Of Samoan and Pākehā heritage, Sinclair was born and raised in Papua New Guinea, where his father worked for the United Nations. Now, the Senior Lecturer in Law at Victoria University of Wellington has written To Reform the World: International Organisations and the Making of Modern States, in which he argues that over the past century, international organisations have been steadily expanding their powers far beyond their original remits in order to engage in nation building.
The book traces how organisations like the UN, the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation have taken on new functions without amending their founding charters.
“In the 1950s, the United Nations started to undertake armed peacekeeping missions,” Dr Sinclair says. “There’s nothing in the charter about that, and they never amended it. The first was the Suez Crisis in 1956. The peacekeepers were given guns, and essentially they stand along the line in the Suez between Israel and Egypt to keep the peace.
“The next, much bigger operation is in the Congo, 1960-64. Here, the UN really starts to do new things. It gets involved in all sorts of conflicts within the country. And it starts to get involved in peacebuilding and state-building activities — the way we see in the 1990s and 2000s in places such as Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Congo again.
“Taking on new powers over time is a widespread phenomenon among international organisations. On the face of it, a lawyer might say they’re reaching beyond their legal authority. But that’s not how these organisations operate. They carry on with the new power, and it eventually becomes seen as legitimate and lawful. This has to tell us something interesting about international law.”
Sinclair argues that the objective of these organisations in expanding their powers was to assist in the building of ‘modern’ nations. “International law and international relations experts tend to see international organisations as expanding at the expense of states, encroaching on sovereignty. But these organisations saw themselves, arguably accurately, as constructing statehood, constructing sovereignty — making states.”
At its founding in 1945, the UN had 50 member states; today there are 193. Sinclair says many of the states that have come into being since 1945 were “midwifed” by international organisations. “The World Bank, for example, saw its role as being to tutor these young states into maturity.”
The UN, says Sinclair, was a primary theatre for the struggle over decolonisation. “The UN wasn’t driving it — decolonisation was driven by people in those countries: independence movements and nationalism and so on. But these people used the UN. They saw it as a tool for decolonisation, a forum in which they could advance their goals, and a support in many ways. The UN produced vast technical assistance programmes, which were all about helping these new states to get on their feet — not always with success.”
Nevertheless, a major issue that concerns international lawyers today is the colonial origins of their discipline. “As international lawyers, we think international law is important — necessary to create a better world — but it has this dark side,” Sinclair says. “It grew out of imperial practices, relationships of colonial domination. Quite a lot of work now shows that that dynamic continues. International law continues to try to ‘civilise the savage’.”
In researching this project, Sinclair says he became fascinated with the personalities involved: the people within the organisations and the difficulties they found themselves in.
“They were trying their best in difficult circumstances, but sometimes doing things in a very paternalistic way. They carried this baggage with them, in terms of their attitudes towards Africa, for example.
“There’s an African-American in the UN mission in the Congo, Ralph Bunche. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering an armistice in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He’s an amazing guy, but even he is using these pejorative terms to describe the Congolese leaders. He’s very frustrated with what’s going on.
“Yet he, and many of these people, are impressive, sympathetic characters — they’re working incredibly hard to promote a more just world. It’s very hard to resolve the issue.”
As to whether these organisations will have the same level of influence in the 21st century as they did in the 20th, Sinclair says: “Everything’s a little bit uncertain, largely because of the United States election. The US still remains at the centre of everything — the current world order of international organisations is in many ways a creation of the US. They were the primary driver of the UN and the system of multilateral international organisations that were created after World War II. They remain the major funder of the UN.
“But the current President has suggested a lot of that could change. He’s cast doubt on the US role in NATO, he’s criticised the UN, he’s criticised the World Trade Organisation. It’s a very delicate time.
“The US has worked through these organisations because it benefits from them. It helps them exercise soft power in the world. So it remains to be seen if changing that is a good strategy for US self-interest. But they could definitely withdraw funding or they could act around these organisations the way George W Bush acted around the UN when he invaded Iraq. That would undermine these organisations and could make some big differences.”
Small countries like New Zealand rely on these organisations, Sinclair says. “New Zealand has a real interest in working within institutions. We don’t have a great deal of power ourselves. We don’t have a lot of money or a big military force. We’ve always tried to work through international organisations to achieve our goals. So if legal institutions are weakened, and the world becomes much more a matter of ‘might makes right’, we lose that influence.
“But even if that doesn’t happen, I think our support of international organisations should always be informed by an awareness of the dark and the light. That they’ve done a lot of good in the world — you could hardly imagine it without them. But they come with a dark side. We shouldn’t close our eyes to those either.”