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Proposals for a more democratic UN broached at Gwangju Democracy Forum

Following a military coup-d'état in South Korea, the national army in May 1980 crushed a democratic uprising in Gwangju in a brutal three-day massacre. Image: Detail of May 18th memorial, 손형순/Flickr, CC BY-SA 4.0

Civil society statement and UN75

On May 20th, Democracy Without Borders hosted a fruitful online session at this year’s Gwangju Democracy Forum in collaboration with Democracy International, CIVICUS, Together First and the Coalition for the UN We Need. The session titled “We the People’s: three proposals for a more democratic UN” initiated discussions on how a more inclusive UN can be realized.

Andreas Bummel, Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders, begun the session by introducing the recent civil society statement for inclusive governance, which was launched in April this year.  The initiative calls on UN member states to establish a democratic UN via the adoption of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, a UN Parliamentary Assembly, and an office for a UN Civil Society Envoy. The document has been endorsed by more than 150 organizations and networks from across the world.

Screenshot from the online event at Zoom

Bummel highlighted that the UN Secretary-General is expected to present a report on advancing a so-called ‘common agenda’ at the UN later this year. The agenda was outlined in a high-level resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on the occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary last year, and includes items such as building trust, strengthening partnerships and upgrading the UN. According to Bummel, the common agenda is an opportune time for the UN and its member states to take the proposed civil society initiatives on board, and “follow up on their lofty rhetoric about making global governance more inclusive”.

During the session, Yasmina Gourchane, a representative from the Coalition for the UN We Need introduced the UN’s digital consultation, which was also launched in April this year, with the hopes of gathering views from a representative sample of civil society actors on how to effectively inform the Secretary General’s upcoming report.

The online consultation was closed on May 24th and has received more than 200 proposals with the call for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, a UN World Citizens’ Initiative and the office for a UN Civil Society Envoy receiving most votes, indicating high public interest and support for these issues.

Following the introductions, Ivonne Soares (a Member of Parliament from Mozambique), Caroline Vernaillen (Democracy International) and Rianna Nayee (Together First) took turns detailing how a UN Parliamentary Assembly, a UN World Citizen’s Initiative and an office for a UN Civil Society Envoy would function.

Takehiko Uemura, a Professor at Yokohama City University, outlined the democratic deficit of the UN and Charles Santiago, a Member of Parliament from Malaysia, as well as Professor Hyung-sik Shin of Pukyong National University, provided further comments.

Opportunities and barriers

The value of the proposals were highlighted in the discussion, especially their potential to help build representative platforms that address urgent and common existential risks such as climate change.

Even so, there were concerns that the realization of the three initiatives would be challenged by issues such as politicization and bureaucracy at the UN, uneven balance of power between states, and an enjoyment of the status quo by powerful states, as well as difficulty in identifying sources of funding, and an ‘internal culture of inaction’ at the UN.

Despite the acknowledgement of these barriers, there was a general agreement that solutions could be reached, including civic education to sensitize the general public on the possibility and importance of a more democratic UN, and lobbying small and medium states in the General Assembly to mobilize momentum for these initiatives and gain approval for funding through the UN budget.

Responding to concerns that certain major states under autocratic government would not allow democratic reforms at the UN to be successful, it was noted that the focus should be shifted to the question why democratic states, too, haven’t yet embraced this effort.

All in all, the meeting ended on a positive tone, with an acknowledgement that a more inclusive UN is not only  crucial, given the impending dangers facing humankind, but possible, too, given the overwhelming support from civil society. For now, we wait with bated breath to see whether the UN Secretary-General’s report on the ‘common agenda’ will finally bring us one step closer to the democratic UN we need.

The Gwangju Democracy Forum

The overall program of the Gwangju Democracy Forum 2021 in South Korea included more than twenty sessions discussing pressing issues such as the situation in Myanmar and human rights in Asia. The forum is organized by the May 18 Memorial Foundation which commemorates and promotes the spirit of the democratic uprising in Gwangju in May 1980. Due to restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference in South Korea was held mainly in a virtual format.

Amy Oloo
Amy completed a master's degree in international affairs at American University of Paris and is an associate at Democracy Without Borders