We the Peoples: Building a World Parliament

Date: 2003

George Monbiot

"George Monbiot is a British writer known for his environmental and political activism. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian, and is the author of a number of books, including Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2000) and Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013). His fifth book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, was published in 2003. The book is an attempt to set out a positive manifesto for change for the global justice movement." source: wikipaedia

This paper is chapter 4 from "The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order", by George Monbiot, published by Flamingo, 2003

Our global revolution requires no tumbrils, no guillotines, no unmarked graves. No revanchist running dogs need be put against the wall. We have within our hands already the means to a peaceful, democratic transformation.


These means arise inexorably from an analysis of how the world is run, and why the existing world order fails. The following three chapters each examine one aspect of global governance, show why the current system is not working, consider the possible alternatives, choose those which seem to work best and then explain how we - the dissidents of the rich world and the citizens of the poor world - can, using only those resources available to us, replace the system which works for the powerful with one which works for the weak. The first of these tasks is perhaps the most pressing: altering the mediation of war and peace and the relations between nation states, and seeking to replace a world order built on coercion with one which emerges from below, built upon democracy.




The United Nations was conceived in 1941, by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, as an alliance against the Axis powers. As the Second World War progressed, its scope and membership expanded, until, in June 1945, 50 nations signed a declaration of principles – the United Nations Charter – whose purpose was to promote peace, human rights and international law, to encourage social progress and higher living standards, and to prevent another world war*1.

 The UN, in other words, was founded with the best of intentions. But these, like the motives surrounding every aspect of the post-war settlement, were mixed with some rather less elevated concerns. No one gives power away, and those nations which constructed the UN were careful to ensure that it reinforced rather than diminished their global pre-eminence.

 This concern is reflected in the constitution of the supreme international body, which is charged with the prevention of war, the United Nations Security Council. If one nation is threatening or attacking another, the council may use whatever measures are necessary to force it to desist: it can order a ceasefire, for example; levy economic sanctions; send in peacekeepers; or, at the last resort, authorise the armed forces of the UN’s member states to take military action against the aggressor. At the international level it asserts (though with little success) what the state asserts at the national level: a monopoly of violence.

 The Security Council mimics, in other words, the notional constraints of the democratic state. It claims, by this means, to sustain a world order founded on right rather than might. The problem with the post-war settlement is that those with the might decide what is right.

 There are fifteen members of the council, of which ten have temporary seats (held for two years and then passed to another state) and five have permanent seats. Each of the five permanent members has the power of veto: no decision can be taken by the Security Council unless all five have approved it. Unsurprisingly, the five permanent members are the three powers which founded the United Nations - the United States, United Kingdom and Russia - and their principal wartime allies, China and FranceY[1][1]. They granted themselves the ability to determine, for as long as the UN continues to exist, who is the aggressor and who the aggressed.

 The power of veto was introduced partly in order to prevent those states in possession of nuclear weapons from attacking each other: had the other member states, for example, collectively decided that the Soviet Union was threatening one of its neighbours, and then sought to restrain it through military action, the USSR may have responded by offering to meet that force with greater force, provoking another world war. Indeed, during the Cold War the Soviet Union used its veto repeatedly, precisely in order to prevent the other states from restricting its attempts to expand its imperial domain. But, while the veto may have functioned as a safety valve, preserving a global peace at the expense of the weaker states being threatened or attacked by one of the permanent members, it has also proved to be an instant recipe for the abuse of power and the impediment of justice.

 The problem with the way the Security Council has been established is that those who possess power cannot be held to account by those who do not. The key democratic question – who guards the guards? – has been left unanswered. The Security Council is, by definition, tyrannical. Those who defend the way the world is run point out that veto powers have rarely been used since the end of the Cold WarΨ[2][2] and that the veto can, in theory, be deployed (as France and Russia tried to deploy it in 2003) to protect states from unauthorised attacks; but the truth is that the threat of the veto informs every decision the Security Council does or does not make. Other member states know perfectly well, for example, that there is no point in preparing a resolution which the United States will reject. The US and, to a lesser extent, the other permanent members, assert their will without even having to ask.

 As other nations cannot hold them to account, the permanent members (or, more precisely, the two permanent members which have, since the UN’s formation, wielded real power) can blithely defy every principle the United Nations was established to defend. Since 1945, the United States has launched over 200 armed operations*2, most of which were intended not to promote world peace but to promote its own political or economic interests. The Soviet Union repeatedly used its veto to prevent other member states from interfering with its sponsorship of violent insurrection and direct invasion. The five permanent members also happen to be the world’s five biggest arms dealers, indirectly responsible for exacerbating many of the conflicts the Security Council is supposed to prevent. The five nations which possess the exclusive power to decide how threats should be handled are the five nations which present the gravest threat to the rest of the world.

 The problem is compounded – and this is not commonly understood – by the fact that the powers of the Security Council are not confined to the administration of peace. The UN Charter also grants the five permanent members vetoes over constitutional reform of the United NationsY[1][3]. Even if every other member of the General Assembly votes to change the way the institution works, their decision can be overruled by a single permanent member. Any one of the five can also block the appointment of the UN Secretary-GeneralY[3][4], the election of judges to the International Court of Justice, or the admission of a new member to the United Nations*3.

 Those who benefit from this system argue that it simply reflects the realities of power: if the five permanent members were not using their vetoes to force other states to do as they bid, they would find some other means. This is undoubtedly true. But the problem with the way the council is established is that, rather than moderating the realities of power, it compounds them. It offers an immediate and painless means for a permanent member to prevent the rest of the world from pursing peace or justice, whenever it suits its interests to do so.

 These special powers have rendered the UN General Assembly, in which every member state has an equal vote, all but irrelevant. The 186 member states which do not occupy permanent seats on the Security Council can huff and puff about how the world should be run, in the certain knowledge that real power lies elsewhere.

 But even if the Security Council was disbanded tomorrow, and the supreme powers it possessed were vested instead in the Assembly, the United Nations would still be far from democratic. Many of the member states are not themselves democracies, and have a weak claim to represent the interests of their people. Even those governments which have come to power by means of election seldom canvas the opinion of their citizens before deciding how to cast their vote in international assemblies.

 There is, partly as a result, little sense of public ownership of the General Assembly or the decisions it makes. At public meetings, I have often asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they know the name of their country’s ambassador to the United Nations. Seldom, even at gatherings of the most politically active people, do more than two or three per cent claim to know; on one occasion an audience of 600 mostly well-read, middle-class people (it was a literary festival) failed to produce a single respondant. In turn, many of the ambassadors, who are appointed, not elected, appear to be rather more conscious of the concerns of their nations’ security services than those of the citizens whose part they are supposed to take.

 The assembly, too, is riddled with rotten boroughs. It is widely recognised in the United States that there is something wrong with a system in which the 500,000 people of Wyoming can elect the same number of representatives to the Senate as the 35 million of California. Yet, in the UN General Assembly, the 10,000 people of the Pacific island of Tuvalu possess the same representation as the one billion people of India. Their per capita vote, in other words, is weighted 100,000-fold. If the assembly had real powers, this inequity would be a major liability: in international bodies which do make real decisions, such as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the International Whaling Commission, rich and powerful nations bribe and blackmail small and weak ones to obtain the votes they need*4.

 But even if all the world’s nations were of equal size, so that all the world’s citizens were represented evenly, and even if the Security Council was abolished and no state, in the real world, was more powerful than any other, the UN would still fail the basic democratic tests, for the simple reason that its structure does not match the duties it is supposed to discharge. The United Nations has awarded itself three responsibilities. Two of these are international duties, namely to mediate between states with opposing interests and to restrain the way in which its members treat their own citizens. The third is a global responsibility: to represent the common interests of all the people of the world. But it is constitutionally established to discharge only the first of these functions.

 From time to time, nearly all the UN’s member states will unite to condemn a government’s atrocious treatment of its citizens, such as the ethnic cleansing commissioned by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. But this is possible only because that country’s behaviour is anomalous. There are other issues over which the interests of almost all member states are demonstrably at variance with those of their people. Defence spending is an obvious example. In most countries, from the democratic superpower to the tinpot military dictatorship, the confluence of interests which Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” exercises inordinate power over government, and money which should be spent, for example, on public health and education, is instead spent on unnecessary weapons. But the member states will not unite to condemn this imposition, because almost all of them engage in it. The nation states tacitly conspire against their peoples.

 For similar reasons the UN is inherently incapable of representing the common interests of all the people of the world. There is a strong argument, for example, for severely restricting the freedom of financial speculators, whose activities have, in recent years, wrecked several formerly healthy economies and contributed massively to the indebtedness of the poor nations. But because of the power these speculators possess to strip a nation of its financial assets, they have become the world’s kingmakers. Nearly all the governments in power today are those whose policies are acceptable to the financial markets: they are, in effect, the representatives of global capital. The opposition parties who might challenge this dispensation are kept out of power partly by citizens’ fear of how the markets might react if they were elected. So while it might suit the interests of nearly everyone on earth to re-impose capital controls and bring many forms of speculation to an end, the existing system suits most of the world’s governments rather well, even as their populations suffer. An assembly of nation states is therefore unlikely to take the kind of collective global action which would be necessary to rid the world of this plague. The preamble to the UN Charter begins with the words “We the peoples of the United Nations”. It would more accurately read “We the states”.




Ever since the formation of the UN, there have been efforts to modify this undemocratic order. But few of the existing proposals address the fundamental problems. Many of them fall into one of two categories: permitting national parliamentarians to influence UN policy, and granting members of “civil society” a consultative or, in some cases, a junior decision-making role.


The Inter-Parliamentary Union, for example, which is an association of members of national parliaments, founded in 1889, now has “consultation status” on the UN’s Economic and Social Council and “observer status” at the World Trade Organisation*5. This permits some form of representation, albeit diffuse and indirect, for the citizens of the world. Like the e-parliament, which now provides national MPs with a virtual debating chamber*6, the Inter-Parliamentary Union might, as some of its proponents argue, help encourage global democratisation. But these initiatives also suffer from some of the constraints which limit the democratic potential of the UN General Assembly.


Every member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union or the e-parliament is subject to three conflicting pressures: the demand by her constituents that their immediate, or local, needs be met; the demand by her national party leaders that she keep to the party line; and, if they are sufficiently interested, the demand by certain of her constituents that she represent their needs or views at the global level. She will have been selected by her party largely on the grounds of her responsiveness to the second demand, and elected by her constituents largely on the grounds of her adherence to the first. These conflicting demands cause a number of problems at the international level.


The first is that her main concerns are likely to be more parochial than we might wish of a truly international or global parliamentarian. Her membership of the international union will, as it must take second place to her local concerns, be something of a hobby. If ever she is faced with a conflict between the domestic needs of her constituents and their international needs, she will resolve it in favour of the former. This is why the people of Europe are represented in the European Parliament not by their national MPs, but by special members elected for this purpose.


The second problem is that she remains a member of her national party. If it discovers that her international activities conflict with its policies, it will instruct her to desist. A national party’s concerns will always, of course, be overwhelmingly national.


The third problem is that, as soon as the work of any international group of national MPs is taken seriously by powerful nation states, they will use the members' national interests to rein them in. This lever is repeatedly pulled by powerful states to discipline the representatives of weaker nations. When, for example, the United States wanted a UN resolution permitting it to wage war on Iraq in 1990 and discovered that some of the temporary members of the Security Council were opposed to it, it bought the votes of Zaire, Ethiopia and Colombia by persuading Saudi Arabia to offer them free oil. This helped ensure that Cuba and Yemen were the only two members of the Security Council to defy the resolution. As soon as it had been adopted, the US ambassador turned to the Yemeni representative and told him that his was “the most expensive vote you will ever cast.''*7. Three days later, the US cancelled its $70 million of annual aid to Yemen. An international body composed of national MPs is destined either to be ineffective and ignored, or effective and crushed.


A further problem arises from the number of potential representatives it mobilises. Either all 25,000 of the world’s democratically elected representatives (or however many of them can be bothered) vote on every issue, or they must surrender their powers to a committee or a subcommittee of a committee. This leads to one of two political outcomes. Either there is a gross horizontal diffusion of accountability, caused by the vast number of potential representatives, or there is a gross vertical diffusion of accountability, caused by the process of photocopy democracyY[4][5]. In either case, it leaves constituents feeling that they have little real leverage over the decisions the parliament makes.


Another obvious problem is that this system leaves the people who do not live in representative democracies with no opportunity to determine how the world is run. These people, perhaps more than anyone else on earth, need international or global assistance, both to undermine their oppressive governments and to secure the peace and material prosperity those governments tend to deny them. Far from offering them a means of confronting oppression, this system leaves them doubly unrepresented, placing them at a still greater global disadvantage.


These and other problems have encouraged some people to suggest that the democratic deficits of the United Nations should be addressed instead through the representation of “constituencies of interest”, by which they mean non-governmental organisations, or NGOs. Already, gatherings of NGOs are being granted formal rights by some international bodies. The UN’s Economic and Social Council, for example, has given “consultative status” to 1500 NGOs. In 2000, the UN hosted a “Millennium Forum” of NGOs, whose declaration was adopted as an official UN document, and whose representative became an official delegate at the UN Summit. Several eminent scholars have called for the creation of a permanent “NGO Forum”, sitting alongside the United Nations, helping to inform and guide the decisions it makes. This would, I believe, be a disaster for democracy.


Permitting NGOs to represent the people of the earth introduces several unresolvable problems. The first is that either every body calling itself an “NGO” must be permitted to attend, or someone must determine who can and who can’t turn up.


If every self-appointed NGO is to be represented, then the diffusion of accountability which vitiates the parliamentary unions will be multiplied many times over, as every sub-faction of every possible interest group seeks to enter. If every member of an international NGO forum was to receive one vote, then we have effectively established a plutocracy (a political system governed by money), as the richest organisations (in particular the corporations and corporate lobby groups) could each establish several hundred separate NGOs to represent their interests. Needless to say, such a forum would be so big as to be utterly incapable of making a decision. If, on the other hand, one vote was to be allocated to each agglomeration of interest groups, we would discover, for example, that the representatives of those (few and tiny) NGOs whose members insist that the human race was sired by aliens would possess the same global power as the big development agencies.


So it seems clear that someone must decide which groups can and cannot be represented. There are several possible criteria this “someone” could apply. The most obvious is to appoint to the forum those NGOs with the biggest global membership. The world’s people would then be represented by animal welfare charities and cancer research trusts.


So the Grand Inquisitor with the responsibility of deciding who qualifies would need to establish his own criteria for choosing the representatives of the people. This means that he will pre-determine the political outcome of whatever debates the NGO forum might hold. NGOs, of course, represent entrenched and generally non-negotiable interests, so simply by deciding which groups and in which proportion should be allowed to attend, the Inquisitor decides in advance how every issue will be resolved.


This is, in other words, not just an impossible task, but a ridiculous one, which leads not to the promotion of democracy but the pre-emption of democracy. And these constraints arise even before we come to consider such issues as presumed consent, accountability and the ranking of issues. The Inquisitor takes the place of the world’s people in determining what is and is not important. Far from increasing the scope of popular representation, an NGO forum reduces it to the decision of one, inherently unaccountable person or committee. It should not surprise the members of the global justice movement that two of our most committed enemies, the former director-general of the World Trade Organisation, Michael Moore, and the European trade commissioner, Pascal Lamy, have both supported the idea of NGO representation, even though both men have questioned NGOs’ transparency and accountability. It is precisely because they lack accountability that their engagement is acceptable to the dictatorship of vested interests. Whenever the NGOs it has elevated turn against it, it can, quite reasonably, dismiss them as illegitimate.




All those who live in democratic nations today would regard as intolerable a proposal to replace their national parliaments with one or other of these schemes. If a government announced that it intended to abolish parliament or congress and replace it with a union of the country’s thousands of local councillors (many of whom know nothing of national politics), which would seek to legislate either as a vast and sprawling body or by means of ever more obscure subcommittees, that government should expect to be overthrown. If it were to suggest that the task of representation should be handed instead to a forum of voluntary organisations, either self-selected or chosen by some all-powerful ombudsman, it would never recover from the ensuing ridicule.


Why such substitutes for democracy should be any more acceptable at the global level is impossible to see. If we wish to be represented, then let us be represented, and let us no longer accept the evasions, half-measures, impediments, intermediaries and arbiters whose installation masquerades as global democratisation. The only genuinely representative global forum is a directly representative global forum, by which, of course, I mean a world parliament.


It is hard to think of any issue of national importance which now stops at the national frontier. The World Trade Organisation has extended its mandate so far that its decisions could come to govern everything from food labelling to railway timetables. The World Bank and IMF have penetrated the poorer nations to the point at which they are, in some cases, telling their schools which brand of computers they should buy. The decisions being made by the Security Council will help to determine whether we live in peace or are perpetually subject to terrorism and war. Climate change, financial speculation, debt and deregulation reach us wherever we live.


As everything has been globalised except democracy, the rulers of the world can go about their business without reference to ourselves. Unsurprisingly, therefore, many - perhaps most - of the decisions they make conflict with the interests of the majority, and reflect only those of the dominant minority.


While the rulers of the world cloister themselves behind the fences of Seattle or Genoa, or ascend into the inaccessible eyries of Doha and Kananaskis, they leave the rest of the world shut out of their deliberations. We are left to shout abuse, to hurl ourselves against the lines of police, to seek to smash the fences which stand between us and the decisions being made on our behalf. They reduce us, in other words, to the mob, and then revile the thing they have created. When, like the cardinals who have elected a new Pope, they emerge, clothed in the serenity of power, to announce that it is done, our howls of execration serve only to enhance the graciousness of their detachment.


They are the actors, we the audience, and for all our catcalls and imprecations, we can no more change the script to which they play than the patrons of a cinema can change the course of the film they watch. They, the tiniest and most unrepresentative of the world’s minorities, assert a popular mandate they do not possess, then accuse us of illegitimacy. Their rule, unauthorised and untested, is sovereign.


A world parliament endows us, in theory, with three democratic resources the world does not yet possess. The first is a forum, which carries weight and commands recognition, in which good ideas can do battle with bad ones. There is, of course, no guarantee that a democratically elected parliament will make sensible decisions, that people will elect those who best represent their interests or that the battles between them will always be resolved in favour of justice and distribution. But this is the risk associated with democracy everywhere. It is the risk which preserves democracy. We cannot warrant that democracy will deliver what we consider to be the right results. We can warrant that the absence of democracy will deliver the wrong ones.


The second is a system which can, in theory, hold the global and international powers to account. It gives the people of the world, in other words, an opportunity to influence the decisions which affect their lives. It forces those who claim to act on our behalf to respect us.


The third is an accelerated fusion of human interests, which propels us towards the metaphysical mutationY[5][6].


By itself, the investiture of a world parliament is an insufficient measure. As part of a series of transformative actions, it is an indispensable one.



While a global people’s assembly has revolutionary potential, it is hardly a new idea. The first reference to the notion I have seen is contained in Alfred Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall, written in 1842Y[6][7]. Today there are at least six competing models, and scores of proposals, each supported by a vocal faction. I won't try to compare them, but in seeking to choose the best version, it seems to me that a key component is simplicity.


Some of the models are staggeringly complex, demanding weighted voting, special chambers to represent minority interests, and sophisticated and elaborate means of delivering proportional representation. These are supposed to ensure that the system is as fair as it could possibly be, and in principle they could enhance a parliament’s authority. But complexity undermines legitimacy. If people cannot grasp immediately how the system works, why it is relevant to them and how they can affect the decisions it makes, they will lose interest, relegating it to that ever-growing list of “things I ought to know about but have neither the time nor energy to comprehend”. Indeed, one of the impediments to public attempts to hold the dictatorship of vested interests to account is the extraordinary complexity of both the issues themselves and the structures, with their multiple layers of delegated authority, through which that dictatorship works. The fewer the citizens who engage in a democratic process, the less just and less legitimate it becomes. So while we could devise an assembly which catered, in advance, for every possible permutation of justice, it is likely, in practice, to prove less just than a system without such complex safeguards. The version I've chosen is therefore the simplest of all possible models. Every adult on earth possesses one vote.

 The parliament would need to be big enough to represent a wide range of views, but small enough to make decisions with efficiency. So let us say, as it permits us to deal with nice round numbers, that it should contain 600 representatives, each with a constituency of 10 million people. The implications for global justice are obvious. A resident of Ouagadougou has the same potential influence over the decisions the parliament makes as a resident of Washington. A Haitian has the same representation as a Hungarian. The people of China will possess, between them, sixteen times as many votes as the people of Germany. While, unlike other models, this design makes no special provision for the votes of the poor, their representatives will massively outnumber those of the rich. It is, in other words, a revolutionary assembly.

 A further implication is that, if we are to establish 600 constituencies of even size, many of them will have to straddle national borders. This is not, as some people have suggested, a liability, but an asset. The less our representatives are bound to the demands of nationhood, the less parochial their outlook is likely to be. The more we, as constituents, are forced to share our political destiny with the people of other nations, the more we are forced to understand and engage with their concerns.

 Some people object that these constituencies would thereby affiliate the people of two hostile nations. So much the better. All existing constituencies lump together people with starkly different interests, crossing boundaries of wealth and poverty, farmland and industry, ethnicity and religion. If they did not, and represented, as an NGO forum does, only communities of interest, most political outcomes would be pre-determined, a simple matter of arithmetic. Elections would, in these circumstances, be fixed by whoever established the constituency boundaries.

 A key determinant of the success of a world parliament is that its members are seen to have no connection to the governments of the nations from which they come. This helps defend them from the pressures that governments might exert. If the United States told a member from Yemen that unless she changed her policies it would cut the aid it gives her country’s government, she could reply that the decisions she makes have nothing to do with the government. This is not an assembly formed by nation states, but an assembly formed by the world’s people. It is global, not international.

 So how do we begin? We begin by liberating ourselves from the perception that we must wait upon nation states to deliver global justice. This assembly will belong to the people, and we require no one’s permission to establish it.

 So let us picture a process which starts with a series of global meetings, open to everyone, but whose participants have not – as it has to begin somewhere – yet been elected. Let us picture, for example, the annual meetings which already engage some tens of thousands of people, organised by the World Social ForumY[7][8]. These are in no sense representative assemblies. The people who attend them are self-selecting and drawn from among those who can either afford an airfare (to Brazil or India) or persuade someone else to provide one for them. But they attract citizens from most of the potential constituencies the members of a world parliament would represent.

 Our first task would be to publish pamphlets and web pages explaining the idea in as many languages as we possess. Our second would be to organise a consultation of as many of the world's people, through randomly-selected samples, as the budgets we raise permit, to discover whether or not our proposal commands popular consent. If the consultations reveal that the idea is unpopular then (though we might seek, through further publication and debate, to change people's minds), we should cease the process of development.

 But let us assume, for now, that most of the people we have polled approve of the proposal. We then find ourselves in a rather stronger position to raise funds, and to set up an electoral commission, staffed by professionals, with a strictly neutral mandate. This could begin to draw up boundaries and design an election. Its reports would then be disseminated for global consultation.

 It is important that, at this pre-democratic stage, as little is decided as possible, and that all decisions made could be reversed if either public referenda or the parliament itself decided that they were wrong. The first general election, for example, could be accompanied by a full referendum on whether the parliament should, indeed, be formed, and how it should work. The process must belong to the people at every stage.

 The plan then becomes more expensive, more complex and more hazardous. The first and most obvious impediment is money. A global general election is likely to cost something in the order of $5 billionY[8][9], while the establishment of a parliament might cost around $300 millionY[9][10], and its annual expenses a further $1 billion or soY[10][11] (an electronic assembly would be, though a poor substitute for a real debating chamber, much cheaper). A very small proportion could be raised from individuals and charitable foundations. The only bodies which possess sufficient funds to provide the rest, however, are states, the international institutions and corporations, and we should, of course, be wary of accepting money from them, for fear either that they would co-opt the assembly or that we would feel constrained to adjust our plans to their convenience. Corporate funding, for obvious reasons, should be ruled out altogether. There may be a few liberal states and perhaps even a sympathetic UN agency which would give substantial sums and expect nothing in return, and this might be deemed acceptable to both the initiators of the model and the people they consult. But there is an inherent contradiction between national or international funding and the aims of a global assembly.

Some people have suggested establishing a global lottery, offering enormous prizes and attracting, as a result, plenty of punters. This, though it has some ugly implications, provides us with both independent funding and weekly publicity, as even the most hostile media would find it hard not to report the results of the “World Parliament Draw”. An alternative is to wait for the implementation of the proposals outlined in Chapter 5, which have the potential to generate far more money than we would ever need. Even so, we can anticipate a tussle over these funds between nation states and the global assembly.

 The next obvious impediment is the opposition of national governments. Democratically elected governments would be foolish to seek to impede elections to a world parliament, as they would immediately be accused of despotism. But undemocratic governments would correctly perceive such elections as subversive. Their citizens are likely to acquire a taste for voting. We can anticipate, therefore, that unelected leaders would seek to prevent elections to the world parliament from taking place.

 There are two possible means of defeating them. The first is to hold underground elections. These are likely to be dangerous for both the participants and the people overseeing them. They could also – as visibility is essential to democratic accountability – be captured and co-opted, possibly by the very governments which drove them underground in the first place. The other is to hold elections among the exiles of the closed constituencies. This means that the great majority of the constituents would, initially at least, be deprived of a vote, while those who lived abroad would be disproportionately powerful. But, though both solutions are far from ideal, neither should be discounted, for the very reason that they are, as the governments would fear, destabilising. Underground elections are precisely the kind of process which could begin to co-ordinate and mobilise opposition to an undemocratic regime. Elections among exiles have the potential to create profound resentment within the domestic population, as it perceives that it has been deprived of choice by its government. In both cases, we employ the self-reinforcing potential of democracy. A gradient of hope is established, and nothing is so threatening to tyranny as hope. Even so, we may have to start without some regions of the world.




Building a world parliament is not the same as building a world government. We would be creating a chamber in which, if it works as it should, the people's representatives will hold debates and argue over resolutions. In the early years at least, it commands no army, no police force, no courts, no departments of government. It need be encumbered by neither president nor cabinet. But what we have created is a body which possesses something no other global or international agency possesses: legitimacy. Direct elected, owned by the people of the world, our parliament would possess the moral authority which all other bodies lack. And this alone, if effectively deployed, is a source of power.

 Even those bodies whose legitimacy is, at best, diffuse, derivative and vague possess enough moral authority to moderate the behaviour of the world’s only superpower. The government of the United States could have attacked Iraq whenever it wanted, without asking anyone’s permission. It has sufficient military power to defeat any state on earth. It requires, as the president has constantly hinted, no allies to pursue its military adventures. Yet, at the end of 2002, it chose to submit itself to the intensely frustrating and, at times, humiliating, scrutiny of the other members of the United Nations Security Council. It did so because it wanted to persuade its citizens that the war it was proposing against Iraq was a just one. Opinion polls within the United States (whose people, despite the best efforts of successive governments, remain, by and large, civilised and humane) showed that the Americans would look more kindly upon a war which had the UN’s approval. They did not want to see themselves as the citizens of a nation whose foreign policy was built entirely on brute force. The events of 2003, however, suggest that the council’s limited reserves of moral power have been exhausted.

 Similar concessions to moral authority have constrained the behaviour of all but the most tyrannical states. The governments of the European Union have repeatedly enhanced the powers of the European Parliament, despite the fact that it competes with them for control over European decision-makingΨ[11][12]. They have done so in order to persuade their people that the Union - and therefore its governments - is democratically accountable.

 Perhaps the most startling example of moral power is one which takes us back to the potential starting point for our own parliamentary assembly. The 50,000 people who gathered in Porto Alegre in Brazil for the World Social Forum in 2002 represented no one but themselves. Yet theirs was widely perceived as the only international assembly which had any claim to reflect the views of the people of the world. The result was that officials from some of the world’s most powerful governments and institutions came to try to persuade the forum that they were listening. Twice as many French ministers travelled to the World Social Forum as to the World Economic Forum, the official, intergovernmental meeting which was taking place at the same time in New York*8. Even the president of the World Bank, one of the least accountable of all international bodies, applied to speak there. But, as if to show where moral power really lay, the forum turned him away*9.

 If even this self-selected convention can attract, without inviting them, representatives of some of the world’s most powerful institutions, then we can only guess what moral power an elected global assembly might wield. A world parliament would be able to determine whether or not the international actions of a government or an institution have the support of the world’s people. And as most of the world’s big governments and institutions claim to act democratically, they would be drawn to our assembly like moths to a flame.

 We already possess an example of a people’s parliament built on moral authority, which managed to bring the world’s most powerful government to heel. In the 5th century BC, Rome was governed by consuls, drawn solely from the patrician, or aristocratic, class. Theirs was an oppressive government, exercising absolute power over the other social classes. The record is a little hazy, but it seems that one day in 494 BC, prompted by issues which would not be unfamiliar to today's global justice movement (debt, unequal access to land and arbitrary treatment by the authorities) thousands of the plebeians, or working people of Rome, suddenly disappeared*10. This event came to be known as the “first secession of the plebs”. They had agreed to meet on the Sacred Mount, a hill outside the city. There they arranged themselves into a people’s parliament – the Consilium Plebis – and elected two tribunes, or representatives. All the people on the hill swore that anyone who harmed the tribunes, irrespective of class or power, would be killed.

 At first the tribunes of the plebs had no constitutional powers. They could merely urge the authorities to recognise the needs of their constituents. But, backed by huge numbers, they were hard to ignore and impossible to kill. Gradually, the scope of the Consilium’s powers began to increase, and in 449 BC, after a second secession of the plebs, it was officially recognised by the state. The tribunes, now ten in number, were granted a right of veto over the business of the government. The resolutions adopted by the Consilium Plebis (known as plebiscites) gradually began to be passed into law. The plebians also elected a number of officials – the aediles – whose purpose was to record the proceedings of the Senate (the patrician’s parliament), in the hope of being able to hold its members to their word, and to establish a body of written law which would protect the plebs from arbitrary treatment by magistrates.

 The power of the plebs lasted for about 100 years. By 367 BC, at least one of the tribunes had been admitted to the Senate as a consul. But (and there is surely a lesson here for all democratic movements), the transformation appears to have been rather too successful, for the tribunes began to accumulate so much power that they ceased to identify with the powerless and came, instead, to see themselves as a new ruling class. Ambitious young men began using the Tribunate as a means of entry to the Senate, and gradually the plebs’ movement was taken over by the nobility. But, for a century or so, the oppressed people of Rome had moderated the power of the ruling class by means of a parliamentary assembly founded on moral authority.

 There is, then, plenty of evidence to suggest that our parliament can work this way. But should it work this way? Is there an alternative to coercive power based solely on moral authority?

 In the early stages at least, I don’t believe there isΨ[12][13]. The only available alternative is a parliament whose decisions are imposed on other bodies, if necessary by force of arms. This is how the Security Council works today. But the armies and the weapons the Security Council calls upon are those which reside in the hands of the state. Its coercive powers (and hence the monopoly of violence it asserts) depend on the compliance of the world’s most powerful governments, which is why it is such a partisan organisation. The point of a people’s assembly is that it is independent of pre-existing powers. Only if the delegated officials of the parliament managed to accumulate so much weaponry that they could force every nation to do as they demanded would the parliament be able to impose its will. But that would necessitate a world government so powerful that it would swiftly become the most oppressive force on earth.

 There is, moreover, a great advantage to a parliament whose power relies entirely on moral authority, and this is that it sustains this power by showing that it continues to command the support of the people. If it loses touch with the people, it loses much of its force. This has the potential, then, to be a self-regulating system.

 So we are left with an assembly whose primary purpose is to hold other powers to account. It would review the international decisions made by governments, by the big financial institutions, and by bodies such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation. It would, through consultation with the world’s people and through debates within the chamber, establish the broad principles by which these other bodies should be run. It would study the decisions they make and hold them up to the light. When it discovers that they have breached the principles of good governance it has established, it would pass resolutions and publish critical reports. We have every reason to believe that, if properly constituted, our parliament, as the only body with a claim to represent the people of the world, would force them to respond.

 Let us picture a situation, for example, in which a body such as the World Bank had decided to pay for the construction of a giant hydro-electric dam. The villagers whose homes were due to be flooded might approach the World Parliament and ask it to examine the Bank’s decision. The parliament would ask the World Bank for its comments, and perhaps send a fact-finding mission to the site of the dam. It would then judge the scheme by the principles it had established. If it found that the dam fell short of those principles, it would say so. The World Bank could refuse either to change the project or to withdraw its funding, but only if it was prepared to lose credibility. Judging by the success of an unelected and little-known body called the World Commission on Dams in forcing the Bank to promise to change the way it operatesY[13][14], I think we can expect the Bank to consider itself obliged to respond to the world parliament's decisions.

 The same approach could be used, though to a lesser extent, to change some of the underlying principles governing the way the big international bodies operate. If our parliament, for example, ruled that the World Trade Organisation's decisions are unfair because they are made by committees of corporate lawyers meeting in secret, I think we could expect the WTO to change those procedures. But it would soon collide with some intractable political realities. We could not expect our assembly to be able to prevent dictators from murdering their people or powerful states from invading other nations. The parliament might decide that the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO should dissolve themselves, but without any expectation that they would feel prompted to do so. Such tasks will require a different approach, which I will explain in subsequent chapters. The world parliament is the body which could hold our new, more responsive institutions to account.

 But we can see how the power of this parliament could be enhanced even by those agencies which would rather it did not exist. Once citizens came to the parliament with a complaint, the bodies they were criticising would feel obliged to respond. By responding, they would validate and recognise the parliament’s authority. By recognising its authority once, their obligation to respond on the following occasion would increase: they would gradually find themselves handing more power to the parliament. In this respect, as in many others, democracy can be self-establishing.

 While the main function of our parliament, in the early years at least, may be to hold other bodies to account, it is also possible to see how it could begin to propose and initiate measures of its own. Though we cannot anticipate the novel solutions to some of the world’s problems which an assembly, freely guided by its electors, might devise, it is not hard to see how the parliament might help to promote some of the progressive measures which have already been devised but which have so far proved impossible to implement.

 The only just and sustainable means of tackling climate change, for example, is “contraction and convergence”, the model designed by the concert viola player and obsessively effective campaigner Aubrey Meyer*11. This scheme first establishes how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases humans can produce each year without frying the planet. It then divides that sum between all the people of the world, and allocates to each nation, on the basis of its population, a quota for gas production. It proposes a steady reduction (or “contraction”) of both the total world production of climate-changing gases and the excessive production within nations which currently exceed their quotas. National production per head of population gradually “converges” to equality. Any nation which wants to produce more than its share must first buy unused quota from another one.

 The model has been approved by ministers and government scientists in dozens of countries, and now appears to be the favoured solution of the United Nations and even the World Bank. But, because it conflicts with their national interests, none of the governments which claim to support it appear prepared to implement it, or even to champion it with any vigour. While we don't know how a world parliament might respond to this idea, it is easy to see why, if it did adopt the model as policy, it could prove to be a far more effective advocate than either governments or the existing international bodies, all of which are constrained by national politics. It might also become, for example, a powerful defender of multilateral disarmament, a global tax (the “Tobin tax”) on financial speculation, or the UN’s proposal that the rich nations should each devote 0.7 per cent of their national wealth to foreign aid.

 In every case, if the parliament agreed that these were worthy goals, it could play the role of honest broker: an agency unconstrained by competition between nations. Indeed, we may well find that national governments begin to turn to the parliament for the arbitration of political matters, much as they use the International Court of Justice for the settlement of legal disputes today. In doing so, they would, of course, be recognising and reinforcing the parliament’s moral authority.

 This, at any rate, is how we might expect our assembly to begin. But democracy demands that we make no attempt to prescribe how it should evolve. It may continue to exercise such modest functions as I have already described. It may, if the people will it and if states begin formally to recognise its powers, become a legislative body. This could begin to establish a body of global law supported – uniquely – by democratic consent. While the parliament would continue to exercise no direct control over nation states, those which have signed a treaty granting it certain formal powers are likely to feel bound by the laws it passes, or risk the loss of credibility. It could become the legislature which complements and helps legitimate the judicial authority of the International Criminal CourtY[14][15]. Or, if the people of the world demand this, it could begin to establish the rudiments of a global government, accumulating certain powers hitherto vested only in the hands of nation states. But it is not for those of us who propose this body to make such decisions. The point of democracy is that it gets out of control. No person or faction, least of all those who design the system which starts the process, should be able to steer it. The parliament must come to belong to the world’s people, not to the authors of the model.

(select here for the second part of this document - " We The People") 


1*1: The Charter of the United Nations is available online at http:// www.un.org/aboutun/charter/

2[1] Russia acquired the seat formerly occupied by the Soviet Union. China’s seat was, following the revolution, held by Taiwan (the Republic of China) until 1971, when it reverted to the People’s Republic (mainland China).

3[2] They have been used on eleven occasions between 1990 and 2001. Six of these were US vetoes on resolutions restraining Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians*34.

4*2: The operations conducted between 1948 and 2002 are listed by Gore Vidal, 2002. Perpetital War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got to be so Hated - Causes of Conflict in the Last Empire. Clairview, London. First published in 2002 by Thunder's Mouth Press/ Nation Books, New York.

5[3] In Articles 108 and 109.

6[4] In 1996, for example, the US blocked the re-appointment of Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

7*3: There is an interesting discussion of these issues in Heikki Pato-maki, Teivo Teivainen and Mika Ronkko, 2002. Global Democracy Initiatives: the Art of the Possible. The Network Institute for Global Democratization, Helsinki.

8*4: For details about the pressure applied to members of the OPCW, see George Monbiot, 'Chemical Coup d'etat', 16 April 2002 and 'Diplomacy US Style', 23 April 2002, published in the Guardian. Also available on www.monbiot.com

9*5: See: The Inter-Parliamentary Union, http://www.ipu.org/eng-lish/home.htm

10*6: See: The e-parliament, http://www.e-parl.net. Forthcoming.

11*7: Thalif Deen, 1 October 2002.'UN Credibility at Stake Over Iraq, Warn Diplomats'. Inter Press Service News Agency, Washington.

12[5] A horizontal diffusion means that, as decisions are split between a huge number of representatives, their individual contribution becomes so small as to be negligible, which means that they cannot individually be held to account for what happens. A vertical diffusion means that accountability becomes lost in the obscure hierarchy of committees and sub-committees.

13[6] I have used Houllebecq’s term throughout this book, though it might be more accurate to describe a change in the way human beings think as an epistemological mutation.  While metaphysics is “the science of being”, epistemology means the theory of knowledge.

14[7] “Till the war-drum throbb'd no longer, and the battle-flags were furl'd; In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

15[8] This is the biggest of the global justice movement’s gatherings. In 2003, over 100,000 people took part. The first three forums have been held in Porto Alegre, in Brazil. In 2004 the meeting is likely to move to India.

16[9] The data on national election costs are sparse (but for some reason more abundant for Africa than any other continent). I have taken the costs of general elections in five poor nations (Kenya, Senegal, Togo, Mozambique and Ghana) and two rich nations (the United States and Australia) and divided them by their populations to arrive at an average cost per citizen of $1.03*41. Multiplied by the world population, this gives a very tentative $6.46 billion. I have reduced it to account for economies of scale (the election would be co-ordinated by a single administration).

17[10] The European parliament at Strasbourg, at 220,000m2, cost $560 million to build*42. If the world parliament is based in a poor nation, as I suggest later in the text, the building costs would be reduced. Construction costs an average of $567/m2 in the Philippines and $657/m2 in Kenya*43, giving $124.7 million and $144.5 million respectively. I have doubled the figure and rounded it up to account for the cost of equipment and recruitment.

18[11] The Strasbourg parliament costs $1.005 billion a year to run*44. It is slightly bigger than the proposed  world parliament (750 seats). While staff costs in a poor nation will be lower, the MPs’ travel and interpretation costs will be higher, so I’m guessing that the overall expense would be roughly the same. These calculations are, of course, rudimentary. Their purpose is to provide an idea of the order of cost.

19[12] This point has been made by the legal theorists

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