Argument for a World Assembly

The world needs a democratic assembly – one human, one vote. The assembly does not need legislative power or an army; it simply needs to be a democratic representation of humanity.

Such an assembly – sometimes referred to as a world parliament – would pass resolutions on issues of global concern, such as the environment, poverty or conflict.

These resolutions, while not invoking any formal obligation on states, would exert influence in other ways. Pressure would be channeled through citizens of democratic states, a proportion of who would seek to promote a “human agenda” – i.e. policies which benefit humanity as a whole. Furthermore, assembly resolutions would provide coherent policies around which critics of the current status quo could unite.

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The problem for those who want to promote a human agenda for the world is that we cannot unite on concrete policies. It’s not sufficient to say that poverty in Africa is bad, that civil war in Iraq is terrible, or that environmental degradation is harmful to all of us.

If we want to resolve these problems we need to agree on concrete solutions, and to do so we need a legitimate decision-making institution.

It’s not for Oxfam to decide how to to stop children dying from poverty, nor is it up to the strongest states to decide when war is ‘legitimate’ or when we should act against climate change.

These are decisions that we can make for ourselves, in a transparent and democratic way.

What about the UN?

It is often assumed that the UN – perhaps with a little reform – could serve the function of setting a democratic global agenda. However, the UN is not democratic, nor could it ever be. Being an organisation comprised of states, it represents state interests and cannot be a sum of individual human interest.

Even if the effective veto of the five permanent Security Council members was removed, population-size taken into account (the fact that India has a hundred times more citizens than Belgium means nothing in today’s UN), and only democratic states allowed to join, the UN would still not be democratic.

That’s because strong states would still be able to coerce votes out of their weaker clients.

I remember watching the Guatemalan Ambassador deliver an extremely pro-Israeli intervention during a debate on the human rights situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at the UN Commission on Human Rights. It was clear to everyone in the room that the US Ambassador, who had been talking to the Guatemalan representative before the intervention, had pressured the Latin Americans for the statement.

That was, of course, not an isolated event. It is an accepted characteristic of the international system that strong states can ‘encourage’ weaker, dependent states to promote and support their agendas. It is because of this influence of economic and military power, that the UN, as an inter-state organisation, can never represent human interest.

Members of a world assembly, on the other hand, would not be under the same pressure. They would be answerable only to their constituents, and so would not be susceptible to the type of coercion that occurs between states at the international level.

What form would the assembly take?

Simplicity and transparency are key to all representative democratic systems. What is described below is just a rough idea to demonstrate how the logistical side should not be a barrier to implementation:

– 600 members (slightly less than the UK Parliament) would mean about one for every ten million people (about the same number of constituents as the London Mayor has)

– Boundaries for constituencies could initially be drawn up by a simple computer algorithm, with the eventual assembly either voting to confirm the boundaries or changing them appropriately

– No military or economic resources are required (beyond voting and administrative costs), and because it sits outside the state structure, the assembly would not need authorisation from states for its establishment

That said, there are bound to be areas of the world where states will not allow elections for a world assembly, not least because they do not allow elections for their own governments.

This need not threaten the project. Some have suggested holding “underground elections” in such cases; other alternatives include leaving those seats empty as a visible protest against the denial of the democratic rights of those people.

The world assembly could use its own legitimacy to press peacefully for democratisation in those countries which deny the suffrage of their populations.

Wouldn’t a world assembly lead to tyranny?

Some critics suggest a world assembly would rapidly turn into a tyrannical regime. Personally, I have yet to read a convincing argument about how that might happen. To reiterate the first point of the article: the assembly would have no army it could use to enforce its will on any individual or state.

It would not introduce any more guns or bombs into the world than those that already exist.

However, a referendum every ten years or so on the existence of the assembly – an idea that George Monbiot advocates – is a way of ensuring democratic control over it.

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Power already exists at the global level – a world assembly will do nothing to increase or decrease that. However, such an assembly would give people all over the world an equal say in deciding the issues that mean the most to humanity and how best we can address them.

I am not saying that it wouldn’t be radical. Giving an equal voice to people regardless of their statehood is certainly a departure from today’s system. However, for anyone who believes in both democracy and the equality of people, then surely it is an inevitable step in the direction of progress.

31 October 2006 – halfiranian at gmail dot com

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