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UN panel silent on citizen participation and representation

United Nations logo on the fence outside its headquarters in New York City. Photo: Shutterstock, licensed for use on this website

Last week, the UN chief was presented with a report by a High-Level Advisory Board which he had set up to propose measures to make multilateralism more effective. The document titled “Breakthrough for People and Planet” puts forward numerous recommendations that relate to six “transformative shifts” the panel believes will “help tackle the challenges facing us today and those on the horizon.” 

The report highlights the need of “rebuilding trust” in multilateralism through “inclusion and accountability”, “regaining balance with nature and providing clean energy for all”, ensuring “sustainable finance”, a “just digital transition”, “effective collective security arrangements” as well as strengthening governance of “current and emerging transnational risks”. According to the panel, in short HLAB, these “shifts” need to be based on “ten constituent principles of multilateralism” which it says are “people-centered, representative, transparent, equitable, networked, resourced, mission-focused, flexible, accountable, and future oriented.”

Secretary-General António Guterres (centre) meets with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (left) and Stefan Löfven (right), Co-Chairs of the High-level Advisory Board on Effective Multilateralism. The Co-Chairs hand the Report “A Breakthrough for People and Planet: Effective and Inclusive Global Governance for Today and the Future” to the Secretary-General. Image: UN Photo/Mark Garten

In the field of “rebuilding trust”, the document stresses that the multilateral system should be “people-centered” and that this requires it to be “radically and systematically inclusive”. It says that “meaningful opportunities” are needed for “participation in global decision-making by all states, civil society, private sector actors, local and regional governments, and other groups that have been traditionally excluded from global governance”.

No consideration of involving citizens and elected representatives

Among other things, the document suggests that cities and subnational regions could be directly involved in global governance “without diluting the central role played by states”. The same is suggested for the private sector whose direct involvement was “an unavoidable aspect of more effective multilateralism” according to the panel. Civil society inclusion could be facilitated by a “network of formally recognized civil society focal points” across the UN.

Democracy Without Borders, a civil society organization that promotes global democracy, better global governance, and global citizenship, commented that the report puts forward “important goals that deserve full support” such as advancing gender equality, giving more voice to civil society, refugees and forcibly displaced people, children and youth. Further, the panel’s call for shifting away from an “overreliance on decisions by consensus” to qualified majorities was “spot on”.

According to the group’s Executive Director, Andreas Bummel, there was a “critical gap” in the report, however. “Citizens and their elected representatives are the original source of legitimacy. They are more than just some stakeholders one can forget about”, he said. “We regret that the panel failed to recognize this”, he commented, adding that “the report is silent on how to better involve citizens and parliamentarians at the UN and in multilateral processes.”

This is not how you rebuild trust

With this in mind, the panel’s recommendations on strengthening the role of the private sector were “concerning”. “In our view it is unbalanced to call for corporations to have a seat at the table and at the same time ignore the need of citizen participation and representation. This is not how you rebuild trust”, Bummel stated. 

In the panel’s consultations, the civil society campaign for inclusive global governance, “We The Peoples”, submitted three proposals: the creation of the instrument of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a High-Level Civil Society Envoy. The campaign, co-convened by Democracy Without Borders, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and Democracy International, is backed by over 200 civil society organizations, groups, and networks and numerous parliamentarians. The proposals were discussed and again received support at a recent gathering of civil society and experts in New York.

“The report calls for multilateralism to be representative and accountable, functions provided by a parliament at national and parliamentary assemblies at regional levels – and yet the report makes no mention of the evident need for a parliamentary body at the global level”, John Vlasto, chair of the Executive Committee of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy, remarked.

“Given how global challenges such as climate change increasingly affect citizens across borders equally and the role that especially citizen movements have played in the past decades in thematizing and addressing these issues, this is an extremely unfortunate missed opportunity”, said Caroline Vernaillen, program manager at Democracy International. “It is interesting and promising though that the report recommends a bigger role for cities and regions in multilateralism. These levels of government are much closer to citizens’ daily lives and are often true engines of democratic innovation”, she added.

The High Level Advisory Board’s report is supposed to help inform discussions ahead of the UN’s 2023 Sustainable Development Summit and the 2024 Summit of the Future. The document says that “the full range of proposals offered to the board can be found on our website”. At the time of writing, this was not yet the case.

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