Why the UN needs a parliamentary body

The anniversary of the entry into force of the United Nations Charter on October 24 1945 has been celebrated as United Nations Day since 1948. It is particularly symbolic, intentionally or not, that on the same date this year the Pan African Parliament has adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a new world body destined to represent the people at the UN.

In fact, the proposal to create a UN parliamentary assembly has been voiced ever since the UN was founded. The idea of a “world Parliament” was put forward even before that, when the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, was started—to no avail, as we know.

Until today, the UN and its various specialised agencies, related organisations, funds and programmes do not provide for any body that would be composed of elected representatives. In formal decision-making and policy setting, the interests of citizens are represented by government executives alone. Exclusive government representation means that international decision-making is monopolised by ruling parties and appointed bureaucrats, with no opportunity for political minorities to voice their opinions in official fora at the international level.

The merits of having parliamentary bodies included in international organisations are widely recognised. Nato, the Western European Union, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, countries subscribing to the South American trade agreement Mercosur, the Andean Community and even the Commonwealth have parliamentary assemblies.

In the European Union, the European Parliament—being directly elected since 1979—represents the citizens; in the African Union it is the role of the Pan African Parliament. Remarkably, the UN in fact is one of the last government organisations lacking such parliamentary representation.

At the same time, specialised UN entities such as the UN Development Programme, Children’s Fund, High Commissioner for Refugees, World Health Organisation and Food and Agricultural Organisation are playing a growing role in key sectors such as peace and security, economic development, health, education and environment, affecting the daily lives of millions, especially on the African continent.

Therefore it is no wonder that the absence of a parliamentary voice in the design of the UN system and, in particular, in the International Monetary Fund, World Trade Organisation and the World Bank group is increasingly questioned.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would, in fact, be a suitable means to address the lack of transparency, accountability and responsiveness visible in today’s global governance. Once established, the assembly could develop from a mere consultative body to a world Parliament with genuine rights of information, participation and oversight.

After lingering for decades, the proposal now keeps gaining considerable political support. Earlier this year, an international campaign was launched in support of the idea, endorsed by hundreds of parliamentarians, civil society leaders and other distinguished individuals from around the world, such as the former UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

In a message to the campaign, the latter has stressed that “a parliamentary assembly at the United Nations has become an indispensable step to achieve democratic control of globalisation. Complementary to international democracy among states, which no less has to be developed, it would foster global democracy beyond states, giving the citizens a genuine voice in world affairs.”

The recent call of the Pan African Parliament now adds important momentum to this proposal and puts Africa at the forefront of the international efforts. The resolution rightfully points out that the UN charter has been declared in the name of “We the peoples of the United Nations”, noting that these words invoke the principle of democracy and root the legitimacy of the organisation in the will of the peoples of its member states.

Africa’s governments are now called upon to take the decisive first step of introducing the proposal of a UN parliamentary assembly into the halls of the world organisation.

Andreas Bummel chairs the Committee for a Democratic UN based in Germany and leads the secretariat of the Campaign for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly

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