On the occasion of the International Day for Multilateralism on 24 April, a group of 100 civil society organisations has issued a joint statement calling for a more democratic UN. Signatories include organisations such as Avaaz, Greenpeace and Open Society Foundations as well as networks such as the Coalition for the UN We Need, Forus International, Together 2030 and Together First.
The campaign is spearheaded by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Democracy International and Democracy Without Borders. Under the header “We the Peoples,” a reference to the first words of the United Nations Charter Preamble, the joint document is calling on the UN to implement three specific reforms aimed at giving people, elected representatives and civil society a stronger voice and more influence.
Three demands with “transformational potential”
The statement “for inclusive global governance” first calls for a World Citizens’ Initiative which enables citizens to put items on the agenda of the UN General Assembly or the UN Security Council if proposals reach a certain threshold of popular support.
Further, the campaign promotes the creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly composed of elected representatives to act as a watchdog and “connecting the people with the UN and reflecting a broad diversity of global viewpoints”.
Finally, the document recommends setting up a UN Civil Society Envoy “to champion the implementation of a broader strategy for opening up the UN to people’s participation and civil society voices”.
The document points out that the proposed changes “will enhance the legitimacy of global governance and facilitate its transformational potential”. According to Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, “these three initiatives have game-changing potential to overcome blockages in the UN system. If implemented in earnest they will enable the UN to respond more effectively and with greater inclusivity to global challenges such as discrimination, inequality, conflict and climate change,” she explained.
The Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders, Andreas Bummel, said that “strengthening and revitalizing multilateralism requires to allow for more input and participation beyond member states. This is what our three proposals will achieve.”
Input for the UN’s “common agenda”
A resolution adopted by the UN-General Assembly on the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 tasked UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to compile a report on furthering a “common agenda” which includes upgrading the UN and boosting partnerships.
“It is of the utmost importance that we use this opportunity to make the UN fit-for-purpose. We are calling on UN Secretary-General Guterres to usher the UN into a new, more participatory era,” said Bruno Kaufmann, Board Member of Democracy International.
In 2020, the UN undertook a broad public consultation. According to the UN’s final report, a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a UN World Citizens’ Initiative were among the proposals most frequently mentioned by citizens in the field of renewing the UN.
On social media, the campaign is using the hashtag #WeThePeoples. The civil society statement remains open for endorsement on the website here.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune” so urges Brutus in telling Cassius to seize the day in Shakespeare’s “Julius Cesar.” Sun Tzu who in the “Art of War” states “opportunities multiply as they are seized” greatly influenced both Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh. These sentiments endure. Those whose endeavours prosper are those who see the opportunity for their cause and exploit it.
A history of global crises and opportunities
The One World Trust (OWT) has been seeking a better-governed world since its foundation, often seizing on the main issues of the time to explain why the current chaotic management of our common resources is not only inappropriate, but also dangerous for humanity and our delicate environment. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was the Cold War and the threat of nuclear weapons that could lead to annihilation: the first time in history that humanity had the power to destroy itself and our planet, couched in the chilling concept of Mutually Assured Destruction. (Arguably, this threat continues to increase today, despite not generating the same degree of mass concern.) Inequality, growing disparity between rich and poor (even if absolute poverty has been reduced), absence of access to meaningful education, clean water and sanitation and healthcare have been with us throughout that period and have captured global attention through the SDGs and other international processes. Just as the Geneva Conventions outlawed the previous impunity of belligerents in the treatment of opponents including their enslavement so the genocide and crimes against humanity first adjudicated at Nuremberg and Tokyo led finally to the creation of the International Criminal Court. WFM/IGP (of which OWT is a long-standing Member Organisation) played so vital a role in convening civil society in support of this by creating the Coalition for the International Criminal Court in the 1990s, some 2,500 NGOs worldwide, that academic lawyers have told me that without WFM/IGP there would not now be the ICC.
There is now a new imperative — the spread and impact of a deadly virus which has no respect for national borders, ethnicity or creed. Is the pandemic the catalyst to move to a better system — as has previously been stimulated in the aftermath of conflagration and massive bloodshed? Certainly, there is the common characteristic of the loss of life: the deaths from Covid-19 in the United States now exceed the losses of that country in the two world wars and Vietnam War combined. Will this be sufficient to prick the global conscience? How does a world whose both formal and informal governance mechanisms are based on the nation state (and especially the most powerful rather than the ones most in need) achieve a higher level of effective management to deal with transnational, global issues? The call by more than twenty world leaders and global agencies for an international treaty to deal with future pandemics may be an aspiration of hope over experience but, aided by civil society, it could become a reality. Should we seize the day?
Accountability as key
The consensus among like-minded non-profit organisations has been that we need transnational governance with accountability to the global commons: a form of federal structure (so misunderstood and misinterpreted by its opponents in certain countries like the United Kingdom where there is no tradition of this form of government but fully comprehended in existing federal states such as India and Germany). In a world dominated by nation-states (whose borders have often emanated historically from a legacy of territorial aggression, flawed treaty agreements and colonialism, which cut across linguistic, cultural and ethnic entities, and which cause so much current conflict and tension), the concepts of subsidiarity and greater local autonomy are important components for a more peaceful world. We have seen the success of the development of the European Union and the way in which the African Union has modelled itself on it, as well as many examples (some longstanding) of transnational parliamentary bodies which have enhanced regional solidarity. Many treaty-based groupings of states have their own parliamentary assemblies, both as a form of scrutiny and as catalysts for transnational debate: the Council of Europe and NATO are among the most prominent to act as guardians of human rights and collective security.
Therein lies the important aspect of any form of governance: accountability. All those with power must answer to a body representative of those on whose behalf they purport to act. Major bodies which have sprung up and which take globally significant decisions, such as the “Group of 7” (or “G7”) and “Group of 20” (or “G20”), and many other global governance bodies do not have that form of scrutiny.
The next step is up to us
We are privileged but also challenged at a time in history when there may be an opportunity greater than has occurred within a generation to take forward the goals of a better governed world. We have seen the imperative from the way in which a global pandemic has been handled and drugs distributed, the lack of public accountability of gatherings of global leaders in the G7 and G20, the continued abuse of minorities, and the climatic and environmental crises facing our planet — all matters that can only be dealt with at a supranational level. We should not forget that in the ashes of the Second World War, Churchill, Eisenhower, Einstein and others all called for a world government. We have come a significant way on the journey through the establishment of the ICC. Hopefully, more commitments on global environmental governance, at least, will emanate from the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) this autumn. Nevertheless, we have a long way to go. With the UK hosting COP26 and now, post Brexit, looking to find a new place in the world as “Global Britain” there is every opportunity for OWT to seek to influence our own Government in taking a lead on some of these measures. The present time may not be as cataclysmic as the aftermath of war, but it may well be the moment to seize the day.
We are sharing this blog post as a part of our collaboration with Democracy Without Borders, and the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly; the original blog post can be found here: https://www.democracywithoutborders.org/14813/un-parliamentary-assembly-discussed-at-global-governance-forum/
The creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly was discussed at the virtual UN75 Global Governance Forum that was held from 16-18 September 2020 on the occasion of the opening of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations (UN).
Organized by the Stimson Center in collaboration with more than thirty institutions dealing with UN affairs, the forum featured 26 thematic panels and the publication of a roadmap towards a “more effective and inclusive” world organization that highlights 20 multi-stakeholder partnerships and 20 “innovation proposals”.
Reforming and strengthening the UN
One of the innovation proposals included in the document is the creation of a UN Parliamentary Network that would “address the UN’s democracy and legitimacy deficits” as a step towards a full-fledged assembly.
This issue was explored by a forum panel convened by Democracy Without Borders (DWB) that brought together five members of parliament: Darren Bergman and Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi from South Africa, Domènec Devesa, Member of the European Parliament from Spain, Alhagie Mbow from the Gambia and Lilia Puig, Member of the Mercosur Parliament from Argentina.
The session, which was recorded and can be watched at YouTube above, was introduced and moderated by DWB’s Executive Director Andreas Bummel. Bummel highlighted a new study on a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) published by DWB just a few days ahead of the forum.
According to this study, a UN Parliamentary Assembly is needed to establish the necessary level of democratic legitimacy that would allow for a substantial strengthening of the UN. Bummel pointed out, that the assembly would also bring novel ideas to a stalling UN reform process while paving the way for the development of a global parliament, a long-term goal also flagged in the forum’s roadmap document.
“The best way to understand the UNPA proposal is to look at it not as a static model but as an institutionalized process that we would like to set into motion. We envision a UNPA to function as a catalyst for UN reform and to strengthen democracy and global governance over time”, he said.
Strengthening parliamentary influence
In the discussion, most of the panellists highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the vulnerability of national systems in handling global issues. In addition, Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi referred to “a very chaotic response” at the global level and noted that the pandemic has overwhelmed national authorities to such an extent that the UN’s sustainable development goals have been marginalized in political agendas.
Sharing a similar view, Lilia Puig asserted that the health crisis has brought about a tremendous reinforcement of national executives at the expense of national parliaments. She said that not only are other national issues being neglected but democratic institutions are suffering from increasing marginalization. It was argued that a UNPA could strengthen parliamentary influence at the level of global governance and help sustain the functionality of parliamentary institutions in a time of crisis.
Darren Bergman carried this argument further and said that in his assessment the public wants a global parliament “with teeth” that would be able to take effective action, for instance in the case of mass atrocities.
Making the UN more accountable
Most of the speakers touched on a gap that exists between the domestic impact of multilateral decisions and the poor accountability of the United Nations. “We have to move away from closed and secret meetings whereby citizens have no idea of what is happening with regard to decisions that are affecting them on a daily basis”, said Tarabella-Marchesi.
According to Bergman, there is “almost a political capture of the UN” which carries the risk of “biased reporting” through the UN. In his opinion a UNPA could play an oversight role looking at this issue. In addition, it was pointed out that UN action is often shaped by countries with financial clout such as the permanent members of the Security Council. A democratic chamber for the UN would instead facilitate accountability chains between the organization and global citizen representatives.
Getting support from national constituencies
As the moderator highlighted, the project of a UNPA has long been supported by regional parliaments such as the Mercosur Parliament, the Pan-African Parliament or the European Parliament. The panel discussed in how far these and other international parliamentary institutions also serve as models for a UNPA and whether there are lessons to be learned.
It was pointed out that one of the elements hampering the legitimacy of the Mercosur Parliament (Parlasur) derived from the absence of a clear-defined and exclusive mandate. Members of national parliaments would find it difficult to accept any kind of interference with regard to their own activities. The introduction of direct elections to the Parlasur thus was faced with delays and resistance as it would make the body more independent from national parliaments. “The most important thing is that a UNPA has its own jurisdiction and its own agenda”, said Lilia Puig.
Based on his experience as a member of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), Alhagie Mbow confirmed that in his view, the African Union’s parliamentary body – that is currently composed of members of national parliaments – indeed represents an example to draw upon. He confirmed that the African Union originally decided that the PAP should be directly elected and have legislative powers but that member states now fear that such an empowered PAP would diminish the leeway of national authorities. He said that an embryonic UN Parliamentary Network could be a first acceptable step of a progressive development leading to a formal UNPA as this would help build the necessary political will over time.
While acknowledging the need to build support from among national authorities, Darren Bergman said that a full-fledged UNPA would actually be more attractive and popular than a mere network. Speaking in favor of direct elections to a UNPA, he noted that he does not think that “national parliamentarians qualify as global politicians”.
Lessons from the European Parliament
It was highlighted that as a directly elected co-legislative body of the European Union (EU), the European Parliament was the most developed institution of this kind in the world. Domènec Devesa declared that “the European Parliament became what it is today not only because the institution itself fought very effectively to gain power and importance but also because of a kind of deterministic path”. He noted that the EU was “a supranational project from the beginning” and that “unfortunately this philosophy is absent from the UN charter”. He added that “it is not understood by the member states that they belong to an organization that has a potential to go beyond an intergovernmental organization”.
Devesa suggested that the example of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly should be explored more as this body was created by parliamentarians on their own initiative and over time was recognized by the NATO alliance. According to the EU parliamentarian, “we should grab any opportunity” to move closer to the objective of a UNPA, thus endorsing a step-by-step approach. “We should not worry about legislative powers right now”, he said.
In a comment for this blog, Andreas Bummel noted that the UN75 Global Governance Forum was a “resounding success”. “We congratulate the Stimson Center and all involved”, he said.
The forum’s plenary proceedings featured speakers such as Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Hina Jilani, Juan Manuel Santos and Danilo Türk.