Humanity needs democratic representation

The people of the world need to fight for their right to global democracy and a global parliament.

Singapore''s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly,
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on September 27, 2019 [File: AP/Richard Drew]

It is a paradox: The world and its people have never been so closely interwoven than today, yet there are more fences and walls separating them than ever before.

Many governments seem to resist the inevitable. World unification is no longer a philosophical consideration. It is becoming a political possibility. And for a growing number of people – intellectuals, activists, politicians, academics and others – it is a necessity.

While it is true that important metrics such as global average life expectancy show impressive improvements over time, the current global situation is characterised by escalating crises and unsolved problems.

The danger of global warming was known for decades and yet, to this day, no effective action has been taken, as record levels of carbon emissions testify. Not much time is left, if any, to prevent a runaway climate crisis. It is already creating life-threatening conditions for millions.

For a long time, there have been warnings that new pathogens will evolve and trigger global pandemics. The World Health Organization (WHO) was instructed to launch an investigation into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as many felt it was unprepared, incoherent and ineffective.

Inequality is also growing across the world. Addressing this issue in a recent speech, UN chief Antonio Guterres said, “While we are all floating on the same sea, it’s clear that some of us are in superyachts while others are clinging to the floating debris.” 

According to the World Food Programme, 135 million people are facing crisis levels of hunger. There are currently close to 80 million displaced people who have fled war, persecution and instability. It is the worst humanitarian and refugee crisis in 70 years.

The advantages of globalisation and rising productivity disproportionately benefit the affluent. Corporate tax rates and corporate tax revenues continue to fall.

Multinational corporations and the super-rich are able to avoid paying taxes using loopholes and weaknesses in the international taxation system. Trillions are hidden from tax authorities in offshore accounts. Intergovernmental efforts to stop illicit financial flows and abolish tax havens have achieved little in the past 25 years. 

Despite an obligation in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that the five official nuclear powers need to seek complete nuclear disarmament, there has been no real progress.

Instead, modernisation of nuclear arsenals is pursued. There is a race to build hypersonic missiles and major arms control treaties are crumbling. The destructive power of nuclear weapons continues to represent an existential threat to humanity.

The current political order is unable to deliver lasting solutions. It is suffering from a structural problem. With almost 200 states that insist on their national sovereignty, effective international action and regulation are hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

Intergovernmental organisations such as the UN or the WHO are only as effective as their member states allow them to be. Otherwise, their hands are tied. In particular, they are dependent on those large contributors who pay the bills. The UN does not represent humanity. It is an exclusive club of government executives whose job it is to pursue national interests.

It is time that global institutions be equipped with the power they need to deal with global threats and manage global common goods such as the atmosphere. They need independent legitimacy, authority and funding.

There are signs that a tipping point is being reached. Two years ago, in a survey of 10 countries in all world regions, 82 percent of respondents said that the UN needed to be reformed to better address current and future global challenges. Almost 70 percent agreed that a supranational organisation should be able to make enforceable global decisions to manage global risks.

An indispensable element of an empowered UN would be a popularly elected global parliament, based on a global constitution, that represents all citizens of the world.

Intergovernmental bodies, in which the representation of citizens is mediated by career diplomats appointed by governments, do not have the democratic legitimacy for binding decision-making powers, even if these are strictly limited to matters of global concern.

UN chief Guterres himself noted two months ago that a new model for global governance must be based on full, inclusive and equal participation in global institutions.

Indeed, as more and more issues transcend national boundaries, the people of the world need to insist on their right to democracy at a global scale. They are the sovereigns. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, government authority needs to rest on the will of the people and this will shall be expressed in periodic and free elections. There is no reason why this should not apply globally as well.

Some major countries do not provide for free and fair elections even at home. Efforts for national democracy and global democracy thus are interlinked and depend on each other.

In the meantime, the creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly represents a practical and doable step on the path towards a world parliament. Members initially could be chosen by political groups in national parliaments and pioneering countries could introduce direct elections if they wish to do so. The selection should reflect existing political views as best as possible and not only the government.

By contrast to the importance of geopolitical groups at the UN, the work of this complementary parliamentary body should be based on transnational political groups that are established by representatives according to common political views. These groups would have to include members of a minimum number of states from a minimum of world regions.

The idea of a global parliament that gives all citizens on the planet equal political representation goes back to the time of the French Revolution. If the people of the world unite behind this vision it can soon be at the top of the political agenda.

We are in the middle of a struggle between the forces of autocracy and nationalism on the one hand and democracy and global awareness on the other.

In view of the climate crisis and global risks, which of these poles will gain the upper hand may decide the fate of human civilisation for centuries to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.