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The Parliament of Man

27 April 2007

The Parliament of Man

By Gwynne Dyer

“For I dipped into the future, far as human eye could see, Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonders there would be, “Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales… “Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furled In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.”

Alfred Tennyson, 1842

One hundred and sixty-five years later, Tennyson would be impressed by the amount of air travel, and he would be encouraged by the steep decline in wars among the great powers. (They still attack small countries from time to time, but at least they don’t fight each other, which is when the mass deaths happen.) He would, however, be astonished that nothing has yet been done to make international society democratic.

There is already a world administration of sorts, in the form of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation and so on, but it is all in the hands of governments — and some governments are much more equal than others, so none of the global institutions ever acts against the will of the powerful. (Occasionally they refuse to approve some deed of the powerful, as the UN did briefly over the US invasion of Iraq, but that is all.) And nowhere in all the layers of bureaucrats and diplomats is there any direct representation of ordinary people.

And so, only sixty-two years after the foundation of the UN, the Campaign for the Establishment of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) launches this week in five continents. It has the signatures of 377 members of national parliaments from seventy countries, six former foreign ministers/secretaries, and various other international luminaries like Vaclav Havel, Guenther Grass and former UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali. But it also has a few little problems.

One is a distinct lack of Americans: only nine of those signatories are from the United States. The well-known American allergy to international institutions that might infringe on the absolute sovereignty of the United States extends, in this case, to a body that could have no such impact because it would have no legislative or executive power. And that is precisely the problem: what is the point of this hypothetical world parliament, given that it would have no power over the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, or any of the other real decision-making centres?

The Campaign, whose headquarters is in Germany, explains that the UNPA “is envisaged as a first practical step towards the long-term goal of a world parliament,” but it would not even be elected in the first phase of its existence. Members from various national parliaments would be chosen, by whatever means each country saw fit, to sit together at the UN for a few weeks a year. It is the feeblest of symbolic gestures, and you wonder why they even bother.

European enthusiasts point out that when the European Parliament was first set up in 1958 its members were chosen by the national parliaments of member-states, and it had little control over the decisions of the European Union. As at the UN, those remained in the hands of national governments and of the international institutions that they directly controlled. But in 1979 they started electing members of the European Parliament directly, which gave it real democratic legitimacy and little by little, it has gained some degree of control over what happens in Brussels.

It would take a very long time indeed for the same sort of evolution to occur at the UN level, where even the number of members each country gets would be the subject of fierce disputes. Would China really have as many members as the hundred smallest countries combined, which is what its population entitles it to? Would America settle for one-third as many members as India (assuming it agreed to be represented at all)? Obviously not, but what would be the right numbers?

At best, the supporters of the UNPA would have to work their way through all those problems, and accept that for the next twenty or fifty years what they have created will be a debating chamber and nothing more. Is it worth all the effort for that damp squib of a result?

Yes, certainly. It would be open to individual countries to start electing their own members of the UNPA from the start, so that it had more democratic legitimacy. And although real power might take generations to arrive, from the very start a parliament of this sort would provide a very different perspective on the world — and a more realistic one — than the pious debates of the General Assembly and the hard-ball great-power politics of the Security Council. It would be very interesting at least, and maybe quite instructive.

So tell Lord Tennyson to come back in another hundred years, and maybe we’ll have something to show him.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 5. (“One is a…centres”)

NOTE TO TRANSLATORS: If you can find a translation of Tennyson’s poem (“Locksley Hall”, l. 117) and it works, by all means use it. Otherwise, just omit the poem, the first subsequent paragraph (“One hundred and sixty-five…”) and the last paragraph (“So tell…), and begin the article with the paragraph below instead:

“As everybody knows, democracy stops at the national frontier. Once you get into the space between countries, it is all about power. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.”