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A pragmatic way to democratisation in international politics
The central role of nation-states in a consolidated strategy
towards a UN parliament

Speech by Hanspeter Bigler, spokesperson for CDUN's
Swiss Parliamentarians' Open Letter to Kofi Annan;
Secretary General, Society for Threatened Peoples - Switzerland

The United Nations is a unique, world-wide institution with 191 member-states and an extensive mandate to secure world peace, safeguard human rights and promote international solidarity. In these areas, it takes on a leading role. Without the UN, for example, the legal codification of human rights and the establishment of a global system of collective security would be less advanced. Especially in times of increasing economic globalization and the growing importance of transnational corporations, the United Nations, bearing as it does a considerable degree of democratic legitimation, is clearly an important institution in the implementation of international rules.

This democratic legitimation of the UN is, however, limited. In the 21st century, the world is affected by global problems that require global strategies and solutions. Hence an increasing number of political issues that influence citizens all over the world are being decided on an international level. The consequences of this are that political decision-making processes are shifted onto an international level, initiating the establishment of global political structures. Nation-states are the instutional fundament of the UN, and they, in turn, are represented by their governments. Consequently, national governments have become the decision-makers in international decision-making processes. Whereas on the national level these governments are subject to parliamentary control, there is a deficit in this regard at the international level. In this light, citizens have no democratic means to influence the decision-making process.

This democracy deficit is reinforced by a lack of transparency in the decision-making process. As long as global issues affecting the world population are treated as secret diplomacy by national governments and decided behind closed doors, decisions will inevitably lack acceptance. The United Nations does, nonetheless, require this acceptance by citizens as a basic and important condition for its legitimacy.

There is a need for reform, furthermore, with regard to the problem-solving capacity of the UN, focusing on national governments as the primary actors at this level. National governments act primarily according to national interests rather than prioritising common welfare. Consequently, decision-making processes are deadlocked by divergent national interests.

These issues ­ democracy deficit, lack of transparency, low acceptance, decision-deadlock ­ can be counteracted by the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN. First of all, the election of such a parliament would promote direct participation and representation of civil society. Secondly, it would establish transparent processes and structures of negotiation and decision-making. Thirdly, it would enhance the overall acceptance and legitimacy of the United Nations. The delegates of a future Parliamentary Assembly would, moreover, be grouped into international parties following a common political ideology rather than being subject to national concerns. This would greatly enhance the problem-solving capacity of the UN as strategies and resolutions would be based on common, global interests, thus reducing the paralyzing effect of state interests.

The challenges of international development and security policy in the 21st century require adequate decision-making structures. Therefore, on the one hand, it is necessary to reform the existing bodies of the UN that consist of national governments. On the other, it is essential to launch reforms that improve the integration of the global population into decision-making processes. For this purpose, the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly is essential.

How can such reforms succeed? Looking at the challenges facing the United Nations today, the answer to this question is clear. A strategy for the implementation of future reform must answer the needs of the system today. Due to the dominant position of national governments in today's UN system, any calls for reform should primarily be addressed to them, including the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly. It is only with the consent of national governments that any reform can be realized and, therefore, herein lies the way.

But how can the support of these national governments be attained? Direct lobbying would, of course, be most efficient. However, an increasing democratisation of international politics would lead to a decreasing importance of today's decision-making processes, thus changing the current nature of national governments' sphere of influence. In this light, goverments may not be entirely willing to support such a development. We must, therefore, cooperate with those bodies being able to effectively lobby national governments, namely parliaments of the UN nation states.

These national parliaments are the directly elected representatives of the people. Thus, they hold the legitimation to form the core of a democratisation process of international politics. Furthermore, members of parliaments have an interest to participate in both international politics and in the international networking of parliamentary work. Therefore, in order to establish a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN, the Committee for a Democratic UN has made national parliaments the central element of their strategy.

During the first phase, consent for these reforms is acquired from national parliaments. In the second, these parliaments seek to mount pressure on their respective governments. In the third phase, the national governments then define and pursue their points of view within the bodies of the UN. The fourth and last phase consists of the adoption and implementation of the demand by the UN.

At the moment, our efforts are still in the first phase. The Committee for a Democratic UN has embarked on a strategy to urge the national parliaments of several European states to support the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN. This strategy builds on a first resolution adopted by the European parliament in 1994, Article 17 the EP stating that it "wishes consideration to be given to the possibility of setting up within the UN a parliamentary consultative assembly to enable the elected representatives of peoples to participate more fully in the work of UN bodies". At that time, there was no follow-up to the decision, due in part to the absence of an international network to coordinate the lobbying. Today, the Committee for a Democratic UN seeks to fulfill this role.

We have already initiated political processes in different national and international parliaments. The first lobbying success was seen in the German Bundestag in September 2004, where a resolution calling for stronger parliamentary participation in the development of the United Nations was adopted. Furthermore, draft resolutions for the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly, submitted by their commissions on foreign policy, are still pending in the German Bundestag as well as in the European parliament. In France, Belgium and Spain similar activities have already begun. Parliamentary initiatives are also being prepared in Denmark, India and Mexico.

But to date, the most symbolic acknowledgement of the call for a UN parliamentary assembly has been achieved in Switzerland. On the initiative of the Society for Threatened Peoples, the organization representing the Committee for a Democratic UN in Switzerland, an open letter was addressed to Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommending the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly. We chose this method in particular in order to gain the support of as many members of the Swiss parliament as possible and to assure public appeal. Finally, the letter was signed by 101 of the 200 members of the Swiss National Council. With the engagement of key figures from every political faction within parliament, the request gained support in every one of the parties. This was the basis of its success.

This is the first time that the majority of a national parliament has supported the establishment of a parliamentary assembly at the UN and, as such, has great symbolic meaning. However, in the form of an open letter, it does not have any formal or legal effect. In order that legally binding decisions follow this symbolic success, the call for UN reform must be formally addressed to the Swiss government in the form of a parliamentary intervention. As the Swiss representative of the Committee for a Democratic UN, the Society for Threatened Peoples is preparing a resolution calling on the Swiss government to support the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly at the international level, primarily within the UN itself. We are heading toward the launch of this initiative within the year.

The chances of garnering further support for this reform is promising. During the past months, the Swiss government has been preparing recommendations for UN reform in the field of human rights. The climate is therefore conducive for a fruitful discussion on other UN reform issues. Furthermore, the Swiss ambassador to the UN, Peter Maurer, has stated that he appreciates our call for UN reform as it falls within Secretary-General Kofi Annans framework for UN reform and adheres to the general lines of Swiss foreign policy.

More importantly, the Secretary-General himself conveyed that our initiative for the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN was "very much welcomed as it comes at a time when the United Nations is reflecting on how to reform itself and strengthen its cooperation with civil society."

We are also encouraged by the developments taking place elsewhere. There are indications that the European parliament will adopt a resolution from its Commission on foreign policy supporting the call for the establishment of a UN parliamentary assembly in its session in June this year. As the first affirmative official decision taken by a parliament on this issue, this would be a ground-breaking success. Despite the fact that the European parliament is not a national institution, the influence of such a decision on parliaments and governments within the European Union would be remarkable.

Another significant development is the support of world-wide networks of political parties. The Socialist International supported the establishment of a Parliamentary Assembly at the UN in October 2003, the Liberal International followed recently in May 2005. We are now planning to approach governments in which liberal parties are involved.

Thus, you see, Ladies and Gentlemen, that we still find ourselves in the first phase of implementing the call to establish a UN Parliamentary Assembly. Nonetheless, by adhering to our strategy of lobbying various parliaments, we are hopeful of a breakthrough in the near future in attaining the support of a first national government.

Admittedly, for the ultimate success of our project, two conditions are indispensable. Firstly, civil society as a whole should agree on a collective strategy and continue the political process together. European, American, African, Asian and Oceanic efforts must be coordinated and consolidated. It is only together that we can achieve our goal. As you can see, the work of the Committee for a Democratic UN has been focusing mainly on Europe. But we want to widen this focus. I hope very much that this conference will be an important step towards such a global strategy.

Secondly, only a political process can attain such reform. And this political process has begun. Much time has been spent on scientific debates and analyses regarding the development and form of a future Parliamentary Assembly at the UN. This important groundwork has been set. We have done our homework: we have presented our strategy paper for a possible institutionalisation of a future Parliamentary Asembly at the UN. We know what we want to achieve. Now we must discuss how we want to achieve it. And decide on it quickly. The time for reform has come.


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