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World Citizens’ Initiative promoted at international civil society week

A World Citizens’ Initiative as an instrument of citizen participation at the United Nations was promoted on 11th April 2019 at a plenary session of the International Civil Society Week 2019 (ICSW) in Belgrade that brought together over 850 civil society leaders, activists and concerned citizens from across the world.

A voice for global citizens

Co-hosted by the global civil society alliance CIVICUS and the Serbian civil society association Civic Initiatives with support of the Balkans Civil Society Development Network, this year’s conference was held under the theme of “The Power of Togetherness.”

Delegates shared ideas and proposed solutions around pressing challenges in the fields of human rights, democracy and international development, and explored ways to use the power of collective action to stand up for democratic freedoms across the world and to counter the worldwide democratic regression that is being witnessed even in countries historically considered bastions of democracy.

A citizen-based global political sphere

Presenting the idea of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative (UNWCI), Caroline Vernaillen of Democracy International stressed that addressing the UN’s democratic deficit needs to be on the agenda, too. “The UN is a club of representatives of member states. There are no means for ordinary citizens to take influence and this has to change,” she said. The activist from Belgium stated that a UNWCI would help “create a citizen-based global political sphere.” 

Caroline Vernaillen and Andreas Bummel with CIVICUS’ Secretary-General Lysa John (middle)

According to Vernaillen, the instrument of a UNWCI would allow global citizens to gather support for specific proposals which then would have to be considered and acted upon by the UN General Assembly. She emphasized that a similar instrument already exists in the European Union, the European Citizens Initiative.

CIVICUS, Democracy International and Democracy Without Borders have started preparing an international campaign to promote a UNWCI and participants of the civil society week were invited to join their efforts. The UNWCI campaign is planned to be launched in September or October 2019 when the next session of the UN General Assembly begins. 

A powerful new idea in direct democracy

Joe Mathews, a board member of Democracy International and Co-President of the Global Forum for Direct Democracy, commented on Twitter that a World Citizens’ Initiative was a “powerful new idea” in direct democracy, “open to people everywhere, to attack big problems and check global power.”

Democracy Without Border’s Executive Director Andreas Bummel said that the proposed UNWCI is in line with the notions of a “people-centered UN” and strengthening multilateralism. “Civil society and democracy are under pressure worldwide. This is no reason to back off. Quite the contrary, we need to defend our ideals and push stronger with bold proposals.”

The UN’s 75th anniversary

The UNWCI campaign will be launched with a view of the 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020. On 11th April 2019, one of the numerous sessions of the civil society week dealt with this topic. Jeffery Huffines of CIVICUS gave an overview of the UN’s preparations of a UN2020 summit (see also this recent article). He urged civil society representatives to engage with this process and proposed that NGOs should think about whether there should be a global civil society forum on the occasion of UN2020.

The new initiative Together First was represented at this session by Giovanna Marques Kuele. She said that the UN needed to become “more democratic, more representative and more transparent.” Together First plans to identify the most important reform proposals and push for them ahead of a UN summit in 2020.

Speaking at the ICSW, the UN’s Assistant Secretary-General for Strategic Coordination, Fabrizio Hochschild, stated that on the occasion of 2020 UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “will call for a global youth driven conversation on what kind of world we want 25 years from now, in 2045.”

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