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People should have say in electing new UN head

We are about to elect a new secretary-general for the United Nations. But, “we the people”, despite our prominence at the opening of the UN…

We are about to elect a new secretary-general for the United Nations. But, “we the people”, despite our prominence at the opening of the UN Charter, have almost nothing to do with filling one of the most important public posts in the world; nor, indeed, will the successful candidate be compelled to look after the interests of the world’s seven billion people.
Today, the UN Security Council – one of the opaquest bodies in the global governance system – is set to conduct its third informal “straw poll” to gauge levels of support for each candidate.
At the last count, the results of this secret ballot, leaked to the media by member states, suggested the process was stalling with serious questions hanging over the viability of all but one candidate, the former Prime Minister of Portugal, Antonio Guterres.
Eventually, although we won’t be privy to exactly how or why, the Security Council will “recommend” a candidate to the General Assembly for rubber-stamping.
Behind closed doors
I should say, thanks largely to the grassroots global campaign 1 for 7 Billion, small steps have been taken this year to make the selection process more open and transparent than ever before.
For the first time, candidates have taken part in public hustings, they have been questioned by national and regional representatives in the UN General Assembly, they’ve set out publicly their visions for the UN and their credentials as potential successors to one of the world’s most high-profile jobs.
Hardly revolutionary stuff, but, at the UN, it seems a world away from the clandestine process that saw the election of a little-known Ban Ki-moon 10 years ago.
The fact that the majority of this process continues to be conducted behind closed doors is symptomatic of the disregard for the citizens and, conversely, the primacy of the state that is imprinted into our institutions of global governance.
The mandate of the UN secretary-general is not – or should not be – to serve the interests of a handful of states; it is to serve all the peoples of the world.
Yet, the UN, like many of today’s intergovernmental institutions, was designed in the 1940s and 1950s with the pre-eminence of states in its blueprint and post-World War II hierarchies at its heart.
It is a global governance system that has produced some hugely significant and positive outcomes, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
But it is also a system that has entrenched the power of the state, at the expense of the citizen. That needs to change.
Democratic deficit
At the very heart of our institutions of global governance a democratic deficit festers. Growing numbers of people – at national level – are angry about their lack of voice, about inequality, corruption and environmental destruction.
There is growing frustration at the perceived failure of power holders to act in the best interests of their citizens. There is anger at the blatant, endemic collusion between economic and political elites.
But, for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded at national level, our institutions of global governance are doubling the democratic deficit, legitimising the rule and power of authorities at the national level – instead of offering recourse to protection and support.
While participatory democracy has begun to sweep political institutions at every other level, from local councils to state assemblies to national legislatures, global governance has failed to respond to our changing expectations of citizen participation.
Operationally hard-wired towards meeting the wants of a handful of states rather than the needs of the world’s people, these institutions remain remote and largely disconnected from the lives they impact.
We are told that intergovernmental decisions, often relating to the most pressing global issues – from climate change to international tax law – can be made only by unelected officials, sealing deals behind closed doors.
But this system, one that privileges states – and often corporations – over people, can no longer be acceptable.
What needs to be done
We urgently need to redesign our global institutions with citizen participation at their heart.
We need to democratise global governance, engendering an environment that enables civil society to engage substantively.
We need to build upon the premise that decision-making at the global level should be just as transparent and accountable as at any other level of governance. It should also be as direct as possible.
We need radical new forms of representation and oversight. Perhaps the UN General Assembly should have a “lower house”, populated by citizen-elected representatives; a curb on the excesses of dominant states in the upper house.
Perhaps global governance institutions could be audited on their ability to respond to and achieve progress on issues identified by people, rather than just governments. Leaders of UN agencies should have regular interactions with civil society and the media.
The UN’s current “information centres”, whose primary purpose seems to be to a one-way peddling of UN propaganda, should be reimagined as a means to engage the citizen voice and to feed it into global decision-making processes.
Protecting dignity
And let’s be clear. These steps are both realistic and achievable. Any barriers to achieving them will be largely political, boiling down to the willingness of states to relinquish the control they currently exercise, and often so jealously guard.
Public awareness of this issue is rising, as is public outrage. The President of the UN General Assembly, Mogens Lykketoft, recently called the lack of transparency surrounding the Security Council’s secretive candidate straw polls “undignified”.
But if the UN and other intergovernmental institutions fail to reform, they risk losing more than their dignity. I would argue that it is their credibility and global authority that is at stake.
We have to move urgently from a “one state, one vote” system to one that really represents the interests of “we the people”.
Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and a member of the UN high-level panel on humanitarian financing.

Our Friday columnist, Dr. Hakeem Baba-Ahmed will return in three weeks’ time.

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