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The United Nations and the North-South Partnership: Connecting the Past to the Future

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 October 2020


As part of the special issue on “The United Nations at Seventy-Five: Looking Back to Look Forward,” this essay connects the past of the United Nations to its future from the perspective of the Global South. When the UN was created, most developing countries were colonies that played no role in writing the rules and designing the architecture of the post-1945 UN-centric global multilateral order. Today, countries in the Global South command a majority of the UN membership, but still mostly function as norm takers and are severely underrepresented in the UN Security Council—which functions as the geopolitical cockpit—and also in the senior ranks of the UN system, in the key posts in the Secretariat, and in the UN's funds and agencies. Gradually, however, these countries are using their numerical strength to give voice to their distinctive preferences, priorities, and values. This essay provides a broad-brush sketch of the changing nature of the North-South partnership on the UN's four overarching normative mandates of security, development, environment, and human rights. It includes a brief comment on the coronavirus pandemic within the framework of its main narrative of the continuing need for a UN-centric North-South partnership.

The United Nations at Seventy-Five: Looking Back to Look Forward
Copyright © 2020 Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs

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2 In this essay, the former Soviet Union is considered to have been a part of the Global North, while post-Soviet Russia is considered to be among neither the Global North nor the Global South.

3 For resources on UN membership, including the data presented here, see “Growth in United Nations membership, 1945-present,” United Nations,; “United Nations Regional Groups of Member States,” United Nations,; “Member States,” United Nations, A variety of special cases make these geographic groupings quite complicated. Among others, these cases include the following: Cyprus, an EU member state, is neither a member of the WEO group or the Eastern European group and is instead a member of the Asia and the Pacific group; Israel is geographically in Asia, but is a member of the WEO group; Kiribati (geographically in Oceania) has never been elected to be a member of any regional group, despite other Oceania nations belonging to the Asia and the Pacific group; The Holy See participates in the WEO group as an observer only; The Palestine Liberation Organization participates in the Asia and the Pacific group as an observer; Turkey participates fully in both WEO and Asia and the Pacific groups, but for electoral purposes is considered a member of WEO only; The United States voluntarily chooses not to be a member of any group, and attends meetings of the WEO group as an observer only, but it is considered to be a member of WEO for putting forward candidates for UN electoral purposes.

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7 Narendra Modi, “The Rich World Must Take Greater Responsibility for Climate Change,” Financial Times, November 29, 2015,

8 Weiss, Thomas G. and Hubert, Don, The Responsibility to Protect: Research, Bibliography, and Background, supplementary volume to The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001), pp. 162, 357Google Scholar.

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12 Kofi A. Annan, “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All; Report of the Secretary-General,” A/59/2005, March 21, 2005,

13 Stéphanie Fillion, “China Flexes Its Economic Might More Openly on Uighurs Issue,” PassBlue, November 17, 2019,

14 Deepak Nayyar, “Let There Be Light: Long-Term Lockdowns Are Not the Answer to the Virus,” OPEN, May 15, 2020,

15 “Coronavirus: WHO Advises to Wear Masks in Public Areas,” BBC News, June 6, 2020,