Democracy at the Global level? An idea whose time is (almost) come

Last week I attended (with one National and one Labour colleague) the 130th meeting of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.  The IPU is the world gathering of MPs from 163 parliaments.  It is a big affair.  The peoples’ representatives talk to one another.  They embrace, fall out, pass resolutions, and return to base.  It is something worth doing – unless we wish to turn our backs on the future.

Refining traditional diplomacy through popular legitimation is the challenge of our times.  Not without irony, the world gathering of the national legislature (IPU, born 1889) preceded the world gathering of the national executives (League of Nations born 1919, reincarnated as UN, 1945).  Irony, because the UN is where the peoples of the world turn for secular salvation while the IPU is scarcely known.

One reason is that the IPU is tucked away in beautiful and serene Geneva, rather than thrown into chaotic and abrasive New York.  If the two institutions existed, somewhere, across the street from each other, things might be different.  There would be daily and intensive interaction between the world’s legislative and executive bodies, ultimately though possibly not without pain, to good effect.  But they don’t, and neither the Americans nor the Swiss seem disposed to permit the idea to flourish. We must await Generation 3, no doubt.

Another reason is that the IPU has been Euro-centric.  It was born of 19th-century French-British idealism, and its secretaries-general have all been European – Swiss, Norwegian, Swiss, Swiss, Italian, French,  French, Swedish. I sought to break the mould back in ‘98 by running against the Swede on the ticket ‘time for change’.  He won.  But it was broken last week: an African was elected to replace him when he retires in June.

The global worldview over Euro-centrism was also illustrated last week when the plenary voted to take up Central African Republic ahead of Ukraine for the emergency debate item – (potential) genocide trumping (potential) Cold War. Humanity, by majority, has had it with Atlantic strutting.  The resolution called on all IPU member parliaments to ‘press their respective governments’ to respond rapidly to appeals for urgent humanitarian action (

The CAR-Ukraine thing strikes at our own identity angst.  Not unlike the UN, where we huddle in the corner of the WEO group (West European and Other), at the IPU we huddle in the even more bizarrely-named Twelve-Plus group.  Memories seem to fall short of a clear recollection of the history and logic of 12+.

But whatever, the animus against Russia (also a member of 12+) was palpable.  A 12+ draft resolution would have excoriated Russia for its sins.  It came as a shock and outrage that the plenary decision in favour of CAR prevented any debate and resolution on Ukraine.  I am not against debating Ukraine and also citing Russia for its actions.  But I am against the studied political hypocrisy of Western powers which subliminally overlook Panama (1989), Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (2003), and belligerently expect others to do so as well.

The conference also dealt with gender equality, democracy & human rights, and nuclear disarmament.

I chaired the drafting committee for the disarmament resolution.  It was a fast and open game at times – with Cuba & Venezuela and Iran & Pakistan on the one side, and France, Canada & Russia on the other, doing battle.  But things have a way and we emerged with quite a decent statement of intent for a nuclear-free world. It focused on a nuclear weapon convention (a total ban on nuclear weapons on all countries) plus a study of the (de-)merits of nuclear deterrence doctrine. ( The resolution was ostensibly adopted by consensus, but reservations were entered by Russia, Iran, India and Pakistan….

And there is the new IPU Committee on UN Affairs.  It seeks to strengthen the relationship with the UN.  There is a reservoir of goodwill between the two institutions now – which was not the case for all of the past half-century.  I sought to ensure that the IPU does not simply aim to ‘contribute to and support’ the UN, but rather ‘engage with’ it.  After all, our national parliaments do not seek to ‘contribute to and support’ our executive governments – rather we tend to legitimise them and hold them strictly to account.  So should we, at the global level.

And it was astonishing that climate change scarcely figures in IPU deliberation and action.  I repeatedly made the point that it should, and shall endeavour to follow up.  But it’s a big organization….

Final thought – on the nature of global democracy.  At the regional level, the European Parliament has evolved.  It has had direct electoral representation since 1979 and its 766 MEPs sit not behind national nameplates but as political groups.  At the global level the IPU, in contrast, has its MPs sitting behind the national nameplates.

The difference is, of course, huge.  The MEPs are direct representatives of the peoples that elect them. At the IPU, we are essentially representing the parliaments that have sent us, cross-party and all. The day members of parliament are directly elected to represent their peoples at the global level, is the day that global democracy is born.

There is a movement for a UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) along these lines, to essentially replace, or evolve from, the IPU. That would be global democracy, with the members of a UN parliament ranging alongside the national diplomats at the UN, holding the executive branches to account.  A half-way step would be national MPs assembling in a UNPA in New York, along party lines rather than national.

This kind of idea is certainly inspirational.  But it raises complex and profound issues – constitutional, political, administrative.  As such, it is a long way off.

4 Comments Posted

  1. Thank you Ken for an informative article. I knew little of the organisation until I read your words. Thank you for attending and trying to bring some change.

  2. How effective is the European Parliament? There are many problems with direct representation at a national level – could it be worse at a regional or global level? My calculation is that we would have constituencies of around 10 million. Is it possible to represent that many?

  3. Unfortunately, what rules the globe is the dictatorship of the market. It is not just explicit mechanisms such as the Trans Pacific Partnership which erode the capacity of sovereign democratic nations to decide their fate. It is the pernicious rationale of neoliberal economic reasoning that politicians worldwide feel shackled to. Yet this benevolent dictator delivers on few of its promises.

    The new type of cold war in Europe demonstrates yet another empty promise of neoliberal economics. The pitch we heard was that sovereign states would feel the constraints of globalized trade so that countries would refrain from using military aggression to achieve their goals. Not only are these penalties impotent, but to the degree that the west attempts to isolate Russia, Putin will find China will eagerly buy whatever products they can no longer sell to the west, be it oil, lumber, rare earth minerals or coal.

    Really, even the “liberal” part of the name is a charade. What we are watching is the dynamics of carbon economy mercantilism- nothing more. It’s not sufficient we abandon the dictatorship of neoliberal models of the economy. We need to deconstruct the formidable pillars of the carbon economy. That may be very difficult in the US and many western countries, but perhaps we can make some headway in NZ and light the path for a coalition of green economies with favourable trade relationships based on the degree of carbon free emissions levels.

    The WTO will freak out of course, but let them. The only protectionism it would represent is protectionism of the planet: In economic terms, the protection measures needed for preventing apocalyptic economic scenarios if we see the 5 degree rise in global temps that scientists view as likely if we fail to act.

    The higher bar is to free ourselves from the dictatorship of the carbon market. (As if we needed a higher bar).

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