Op-Ed: Strengthening the UN through a Parliamentary Assembly

Opinion: Andreas Bummel is is co-founder and Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders. He is global coordinator of the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly which he helped establish in 2007. Since 2019 he has been assisting in launching a campaign for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative.

Despite being based on the promise “Never Again”, following the Holocaust and the Second World War, the United Nations has consistently failed to confront gross human rights violations, due to a lack of both will and power. As genocides and mass atrocities erupted in Biafra, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Syria, the UN stood by. According to the UN’s Charter, the main responsibility for maintaining international peace and security is vested in the Security Council. However, it is the five permanent members of this Council, the P5, who too often obstructed effective action by using their veto power to block resolutions.

The member states in the General Assembly have been striving to reform the Security Council – and to limit the power of the P5 – almost since the creation of the UN. However, even after decades of negotiations, they have been unable to find a way forward. In particular, the P5 are not ready to give up their veto.

At the same time, the General Assembly is struggling to remain relevant amid ritualistic and overly formalized procedures and routines. Its resolutions are non-binding, and although the assembly declared its subsidiary responsibility for peace and security in cases where the Security Council is unable to act, efforts to confront the P5 have not been very successful so far. The General Assembly may be the UN’s most universal body but its democratic legitimacy is limited. The stark demographic differences between member states mean that small countries command a two-thirds majority of votes although they only represent 8 percent of the world’s population. Tuvalu, with 11,200 residents, has the same power as India, which has 1.34 billion. Further, it is very easy for small states to be manipulated or arm-twisted by large ones, further weakening democratic legitimacy. Important discussions on global governance are instead held in flexible and exclusive formats such as the Group of Twenty.

It is time for another approach. The establishment of a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) would create new momentum for reform, help revitalize the General Assembly, and strengthen the UN as the world’s central pillar of multilateralism.

The UNPA’s members would be representatives of people from across the political spectrum of member states’ parliaments and from every corner of the globe. Initially the UNPA would be a consultative oversight body, with its strength drawn from the direct connection of its representatives to the citizens of the UN’s member states, and a mandate to serve the best interest of humanity, not narrow national interests.

Just as there are various coalitions and caucuses within the world’s national legislatures, the activities of UNPA representatives would be organized into transnational groupings. Delegates would come from a wide array of ethnic and religious groups, and from all economic classes. Those in the political minority within their home states would be given a voice that is otherwise not heard at the UN. In addition, the assembly would be able to invite representatives of minorities and opposition groups that have no parliamentary seats to present their views, too.

Responsible for the good of the world as a whole, and not to officials in Beijing, Brasilia, or elsewhere, UNPA parliamentarians would have a freedom that current government diplomats at the UN do not. They would be liberated from the constraints that have made it so hard for the UN to openly address human rights violations and other egregious acts by national governments. As soon as realpolitik allows, UNPA members should be directly elected.

Ironically, it is easier to set up a consultative UNPA than to add just one more seat to the Security Council. While the former can be done by the General Assembly according to Article 22 of the UN’s Charter, the latter requires a Charter amendment and an approval of the P5. A UNPA could be the key to unlocking reform of the UN, allowing it at last to live up to the aspirations of its founders, and deliver the effective and accountable global governance the world so evidently and urgently needs. The international Campaign for a UNPA is supported by numerous parliamentarians, NGOs, academics and individuals from all walks of life. The UN’s 75th anniversary in 2020 will be an opportunity for progressive member states to put the UNPA proposal at the heart of a progressive reform agenda for the United Nations.

Photo: Falcon Photography/Flickr

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