Fri, 06 Jun 2003

Making the UN fit for democracy: A matter of going back to basics

Emma Bonino and Gianfranco Dell'Alba, Project Syndicate

The war in Iraq raised starkly the question of the international order, in particular about the role of the UN. Many regard the UN's role as the guarantor of international law and legitimacy as self-evident, and now argue that its stature, undermined by the U.S.-led invasion, must be quickly restored if the rule of law is to prevail internationally.

But to be a genuine locus of international legitimacy, the UN must become a different organization -- one secure in its own legitimacy and able to function without the endless delays, vetoes, indecisiveness, and unwillingness to ensure respect for its decisions.

The UN was born as a community of nations committed to safeguard and promote the values at the heart of the fight against Nazism and Fascism. At its origin -- with only 50 signatories of its Charter -- the UN was a rather exclusive club of countries. Indeed, Article 53 of the Charter defined the formerly fascist Axis countries as "enemy states" of the UN, so that Italy had to wait until 1955 to become a member. Japan joined only in 1956 and Germany in 1973.

The UN Charter was, above all, a manifesto of nations committed to freedom and justice. It also contained a series of specific political objectives: Decolonization and self- determination of peoples, social progress, and the promotion of fundamental human rights. But with the onset of the Cold War and the emergence of the non-aligned movement, the intentions of the UN's founding fathers were progressively thwarted. Indeed, we are so far today from the original spirit of the UN Charter that it seems normal for dictatorships to sit in judgment of democracies and for Libya to chair the Commission for Human Rights.

The Charter empowered the UN to react to threats to peace and international order arising from non-member states, including a requirement -- never implemented -- that signatories provide "military contingents under the command of the Military Staff Committee, composed of the Chiefs of Staff of the permanent members." In this context, the veto power conferred on the victors of World War Two was not concerned with "internal" conflicts among the member states; it extended only to threats to peace from countries outside the UN consensus.

Over time the UN was transformed by two factors. First, the presence of dictatorships among the permanent members of the Security Council caused paralysis and made many of provisions of the Charter dead letters. Second, the rise of the Non-Aligned Movement, founded by Zhou En Lai, Nehru, and Tito in 1955, launched a sort of substitute ideology for the UN. It emphatically reaffirmed the principle of non-interference in states' internal affairs and this principle's primacy over the rights of individuals enshrined in Article 1 of the Charter.

The non-aligned movement also stood for the principle of including in the UN, as a matter of right, all sovereign countries. This turned the UN from a club of countries that share the same values into an amorphous forum of the international community -- an indistinct body that never investigates the democratic credentials of its members.

Today's UN, which entrusts the protection of fundamental human rights to countries that are themselves among the prime violators of these rights, is no longer acceptable. We must modify not only the working mechanisms of the UN, but also its composition. What is needed is a "World Organization of Democracies," devoted to promoting the original values of the UN, including democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Such a UN could follow the organizational model of the WTO, for example, or the Council of Europe. The latter is worth emulating because admission and continued membership are conditioned on respect for specific democratic standards. Countries from the former Soviet bloc, for example, had to adapt their legislation to these standards in order to join.

The same should hold with respect to the new UN: to join and remain a UN member would require respecting the international commitments undertaken by each state, beginning with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In recent years, a number of countries, often after painful reforms, have become democratic, showing that it is possible to "globalize" democracy as well as trade. Yet other countries remain stubbornly outside this emerging democratic order, and some democracies may be moving toward authoritarianism. Shouldn't these attributes have an impact on their international status?

The UN must be re-founded on the basis of its original principles. The standard for admission should not be a country's mere existence, but its fulfillment of certain criteria of democratic governance. Like the European Union, the UN should possess mechanisms to suspend or even expel members that fail to respect democratic norms.

Only a re-founded UN will have the legitimacy necessary to react credibly to threats to peace and promote freedom and human rights. That re-founding should start without delay. A good place to begin would be to form, before the next General Assembly, a caucus of democratic states to coordinate their actions and establish common positions.

Emma Bonino, a former EU Commissioner, is a Transnational Radical Member of the European Parliament; Gianfranco Dell'Alba is a Transnational Radical Member of the European Parliament and the director of the NGO "No Peace Without Justice."