inequality in ways that help us understand its broader history.
In terms of this broader history, it is worth noting that as a setting for international diplomacy and policymaking, the United Nations brings its own chronology to the histories of global inequality. It does not necessarily operate with the same temporality compared to trends in domestic policymaking, public debates or academic research regarding questions of inequality. This is clear both in recent times where the UN
had inequality on its global agenda before the 2008 financial crisis
and in the larger historical context from 1945 onwards.4
Focusing on the UN
challenges how we capture the dynamics of the broader history of debates and contestations over global inequality: When did these various debates emerge? What was the substance? What political dynamics defined them? Did they influence later developments?
This chapter presents two examples of inequality politics at the UN during the 1950s. They are illuminating for the international politics of the era. However, they have also been chosen because they proved—in their own discreet ways as is often the case with the international organization setting—to be formative for significant larger international debates in the ensuing decades. These debates include the questions of racial discrimination or defining international development policy in the 1960s and the New International Economic Order debates in the 1970s.
The chapter shows how non-discrimination arose as an aspirational framing for something that in reality addressed entrenched and persistent social and economic inequalities around the world. Debates on non-discrimination and human rights therefore generated strong political resistance and led to a contestation over this part of the UN’s mandate soon after its creation. The story about the efforts to secure non-discrimination as an international policy issue inside the UN is the first example covered here. The second example follows how inequality can be made visible and invisible through the institutional procedures at the UN. The focus here is on how the UN worked with the question of standards of living on an international scale and looks at the development of a global report of the “world social situation” and the parameters that came to define this significant analytical endeavour during the 1950s. Inequality was prominently featured in the UN’s initial exploration of the social in the global domain in the early 1950s only to mysteriously disappear as a featured concept later in the decade.
Discrimination as a United Nations Policy Mandate, 1948–1957
In a 1955 article in the journal International Conciliation
entitled “The Quest for Equality,” Danish Law Professor Max Sørensen
One of the most powerful political ideas of our time is undoubtedly the principle of equality. In one way or another, most political and social movements which have shaped contemporary society have tended to break down privileges and inequalities.5
At the time of writing this piece, which was a detailed exploration of the evolving international efforts to prevent discrimination, Sørensen
found himself at the centre of a political battle over tackling the multitude forms of discrimination existing around the world in the context of post-1945 international organization. It was a battle involving some of the strongest powers shaping international diplomacy.
The contestation was over whether the United Nations should focus on preventing discrimination as part of its international efforts. Sørensen
was serving as chairman of the UN
Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities
—an expert subcommittee to the UN Commission on Human Rights
. More international attention was being placed on the nature and problem of discrimination. It was also becoming more entrenched in certain parts of the world such as South Africa
where it was analysed as part of a systemic “politics of inequality.”6
What was being contested at this time was whether the international community had any role or responsibility in dealing with discrimination but it naturally spoke to much larger global political issues. As the Dutch scholar
Siep Stuurman has suggested, “notions of equality are always grafted upon pre-existent discourses of inequality.”7
This begs a reflection on what forms and focus the study of global inequality should take. The recent studies of global inequality have a strong emphasis on statistical-economic data and trends for many good reasons (see the Introduction to this book). However, inequality is more than a measurable human condition with observable trends over time. It is also a form of politics that finds its expressions in various ways in policymaking processes and domains. In the attempt to historicize the trajectories that have shaped global inequalities, we need to consider a broader variety of themes, of sources and evidence and historical processes that can shed light on these inequalities. In what way does, for instance, historicizing discrimination fit in here?8
Principles of non-discrimination form part of the UN Charter from 1945—the foundational document for the new post-war international organization. Fol...