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25 October 1999

Power to the people – for real this time

After Charter 88 comes Charter 99 - and it's even more ambitious. Titus Alexander explains

By Titus Alexander

Democratisation of global politics is the unfinished business of this century. After the first world war, the League of Nations was created to promote peaceful development. It proved too weak, however, to prevent the Great Depression and a second world war. The United Nations, set up to replace the ineffectual league, soon showed a flaw of a different kind: it was designed to promote western interests.

It is sometimes suggested that world government is an impossible ideal. Yet we already have a sort of world government: it comprises such bodies as the G8, the OECD, Nato, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, as well as the UN. The point is that most of these bodies are undemocratic and unaccountable and that the most powerful ones are run by the western minority.

On UN Day, Sunday 24 October, Charter 99 launches a worldwide campaign for global democracy. In just three months, hundreds of people in over 60 countries have backed our call for an accountable, equitable and environmentally sustainable system of global governance. Supporters include Anthony Giddens, Anita Roddick, Jonathan Dimbleby, Glenys Kinnock, Noam Chomsky, the former chancellor Lord Healey and almost 100 MPs from across the political spectrum in over 30 countries.

The charter is an open letter to the UN Millennium Assembly, which meets in September 2000. Drawn up through an international network by the Westminster United Nations Association and the One World Trust, it demands that powerful international institutions be made accountable. At present, they take their decisions behind closed doors, influenced more by transnational corporations and think-tanks than by ordinary citizens or even elected politicians.

Reform should begin with the UN. Each member state has sovereign equality, so that the 70,000 people of the Seychelles have the same vote as the one billion people of India. At its pinnacle, the UN Security Council is controlled by five permanent members, responsible for “saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. As well as being 60 per cent European and 80 per cent white, they include the world’s biggest arms dealers. Through the UN, the world’s richest countries decide the policies that govern the lives of its poorest; the world’s biggest polluters determine its environmental policies; and enforcement of human rights is often the responsibility of those who violate them.

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The charter’s aims may not be fulfilled in a lifetime. Yet there are at least three reasons why the charter can succeed, sooner rather than later.

First, more and more people recognise that vital issues, from climate change and communications to terrorism and international trade, can best be tackled at a global level.

Second, there are encouraging precedents in successful international campaigns, such as the Statute for an International Criminal Court, the ban on landmines, Jubilee 2000 and resistance to genetically modified food.

Third, most of the world’s people now live in democratic countries. People can campaign openly for an accountable and equitable system of global governance.

Democratic institutions alone will not bring about a fairer world: the United States, with 4 per cent of the world’s population, will not share power readily. Voters in western democracies tend to favour a system that gives them a lion’s share of the world’s resources. Yet people are increasingly aware that, in the longer term, everyone will suffer if global decision-making is left in the hands of unequal, exclusive, unaccountable institutions. The wealthy may decide that environmental degradation, international crime and conflict will cost them more than conceding political equality with the poor.

Are we willing to continue to live in a world where one in five of us lives in extreme poverty, where human rights depend on where you were born, and where the future of humanity is threatened by the decisions of a few? We have the experience, we have the ideas, we have the resources to put these things right. All that is missing is the political will.

Charter 99 aims to generate that by building alliances between the people concerned about the environment, development, peace, human rights, labour standards, child protection, women’s equality and other issues.

The British government has a special responsibility to work for global constitutional reform. It occupies a powerful seat in the G8 summit, Nato, the World Bank, the IMF, the UN Security Council, the European Union and other institutions of global governance. It is hyperactive in global trade, finance, politics and military security. And it has very close relationships with both the United States and the countries of the Commonwealth, which include some of the world’s poorest nations.

But the government needs to know, loud and clear, that people want action now. With an overcrowded domestic agenda, preoccupation with Europe and resistance from the US, a new UN could look like a campaign too far.

It is our job, as citizens, to use Charter 99 to tell our government that a new century needs new international institutions to avoid the horrors of the last.

To support the charter, write to Westminster UNA, 32 Carisbrooke Road, London E17 7EF. Charter 99 is published on 24 October in the “Observer” and through One World Online at The writer is chair of Westminster UNA

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