The United Nations is the main hub for global multilateralism. With 192 member states, its membership is almost universal. Under its roof, major global issues are negotiated that concern the future of humanity. The international response to the global financial crisis together with the failure of the UN's Conference on Climate Change last month in Copenhagen, have however brought a fundamental flaw in the organisation to the surface.
The growing economic importance of India, China and other emerging economies has triggered a shift of power in the world order. The Group of Eight, (G8), originally established in 1975 as a forum of the six richest countries in the world, is no longer a viable platform to coordinate global policy. However, it isn't the UN which has taken over. Rather, the heads of states and governments of the largest industrialised and emerging economies in the world met in the framework of the G-20 summits in Washington D.C., London and Pittsburgh in order to thrash out a coordinated response to the global financial crisis. Martin Khor, Director of South Centre, a joint think tank of 51 developing countries, was quick to dub the G-20's exclusive nature "undemocratic". Non-governmental organisations pointed out that poorer developing countries are the main victims of the financial crisis and yet they are being excluded from the major political debate on coping with the crisis.
The United Nations played a distinctly secondary role in the consultations on the financial crisis. Although talked up as "G192", the UN Conference on the World Financial Crisis in New York that was convened by Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann as President of the General Assembly had almost no importance.
Of course, it is conventional wisdom that the UN is equipped with extraordinary legitimacy because of its almost universal membership. As the formula goes, the democratic character of the UN is signified by the fact that all states are on equal footing in the UN's General Assembly, no matter how large or small, from China with 1.3 billion inhabitants to Tuvalu with only about 12,000.
Yet, on closer inspection, the situation appears to be rather different.
Most countries are tiny dwarfs with regard to population size and economic power. Mathematically it is possible that the 128 smallest countries are able to achieve a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly although they only represent 8.4 percent of the world's population and only 11.3 percent of the world's combined gross domestic product. The one hundred smallest countries that mathematically are able to take majority decisions represent as few as 3.9 percent of the world's population or 6.4 of global gross national product.
Are such unrepresentative decisions democratic? Should the countries of the Group of Twenty really accept a subordinate role in such a system? The G-20 represent about two thirds of the world population and almost 90 percent of the global gross domestic product. In the General Assembly they could always be outvoted. In consequence, as Geoffrey McNicoll put it, powerful states "shrug off Lilliputian efforts to trammel them and conduct their business elsewhere."
According to Mark Malloch Brown who previously served as UN deputy Secretary-General, Chef de Cabinet to the Secretary-General, and for six years as administrator of the UN Development Programme, "the intergovernmental gridlock between the big contributors and the rest of the membership concerning governance and voting is the core dysfunction." The derailment of the Climate Conference in Copenhagen was due to a whole set of factors. But this central dysfunction within the UN system was one reason for the tragedy.
As the plenary was not ready to accept the compromise negotiated by a group of finally five countries, the document was merely "taken note of". Some small countries threatened to veto any decision. The fact that the developing countries organized in the Group of 77 chose the representative of Sudan of all people to speak for them, also undermined the credibility of their criticism of the negotiated draft. The International Criminal Court that has 110 member states, has issued a warrant of arrest against Sudan's President Omar Al-Bashir for his responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the region of Darfur. If Al-Bashir had travelled to Copenhagen himself, he would have been met with handcuffs and transferred to The Hague. In face of its role in the genocide in Darfur, who could actually believe that the Sudanese government cares about the victims of the climate crisis? It seemed more like a deliberate provocation.
Be that as it may, the negotiations on a new framework for climate change mitigation may well now be removed away from the UN to a different forum, possibly to the G-20, whose members account for over 70 percent of the world's CO2 emissions.
This would be a short-sighted move on the part of the major industrial and emerging countries. Even though a degree of effective governance might be achievable in the fields of finance and climate policy, it would go along with a strategic weakening of global multilateralism in general. In other policy sectors such as combating terrorism, organized crime or international security, cooperation among states needs to be as broad as possible and the broadest possible participation eventually can only be managed in the framework of the UN. If small countries are excluded from certain major deliberations and decision-making procedures, this could well negatively impact on their eagerness to cooperate in other areas.
Considering the failure of Copenhagen, the Chair of the European Parliament's Environmental Committee, the German parliamentarian Jo Leinen noted that "a Parliamentary Assembly at UN level with parliamentary working methods linked with open discussion and majority votes could be helpful for the global decision-making process."
The proposal to add a parliamentary body to the UN General Assembly has gradually acquired some important supporters from all over the world, among them former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, former Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Mike Moore, and former UNESCO director Federico Mayor Zaragoza. The European Parliament, the Pan-African Parliament and the Latin-American Parliament have all adopted resolutions, as have the Liberal International, the Socialist International and the Green's Global Congress.
Under such a system, governments would continue to be equally represented in the General Assembly. However, it could be required that decisions had to pass both bodies, the General Assembly and a UN Parliamentary Assembly, with certain qualified majorities in order to have effect. Such an interaction between the General Assembly and a parliamentary body would change the dynamics fundamentally. The number of seats allocated to each country in the parliamentary chamber could be based on criteria such as population size, economic power or other factors. The composition of the body would thus reflect the actual weight of countries in the world and could guarantee that decisions are democratic and legitimate. According to the models that we have examined at the Committee for a Democratic U.N., a majority of seats held by delegates who come from democratic countries could be assured in such a system.
Moreover, by contrast to government diplomats whose primary task it is to defend national interests, "World MPs" in principle would be free to represent the common welfare of humanity as a whole. This perspective, as Jo Leinen said, "was underrepresented in the negotiations in Copenhagen: but it was badly needed."
In conclusion, it isn't less democracy that will allow for more effective global governance. Quite the contrary.