CREDIT: <a href="">Zack Lee</a> (<a href="">CC</a>).
CREDIT: Zack Lee (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: A United Nations Parliamentary Assembly Could Drive Global Innovation

Jul 28, 2008

Humanity is undergoing an unprecedented technological, social, and economic revolution, yet admidst these upheavals the global political order has hardly changed. In fact, its key features have hardly changed since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. It is an interstate system in which each sovereign entity is driven by its national interests. These interests are arbitrated with one another by diplomats, bilaterally or in the bodies of intergovernmental organizations such as the United Nations. The lowest common denominator mostly prevails. Short-term national advantages are pursued at the expense of global welfare and future generations.

As former British diplomat Carne Ross has recently described, diplomats are often detached from the ordinary citizens who are affected by their negotiations, sometimes possibly even from their own foreign ministry in the capital. International diplomacy is secretive, highly unaccountable, compartmentalized in different policy sectors, hardly accessible for outsiders, and based on the outdated idea that governments or even single diplomats are able to represent the totality of their country.

It is also increasingly obvious that governments alone are not able to cope with the global challenges, not even collectively. The Millennium Development Goals are only achievable by close cooperation with and mobilization of civil society at all levels. While governments and their diplomats certainly will continue to play the decisive role in international affairs, the governance of the world can no longer remain exclusively in their hands. "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," noted Vicente García-Delgado, UN representative of the NGO network CIVICUS.

Governments themselves more and more begin to sense this. The Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in June 2008 in London for example concluded that international institutions "must enjoy the legitimacy not only of their member states but also of the wider international community." Reform of international institutions shall "support a more democratic global society with greater equity and fairness."

Support for a UN Parliamentary Assembly grows

The time is ripe for the establishment of an elected body at the world level, a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA). After lingering for decades, the proposal now has more support than ever. Around 150 nongovernmental organizations and more than 500 members of parliament and many hundreds of further distinguished individuals from 120 countries have joined an international campaign launched in April 2007 to establish a UNPA.

Former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated that a UNPA "has become an indispensable step to achieve democratic control of globalization. Complementary to international democracy among states, which no less has to be developed, it would foster global democracy beyond states, giving the citizens a genuine voice in world affairs."

Giving elected representatives a voice

By contrast to intergovernmental bodies such as the UN General Assembly, where appointed diplomats pursue their business, a UNPA would be composed of elected representatives. The total number would probably be somewhere around 900. Population size is generally considered to be the main factor to determine the number per country. Direct proportional representation, however, would enable a few large countries to dominate the body and minimize its political outreach. Gradual adjustments thus would need to be negotiated. The debate on the redistribution of seats in the European Parliament provides important clues for this approach.

The delegates would be called upon to take a global view and to represent the world's citizens. Individuals and groups would be able to address them directly. Initially, the delegates would be members of national and regional parliaments. Their selection would have to reflect the political composition of the dispatching parliaments. A UNPA therefore would cover a broad political spectrum, particularly enabling members of opposition parties to be represented at the global level.

UNPA statutes would have to encourage independent voting among the delegates, and discourage home governments from influencing them. Many delegates from countries characterized by flawed democratic institutions or dictatorial systems, especially from ruling parties, would still be under direct, albeit covert, influence of their home government. The UNPA nevertheless should be open to all countries possessing a parliament. Attempts to control delegates could be mitigated by a provision that votes be secret.

Broad political classifications are not applicable here because they rarely reflect the political and institutional complexity of a country. For example, the Economist Index of Democracy rightfully ranks Zimbabwe's authoritarian regime among the least democratic states. Still, Zimbabwe has a strong opposition party which is represented in parliament, the Movement for Democratic Change. One of the purposes of a UNPA is to make space for such voices at the UN.

Adopting an incremental approach

Establishment of a UNPA would happen incrementally. It would probably have to begin as a largely consultative assembly, making it easier for governments to engage in its creation. The main options considered are to use Article 22 of the UN Charter, which allows the UN General Assembly to establish subsidiary bodies, or to establish the UNPA on the basis of a new international treaty, as was done in the case of the International Criminal Court. Either way, it is governments that eventually will set it up. In the end, the logic to establish a UNPA can hardly be rejected: The underlying principles are generally implemented at the regional level—for example at the Council of Europe, the African Union, Mercosur, and the European Union's directly elected European Parliament.

The latter has claimed that the UNPA "should be vested with genuine rights of information, participation and control, and should be able to adopt recommendations directed at the UN General Assembly." Step by step, the assembly could be vested with more rights and powers. Initially it may only be attached to the UN General Assembly. However, it is increasingly perceived that the UNPA's reach, sooner rather than later, would have to be extended to the complete UN system and the legally independent World Trade Organization, the World Bank Group, and the International Monetary Fund, with the aspiration of a directly elected world parliament.

Catalyzing global innovation

The majority of UNPA delegates would likely group not in national blocks but rather according to their political stance—conservative, liberal, socialist, or green, for example. A UNPA thus would contribute to the strengthening of global political groupings and party networks. It would foster substantial and genuine political debates at the global level.

The UNPA would set up commissions charged with oversight functions and policy development in specific areas. In their deliberations these commissions could consider information, recommendations, and expertise from the nonstate sector through hearings and other engagements. The assembly thus could have an impact on each and any political issue of international interest. As a hinge between parliaments, civil society, the UN, and governments, it could become an important catalyst for the reform and development of the international system. A UNPA could be a crucial force to introduce ideas into the diplomatic arena and to launch initiatives that otherwise would not be touched.

There is no question that the details of the UNPA proposal are very complex and need careful consideration. The basic concern, however, is very clear and radical. As the campaign's appeal states: "A UNPA would not simply be a new institution. As the voice of citizens, the assembly would be the manifestation and vehicle of a changed consciousness and understanding of international politics."

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