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A critical United Nations update is available

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A critical United Nations update is available


Since the 1940s, we’ve updated our technological infrastructure, so why shouldn’t we update our democratic infrastructure?

By Caroline Vernaillen

75 years after being founded, the United Nations (UN) are due for a democratic update. The institution was shaped by a post-war world in tatters and everything about it is geared towards keeping channels of dialogue between nation states open to avoid conflict. But the world we live in is very different to that of the 1940s. 

The challenges we face today are cross-cutting and transcend national borders. Climate change doesn’t play zero sum politics, conflicts increasingly involve non-state actors and our financial systems are so intertwined that bad loans in the US can cause mass unemployment in Europe. The need for international cooperation to address problems like these has never been greater, but our democratic infrastructure is hopelessly outdated. 

Along with a coalition of over 150 NGOs, Democracy International is calling for three democratic updates to the United Nations system. With the We The Peoples campaign, we launched a global call to introduce a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, an instrument that would allow citizens’ to put items on the Agenda of the UN; a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which would give citizens a say in who represents them at the UN; and  the creation of a UN Civil Society Envoy office, which would strengthen the involvement of NGOs at the UN. The call was joined by organisations from around the world, including Avaaz, Greenpeace, ActionAid and Open Society Foundations and can still be endorsed here.

We are not alone in thinking that the UN needs an urgent update. At the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary last year, Secretary General Guterres organised a yearlong round of discussions with a total of over 1.5 million citizens in over 195 countries. The goal was to find out how people around the world see the UN and what role it should take on in the future. An astounding 97% of them said that they think the work of the UN is important and necessary, but 40% also said that it is very remote from their lives. Two solutions that many of them pointed out and that were included in the UN’s own concluding report are the introduction of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative and a UN Parliamentary Assembly. 

The results of these consultations were a wake-up call for UN member states and they decided to launch a real reform process. At the UN General Assembly in September last year, they tasked Secretary General Guterres with drafting a roadmap for the future of the UN, one of the main elements he should investigate is how the UN itself can be upgraded. To collect ideas from citizens and civil society, he launched an online consultation where people could propose solutions and vote for the ideas of others. Our three proposals were some of the most voted for on the platform!

On 7 June, the UN General Assembly will elect a President for its 76th session. In a hopeful sign, they organised a public debate with both candidates and asked civil society to send in their questions for them. Our question on whether the new President of the General Assembly would support democratic innovations to the UN such as the UN World Citizens’ Initiative was shortlisted from among the submissions and put to Honourable Abdullah Shahid, currently the Foreign Minister of the Maldives. He responded that “the important thing for us now is to connect with the people. […] That our constituents, our tax payers, would say, yes, here is an organisation that responds to us, here is an organisation which stands [for] us and here is an organisation which delivers for us. We need to give that hope and confidence to them. That is the spirit of the Charter of the United Nations, that is the spirit of the 75th anniversary declaration and we have to make sure we deliver on it.”

All of these developments show that both within the United Nations system and with the Member States there is a realisation that the United Nations need to be brought into the 21st century. Right now, there is unprecedented momentum to build a more inclusive and democratic UN. So the important thing now is to keep at it. In the next weeks we will be reaching out to Ministers of foreign affairs in 83 democratic UN Member States, asking them to push forward our proposals for UN reform. Because eventually they will be the ones who will vote on these proposals to make the UN truly participatory. 

We have incredible technological opportunities today that allow for truly global participation, so why not use them to bring people from around the world into global decision-making? We don’t use 1940’s technology for anything else in our lives. There is no need to use 1940s global governance to address the most important challenges we face today.

Photo credit: Programmers Marlyn Wescoff and Ruth Lichterman wiring the right side of the state-of-the-art ENIAC computer in the 1940s - U.S. Army Photo – Public Domain


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