A World Citizens’ Initiative as a tool to strengthen global movements

The panel discussion on a UN World Citizens' Initiative was part of the 2020 Global Online Forum on Modern Direct Democracy organized by Democracy International

At an online discussion hosted by Democracy International on the occasion of the 2020 Global Online Forum on Modern Direct Democracy and the United Nations’ 75th anniversary that was commemorated this year, four international experts shared their views on the proposal of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative (UNWCI), concluding that it could be a way to address the UN’s democratic deficit, serve as a tool for global social movements and give regular citizens a voice.

Addressing the UN’s democratic deficit

The UN’s Independent Expert on the promotion of an equitable and democratic international order, Livingstone Sewanyana, stressed that there was a big gap between citizens and the world organization. “The UN remains a very static organ where the voices of the people are not really heard”, he said. Instead, “geo-politics are at the centre of political decision-making and as such the plight of the people tends to be overshadowed.” The Ugandan human rights defender confirmed that he is a “very strong advocate” of a UNWCI as it would be a mechanism for the involvement of citizens.

Daniela Vancic, program manager at Democracy International, confirmed that it was “difficult, if not impossible” for individual citizens to have a say at the UN level. She pointed out that the proposed UNWCI was based on the example of the European Citizens’ Initiative as the only instrument of transnational citizen participation in existence today. She explained how a UNWCI could work and referred to a detailed study that was published by the Campaign for a UNWCI in the previous year. Basically, geographically representative self-organized citizens’ committees would be able to register proposals and if those get the support of more than five million people from different world regions within a set time span they would need to be considered by relevant UN bodies.

Watch the panel discussion at YouTube

A tool for global social movements

According to Augustin Maggio, public engagement campaigner for collective climate action at Greenpeace International, his organization endorses a UNWCI because “we believe that above all else, the public interest needs to be ensured and we can only achieve that if we prioritize that people are heard over special interest. We think that a UNWCI could be a good instrument to do that”, he said. He added that this mechanism could play “a very significant role” in amplyifing social movements. He argued that the geographical requirements of the instrument would help strengthen their global character. A UNWCI could represent a “kind of global framework” that provides a “tangible sense of direction” to the climate movement and others, he remarked. However, the campaigner said that the outcomes would need to be “very clear and easy to process” so people can see the value. “The UN as a whole is perceived as a foreign space”, he noted, “and this process needs to feel different.” While the youth movement pays “a lot of attention” to the UN, he said that groups particularly such in the Global South “have lost a bit of faith” as the UN’s impacts are “not quite discernible” to them.

Giving citizens a voice

Soo Suh, program manager at the Asia Democracy Network based in Seoul, recalled that 2019 was a year characterized by an extraordinary mobilization of protests around the world. “The people really want change”, she pointed out, adding that they are frustrated and “have something to say”. For this reason, a UNWCI that would highlight people’s voices would be “a great opportunity if done right”. The instrument, she explained, would complement civil society efforts and give a role to individual citizens. With reference to the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong she said that this would allow global citizens to express solidarity and protest where governments fail to do so at the UN and other forums.

In the discussion, further topics were addressed such as a UNWCI’s political feasibility under current conditions, the importance of a robust and accessible online system for the collection of signatures and the notion of global citizenship.

A first initiative on climate change?

Putting forward a question as the panel’s moderator, Democracy Without Borders’ executive director Andreas Bummel asked which topic should be raised by the first World Citizens’ Initiative under a scenario that the instrument would exist next year.

Augustin Maggio said that there should be a process in place for consultation with civil society groups and the broader climate movement and that the topic should be systemic, intersectional and broad in nature. Soo Suh agreed with this, adding that the first thing that came to mind was climate change as an issue that affects everybody across the globe. Daniela Vancic pointed out that a World Citizens’ Initiative on climate change might have a “very good chance to be successful” and for this reason, too, would be a good choice.

Growing support

The campaign for a UNWCI by now has been endorsed by over 230 civil society organizations. A few days ahead of the online event that was held on 22 September 2020, European progressive foundations recommended the proposal in a report on „renewing multilateralism“.

Most recently, on 19 December 2020, the Union of European Federalists (UEF), an organization with 20 chapters advocating European integration, adopted a resolution expressing support. 

According to Pilar Llorente Ruiz de Azua, a member of the UEF’s Federal Committee and an associate of Democracy Without Borders, „Europe has an important role to play in making the UN more inclusive and democratic.“ She added that „the statement adopted by the UEF is an important step towards mobilizing political support on the continent for a UNWCI. The participation of the citizens and the civil society is indispensable to build supranational democracies. The same way that the European Citizens‘ Initiative has strengthened democracy at a EU level, the UNWCI will greatly empower citizens of the world to join and act together on global challenges. The UNWCI, along with a UN Parliamentary Assembly, are key pillars to achieve a truly global democracy.“