75 years ago, on 23 August 1947, over 400 participants from more than 20 countries and 50 organizations met in Montreux, Switzerland, for the first “Conference of the World Movement for World Federal Government.”
Albert Einstein and Britain’s Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin were among those who sent their best wishes. Supporters of world federation at the time also included the Indian freedom fighters Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Principles of the proposed world federation
Opening the congress, Swiss international lawyer Max Habicht sketched key components of the proposed world government: First, a world parliament “in which the representatives of the peoples of the world will make world laws by majority vote”. Further, “a judiciary which will interpret the world laws” and finally, “an executive, assisted by an international police force, to compel every human being anywhere in the world to obey world laws.”
The conference adopted the “Montreux Declaration” as the principle policy platform of what is today the World Federalist Movement, in short WFM. Apart from limiting national sovereignty by transfering power to global legislative, judicial and executive branches, the document expressed further principles: universal membership, subsidiarity, guaranteeing human rights, power to raise global taxes, and global control of nuclear technology and “other scientific discoveries capable of mass destruction.”
Little change in 75 years
Looking at the Montreux Declaration today is a reminder of how little the political structures of the world have changed. International law and the world system are still based on the harmful principle of national sovereignty. The UN has hardly changed at all. Even the European Union, which is the most advanced effort at supranational integration, has not yet transformed into a true European federation.
The decade after the Second World War was a “Golden Period” of world federalism. The horrors of the war were still present. The development of nuclear weapons and their use in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a shock that made it obvious that humanity is on a path of self-destruction. All eyes were on the magic year of 1955 when a UN Charter Review was supposed to be held. But this review hasn’t taken place.
Reform of existing institutions
World federalists shifted their attention towards reforms of existing institutions to make them more effective and democratic. Many of the proposals are still on the agenda. WFM, for instance, advocates Security Council reform, empowering the International Court of Justice, the creation of a standing UN peacekeeping force, global sources of revenue like a Tobin Tax, and a UN Organization on the Environment.
WFM early on promoted the creation of a UN Commission on Sustainable Development, which in fact was done in 1992. The organization has been promoting an open and fair system for NGO access to the UN via ECOSOC and beyond. It was WFM which revived the proposal for a UN Parliamentary Assembly after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. World federalists helped launch the international campaign advocating the assembly back in 2007.
WFM was a key partner in the 1 for 7 billion campaign that promoted, successfully, a more transparent and open selection of the UN Secretary-General.
The project world federalists are best know for is their contribution to the creation of the International Criminal Court, ICC. WFM was crucial in mobilizing support for the court which came into being in 2002. From 1995 to 2020, WFM led the Coalition for the ICC. It also led the Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect, a doctrine which, too, represents a huge step forward in international law.
Authoritarianism as obstacle to world federation
After a distinguished career, WFM’s long-time Executive Director Bill Pace went into retirement in 2018. Following leadership changes and disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, WFM is now in a process of re-establishing itself.
The long-term goal is as valid as ever, if not more so, as a long list of pressing global issues testifies. At a fundamental level, in my opinion, the single most important obstacle to world federalism is authoritarianism.
A world federation, in the true sense as explained before, needs to be based on democratic values and practices. It needs to guarantee human rights for all people on the entire planet. And democracy itself is a human right.
This is not compatible with authoritarian government.
From the outset it was a delusion, in 1947 already, to believe that world federation could be formed with a Stalinist Soviet Union on board. A system of collective security, perhaps. But not world federation.
This is probably where world federalist thinking failed most, and still does, in some cases. And that’s why advancing democracy needs to be a key world federalist strategy. This conclusion is reflected in a long-term Theory of Change adopted by Democracy Without Borders.
For sure, there is no time to waste until all countries have become democracies. In the meantime, lesser goals than a fully-fledged universal world federation need to be pursued, while keeping the long-term vision alive. For instance, supporting better, more inclusive and more accountable global collaboration, irrespective of government type, in fields such as peace and security, disarmament, climate governance or global health.
In terms of the UN, the proposed UN Summit of the Future in 2023 hopefully will implement or put on track important changes.
This article is based on a presentation at a webinar organized by the Young World Federalists. From 1998 to 2018 the author was a member of WFM’s Council, now abolished.