01 Juli 2016

Putting citizens at its heart: The UN needs a 21st century makeover

The new selection procedure for the UN Secretary-General shows that, after all, reforms of the United Nations are possible. In a series of guest articles, representatives from politics, science and civil society answer to the question: If you could change one thing about the functioning of the UN, what would it be? Today: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah. (To the start of the series.)

“A system that privileges states over people can no longer be acceptable.”
Most of today’s intergovernmental institutions – the UN included – were designed in the 1940s and 50s, with the pre-eminence of states in their blueprint and post-War hierarchies at their heart. It is a global governance system that has produced some hugely significant and positive outcomes, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the 1951 Refugee Convention, to CITES. But it is also a system that has entrenched the power of the state, at the expense of the citizen. That needs to change.

A global democratic deficit

At the very heart of our institutions of global governance a democratic deficit festers. Growing numbers of people – at national level – are angry about their lack of voice, about inequality, corruption and environmental destruction. There is growing frustration at the perceived failure of power holders to act in the best interests of their citizens. There is anger at the blatant, endemic collusion between economic and political elites. But, for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded at national level, instead of offering recourse to protection and support, our institutions of global governance are doubling the democratic deficit, legitimising the rule and power of authorities at the national level.

These are institutions that have failed to keep pace with the geopolitical changes of recent decades. Bodies such as the UN Security Council reflect a post-Second World War order that has long since passed. Operationally, these fundamental power imbalances are holding our international institutions hostage; hardwiring them towards meeting the wants of a handful of states, rather than the needs of the world’s people.

Participatory democracy

While participatory democracy has begun to sweep political institutions at every other level, from local councils to state assemblies to national legislatures, global governance has failed to respond to our changing expectations of citizen participation. Its institutions remain remote and largely disconnected from the people whose lives they impact.

We are told that intergovernmental decisions, often relating to the most pressing global issues – from climate change to international tax law – can only be made by unelected officials, sealing deals behind closed doors. But discontent at this arrangement is beginning to build. Civil society consultations – or ‘insultations’, as I like to call them – are largely superficial, box-ticking exercises. Excluded from the key decision-making and policy-shaping arenas in our international governance institutions, civil society representatives are invited to give tokenistic input at best.

We need to redesign our global institutions

This system, one that privileges states – and often corporations – over people, can no longer be acceptable. We urgently need to redesign our global institutions with citizen participation at their heart. We need to democratise global governance, engendering an environment that enables civil society to engage substantively. We need to build upon the premise that decision-making at the global level should be just as transparent and accountable as at any other level of governance. It should also be as direct as possible.

This means that South African diplomats, for example, should have to justify to their home electorates why they repeatedly vote against Human Rights resolutions in Geneva. The Secretariats of our international institutions should not be accountable to a handful of ‘permanent representatives’, a phrase that is emblematic of the wider problem, if ever there was one.

A ‘lower house’ for the General Assembly

We need radical new forms of representation and oversight. Perhaps the UN General Assembly should have a ‘lower house’, populated by citizen-elected representatives; a curb on the excesses of dominant states in the upper house. Perhaps global governance institutions could be audited on their ability to respond to and achieve progress on issues identified by people, rather than just governments.

Leaders of UN agencies should have regular interactions with civil society and the media. Agencies could create accessible databases of information and statistics relating to their work. By taking these steps, and others, the UN could ensure the practical realisation of the civil society rights that are enshrined in its own treaties.

Secretary General: the one for seven billion

I am encouraged by the small steps already taken this year to open up the election of a new UN Secretary-General. The opacity of this appointment process until now has been symptomatic of the disregard for the citizen – and, conversely, the primacy of the state – that is imprinted into the UN system. The role of the UN Secretary General is to serve the 7 billion citizens of the world, not the interests of a handful of states. I hope the position’s newest incumbent will embed this notion – that they are the 1 for 7 billion – at the very heart of their mandate.

When the new UN Secretary-General takes up their post, I hope they look to consolidate some of the agencies currently tasked with outreach into a single new body, perhaps called UNgage, whose primary purpose would be to engage citizen voice and to feed it into global decision-making processes. Such an agency could easily replace the UN’s current ‘information centres’ whose primary purpose seems to be to a one-way peddling of UN propaganda. Instead, these centres should be the nodes of a global two-way conversation.

From a state-centric to a citizen-oriented model

And let’s be clear. These steps are both realistic and achievable. Any barriers to achieving them will be largely political, boiling down to the willingness of states to relinquish the control they currently exercise, and often so jealously guard.

Our institutions of global governance, and the decisions they make, have never mattered more than they do today. A growing number of complex, pressing problems crisscross our national borders, similarly affecting the lives of people who may be physically separated by hundreds of thousands of miles. This makes it imperative that we move away from the state-centric model of international governance towards a citizen-oriented model.

And public awareness of this issue is rising, as is public outrage. If the UN, and other intergovernmental institutions, fail to keep pace, they risk fatally undermining their credibility and global authority. We have come to accept that ‘one state, one vote’ is the hallmark of our global decision-making systems. But I dream of a day when this is swept aside. ‘One person, one vote’: now that would be really something.
Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the Secretary General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and a member of the UN High-Level Panel on Humanitarian Financing.

Pictures: UN Photo/Mark Garten [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; private [all rights reserved].

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