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How to democratise the United Nations

About the author
Hanspeter Bigler is secretary-general of the Society for Threatened Peoples in Switzerland and Swiss representative of the Committee for a Democratic UN.

The United Nations summit this week has agreed a document that represents a series of compromises about the organisation’s future role and activities. But if the summit is truly going to establish the democratic legitimacy of the UN and enhance its role in world politics, one reform is urgently needed.

The UN is already a unique, worldwide institution, with 191 member-states and an extensive mandate to secure world peace, safeguard human rights and promote international solidarity. Its leading role in these areas, and its considerable degree of democratic legitimacy, make it an important institution in the implementation of international rules, particularly as economic globalisation increases and the role of transnational corporations grows.

But the democratic legitimacy of the UN is limited. While an increasing number of political issues that affect citizens all over the world are decided on an international level, and global political structures are taking shape to reflect this, the UN is held back by its reliance on nation-states. Since nation-states – the UN’s building blocks – are represented at the UN by their governments, national governments have become the key international decision-makers. And whereas these governments are subject to parliamentary control at home, there is a deficit of democratic accountability at the international level.

openDemocracy writers assess the issues surrounding the UN’s sixtieth anniversary summit in New York:

Dan Plesch, “The United Nations in Bush’s firing-line”

Daniele Archibugi & Raffaele Marchetti, “What to do with the United Nations?”

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Lack of transparency in the decision-making process deepens this democracy deficit. As long as decisions affecting the world population are treated as secret diplomacy by national governments and made behind closed doors, citizens will reject them. The United Nations requires citizens’ acceptance for its policies as a basic and important condition for its legitimacy.

Furthermore, reform is needed for the problem-solving capacity of the UN. At present, national governments, acting primarily according to national interests rather than prioritising common welfare, deadlock decision-making processes.

A parliamentary assembly at the UN (Unpa) could solve the problems of democracy deficit, lack of transparency, low acceptance, and decision-deadlock.

The election of such a parliament would do three things:

  • promote direct participation and representation of civil society
  • establish transparent processes and structures of negotiation and decision-making
  • enhance the overall acceptance and legitimacy of the United Nations

The delegates of a future parliamentary assembly would, moreover, be grouped into international parties following a common political ideology rather than being subject to national concerns. This would improve the problem-solving capacity of the UN, as strategies and resolutions would be based on common global interests, thus avoiding the paralysing effect of state interests.

A democratic future?

It is essential to improve the integration of the global population into decision-making, and the creation of a parliamentary assembly can achieve this. But to implement future reforms, any strategy must answer the needs of the system today. Since national governments occupy a dominant position in today’s UN system, calls for reform should primarily be addressed to them – it is only with their consent that any reform can be realised.

Direct lobbying would, of course, be the most efficient method for gaining the support of national governments. However, increased democratisation of international politics would diminish the current national governments’ sphere of influence. In this light, governments may be reluctant to support such a development. Therefore, we must cooperate with those bodies able to effectively lobby national governments, namely parliaments of the UN member-states.

National parliaments are the directly elected representatives of the people, so they hold the legitimation to form the core of a democratisation process of international politics. And members of parliaments have an interest to participate in both international politics and in the international networking of parliamentary work. Thus, to establish a parliamentary assembly at the UN, the Committee for a Democratic UN has made national parliaments the central element of its strategy.

The implementation would, ideally, be a four-phase process:

  • consent for these reforms is acquired from national parliaments
  • these parliaments seek to mount pressure on their respective governments
  • national governments define and pursue their points of view within UN bodies
  • the UN adopts and implements the demand

Seeds of success?

At the moment, efforts are still in the first phase. A first outstanding acknowledgement of the call for a UN parliamentary assembly has been achieved in Switzerland. On the initiative of the Society for Threatened Peoples, the organisation representing the Committee for a Democratic UN in Switzerland, an open letter was addressed in February 2005 to Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommending the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly. The letter was signed by 101 of the 200 members of the Swiss national council (one house of the Swiss parliament).

Also on the United Nations in openDemocracy, a series of articles on Kofi Annan’s high-level panel proposing reforms to lead the UN into the 21st century, and his own report:

Kofi Annan, “America, the United Nations and the world: a triple challenge” (June 2004)

Phyllis Bennis, “Reform or die: the United Nations as second superpower” (December 2004)

Pere Vilanova, “The good, the bad, and the unjust” (December 2004)

Johanna Mendelson Forman, “In Larger Freedom: Kofi Annan’s challenge” (March 2005)

Kofi Annan indicated that our initiative was “very much welcomed as it comes at a time when the United Nations is reflecting on how to reform itself and strengthen its cooperation with civil society.”

Developments elsewhere are also encouraging. The European Parliament adopted a resolution supporting the call for the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly in June 2005. As one of the first affirmative official decisions taken by a parliament on this issue, it is a groundbreaking success. Despite the fact that the European parliament is not a national institution, the influence of such a decision on parliaments and governments within the European Union would be remarkable.

Our strategy of lobbying various parliaments makes us hopeful of a breakthrough in the near future in attaining the support of a first national government. It is helpful that the Unpa proposal has been supported by two major international policy networks: the Socialist International and the Liberal International.

For the ultimate success of our project, however, two conditions are indispensable.

First, civil society as a whole should agree on a collective strategy and continue the political process together. European, American, African, Asian and Oceanic efforts must be coordinated and consolidated. It is only together that we can achieve our goal. The work of the Committee for a Democratic UN has so far focused mainly on Europe. But the focus is already widening.

Second, only a political process can achieve such reform. And this political process has begun. We have spent much time debating and analysing the development and structure of a future parliamentary or people’s assembly at the UN. Important groundwork has been done. We have concepts available for instituting a future parliamentary assembly at the UN. We know what we want to achieve. Now we must discuss how we want to achieve it – and decide. The time for reform has come.


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