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UN Parliamentary Assembly discussed at Global Governance Forum

A view of the flags outside the UN Headquarters on 23 September 2020. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas

The creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly was dicsussed at the virtual UN75 Global Governance Forum that was held from 16-18 September 2020 on the occasion of the opening of the 75th General Assembly of the United Nations (UN).

Organized by the Stimson Center in collaboration with more than thirty institutions dealing with UN affairs, the forum featured 26 thematic panels and the publication of a roadmap towards a “more effective and inclusive” world organization that highlights 20 multi-stakeholder partnerships and 20 “innovation proposals”.

Reforming and strengthening the UN

One of the innovation proposals included in the document is the creation of a UN Parliamentary Network that would “address the UN’s democracy and legitimacy deficits” as a step towards a full-fledged assembly.

This issue was explored by a forum panel convened by Democracy Without Borders (DWB) that brought together five members of parliament: Darren Bergman and Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi from South Africa, Domènec Devesa, Member of the European Parliament from Spain, Alhagie Mbow from the Gambia and Lilia Puig, Member of the Mercosur Parliament from Argentina.

The online session was recorded and can be watched at YouTube above

The session was introduced and moderated by DWB’s Executive Director Andreas Bummel who highlighted a new study on a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) published by DWB just a few days ahead of the forum.

According to this study, a UN Parliamentary Assembly is needed to establish the necessary level of democratic legitimacy that would allow for a substantial strengthening of the UN. Bummel pointed out, that the assembly would also bring novel ideas to a stalling UN reform process while paving the way for the development of a global parliament, a long-term goal also flagged in the forum’s roadmap document.

“The best way to understand the UNPA proposal is to look at it not as a static model but as an institutionalized process that we would like to set into motion. We envision a UNPA to function as a catalyst for UN reform and to strengthen democracy and global governance over time”, he said.

Strengthening parliamentary influence

In the discussion, most of the panellists highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the vulnerability of national systems in handling global issues. In addition, Nomsa Tarabella-Marchesi referred to “a very chaotic response” at the global level and noted that the pandemic has overwhelmed national authorities to such an extent that the UN’s sustainable development goals have been marginalized in political agendas.

Sharing a similar view, Lilia Puig asserted that the health crisis has brought about a tremendous reinforcement of national executives at the expense of national parliaments. She said that not only are other national issues being neglected but democratic institutions are suffering from increasing marginalization. It was argued that a UNPA could strengthen parliamentary influence at the level of global governance and help sustain the functionality of parliamentary institutions in a time of crisis.

Darren Bergman carried this argument further and said that in his assessment the public wants a global parliament “with teeth” that would be able to take effective action, for instance in the case of mass atrocities.

Making the UN more accountable

Most of the speakers touched on a gap that exists between the domestic impact of multilateral decisions and the poor accountability of the United Nations. “We have to move away from closed and secret meetings whereby citizens have no idea of what is happening with regard to decisions that are affecting them on a daily basis”, said Tarabella-Marchesi.

According to Bermgan, there is “almost a political capture of the UN” which carries the risk of “biased reporting” through the UN. In his opinion a UNPA could play an oversight role looking at this issue. In addition, it was pointed out that UN action is often shaped by countries with financial clout such as the permanent members of the Security Council. A democratic chamber for the UN would instead facilitate accountability chains between the organization and global citizen representatives.

Getting support from national constituencies

As the moderator highlighted, the project of a UNPA has long been supported by regional parliaments such as the Mercosur Parliament, the Pan-African Parliament or the European Parliament. The panel discussed in how far these and other international parliamentary institutions also serve as models for a UNPA and whether there are lessons to be learned.

It was pointed out that one of the elements hampering the legitimacy of the Mercosur Parliament (Parlasur) derived from the absence of a clear-defined and exclusive mandate. Members of national parliaments would find it difficult to accept any kind of interference with regard to their own activities. The introduction of direct elections to the Parlasur thus was faced with delays and resistance as it would make the body more independent from national parliaments. “The most important thing is that a UNPA has its own jurisdiction and its own agenda”, said Lilia Puig.

Based on his experience as a member of the Pan-African Parliament (PAP), Alhagie Mbow confirmed that in his view, the African Union’s parliamentary body – that is currently composed of members of national parliaments – indeed represents an example to draw upon. He confirmed that the African Union originally decided that the PAP should be directly elected and have legislative powers but that member states now fear that such an empowered PAP would diminish the leeway of national authorities. He said that an embryonic UN Parliamentary Network could be a first acceptable step of a progressive development leading to a formal UNPA as this would help build the necessary political will over time.

While acknowledging the need to build support from among national authorities, Darren Bergman said that a full-fledged UNPA would actually be more attractive and popular than a mere network. Speaking in favor of direct elections to a UNPA, he noted that he does not think that “national parliamentarians qualify as global politicians”.

Lessons from the European Parliament

It was highlighted that as a directly elected co-legislative body of the European Union (EU), the European Parliament was the most developed institution of this kind in the world. Domènec Devesa declared that “the European Parliament became what it is today not only because the institution itself fought very effectively to gain power and importance but also because of a kind of deterministic path”. He noted that the EU was “a supranational project from the beginning” and that “unfortunately this philosophy is absent from the UN charter”. He added that “it is not understood by the member states that they belong to an organization that has a potential to go beyond an intergovernmental organization”.

Devesa suggested that the example of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly should be explored more as this body was created by parliamentarians on their own initiative and over time was recognized by the NATO alliance. According to the EU parliamentarian, “we should grab any opportunity” to move closer to the objective of a UNPA, thus endorsing a step-by-step approach. “We should not worry about legislative powers right now”, he said.

In a comment for this blog, Andreas Bummel noted that the UN75 Global Governance Forum was a “resounding success”. “We congratulate the Stimson Center and all involved”, he said.

The forum’s plenary proceedings featured speakers such as Mary Robinson, Ban Ki-moon, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Hina Jilani, Juan Manuel Santos and Danilo Türk.

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