Let’s imagine global citizen participation at the UN

Guest article by Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders

In many countries in the world democracy is under stress. The new Democracy Perception Index recently found that over half of respondents across 50 countries believe that their voices do not matter. Although the global level of democracy remains close to an all-time high, there are more and more signs that a democratic backsliding is setting in. The 2018 Varieties of Democracy report, covering 178 countries, concluded that for the first time since 1979, the number of countries backsliding on democracy - 24 - is the same as the number of countries advancing.

The 2018 State of Civil Society report published by CIVICUS classified 109 countries as having either closed, repressed, or obstructed civic space. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in 2018, human rights abuses targeted against members of parliament reached the highest figures ever recorded with more than 550 cases in over 40 countries under investigation.

As autocratic states and nationalist populisms seem to be gaining ground, civic space is also on the retreat at the United Nations (UN). In a March 2018 open letter several civil society organisations (CSOs), among them Amnesty International, CIVICUS and Human Rights Watch, observed that “some members” of the UN’s NGO (non-governmental organisations) Committee use their membership as a means to keep certain critical CSOs out of the UN and to intimidate them. One recent example concerns the Society for Threatened Peoples, of which I am a member. The Government of China tried to get the NGO Committee to terminate the organisation’s UN status because it has been helping to provide members of the suppressed Uighur community with a voice.

In contrast to these developments I believe that there has never been more clarity about the need for democratic participation and inclusion than today. Reactionary counter-movements around the world can be interpreted as a sign that a critical threshold is being reached. Instead of giving way it is now necessary to keep the pressure high and demand more progress.

As I argue in the book ‘A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century’, which I published with Jo Leinen, democracy is now established as a universal value. Most autocrats will not openly question that democracy is recognised as the only legitimate form of government. Instead they will attempt to cloak their rule behind a democratic façade as best as possible.

In a previous piece for CIVICUS, in which I made the case for a citizen-elected UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), I argued that the essence of democratic governance, as affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, means that those who are affected by a decision need to have a chance to influence it.

The right to democratic governance is indivisible and cannot be limited to the national level. This is all the more the case as many of the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change, disarmament, inequality and tax evasion, transcend national boundaries and cannot be solved by states acting alone.

As a consequence, important agenda-setting and decision-making is happening at the intergovernmental level. This feeds into people’s declining belief in national democratic institutions such as parliaments, because they sense that the latter are losing influence vis-à-vis global forces and often they are not satisfied with the results.

In my view there is a strong interconnection between today’s backsliding on democracy and the lack of democracy in the international realm. It is important to realise that even if all states in the world were perfect democracies, this would not change the undemocratic nature of the intergovernmental system that undermines national institutions. I am convinced that the preservation and strengthening of democracy at the national level will only succeed if we achieve progress in terms of democratising global institutions and decision-making, and vice versa.

A good example of the growing importance of the intergovernmental realm where the stakes are high is the UN’s 2030 Agenda, which sets out the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that comprehensively address many key challenges. Implementing the 2030 Agenda requires the UN to forge new links and strengthen its relationship with non-state actors such as CSOs, parliaments and businesses.

The case has been made that a new UNPA should accompany the 2030 Agenda. According to a resolution adopted by the European Parliament in July 2018, a UNPA should be established "within the UN system in order to increase the democratic character, the democratic accountability and the transparency of global governance and to allow for better citizen participation in the activities of the UN and, in particular, to contribute to the successful implementation of the UN Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

While adding a parliamentary body to the UN remains critically important, reimagining democracy at the global scale should let us think of additional and complementary innovations.

As argued in the Washington Post in 2018, reports on democratic backsliding around the world overshadow another important development: according to the co-presidents of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, direct democracy is booming at the local and regional levels. They point out that 113 of the world’s 117 democratic countries legally allow their citizens to bring forward a citizens’ initiative, referendum, or both.

While they believe that government-initiated popular plebiscites voluntarily put forward by elected or non-elected rulers can be highly problematic, they maintain that if designed the right way, instruments of direct democracy mobilise the positive energy of the citizenry and help to regain their trust in democracy.

Even in the intergovernmental realm, recent initiatives such as the 1 for 7 Billion campaign on the selection of the UN Secretary-General or the My World 2015 survey on the SDGs have shown that it is possible to engage millions of people in UN-related issues. In a contribution to the New Shape Prize of the Global Challenges Foundation (currently still to be published), CIVICUS envisioned new forms of citizen engagement with the UN by creating a dedicated new online engagement mechanism called ‘UNgage’ that would allow for citizens’ petitions, polls and deliberative panels. In a similar direction, a team at Democracy Without Borders is currently exploring the development of an internet platform for global debates, votes and elections.

An example and inspiration to draw upon when imagining citizen participation at the UN is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), the only existing transnational tool of participatory democracy. The ECI was introduced with the Lisbon Treaty on the European Union (EU) that entered into force in 2009. The instrument allows for citizens to identify a problem, propose a solution and submit their proposal to the European Commission for review if they manage to mobilise the support of at least a million EU citizens. So far, there have been four successful initiatives and six others are still open.

A similar instrument could be established at the UN to allow for citizens’ input. The fundamental idea of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative (UNWCI) is that if a certain threshold of world citizens endorses a citizen-launched initiative, UN bodies such as the UN General Assembly or perhaps even the Security Council would have to put the item on their agenda and give representatives of the initiative the floor to make their case. Ideally, the UN General Assembly would follow up and adopt recommendations based on the UNWCI in question or launch an intergovernmental process to adopt or modify relevant treaties. As the ECI is put under review, there are lessons to be learned for a UNWCI, too.

The idea is still at an early stage but we at Democracy Without Borders have started talking to colleagues in other CSOs, and the idea has met with big interest. Together with Democracy International, Global Justice Now and others such as CIVICUS and the World Federalist Movement we intend to form a consortium of CSOs that will develop the proposal and a campaign, anticipating the upcoming 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020, which we hope will be used as an opportunity for innovation and reform, as the UN2020 civil society initiative suggests. We and our partners hope that a UNWCI will support the emergence of better synergies and collaboration among civil society worldwide and of a citizen-based global political sphere.

While the ECI offers a strong example to draw upon, conceptualising a UNWCI will come with its own challenges, as of course the EU and the UN differ in fundamental ways. However, just as the EU realised that an element of participatory democracy is important to strengthen the connection between the EU and its citizens, the same thinking should apply to the UN today. A ‘magic tool’ that the UN General Assembly may be able to use to establish a UNWCI, once all details have been figured out, is Article 22 of the UN Charter, which allows the Assembly to “establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.” The creation of a consultative mechanism like a UNWCI could be seen as a win-win scenario and as part of the UN General Assembly’s long-sought revitalisation.