The missing link of democratization

Boutros Boutros-Ghali
9 June 2009

Over the past decades, democracy has spread continuously throughout the world. Sixty years ago, after the Second World War, a third of the world population lived in countries with democratic systems of government. Until today, the number has almost doubled. International polls show that a large majority of people in all world regions consider democracy to be the best system of government. This gratifying development should not divert our attention from the structural crisis democracy is facing in the wake of globalization.

The challenges of our time are enormous. Problems which can only be solved effectively at the global level are multiplying. The requirement of political governance is increasingly extending beyond state borders. Climate change, environmental devastation, social disparity, terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, population growth and the growing shortage of fresh water and basic foods are just a few of the pressing issues. Yet, the current economic crisis is at the top of the agenda. The global economic slowdown and price disruptions magnify the impacts of the other problems. In this globalized world, no country or individual will be left untouched by its consequences.

The last time an economic crisis of such magnitude occurred, it led to the rise of dreadful anti-democratic trends and social upheaval. It contributed to the rise of fascism, the outbreak of the Second World War and genocide. During the current global economic crisis, we should not turn a blind eye to this lesson. Boutros Boutros-Ghali is President of the Egyptian National Council of Human Rights and former Secretary General of the United Nations (1992-1996)

Thus, while world leaders ponder governance reforms now, they must not lose sight of the importance of strengthening democracy. Measures to sustain the stability of the financial system and to absorb the immediate shocks of the crisis are, of course, in focus. However, the crisis should also be used as an opportunity to address a largely ignored aspect of democratization: Democracy within the state will diminish in importance if the process of democratization is not extended to the system of international governance as well. Applying democratic principles to international institutions must be an essential component of any reform of global governance. It was overdue to include the emerging powers from the South in major international deliberations as signified by the last G-20 meetings in Washington D.C. and London.

However, what I am referring to is not international democracy among states. The reform of the Security Council, for example, has kept legions of diplomats busy over the past decades. By contrast to this, however, a third dimension of democratization is almost completely neglected: Developing global democracy beyond states.

This project includes the task of giving the world's citizens a more direct say in global affairs. A direct link between global institutions and the people on the spot needs to be established. But how could such a project of global democratization be approached?

One indispensable means to this end is the establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly. A growing international movement advocating this goal has gained impressive political support over the last years. The endorsers of the proposal include the European Parliament, the Pan-African Parliament, the Latin American Parliament, the Senate of Argentina and over 700 members of parliament from around the world.

A United Nations Parliamentary Assembly - a global body of elected representatives - could invigorate our institutions of global governance with unprecedented democratic legitimacy, transparency, and accountability. Initially, the assembly could have a largely consultative function. Over time its authority and powers could evolve. It could be complementary to the UN General Assembly and its establishment, in the first step at least, would not require a cumbersome reform of the UN Charter. President Barack Obama recently stated that the absence of oversight is one of the major problems we are facing with regard to the international financial system. A global parliamentary assembly could play an important role in exercising genuine and independent oversight over the global system's array of institutions.

On the economic front, a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN could facilitate the alignment of the Washington-based Bretton Woods Institutions and the World Trade Organization with the policies of the UN, in particular the Millennium Development Goals. The assembly could monitor the impact of the policies of the international financial and economic institutions in fields such as sustainable development, food security, education, public health, human rights and the eradication of extreme poverty. 

Establishing a global parliamentary body, of course, is a complex matter. One of the most frequent arguments brought forward against the proposal asserts that such an assembly would be dominated by a majority of delegates from large countries, many of them undemocratic ones to boot. Due to the impressive expansion of democracy in the world, however, this is no longer true. Quite on the contrary, a UN Parliamentary Assembly could be a strong tool to support national democratization. After all, it would allow minorities and opposition forces to be represented.

Citizens expect a response to the financial crisis which goes beyond simply restoring the financial viability and profits of the banking and securities sectors. They want a system which is more responsive to the needs and concerns of ordinary people. What more meaningful way to facilitate this than by establishing a direct, democratic connection between the world's citizens and the world's governance through a global parliamentary assembly?

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