How democratic is the General Assembly of the United Nations?

How democratic is the General Assembly of the United Nations?

Andreas Bummel, 7. augusti 2012

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."