The international NGO EarthAction has issued a ‘Call for a Safer World’ to demonstrate world-wide support for a more just, democratic and sustainable international system for the 21st century. It will be presented to national governments and to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The following article outlines its rationale and purpose.
The first generation of world institutions, centred on the League of Nations, was created early in the 20th century and collapsed in the flames of World War II. The second generation, the existing United Nations system, was established in 1945 from the ashes of that war.
The United Nations, imperfect though it is, has done much good. But the world at the dawn of the 21st century is very different from that of 1945. Our existing international system cannot protect us from the threat of nuclear war or global environmental destruction. And it has failed to meet the basic needs of more than a billion of the world's citizens.
The Call for a Safer World outlines an agenda for change. It does not list every single thing that needs to be done to reform the United Nations and other international bodies. It calls for seven key changes, each one of which would represent a breakthrough towards a safer future for humanity.
All these proposals have been discussed at the United Nations. The political and bureaucratic resistance to them is strong, especially from those national governments that enjoy having the freedom to use military force or to abuse the rights of their citizens. Implementing these proposals will require sustained effort by political leaders and persistent pressure from legislators and citizens.
United Nations preventive diplomacy
The time to prevent armed conflict is before it starts. Once blood has been shed, passions run high and it is extremely difficult to bring the fighting to a halt. Yet, all too often, dangerous conflicts are ignored by the international community until they explode into violence.
Highly-trained UN negotiators should be dispatched automatically whenever a dangerous conflict arises, without waiting for the permission of national governments or of the parties to the conflict, to help seek agreed solutions before violence breaks out.
A UN rapid deployment brigade
In some cases, however, even the best preventive diplomacy will fail. The United Nations needs a permanent force of volunteers, recruited as individuals, ready to go immediately to areas of conflict to prevent killing and to protect innocent people. To be effective, such a force needs to be trained, armed and authorized to arrest anyone engaged in aggression or murder. The dispatch of such a force could be in the hands of the Secretary-General, the General Assembly or the Security Council, but should not be subject to veto by the great powers on the Security Council or by the parties to a conflict.
A UN rapid deployment brigade may in some situations be able to operate without weapons. It could also provide invaluable assistance with disaster relief. Many of those involved in efforts to stop the violence in Bosnia or Rwanda believe that if UN forces had been deployed quickly as the killing began, with a strong mandate to arrest anyone engaged in murder, the catastrophes in those countries could have been avoided.
An international criminal court
The best deterrent against genocide and other crimes against humanity is to make those responsible for such crimes individually accountable for their actions. Today, many of the world's leading murderers are either still in power in their countries, or are living in luxurious exile. So long as political and military leaders can get away with the kind of mass murder seen in Rwanda, Bosnia, Iraq, Cambodia and so many other places, such crimes are likely to continue.
An international criminal court needs to have an independent prosecutor who can investigate, and if appropriate prosecute, any individual - including a head of government - suspected of genocide, international aggression, war crimes or other crimes against humanity. For the court to be fully effective, as the experience of the current ad hoc tribunals for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia has shown, the international community should also have a stronger capacity to bring to trial individuals accused of crimes against humanity.
To build a peaceful world, we need a United Nations which can more reliably keep the peace, and we must also steadily reduce the levels of armaments. Today, humanity continues to waste more than US$800 billion a year on armies and weapons - an amount comparable to the entire combined income of everyone in Latin America.
Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction should be eliminated altogether. Otherwise, it is all too likely that they will one day be used through accident, madness, terrorism or the escalation of a crisis. Conventional weapons should be reduced through world-wide, across-the-board annual percentage reductions in all major categories of weapons.
If nations are to have the confidence to demilitarize, they must be sure that their neighbours and adversaries are doing likewise. For any disarmament agreement, the United Nations should verify and ensure compliance.
An environmental council
The current system for making decisions on the protection of the global environment, known as decision-making by ‘consensus’, involves waiting until almost 200 national governments are agreed before global action is taken. It is hardly surprising that the threats to the planet outstrip our international response. Imagine trying to make decisions in your country if all members of the national legislature had to agree before anything got done.
The existing UN Security Council, charged with keeping the peace, has two attributes that are urgently needed to protect the global environment. First, decisions are made by roughly two-thirds majority vote among its fifteen members. Second, its decisions are binding on all member states of the United Nations.
We need a globally representative Environment Council with comparable powers (but without the veto for powerful countries that so often undermines the Security Council.) This could be achieved by creating a new body, or by transforming an existing institution at the UN, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development, the Trusteeship Council or the UN Environment Programme. Its mandate could be confined to the protection of the global commons which are beyond national jurisdiction - the atmosphere and oceans - or to the protection of the global environment more generally. Decisions of the Environment Council could be subject to approval by the General Assembly and by a People's Assembly once it is established.
To help ensure compliance with its decisions, an Environmental Council should be combined with an expanded environmental role for the World Court, and with the possibility of penalties for governments that ignore international environmental standards.
A directly-elected People's Assembly within the UN
Today, for the first time in history, a majority of the world's people are free to express their opinions and to vote in multiparty elections. Yet the system of global governance that we have now is far from being a model of democracy. If the United Nations is to fulfil its potential, the spread of democracy must include our global institutions.
This could be advanced by creating a democratic chamber within the UN system. A People's Assembly could, together with the existing General Assembly made up of national governments, play a major role in decision-making on the global environment, sustainable development, peace and human rights. A People's Assembly could also provide democratic oversight of the expenditure of UN funds, including new global revenues.
Such a body would best be made up of directly elected representatives. Or, like the early European Parliament (now directly elected), it could begin with members of national parliaments. A system of representation could be devised to ensure that small nations would not be overwhelmed by a handful of large countries.
A People's Assembly at the UN would bring three great benefits:
- ∑ Being directly accountable to the public, it would enable ordinary people to be far more involved than they are today in deciding the fate of our planet. As ever more important decisions are being made internationally, it is crucial to strengthen at the global level the democratic accountability that we consider so important at the national and local levels.
- ∑ It would increase the democratic legitimacy of the United Nations, which is essential if the UN is to assume new roles in protecting the planet. Few people would want to invest greater decision-making powers in a body that is largely bureaucratic in nature, and only indirectly accountable to the public.
- ∑ It would introduce representatives at the UN whose primary responsibility would be the protection of the whole planet, whereas most national representatives are employed by governments to represent national interests.
- Global money for global needs
The near-bankruptcy of the UN, the shrinking funds for helping the world's poorest citizens, and the lack of resources for priorities such as renewable energy and forest protection, show clearly that resources on the scale necessary to meet global needs are unlikely to come from national budgets alone. This is not surprising, as solving global problems of war, poverty and environmental degradation is not in reality a top priority for most national governments.
Some governments have urged that, to generate resources for global priorities, fees should be levied for uses of the ‘global commons’ (the atmosphere, the oceans and outer space). Fees on global pollution-for example, a global ‘carbon tax’ on the carbon dioxide emissions which contribute to global warming-would both raise funds and help to discourage damaging activities.
Another revenue source proposed by some governments would be a small levy on international currency transfers. For example, a levy of just 0.05 of one percent on international currency transfers could generate approximately US$150 billion a year, as well as helping to calm the volatile currency markets. The fees would be levied by national governments, but the proceeds devoted to global priorities through the UN system.
In a world where we depend on each other more than ever before, we need a more effective and democratic United Nations to protect the long-term interests of humanity as a whole. Those shared long-term interests include a life-giving planet, an end to war and hunger, and the protection of basic human rights. The seven proposals contained in the Call for a Safer World, once implemented, would go far towards creating the United Nations that we need.
Call for action
‘We are entering a new millennium, yet all our hopes for the future could be lost if we fail to solve our global problems of war, poverty, environmental degradation and the abuse of human rights.
As citizens of one planet, we unite our voices on behalf of a better future for the world's children, and for the Earth itself. We are people from different countries and cultures, but we share a conviction greater than all our differences: that by working together we can build a just, peaceful and sustainable world.
We call on the world’s governments to take the following steps to build a more effective and democratic United Nations system, through which humanity can co-operate to safeguard our common future:
1. Strengthen the UN's capacity for preventive diplomacy to ensure that the United Nations acts in good time to help resolve dangerous conflicts before blood is shed.
2. Create a UN rapid deployment brigade able to respond immediately to genocide, aggression or natural disasters.
3. Establish an independent international criminal court able to prosecute any individual for genocide, war crimes, international aggression or other crimes against humanity.
4. Launch a process of balanced world-wide demilitarisation, including the elimination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, with an international agency to verify compliance with disarmament agreements.
5. Establish a representative environmental council able to make binding decisions to protect the planet without waiting for unanimous agreement among all the world's governments.
6. Establish a directly elected People’s Assembly within the UN to ensure democratic accountability in international decision-making and in the expenditure of UN funds.
7. Raise money through fees on global pollution or on international currency transactions, to fund these initiatives for UN reform, to protect the global environment, and to meet the basic needs of the world's citizens for food, clean water, shelter, education, family planning and health care.
We call on our governments and commit ourselves to give the highest priority to the challenge of building a safer world.’
EarthAction is a network of more than 1,800 citizen groups in 144 countries. It is committed to help build the political will to create a safer world. EarthAction has no connection with any political party or religious creed. It is simply a network of people working together for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world.
You are invited to sign the Call as an individual, or if appropriate on behalf of an organization you belong to. If you are an elected official and represent a constituency, you may wish to sign on behalf of your constituents as their democratic representative. The Call for a Safer World is also posted on EarthAction's website, www.earthaction.org where you can ‘sign’ it electronically.
EarthAction has international offices in Chile (Fax: 56-2-737 2897. E-mail:
); the United Kingdom (Fax: 44-1233-813 795. E-mail:
); and the USA (Fax: 1-413-549 0544. E-mail: