Elected representatives and representative parliaments are indispensable elements of good and democratic governance, but at the UN, they have barely any role.
In pursuit of the Agenda 2030, the UN is playing an increasingly important role. Its charter was declared in the name of “We, the Peoples.“ Elected representatives, however, who are interested in the affairs of the UN and its entities will discover that there are hardly any arrangements in place that would allow them to be involved.
In 1992, governments agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro that public participation in decision making is important and defined nine major groups that should be engaged, including, for example, indigenous peoples, local authorities, business and industry, women or non-governmental organisations.
In consequence, many UN entities and UN-driven negotiations such as the climate talks give those groups an opportunity to be included. It’s one of many symptoms for the neglect of parliamentarians in intergovernmental affairs that they are not among them.
In 2004 the panel on UN-Civil Society Relations suggested the creation of an Elected Representatives Liaison Unit at the UN but nothing happened.
In any case, much more is needed. It is no longer acceptable that UN decision making primarily, if not exclusively, represents only the executive branch of national governments. It is now widely recognised that representative parliaments are an indispensable element of good and democratic governance.
Why should this insight not apply to the UN as well?
There has been a growing trend towards stronger interaction of parliamentarians across national borders. Today, there are more than 100 international parliamentary institutions such as Parliamentarians for Global Action, the OECD Global Parliamentary Network or the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and the IMF. The oldest of them is the Inter-Parliamentary Union that was created more than a century ago in 1889.
The group of formal parliamentary organs is the most developed. Examples are the European Union’s European Parliament or the African Union‘s Pan-African Parliament. In the UN system, however, no such body exists.
Although the IPU and other networks have slowly managed to establish a relationship with the UN, their formal status and political influence in the world organisation are marginal at best.
The UN and its General Assembly, the most universal body in the international order, must seriously begin to add a parliamentary dimension to its formal structure.
A group of lawmakers and representatives of civil society organisations, encouraged by former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali, concluded ten years ago that there needs to be a parliamentary organ formally embedded into the UN’s structure, a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA).
To advance this goal, they launched the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly as an informal international platform that brings together all like-minded forces, and coordinates their efforts at all levels.
No question, a UNPA is a complex undertaking which necessarily means that there are differing opinions if it comes to details. Nonetheless, the campaign’s international appeal, a political statement that is endorsed by all campaign supporters, has proven to create focus and unity.
Since its publication in 2007, around 1,500 members of parliament signed the document, in addition to thousands of other individuals from over 150 countries, among them innumerous distinguished personalities from public administration, science, civil society and culture.
Since the campaign’s launch pro-UNPA resolutions were adopted, for instance, by the Canadian House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, the Pan-African Parliament, the Latin-American Parliament, the Senate of Argentina, the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament and the Parliament of Mercosur. The foreign ministers of Malta and Italy voiced support.
Through a UNPA, elected representatives who are directly accountable to their constituents would be able to play a role in the world organisation. They could provide oversight of international decision making and serve as a link between the world’s citizens, civil society and the UN.
The assembly would allow for participation of parliamentarians who do not belong to governing parties. Giving the opposition a voice at the world level could strengthen democratic forces in countries in transition. The assembly could provide additional international accountability and oversight for government action on the Sustainable Development Goals.
A UNPA can provide innovative means of multi stakeholder inclusion in the UN’s work through public hearings, leveraging its convening capacity, or co-option of independent experts, rapporteurs, investigative bodies or advisory members in addition to collaborating with civil society organisations.
The campaign’s policy is that a UNPA could be of a hybrid nature, composed of members who are either sitting members of national or regional parliaments or directly elected for this purpose.
Starting as an advisory body, it should be incrementally provided with genuine rights of information, participation and control vis-à-vis the UN and the organisations of the UN system, including the international financial institutions and the World Trade Organisation. A UNPA could provide the UN and the wider system of global governance with unprecedented democratic legitimacy.
In a first step the campaign advocates the establishment of a UNPA by means which do not require a change of the UN’s Charter, which is either by a decision of the UN General Assembly according to Article 22 of the UN’s charter, or by a new international treaty.
Along similar lines, two years ago the Commission on Global Security, Justice and Governance, which is co-chaired by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright and former Nigerian foreign minister Ibrahim Gambari, recommended the creation of a UN Parliamentary Network as a step towards “the creation of a standing, formally constituted UN second chamber.”
It is crucial to recognise that in our times democratic deliberation, participation and decision making can no longer be confined to the nation-state. If we want to save and strengthen democracy, we cannot ignore the interconnections between national and global democratisation.
As the late Boutros Boutros Ghali said: “We need to promote the democratisation of globalisation, before globalisation destroys the foundations of national and international democracy. The establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations has become an indispensable step to achieve democratic control of globalisation.”
Andreas Bummel is the Director of ‘Democracy Without Borders’ and Coordinator of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly.