Program Areas

Program Areas

Global democracy and the UN discussed in New York

Event on "Global democracy and the UN" on 18 September 2023 in New York. Photo: Stimson Center

Proposals for improving citizen participation and representation at the United Nations took center stage at an event in New York that was part of this year’s Global People’s Assembly, a gathering organized by numerous civil society organizations.  

Nudhara Yusuf, executive coordinator of the Global Governance Innovation Network hosted by the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., at first presented the idea of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative (UNWCI). She pointed out that this instrument would enable people to put forward proposals on key issues of global concern and those with sufficient support would be put on the agenda of the UN. She highlighted that this could be of particular use for people in low and middle income countries and allow for grassroots mobilization beyond civil society groups that are “present in New York or Geneva for most conferences and summits”.

Mobilization beyond the usual groups present at the UN

On the issue of the UN advancing democracy, Yusuf introduced the proposal that the UN’s Human Rights Council appoints a UN Special Rapporteur on Democracy. The mandate could be based on democratic rights already expressed in a variety of UN resolutions, making it clear that this was a global initiative. “Civil society has a key role to play in helping correctly set up this mandate”, she said.

Jo Leinen, a former member of the European Parliament, reminded the audience that the UN Charter begins with the words “We The Peoples” but that the UN was only an exclusive club of governments. For this reason, he argued, “the UN has no real democratic legitimacy”. A UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), he suggested, would address this by giving elected representatives a say and thus would make the UN more inclusive. Members would establish transnational parliamentary groups that break through traditional national and geopolitical formations, he said.

Panelists from left to right: Mandeep Tiwana, Jo Leinen, Nudhara Yusuf, Rita Kakati Shah and Jefferey Huffines. Photo: Stimson Center

According to Mandeep Tiwana, UN representative of CIVICUS, “we are living in times of extreme restrictions on civic space which is impacting meaningful civil society participation at the UN and in multilateral agencies”. He urged the appointment of a UN civil society envoy “along the lines of the youth envoy who’s done a commendable job in opening up youth participation at the UN”. He pointed out that a civil society envoy was supposed to reach out to groups in particular “who are not able to come to New York or Geneva”. 

The UN has no real democratic legitimacy

He noted that the proposals were complementary to each other. The UNWCI, UNPA and civil society proposals are championed by the “We The Peoples” campaign for inclusive global governance. The civil society envoy was also part of the UNMute campaign supported by 52 states and 100s of NGOs, Tiwana explained.

Providing more context, Jeffery Huffines, a senior advisor at the Coalition for the UN We Need (C4UN), noted that the “We The Peoples” proposals were also included in the Interim People’s Pact for the Future that resulted from the March 2023 Global Futures Forum hosted by his organization as well as regional consultations. The goal was to “influence the negotiated outcomes of the UN Summit of the Future in September 2024”. There was hope that a UN civil society conference could be convened in May 2024 in Nairobi to serve as an important forum for further dialogue.

John Romano of the Transparency, Accountability, and Participation (TAP) Network used the opportunity to highlight a new campaign coordinated by his organization that seeks to bring different constituencies together to hold governments and each other accountable to the commitments they make with regard to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

During the interactive moderated discussion, Rich Wilson of the Iswe Foundation shared the story of how a diverse group of actors organized a Global Citizens’ Assembly on the occasion of the 2021 UN climate conference in Glasgow. Such an assembly could be organized to further advance consultation on the Interim People’s Pact, he suggested.

In the room and online were participants from various backgrounds and countries who brought their own perspectives, advocacy initiatives and agendas with them. There was much passion and energy as they opened up about the challenges and issues they felt either personally, or via the groups they represented, and how those related to the overall goal of changing the UN.

The session was jointly organized by Democracy Without Borders, C4UN, CIVICUS, Democracy International, TAP Network and The Millennials Movement. It was moderated by Rita Kakati Shah of Democracy Without Borders and UMA.