This page contains extracts from the article by Lysa John and Mandeep Tiwana from CIVICUS, the global alliance for civil society, contained in UNA-UK’s magazine “A First Aid Kit for the World”. The complete article can be read here.
It is telling that the UN Secretary-General chose to mark its 75th anniversary not with a celebration, but with a global consultation aimed at listening to the people it serves.
A major criticism of the UN is that its panoply of systems and structures seem bewildering and self-serving to outsiders, making it difficult to work through them. The UN’s bureaucracy is sprawling and often slow-moving. Its structure is rigidly hierarchical and powerful institutional inertia makes reform hard.
Civil society activists and organisations seeking new forms of people-centred engagement to meet contemporary challenges are stymied by outdated UN procedures with their attachment to precedent and lack of imagination.
Accreditation with the UN can be politically loaded; many human rights organisations are effectively shut out. This means that the UN loses out on opportunities to hear vital voices. Further, many of the UN’s key agencies and departments are based in global north countries with discriminatory visa regimes that exclude the vast majority of people of the global south.
These failings are not merely procedural. They point to a deeper dysfunction of obstructionism and failure by UN member states to live up to and support the UN’s founding values. There is no more visible symbol than the Security Council whose permanent members have repeatedly failed to discharge their responsibility to maintain international peace and security.
The consequences are profound for some of the world’s most persecuted peoples, including Palestinians, Uyghurs, Rohingyas, Sahrawis and Tibetans. They have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in just this past decade in conflicts in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
The UN’s state-centred procedures and exclusive decision-making spaces controlled by government representatives sit at odds with the people-centred aspirations of the UN charter. Some progress has been made to enhance people’s and civil society participation at the UN but much more needs to be done.
Notably, the Declaration to commemorate the 75th anniversary includes a solemn promise to “upgrade the United Nations”. In this spirit three proposals to advance the people-centred aspirations of the UN Charter are worth considering.
First, an office of a people’s or civil society champion could be created to identify barriers in participation, spur inclusive convenings and drive the UN’s outreach to the public and civil society organisations. Such a champion could lead the implementation of a broader strategy for opening up the UN to people’s participation and civil society voices while addressing asymmetries in engagement across UN agencies, departments and forums. CIVICUS is working with several organisations including UNA-UK and the Together First initiative to make this idea a reality.
Second, a procedural mechanism in the form of a citizen’s initiative could be established to mandate key UN bodies including the General Assembly and Security Council to act on matters of global importance following submission of a joint petition by a certain number of global citizens. Such a mechanism would enable people to have their voices heard and also provide an avenue to shape the agenda of the UN.
Third, people across the world should be given an opportunity for direct representation and voice at the UN through a parliamentary assembly. Deficits in representative democracy that exist in far too many parts of the world are further accentuated at the UN through a state-centric bureaucracy driven model. A parliamentary assembly could help make the UN more accessible to people.