António Guterres and the 22nd Congress of the Socialist International

António Guterres in 2012, image: Public Domain

António Guterres in 2012, image: Public Domain

Following an extraordinary effort of civil society, numerous UN member states and the President of the 70th UN General Assembly to improve the process to select the UN Secretary-General, the UN Security Council officially nominated António Guterres for the position on 6 October 2016.

António Guterres looks back on a long political career. In particular, he served as Prime Minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002. In a vision statement of 4 April 2016 the former UN High Commissioner for Refugees pointed out that "the success of the UN and the international community lies in our common commitment to our common values. The UN must be proud of its diversity. A diversity that only enriches the strength of the expression of our common humanity."

Whether or not a far-reaching reform of the UN and the system of global governance will be successful in the coming years and decade, much will depend on the initiative and position of the new Secretary-General.

Those who advocate a UN Parliamentary Assembly wonder what position Guterres might have on this particular topic. As far as I can tell, there is no public statement on the matter.

Interestingly, however, during his term as President of the Socialist International from 1999 to 2005, the 22nd Congress of the party network convened in São Paulo in 2003 adopted a document titled "Governance in a global society" which elaborated on the subject:

Better structured democratic control and accountability are needed if the world’s democratic deficit is to be seriously addressed. At some point, contemplation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly will be needed. Such a development should be supported by the gradual emergence of truly global citizenship, underpinned by rights drawn from the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights and the 1966 Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic and Social Rights.

and further:

Such an assembly should be more than just another UN institution. It would need to become a building block of a new, democratically legitimate world order. ... Every effort needs to be made by the large party communities to attain the goal of a UN Parliamentary Assembly...

Although it cannot be assumed that this paper necessarily reflects the views of the then President of the Socialist International - and even less his thinking now, 13 years later -, it may indicate that he might be accessible relative to this important reform proposal.

Joseph E. Schwartzberg

I firmly believe that a World Parliamentary Assembly would be the best way to allow for citizen input in global governance. Providing the diverse strands of humankind with a meaningful voice in making the decisions that will shape their destiny will do more to legitimize the UN than any other reform that I can envisage.

The democratic deficit of the G-20, the G-20 Speakers Forum, and a global parliamentary assembly

Group photo at the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010

Group photo at the G-20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 (source: / Creative Commons)

The global financial crisis and the growing political and economic weight of developing countries from the South have led to the rise of the G-20 which has become one of the world's most important decision-making forums. Since 2008, the process has been steered by summits of the group's heads of state or government. The controversial nature of the process means that G-20 meetings are often accompanied by public protests.

In this statement the World Federalist Movement articulated fundamental criticism of the G-20, referring to lack of democratic accountability, questionable legality and legitimacy, structural deficiencies, and concerns over mandate and agenda.

Discontent with the G-20 process is no longer a matter confined to protesting citizens, civil society groups, think tanks or excluded governments. Even the parliaments of G-20 member states themselves, so it seems, are increasingly concerned as they are excluded from the G-20 process as well.

In 2010 the Senate of Canada for the first time hosted a "G20 Speakers Consultation" that brought together the presiding officers of the G-20's parliaments. After similar meetings in Seoul 2011 and Ryhad 2012, a fourth such meeting is currently taking place in Mexico City under the auspices of the Mexican Senate. In the official FAQ, the Mexican Senate provides some pretty remarkable reasons why they think that this new forum matters:

Parliamentary-level discussions on global issues need to take place so that parliamentary leaders from the G20 nations can play a more active role in making laws and strengthening parliamentary decision making in support of the most pressing issues on the global agenda.

and also:

Only by including G20 Parliaments in global decision-making and achieving consensus and agreement among parliamentary leaders, can governments genuinely follow through with the commitments that their leaders have made.

The reality of course is that hardly any parliament dares to oppose decisions taken at the level of a G-20 summit. Once a matter decided at a G-20 summit actually reaches a G-20 parliament, it is too late for parliamentarians to affect the outcome. So the idea now seems to be that parliaments need to organize early on to influence G-20 decision-making.

Othmar Karas from Austria who represents the European Parliament at the G-20 speakers consultations said that "parliaments must be involved in global decision-making and in strengthening the global financial system." Specifically, he suggests that the resolutions adopted by the speakers forum should subsequently be presented to the heads of state or government at the G-20 summits. 

From a pragmatic point of view, Mr Karas' suggestion might be a useful first step. But the goal should be much bolder. Speakers alone can hardly represent the full diversity of their parliaments and the G-20 parliamentarian consultation will not be taken seriously as a global forum. Representatives of the world's citizens need to be able to actively participate in the G-20 process and also in other global governance contexts. There is no credible reason why such parliamentary involvement should only be open to speakers from G-20 countries. An exclusive G-20 parliament is not the solution. Eventually, this development is strengthening the case for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would be able to overcome one of the key deficiencies of the UN: The principle of "sovereign equality of states" or "one state, one vote." It is no wonder that the governments of large economies prefer to bypass the UN in matters of economic and financial governance. After all, as I have pointed out in a previous comment, the small countries in the UN that only represent marginal portions of the world's GDP (and the world's population!) are easily able to outvote large states and to dominate proceedings. 

The distribution of seats (and thus votes) in a global parliamentary assembly could - and should - depart from the principle of equality of states and take factors such as population size into account as well. As a result, large countries would have more weight and small countries could still be included. Allowing delegations of such an assembly to play a meaningful part in G-20 deliberations would make the whole process more inclusive, transparent, representative and democratic.

At the moment, the heads of state and government of the G-20 don't even want to hear the resolutions passed by the G-20 Speakers Forum. This is a shame. But the pressure for democratizing global governance is clearly increasing.

Cities and their role in global governance, an important debate

Should cities have a bigger role in global affairs? In the picture: Tokyo, one of the world's largest urban areas

Should cities have a bigger role in global affairs? In the picture: Tokyo, one of the world's largest urban areas (Flickr, theolaphoto)

For the first time in history, more than half of the world's citizens now live in urban areas, a lot of them in one of the mega cities, and their number will continue to grow. At a global mayor's forum convened in April last year by the city of Geneva, the tone was set for a debate that is likely to gain importance. According to a report, "throughout the conference, participants identified an underlying paradox. While the world’s population, economic activity, and political power were all concentrated in cities, these entities were only afforded a limited voice in international decision-making."

Two months later, the well-known US-American political theorist Benjamin Barber gave a talk in San Francisco on this subject and made a case for giving cities a bigger say in matters of global governance. By contrast to national governments that are strongly influenced by party politics and vested interests, the argument goes, "mayors get things done." Cities, says Barber, are inherently pragmatic rather than ideological:

“They collect garbage and collect art rather than collecting votes or collecting allies. They put up buildings and run buses rather than putting up flags and running political parties. They secure the flow of water rather than the flow of arms. They foster education and culture in place of national defense and patriotism. They promote collaboration, not exceptionalism.”

In a conversation with The Atlantic, Barber suggested the establishment of a "global parliament of cities" that would bring together major city governments in order to establish voluntary common policies and common actions on matters of global concern. In many ways, he says, cities are already having an important impact but the process of global collaboration between them should be better formalized.

Indeed, there are already many networks of local authorities in place. ICLEI - Local Governments for Sustainability, for example, supports cities "to become sustainable, resilient, resource-efficient, biodiverse, low-carbon; to build a smart infrastructure; and to develop an inclusive, green urban economy." In 1992, governments agreed at the UN's conference on environment and development in Rio, that public participation in decision-making is important and defined nine "major groups" that should be engaged. Local authorities are one of these groups (while parliamentarians, interestingly, are not).

At the first international meeting of supporters of the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly in November 2007, it was concluded, among other things, that the inclusion of local authorities in a consultative UN Parliamentary Assembly may be considered (PDF here). The same thought was already expressed with regard to representation of indigenous people.

In this light, it is possible to conceive of a UN Parliamentary Assembly as the institutional core of a permanent multi-level, multi-stakeholder "Cosmopolitan Congress." Although I believe that, in any case, the popularly elected members of the assembly would have to be the main group, in terms of numbers as well as in terms of formal decision-making power, there could be other stakeholders such as representatives of cities at the table as well. This may be one of the features that distinguishes a UNPA from a mere extrapolation of how national parliaments work.

Of course, how exactly this could function requires a lot of more thought and research. Nonetheless, the debate on a stronger role for cities in global governance is gaining traction and the proposal for a UN Parliamentary Assembly could be a relevant part of it.

The unexpected discovery of Earth on the way to the Moon

The Earth, seen from the Moon (NASA)

The Earth, seen from the Moon, during the Appollo 11 mission in 1969 (NASA)

What has been dubbed one of the most important environmental photographs of all times, wasn't actually scheduled. Overwhelmed by the beauty of what he saw, it was taken by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the first manned voyage to orbit the Moon, and shows planet Earth rising above the lunar horizon. Four years later, the first full-view photo of Earth was taken at a distance of about 45,000 kilometres by the crew of the Appollo 17 spacecraft.

On the 40th anniversary of the famous "Blue Marble" photograph, a moving short documentary was released last month, documenting the stories of astronauts seeing the Earth from space. This experience is unanimously described as having a life-changing impact, often called the Overview Effect.

OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo

As David Beaver, a co-founder of the Overview Institute, explains at the beginning of the 19-minute film, one of the astronauts said that "When we originally went to the moon, our total focus was on the moon, we weren't thinking about looking back at the Earth. But now that we'd done it that may well have been the most important reason why we went." According to philosopher David Loy, "the focus had been 'We are going to the stars, to other planets' and suddenly we looked back at ourselves and it seems to imply a new kind of self-awareness." 

Without doubt one can agree with Frank White, author of a book on the Overview Effect first published in 1987 and one of the other co-founders of the Overview Institute, that "This view of the Earth from space, the whole Earth perspective, is the true symbol of this age." The feeling of interconnectedness, wholeness and of the fragility of Earth as it travels through the black void of space reported by astronauts is probably a sudden breakthrough of planetary consciousness in the most literal sense. Profound implications for the political world view are obvious. The awareness of One Earth implies the realization that there is just one humanity as well. "After all," says Frank White in the movie, the Earth perspective is "key to our survival, we have to start acting as one species with one destiny. We are not going to survive if we don't do that."

A world parliament would transcend national political boundaries

A world parliament would transcend national political boundaries

Today's reality still is that the political world is divided into so-called "sovereign" nation-states. Humanity has not yet achieved the unity it requires to live in harmony and peace with itself and the planet. As the Spanish law professor Rafael Domingo put it in his recommendable book "The New Global Law" which I just read these days, the state-centeredness that continues to shape the international system is a "nominal totalitarianism" as it deprives the human being, the world's citizens, any role at the international level and makes them mere objects of the state. 

The political consequence of a matured planetary consciousness are truly planetary institutions, that is, institutions that transcend present national boundaries. This implies, among other things, the recognition of world citizenship and the dignity and equality of every single human being. I am convinced that the single most important step into this direction is the development of a democratic world parliament.

Twenty Nobel laureates so far on record who supported a world parliament

Nobel laureates who supported the idea of a world parliament

Several thousand individuals from over 150 countries have endorsed the Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly. Six laureates of the prestigous Nobel Prize so far formally signed the campaign's appeal, namely John B. Fenn (chemistry, 2002), Clive Granger (economics, 2003), Günter Grass (literature, 1999), John Polanyi (chemistry, 1986), Frank Wilczek (physics, 2004) and Kurt Wüthrich (chemistry, 2002). There are more Nobel laureates, however, who did support the idea of a world parliament.

The one who was most committed to the subject and who quite everybody knows, at least by name, is Albert Einstein (physics, 1921). Einstein's strong advocacy of a world federation and a world parliament was well known at the time (some key texts are collected here). Before Einstein, two further Nobel laureates spoke out in favor of a world parliament: peace activist Bertha von Suttner (peace, 1905) and author Gerhart Hauptmann (literature, 1912).

As Einstein, Thomas Mann (literature, 1929), John Boyd Orr (peace, 1949) and Albert Camus (literature, 1957) believed in the necessity of supranational integration and a global parliament. The latter two actively supported the World Federalist Movement.

In 2004, the "World Campaign for In-Depth Reform of the System of International Institutions" published its London Declaration which included a call for "the world’s citizens to be directly represented in the international institutions" and said that "work could move towards creating a parliamentary assembly." Among others, this declaration was endorsed by Nobel laureates Rigoberta Menchú (peace, 1992), Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (peace, 1980), and Joseph Rotblat (peace, 1995). In addition, the campaign was also supported by Nobel laureates José Saramago (literature, 1998) and Gabriel García Márquez (literature, 1982).

When the Committee for a World Parliament was formed in Paris in the mid-1990s, it was immediately supported by Nobel Peace laureates Nelson Mandela (1993) and Shimon Peres (1994). The Peace Nobel Prize laureate of 1983, Lech Walesa, in interviews and speeches has also repeatedly talked about the need for a global parliament.

There are probably more Nobel laureates who do support the proposal than the twenty above that we know of.

We will try to find out!

PS: Here's a nice image that we created.

How democratic is the General Assembly of the United Nations?

Voting power of the 128 least populous states

The United Nations General Assembly is considered the most representative organ of the world organization. All 193 UN member states are represented in the assembly. Each nation has one vote, no matter how large or small. This reflects the old idea, first established at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, that all states are equal in international law. Article 2 of the UN's Charter says, among other things, that the "organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members."

Of course, the priviledged position of the five permanent veto powers in the UN Security Council blatantly contradicts this statement of the Charter. For this reason, the General Assembly, all the more, is often referred to as the embodiment of democracy at the United Nations. Based on this democratic character, it is assumed that the General Assembly, as the gathering of all UN member states, has a strong moral authority (its resolutions are non-binding). Thus, there is much talk of the assembly's "revitalization" (see the reports of the Center for UN Reform Education).

Four years ago, the President of the 63rd session of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann from Nicaragua, went as far as to state that

the General Assembly should become more proactive and its resolutions should be binding. The idea that the clear and unequivocal voice of “We the peoples” should be regarded as a mere recommendation with no binding power should be buried forever in our anti-democratic past.

However, the General Assembly's alleged democratic legitimacy is nothing but a myth.

All we need to do to see this clearly is to ignore the anachronistic paradigm of equal sovereignty for a moment. In reality, states are neither equal, nor sovereign. If we consider equal representation of citizens instead, the General Assembly's strongly undemocratic character is exposed as representation is grossly distortet.

Consider this, for example:

  • The 128 least populous UN member states make up two thirds of the voting power in the UN General Assembly (see the image above). However, these countries only represent around 11.2 percent of the world's gross domestic product and, more importantly, only around 8.4 percent of the world's population.
  • Voting power of the 10 most populous states

    The ten most populous UN member states, by contrast, have around 5.2 percent of voting power, but they represent around 47.9 percent of the world's GDP and 59.3 percent of the world's population (see the image to the right).

The situation is caused by the dramatically uneven distribution of the world's citizens among the world's UN member states. Most UN member states are very small. More than half of them - around 112 - have less than 10 million inhabitants. In my view, however, it is hardly democratic if twelve thousand citizens of Tuvalu have the same say as 1.3 billion Chinese. Under such circumstances, any substantial strengthening of the UN General Assembly appears out of order if it isn't connected with fundamental reform that mitigates this.

Actually, the situation is even worse than the above figures suggest.

The delegates at the UN General Assembly do not even represent the entire population of their countries. At best, they represent those citizens who voted the government into power. Well, if there are (sound) elections at all, of course. In the case of around 77 UN member states, who account for some 48 percent of the world's population, that's doubtful if we are to rely on the assessment of Freedom House.

In any case, the General Assembly is a gathering of diplomats who are appointed by the executive branches of national governments. Minority parties that are not part of a national government, have no influence or representation at all.

This is not to say that the representation of UN member states through their governments in the UN General Assembly is to be rejected per se. What needs to be rejected, however, is any claim that the General Assembly is a representative democratic body.

To achieve democratic representation of the world's citizens, the UN General Assembly could be complemented by a UN Parliamentary Assembly. As then President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, pointed out at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000:

The United Nations

would probably have to rest on two pillars: one constituted by an assembly of equal executive representatives of individual countries, resembling the present plenary, and the other consisting of a group elected directly by the globe's population in which the number of delegates representing individual nations would, thus, roughly correspond to the size of the nations. These two bodies would create and guarantee global legislation. Answerable to them would be the Security Council...

There are two studies that discuss specific models of how the seats in a parliamentary assembly could be apportioned in a more balanced way than in the General Assembly. That's my own paper on "The Composition of a Parliamentary Assembly at the United Nations", published in 2010, and Joseph Schwartzberg's recent publication "Creating a World Parliamentary Assembly."