Global Policy Forum

Charting New Ways of Participation:

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By Vincente Garcia-Delgado

CIVICUS
February 22, 2006

The United Nations has reach its most critical moment since the end of the Cold War. Unimaginable new global challenges, from terrorism to climate change and from global diseases, conflicts and catastrophes to economic and social gaps, are advancing at stunning speed, seemingly out of control.


The entire UN system is stretched to the limit and profound reforms are needed to make it substantially more functional and more effective. But while the lofty principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights continue to be paid plenty of lip service, governments still find it hard to place the interests of the Commons ahead of narrow national interests. A real effort to strengthen the United Nations through meaningful reform seems unlikely in the current historical circumstances.

Now, fifteen years of hard work by civil society to secure more meaningful citizen participation at the UN is placed at risk. According to a recent Dialogue on Globalization paper published jointly by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Global Policy Forum (www.fes.de/globalization), "consultative arrangements between the UN and NGOs, in 1996, to reform NGOs' formal opportunities for participation, have been unsuccessful. The recommendations made by the Cardoso-Panel on the future of UN-civil society relations played no apparent part in debates on UN reform in 2005. Instead, governments sent out the opposite signal during the Millennium+5 Summit preparatory process. In contrast to their practice at the UN Conferences of the 1990s, or the (Economic and Social Council) ECOSOC meetings and the meetings of its functional Commissions, in 2005 governments largely excluded NGOs both from the preparation of the Summit and from the Summit itself." (Martens, J: The Future of NGO Participation at the United Nations after the 2005 World Summit.) -
http://fes.globalization.think-visually.de/documents/global_governance/attachments/051227_01_Berl.pdf.

With the overwhelming amount of pressing global crises thrust upon UN Member States at present, citizen participation is not high on anybody's agenda. More so than ever before, decisions affecting millions or even billions of people are made behind closed doors by representatives of governments, thus only indirectly representing their citizens. And thus the political will to implement solemn global commitments remains largely absent.

In this context, the question arises whether an eventual UN Parliamentary Assembly would serve to democratise and strengthen the United Nations while effectively enhancing civil society and citizen participation at the UN. The Committee for a Democratic UN (KDUN), a non-governmental organization founded in 2004 by a group of eminent persons from politics, society and science, thinks it would (www.uno-komitee.de).

Parliamentarian involvement at the UN is not new. The Inter-Parliamentary Union www.ipu.org/, established in 1889, received official observer status at the UN General Assembly in November 2002. KDUN's idea goes further, however: while the IPU is "an international organisation of the Parliaments of sovereign States", KDUN envisages the establishment of a "UN Parliamentary Assembly" proper.

In a September 2005 paper entitled Developing International Democracy - For a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations (www.uno-komitee.de/en/documents/unpa-paper.pdf), Andreas Bummel, KDUN's Chair and the German member of the World Federalist Movement Council, outlines a gradual approach by way of which the UN Parliamentary Assembly would in an initial stage be limited to consultative status complementing the UN General Assembly (no amendment of the UN Charter would be required at this stage). This initial stage could be achieved by way of a cooperation agreement with the General Assembly in tandem with the IPU, or the creation of a subsidiary UN body. This would, the author suggests, make a "crucial link between the UN, the organisations of the UN System, the governments, national parliaments and civil society". Further, such Assembly, "as the voice of its citizens", would be "a manifestation and vehicle of a changed consciousness and understanding of international politics."

Initially composed of national parliamentarians, the Assembly would be provided gradually "with genuine rights of information, participation and control vis í  vie the UN and the organisations of the UN System." A UN Parliamentary Assembly vested with such rights was called for by the European Parliament in the summer of 2005. KDUN envisages that, in a later stage, the Assembly may be directly elected by the peoples of the world.

These are large words indeed; a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly elected by the peoples of the world? Imagine for a moment the potential for democratisation and strengthening of the United Nations through a transparent and democratic collaboration between such an Assembly, the world's citizens and civil society organisations! The Assembly's influence in the work of the United Nations, particularly in the latter stage, would be formidable, and civil society's influence should likely increase proportionately. Such a scenario could bring about the UN's most urgent reform: a change of consciousness where existing and emerging global challenges are no longer denied nor ignored; a change of consciousness where the interests of the Commons are universally seen to coincide with the national interests.

At first glance this seems a mission impossible. Member States and the UN itself are immersed in a myriad pressing issues at a time when "reform" tops the UN's internal agenda. With an unexpected backlash against civil society in the offing (despite the good efforts of the UN General Assembly President, Jan Eliasson, to reverse the trend), citizen participation at the UN is diminishing quickly. It would be safe to assume that Member States as a whole are not in the mood to consider a Parliamentary Assembly at this time.

National governments at the UN are watching, presumably with some concern, the swift global changes enveloping them. The lack of leadership and the impression that there is no clear way forward add to the sense of uncertainty. Rich and poor countries alike are living on an edge; an economic, social and ecological edge; on an edge concerning their own security. Thus contradictions exist between the High Principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the sad reality of Member States vying for position to advance short-term national interests at the expense of Humanity's future generations.

But as the challenges facing our civilizations turn more global and more complex, the good governance of the Commons becomes essential to the survival and well-being of billions of human beings, countless animal species and flora. We are the generation that can make the difference; and we just might do so. Humanity owes it to itself and to its future generations to find creative ways to get us out of this mess.

Any solution to this quagmire must have the support of the citizens of the world to be successful. Citizens, individually and through their local, national, regional and global civil society organisations, must be involved in the project of identifying, adopting and implementing viable solutions; from their initial planning stages to their fruition and implementation. Nothing else will work. Only more democracy, more transparency, more accountability and active and meaningful citizen participation can make our dysfunctional 19th century system adjust gracefully to the realities of the 21st century. Less democracy, less transparency, less accountability or citizen participation can only bring more trouble and more chaos.

Everyone benefits from more democracy, be it citizens, local and national governments, civil society, business, or international institutions, including - indeed, particularly - the United Nations. Major world events in the next few years may finally put in plain view the unequivocal global need for immediate, concrete advances in global governance and a true Reform of the United Nations. A sudden, global "change of consciousness" could influence many Member States to favour profound UN-reform ideas such as the establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would of necessity make the United Nations more democratic. It would provide the UN with renewed legitimacy, and it may also help bring civil society and all citizens closer to the UN.

In solidarity,

Vicente Garcí­a-Delgado, CIVICUS´ UN Representative


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