By Metta Spencer
Our current challenge is plain: The world’s crisis requires us to develop adequate means of global governance quickly enough to solve the worst threats to civilization. The specific threats are unlimited – e.g. the wars, global warming, the dangers of Artificial Intelligence – but it’s the world’s inability to manage them through something like the UN that makes them really hard.
The urgency is unmistakeable and the prospects bleak. We must prioritize. It seems that three rectifications are essential: (a) how to choose democratic decision-makers; (b) the accountability of the decision-makers, and © the authoritativeness and predictability of international law. I think these three challenges can be met merely by fixing five of the most dangerous problems of governance, specifically these:
Global problems now require global solutions. The United Nations should be the hub of global governance but cannot serve well while being composed of unaccountable nation states.
Nation states and the UN perform vital functions. However, some of their functions could be performed by parallel organizations created as demonstration projects. Such exemplifications might arouse a public demand for the official adoption of these improvements in global governance, even by the UN itself. Let’s try that.
To solve the aforementioned five threats, as few as six changes to the United Nations may suffice. They all would enhance democratic global decision-making and at least one of them could be demonstrated today with existing digital technology by even a single billionaire donor. Four of the changes may require changes in the U.N. Charter, but some of them have already been suggested by the Secretary-General.
So, here is a proposal for six institutional changes, which will create a:
The United Nations has six main organs: the General Assembly (GA), the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trusteeship Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice.
Deficiencies in the first four of these organs have become apparent, but, fortunately, one hears few complaints about the Secretariat or the International Court of Justice (ICJ). However, the world largely ignores the decisions of the ICJ, which should be the final authority regarding international law. The problem is not in the court itself but in the supremacy of nationalism over the legal unity of humankind.
ECOSOC is ineffective as a locus for resolving global economic and social problems
The General Assembly, as a policy-making body of nation states, is unrepresentative of the human population. Seats should be allocated equitably, but all proposals to that end have failed. Instead of replacing the GA, a more realistic approach is to leave it intact but add another body to address issues without being controlled by nation states. It is hard to solve problems by negotiating agreements among nations, as illustrated by the failure of the world’s countries even to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (A global conference of independent teenagers might have done a better job.)
The Security Council is even more problematic, for it also does not allocate power fairly to the human population and, by privileging the Permanent Five states with veto power, frequently keeps the U.N. from fulfilling its mandate: “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Though the veto should be abolished, there is little chance of that, so we must consider other ways of protecting international security.
The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is the central forum for discussing international economic and social development. Unfortunately, it is the most awkward organ of the UN because its mandate overlaps and competes with more powerful and prestigious organs, including the Security Council, which tends to regard every new issue as a security matter. As a result, ECOSOC is ineffective as a locus for resolving global economic and social problems. Secretary General Guterres has proposed changes that I’ll echo below.
The Trusteeship Council was originally created as a major organ of the United Nations to oversee the transition of colonies toward independence. In fact, all former colonies long ago gained independence, so there is no work for the Trusteeship Council, which is now a dormant entity waiting for a new purpose, which Guterres has wisely proposed as a body for “stakeholder” deliberations. Stakeholders are interest groups, such as businesses and some non-governmental organizations.
Thus, few of the UN reform proposals to be advocated in this paper are new. However, one innovation is uniquely important for democratization, so I’ll devote special attention to its structure: a World Citizens Assembly.
International laws are not enacted by any legislative body; they seep into legitimacy through institutional cracks, such as by gradually becoming recognized as “customary law,” or by treaties that are sometimes abrogated by the very states that created them. The UN General Assembly can pass resolutions, but they are non-binding recommendations, not laws. Moreover, as a body representing sovereign countries instead of the world’s citizens, the U.N. lacks the legitimacy to be accepted everywhere as a world legislature.
Nor is there any universally recognized way of enforcing even agreements that are considered binding. Nations can express indignation with trade sanctions and travel restrictions, but there is no world police force – nor do many of us want one. We’d prefer a lawless world rather than a centralized and potentially repressive, armed world government.
The U.N. lacks the legitimacy to be accepted everywhere as a world legislature
But we do need laws, and for legitimacy, those laws must represent the will of the people. Even national legislatures today lack such genuine support, as public opinion polls show. In November 2022, only 22 percent of an American sample approved of Congress. On January 18, 2023, an Ipsos poll in Britain found that only 14 percent were satisfied with “the way the government is running the country.” Meanwhile, Russia’s government-controlled polls show Putin’s hand-picked Duma enjoying considerably more support than Western parliaments. Since free and competitive elections do not ensure that legislatures reflect the intentions of an informed citizenry, establishing any global legislative body will require a different approach.
A popular proposal for renovating the UN is the addition of a legislative body to the existing six UN organs: a “World Parliamentary Assembly” to be elected directly by individual voters worldwide. Its status would be equal, if not superior, to that of the General Assembly. However, it is not now possible to hold a free and fair world-wide election – even if elections did usually choose astute representatives as lawmakers, which is often not the case. No world parliamentary assembly, as normally imagined, is now feasible. Worse yet, most people might rightly fear such a body. Conclusion: global democracy is now impossible. So, hurry! We must invent a solution immediately!
Perhaps what we have been calling democracy isn’t the real thing. The founding fathers of the U.S. created a republic, but is it a real democracy? Ancient Athens was actually a democracy; the citizens ruled themselves instead of electing their rulers. Today, elections don’t satisfy people, but might self-government perform better?
That seems unlikely. After all, voters are electing climate change deniers and opponents of vaccination, so why would they make smarter decisions if they had the power to make laws themselves instead of just picking their law-makers? Maybe the human population is just too dumb for democracy now, especially since so many issues are technically complicated and require deep study.
Indeed. Political decisions do require deep analysis, but there is evidence that a cross-section of a diverse population, when deliberating together over a period of time, typically makes sound decisions. I won’t review that evidence here, but it is impressive, as discussed by Helene Landemore and David van Reybrouck and Kofi Annan.
Juries prove the point. We have been recruiting juries for centuries with sortition — selection by lot from a whole population of citizens – without doubting the general fairness of this process. We trust juries composed of ordinary people because they deliberate before deciding, whereas voters do not usually study issues before deciding, but instead just pick a party and support its candidates. Hence, elections (including referenda) often yield unwise decisions.
In a remarkable shift, some governments have lately established “citizens assemblies” to deliberate about specific controversial issues and recommend policies to the existing parliament. The members are not elected but are a representative sample of the whole population, as in ancient Athenian democracy. Sometimes now, as with France’s climate change citizens’ assembly, the government even promises in advance to adopt the assembly’s recommendations.
Digital technology now enables an accurate sampling of most persons on the planet. Indeed, for perhaps $10 million, we could create a voluntary global legislature – a World Citizens Assembly (WCA) – parallel to the UN General Assembly. Here’s my detailed plan for precisely such an independent WCA. It will select by sortition (lottery) a representative cross-section of humankind – irrespective of their countries or political parties – to deliberate together and propose binding decisions for the world.
DELEGATES WILL PARTICIPATE BY ZOOM ON COMPUTER OR CELL PHONES; NO TRAVEL. Fortunately, over 85 percent of the human population now owns a mobile phone, so let’s initially recruit two or three million people worldwide aged 18 or older to register as world citizens on their phones and pay a tiny annual fee. This entitles each citizen to participate by (a) suggesting three serious problems per year for the WCA to tackle and (b) observing all WCA meetings by Zoom.
To register as a new World Citizen, your application will show your cell phone number; email address; new selfie photo; age; education level (some secondary school/some post-secondary); gender (M/F); and language choice of the six UN official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, or Arabic.
Hardly anyone who does not know one of the six official languages will want to be a world citizen. However, only about half of the world’s population speaks any of them, so the potential size of our registered world citizenry is reduced to, say, half of the eight billion persons, i.e. four billion, of whom only 85 percent are digitally equipped. That makes 3.4 billion potential world citizens. But many of those 3.4 billion are children, so the maximum number of members today will be less than three billion. We’ll start off small, of course, but hope to add enough voluntary world citizens to give the whole project greater legitimacy than any parliament in history.
TWO EQUAL TIME ZONES: EAST AND WEST. Another limitation is imposed by the clock. Our world citizens will watch some live WCA events on their computers or cell phones but they must meet separately in two different time zones, East and West.
EIGHT CONSTITUENCIES. When registering as a World Citizen, you will join one of these eight constituencies, as defined by language and zone: Eastern zone English/ Eastern zone Russian/ Eastern zone Chinese/ Western zone English/ Western zone Russian/ Western zone French/Western zone Spanish/ Western zone Arabic.
Many _English_-speakers and _Russian_-speakers live in each time zone, so there should be both an Eastern and a Western constituency for each of those citizens. Thus, we need eight constituencies.
ANNUAL POLL OF WORLD CITIZENS. Before each new session of the WCA, pollsters will compile a list of 20 global issues and email it to each registered World Citizen, who will then pick the four that he or she considers most important. The three issues receiving the most votes will become the working agenda for the new citizens assembly, all eight sections of which will convene by Zoom. Their meetings can be observed by any registered world citizen.
RECRUITING MEMBERS (MCAS) FOR EIGHT SECTIONS OF A WORLD CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY. Well before each new WCA session begins, an initial list of invitees for each 50-person WCA Section shall be selected by sortition from the list of registered World Citizens for each of the eight constituencies. All registered World Citizens shall have an equal chance of being selected by lottery from a stratified random sample of his/her own constituency and invited to serve for one year in that section of the WCA session, beginning on January 1.
A stratified random sample is selected by calculating the percentage of persons in each constituency with the following demographic traits: Age (up to age 44/45 years and older); education (some secondary/some post-secondary); and gender (male/female). A quota is then established defining how many of the 50 MCAs are chosen by chance from a pool with each of these traits. Since there are eight constituencies, there will be eight sections of the WCA, each with 50 MCAs, or a total World Citizens Assembly of 400 persons. The eight sections representing constituencies will separately deliberate on the same set of three issues throughout the year and all of their reports will be reconciled and merged at the end.
No doubt many people will decline to serve, but the search will continue until an adequately representative sample consent. Ideally, there will be a small financial compensation for serving.
No one shall ever serve on more than one such citizens assembly and, since there will be no election to that office, no campaigning or acceptance of campaign funds or other gifts shall be permitted. Nor is there a role for political parties in this process.
Each Member of the Citizens Assembly (MCA) is obliged to participate by Zoom in at least 80 percent of his or her section’s Zoom meetings for one year, maintaining visible on-screen presence. Each WCA section should meet 150 -200 hours during that year, as all groups deliberate in their own language about the same three serious political issues.
Create a voluntary global legislature to deliberate together and propose binding decisions forthe world
They will question expert witnesses and stakeholders and, with a trained facilitator, discuss in sub-groups of seven or eight persons, while thousands of their own World Citizen constituents watch them on cell phones or computers.
There are two reasons for dividing the 400-person WCA into eight sections. First, speakers of differing languages who live on opposite sides of the earth cannot conveniently meet at any given hour.
The other reason is to avoid distortions common in group dynamics. Sometimes groups reach a consensus that ignores some reality. The less their diversity, the more error-prone the group, so we can benefit from comparing eight different groups’ recommendations. The difficulty will be in combining all six analyses into a single report. For that, the eight sections will elect a common Executive Committee.
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE. Each assembly shall appoint a member to the eight-person Executive Committee representing of all eight of these 50-person sections. It melds the sections’ separate reports, forming a composite text, which must be returned to all eight sections for approval. If six or more of the eight sections accept this new common text, it will be adopted, even over the objection of any two reluctant constituencies. If, however, there are not six approvals, the Executive Committee will continue amending the text until it is eventually accepted. If, by the end of the year’s session, a composite document has not been adopted, it will be added to the list of 20 issues from which all World Citizens will choose the agenda for the next year’s citizens assembly.
The 400-person WCA will begin as an ordinary non-governmental organization, but as its membership grows, it will gather legitimacy, informing public opinion globally and influencing the policies of national states. As the global crises become more severe, we hope the U.N. General Assembly will recognize it as an official decision-making organ, equal to its own status. If amplified with an adequate staff, its decisions may even become legally binding as a truly democratic and representative, but un-elected, World Parliamentary Assembly.
Since 1994, one of the major organs of the UN, the Trusteeship Council, has been mostly a splendid empty hall. Secretary General Guterres wants to repurpose it as a forum for discussions and recommendations by multilateral groups that he calls “stakeholders.” He does not spell out who these groups are, but they could combine two types of organizations that are now housed in other U.N. departments: the civil society organizations now affiliated to the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and the business firms that now belong to the Global Compact.
There are currently 5,451 NGOs affiliated with ECOSOC. Each one can send people to consultations, so each year some 7,000 NGO representatives participate in those events in New York alone. Repurposed, the old Trusteeship Council could become the home for the world’s civil society organizations.
Guterres also mentions corporations as “stakeholders” who belong in this new organ. Initially, the proposal to mix corporations with NGOs seems incongruous, for these two types of organization typically pursue incompatible goals. Yet the idea has promise, for the Global Compact comprises corporations and other enterprises that have pledged to work for sustainability. This orientation aligns them with progressive activists. Such cooperation should be encouraged and many more enterprises prodded to join. This Council could become the chief setting for solving the big contradictions between civil society and corporate reality.
The “wisdom of the crowd” is more accurate than a group of experts at producing collective estimates
A body of delegates might be selected by sortition each year, half from the list of ECOSOC’s civil society organizations and half from the Global Compact list of corporations. By deliberating together as another citizens assembly and reaching joint policy recommendations (presumably not binding laws), the new body would endow the corporate world with a bit of accountability, which is otherwise grievously lacking today.
In addition to the Stakeholders’ Council, Secretary General Antonio Guterres, in his April 2022 report, “Our Common Agenda,” proposed another new U.N. body, the “Futures Lab.” Both organs can probably be created without amending the U.N. Charter.
The Futures Lab could be a sub-section of the Secretariat, which of course Guterres controls. Comprising mainly scientists, it would brilliantly complement the World Citizens Assembly, which consists of a cross-section of humankind. A citizens assembly’s collective intelligence represents the “wisdom of the crowd,” which is more accurate that a group of experts at producing collective estimates and reasonable responses. However, it is not a good way of discovering unknown information. Crowds are not good at determining how dangerous a new virus is, or whether the methane in the Laptev Sea will explode or stay frozen another thousand years. For such matters, we need experts. Guterres rightly notes that humankind is facing new existential threats that an ordinary citizen would never anticipate, so he wants a department of experts to investigate impending future threats and alert the public to them. The mandate should certainly include the monitoring of Artificial Intelligence, which is certain to pose new threats to humankind.
The Futures Lab should be authorized to recommend action to both the WCA and the General Assembly in a timely fashion. It would not formulate binding policies or laws but just inform the other two legislative bodies about new dangers to our planet.
The Nuremburg tribunal in 1950 defined the act of planning, preparing, initiating, or waging a war of aggression as a crime against peace. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was indisputably a violation of international law. Accordingly, within days of the invasion, the International Court of Justice ordered a halt to the invasion until they could investigate the matter. As expected, the order was ignored. Aggression is a crime, but no one can stop it or bring perpetrators to justice. Many years from now, long after the war ends, the International Criminal Court may investigate the crime, charge the country’s leader, and require all Rome Treaty signatory states to arrest him if he comes to visit – but nothing can stop the crime while it is in progress.
In any decent society a victim of crime can call the police, who will rush to the scene while it is ongoing. The United Nations does have peacekeepers who might serve that function, but the countries in the conflict must normally consent to their operations, which rarely can be despatched anyway in less than six months.
Two innovations are necessary to protect victims of international aggression. One is a rapid-reaction peacekeeping and rescue force under the direct control of the United Nations. At least such a body could move quickly, though its movements might be impeded by a veto in the Security Council
Sir Brian Urquhart, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General who oversaw peacekeeping operations, suggested that the United Nations should have a small military unit of volunteer recruits under its own command and ready for deployment at a moment’s notice.
The most obvious objection to this plan is that the very existence of a global military may someday help a tyrant gain power. It is dangerous for any armed force to be more powerful than all the world’s other military units combined.
But the proposed Emergency Peace and Rescue Force would only operate until the more lasting peacekeeping force arrives, so it could be small – maybe only 40,000 persons. It should also include civilian workers such as social workers, health care personnel, and conflict resolution trainers who could appraise the field situation and issue early warnings. The same rapid force is also needed for the rescue of people in disasters around the world.
It is dangerous for any armed force to be more powerful than all the world’s other military units combined
Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the citizens of an aggressive state would take kindly to the arrest of their leader by alien peacekeepers. No Emergency Peace and Rescue Force is going to storm the Kremlin and apprehend Vladimir Putin. So, what is possible in such an emergency?
This explicit new principle of global accountability is required: The head of any country represents, is chosen by, and is accountable to the citizens of his country as well as to international law. If any state, when brought before the International Court of Justice and charged with aggression, is ordered by that court to stop the action, the offending government must comply instantly. As in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (or other such infractions, including the US’s attack on Iraq) if the head of the government does not cease the aggressive act immediately, he or she must be removed from office and replaced by leaders who will comply with the law.
But what procedures should be established for implementing such a radical change? First, it must be recognized that, because the citizens of each country select and empower their leaders, it is the duty of the citizens to remove them if they commit the crime of aggression.
But suppose the leader had been chosen democratically and still enjoys the full support of the population? The citizens will surely oppose this requirement, so it is essential that the crime of aggression be unambiguously established before they can be expected to oust him.
Hence, within about 36 hours, any two of these three other U.N. bodies (the WCA, the General Assembly, and the Security Council) must confer and confirm the orders of the ICJ.
It will then be mandatory for the aggressing country to replace their leadership with a new government quickly or incur obligatory sanctions from all UN member states. No country will thereafter recognize the government of that outlaw state until it is replaced by leaders who comply with the ICJ orders.
The difficulty with this plan is obvious. When aggression occurs, there will certainly be no alternative “shadow government” waiting to be recognized and ready to take office. New measures must be established for rapidly authorizing such a “coup” to oust the aggressive regime. Within a day or so, the Secretary General’s office should be prepared to receive proposals from competent political and military leaders of the aggressing country and to authorize one of the applicant groups to take control of the state until new leaders can be chosen by the citizenry themselves.
This bold action must be rapid, for the purpose is to stop the crime of aggression before it succeeds. The newly authorized regime is unlikely to be a well-planned or coherent organization, but it will be temporary. Its most important mission is simply to stop the crime immediately and thereby save lives.
Wars over territory are not only caused by the aggression of one state against another. Far more common are the civil wars that result from the demands for secession by a minority group as a right to “self-determination.”
Self-determination became a recognized principle of international law after World War I, mainly influenced by Woodrow Wilson, who expected it to prevent conflicts, though it has clearly caused more wars than it has prevented. It is massively inconvenient to change national boundaries and establish autonomous new sovereign states, especially because there are no clear international laws for judging the legitimacy of separatist claims. Usually a discontented minority group seeks to secede by initiating a terrorist movement, though in other cases (e.g. the Donbass and Crimea) their discontent is manipulated by an outside aggressor state.
Only much later, to end the bloodshed, the International Court of Justice may offer its judgement, though its decision cannot be predicted in advance. The crucial factor seems to be the extent to which the separatists have been oppressed by the government. In the case of Kosovo, the ICJ opined that the Kosovar population required independence from Serbia in order to acquire self-determination. In other cases, the malcontents are told to accept some compensatory changes such as federalism as adequate solutions.
In any case, there are no international laws that define whether a group’s aspirations for separation or sovereignty are reasonable or whether they should give up without trying, thereby sparing many lives. No international standards today clarify the legal rights of Taiwanese or Hong Kongers, the Rohingya, the Uyghurs – or even Quebecois separatists. A group can only try for independence and see whether they get away with it.
Many wars can be prevented by enacting clearer international laws to govern the changes of states’ boundaries. Admittedly, however, no permanent and precise rules will be universally recognized now because of the current hot struggle between nationalists and globalizing interests. Nationalism is winning at the moment, apart from the experiments in self-governance appearing in hundreds of “free economic zones” around the world. Anyway, one of the first challenges for our new World Citizens Assembly may be to produce new principles of self-governance as guidelines for separatist movements and states everywhere. This means that democratization is still a work in progress.
And, my brothers and sisters, we – humankind – are also still a work in progress. The next fifty years may advance our species beyond any current dreams. Or instead, our little fling on this planet may end in a sudden crash, then by millions of years of souring green oceans and fizzing volcanoes, until another epoch begins and the creatures of that day strut their stuff, stomping over the still-rotting remains of our plastic computers and radioactive waste dumps.
But having seized it, can we construct humanity’s future? Emergency responses cannot be readied for the totally unexpected. We can only cultivate resilience now, hoping to respond nimbly in the moment. Our collective resilience as a species will depend on our “institutional capacities,” to use a bureaucratic phrase.
If today the only heroic preparations available to us are mundane, then let’s just keep checking the air pressure in our tires, taking our vitamin pills, and upgrading democracy. For thrills, let’s experiment with a World Citizens Assembly and a Futures Lab. Somehow, maybe we can fix the world.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace Magazine and Project Save the World. She is a professor emeritus of sociology, University of Toronto.