Global citizens’ assemblies: expanding the global democracy agenda

Aerial. People crowd on pedestrian crosswalk. Top view from drone.

In recent years, democracies around the world have experimented with citizens’ assemblies. The main idea behind such assemblies is that randomly selected citizens, who form a statistically representative sample of the underlying population, deliberate with the help of experts’ input and make recommendations on pressing policy issues. The most prominent examples are citizens’ assemblies in Australia, Ireland, France, and Germany deliberating on topics as diverse as same-sex marriage, climate change, and artificial intelligence. The proliferation of this approach at the national level has led commentators to identify a “deliberative wave”. In this context, the most significant development for global governance reform advocates was the establishment of the first global citizens’ assembly (GCA) at the UN Climate Change conference in 2021, organized by civil society. On this occasion, we noted that “citizens’ assemblies of this kind should be a permanent feature in the consultative toolbox of the UN.”

In September 2024, the UN plans to adopt a “Pact for the Future” at a summit of heads of state and government, the so-called “Summit of the Future”. Negotiations are ongoing and last month, a “zero draft” was presented. In the UN’s civil society consultations, Democracy Without Borders recommended that the pact’s chapter on “transforming global governance” should include commitments to the establishment of a UN parliamentary body as well as the mechanisms of citizens’ initiatives and global citizens’ assemblies, among others. While DWB has been promoting the first two proposals for a long time, the idea of a global citizens’ assembly has been added to its advocacy agenda more recently.

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly is considered a successful example for a deliberative citizens’ body. Image:

As efforts are underway to institutionalize citizens’ assemblies at the global level, we would like to consider how GCAs are in line with the work of advocacy groups such as DWB and the global democracy agenda more broadly. Here, we concentrate on three points: ideals, complementarity, and pragmatism.

Fully complementary to other global democracy proposals

The ideals of GCAs are fundamentally in the spirit of global democracy reform advocacy. The idea of randomly selecting citizens to represent the underlying population goes far back in the history of democratic theory, as the application of sortition (that is, random selection) methods in Ancient Greece demonstrates. The fundamental difference between sortition-based approaches and present-day representative democracy is the following: In the former, ordinary citizens themselves are lifted into deliberative functions, rather than electing professional politicians to represent them. While the advantage of the latter approach is that (ideally) everyone has a say in who their representatives are, the former method ensures that the sample of assembly members is indeed statistically representative of the underlying population. Therefore, both approaches produce institutions that represent the underlying population – albeit in different ways.

The approach of randomly selected global citizens’ assemblies is fully complementary to other global democracy proposals such as creating a UN assembly of elected parliamentarians and vice-versa. Both approaches come with particular strengths and challenges with regard to factors such as proximity to citizens’ everyday concerns, institutional memory, democratic legitimacy, protection against lobby influence, party discipline, the ability to react quickly to dynamic political problems, the time and thoroughness required for legislative processes, and many others. They are thus well placed to complement each other if implemented properly. Specifically, sortition- and election-based democratic institutions can provide checks and balances, while also helping each other to fulfill their particular functions more effectively. A good example is the Irish experience a few years ago: The citizens’ assembly was created by the government to deliberate on same-sex marriage and other issues, submitted its recommendations, and the parliament then decided to hold a referendum (pointing to yet another complementary democratic mechanism). And of course, GCAs could be an important driver of other reforms if they are mandated to deliberate on institutional questions such as the creation of a world parliament and/or a UN Parliamentary Assembly.

Finally, there are good pragmatic arguments for GCAs. The fact that democracies around the world have been experimenting with citizens’ assemblies indicates the willingness of politicians to give this new type of institution a role in policymaking processes. In addition, examples such as the Armenian citizens’ assembly 2023 and Global Assembly at COP26 in 2021 demonstrate that citizens’ assemblies are viable results of civil society efforts, not even needing governments and policymakers to be established and run. The latter example of the Global Assembly 2021 holds particular promise for global democracy advocacy groups such as Democracy Without Borders. It showed that citizens’ assemblies are not only viable at the national level, but even at the global level. As such, they promise to be a significant democratic addition to the global governance architecture and become part of the broader global democracy project that promoted the International Criminal Court and advocates a UN Parliamentary Assembly, among others. Global democracy advocates should thus support GCAs not least because of the realistic chance they have of becoming part of the global governance landscape in the near future.

Farsan Ghassim
Dr. Farsan Ghassim is the Junior Research Fellow in Politics at The Queen's College, University of Oxford. He previously worked at Bain, the German foreign service, the EU Parliament, and the UN. He holds a DPhil in International Relations (Oxford), an MA in Global Affairs (Yale), and a BSc in Management (LSE).
Andreas Bummel
Andreas Bummel is Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders and co-authored the book "A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century"