From sovereign equality to Our Common Agenda

As an inter-governmental organization, the United Nations is premised on the idea of the sovereign territorial state. This stems from the assumption that the territorial state and its institutions constitute the best possible way in which legal authority can legitimately be exercised over people. One of the UN’s main activities throughout its history has been state-building in various forms. At the same time, the UN challenges the territorial sovereign state, as it promotes international norms that ought to apply domestically, and through law-making that involves many actors beyond states. The Secretary-General’s recent report on “Our Common Agenda” suggests at least implicitly two alternative sources of legitimacy: common goods and future generations’ rights. I examine why the territorial state has long been viewed as the locus of law’s legitimate authority and link recent theoretical debates on authority beyond the state to current reform efforts at the UN emphasizing common goods.