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Briefing Paper No. 30
February, 1996

Canadian Support for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly Under the New Foreign Affairs Minister

Summary Statement

The appointment of Lloyd Axworthy to succeed André Ouellet as Canada's Minister for Foreign Affairs may indicate a shift to a more activist Canadian foreign policy, one which places a greater priority on promoting human rights and strengthening the United Nations.

In recent years the demands on the United Nations have increased. In response, the organization has been given more autonomous powers and responsibilities. At the same time, it is necessary that the UN maintain support for its actions and decisions of the world's citizens and governments. Creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly is a vital first step in this process of democratizing the United Nations and ensuring its legitimacy in the eyes of world public opinion.

The European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), demonstrate the important contributions that supranational parliamentary bodies can make to the work of international institutions. The history of both of these supranational parliaments also demonstrates the important, indeed essential, role in their creation to be undertaken by committed national parliamentarians.

Under Andrº Ouellet, Canadian foreign policy was distinguished primarily by its emphasis on international trade issues. Trade promotion overshadowed some other progressive initiatives taken by Canada, notably Canada's work at the UN on creation of an International Criminal Court, and the Canadian peacekeeping proposal (entitled Toward a Rapid Reaction Capability for the United Nations) which was presented at last Fall's session of the UN General Assembly.

As Foreign Affairs critic when the Liberals were in opposition, Lloyd Axworthy was a strong proponent of arms control and human rights issues and is a strong advocate of improved multilateral institutions. Many analysts expect that under Mr. Axworthy these international law and 'world order' issues will become a greater priority.

In the Spring of 1993, the House of Commons Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade (SCEAIT) brought forward a report on Canada's role in the United Nations. One of the Committee's three recommendations called for Canada to support creation of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA), and for Canada to host the preparatory meeting of the Assembly in the Canadian Parliament Buildings. Following release of the SCEAIT Report, an ad hoc committee of parliamentarians and non-governmental representatives was established to build political support for a UNPA. Lloyd Axworthy was among a handful of Liberals who participated in the ad hoc Committee's two meetings. Unfortunately, very little was accomplished before the 1993 general election was called and the 1993 session of the House of Commons ended.

The appointment of Mr. Axworthy as Foreign Affairs Minister raises the possibility that Canada may yet be in a position to take some positive action in support of a UNPA, along the lines suggested in the 1993 report of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade.

(1) A UN Parliamentary Assembly

Today UN decisions are made by diplomats who serve as representatives of national governments. Preoccupied with their national interests, governments often neglect the common, global interest. And they are unlikely to tackle the challenge of transforming the UN with real commitment. Citizen representation at the UN is vitally needed.

The name for a body that represents citizens in any government is parliament. The UN today already has many of the responsibilities for global governance. But it lacks both authority and democratic legitimacy. A parliamentary body may help overcome these deficiencies, enabling the UN to play a greater role in the solution to our urgent global problems.

The European Parliament is the world's most successful supranational parliament, proving it can be done. Other examples include the Andean Parliament, linking parliamentarians from a number of countries in Latin America, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe), a consultative chamber created in 1991 which links parliamentarians from all the countries in Europe, North America and what was formerly the Soviet Union.

The European Parliament began as a Parliamentary Assembly made up of representatives elected by national parliaments. Gradually its powers were enhanced and it became a body directly elected by the citizens of the European Community.

This practical method of representation is the key. It could enable the speedy establishment of a citizen body at the UN, easily and inexpensively, yet in a way that creates a valid democratic link between the UN and the world's citizens, through their representatives in the national legislatures.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would also:

In order to create a UN Parliamentary Assembly, no amendment of the United Nations Charter is necessary. Through Article 22, a UNPA can be established as a "subsidiary organ" of the General Assembly. (Article 22 of the UN Charter states that, "The General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its functions.")

An Article 22 resolution from the General Assembly will require the support of a majority of governments. And governments, preoccupied with their national interests, are unlikely to take the initiative without pressure from their parliaments.

(2) Recent Developments

The UNPA proposal was first raised in the Canadian Parliament in 1993 by the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade (SCEAIT), chaired by Hon. John Bosley. The SCEAIT report, citing a paper published by the World Federalist Movement, entitled The Case for a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly, made the following recommendation: By way of building the public and political constituency for the United Nations, the Committee recommends that Canada support the development of a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly and that we offer to host the preparatory meeting of the Assembly in the Parliament Buildings . . . .

Parliament did not act on the SCEAIT report before the federal election in the Fall of 1993. During the election campaign World Federalists across Canada participated in a campaign to raise awareness of the UNPA proposal. Candidates were asked whether, if elected, they would support creation of a UNPA. And following the election all members of the new Parliament were sent a personal letter from WFC President Allan Blakeney, urging their support for a UNPA. As a result of these two broad campaigns, it is possible to identify 50 or 60 Canadian MPs (and a few Senators) who support the UNPA proposal.

Some other recent developments:

(3) Next steps

Experience has shown that civil servants and diplomats working in national foreign ministries are less likely to support or see the need for a UNPA. They view the UN as a forum for discussion among sovereign states; whatever action the UN takes is a result of bargaining and compromise among member states.

The UNPA suggests a wholly different view of the UN, i.e. as a body with growing autonomy and sovereignty of its own, and a mandate to provide governance for an increasingly interdependent world community. UN decisions should reflect what is in the common interest of humanity, not the lowest common denominator of agreement among member states.

Given that the UNPA concept will be more warmly received by parliamentarians than by bureaucrats, it follows that one of the first steps toward creating a UNPA is to organize a large number of parliamentarians from around the world committed to pushing the idea. Creating a UN Parliamentary Assembly will, in the near future, depend on the hard work of a few committed parliamentarians who can moblilize support among their colleagues in parliaments around the world.

In order to move the issue forward at the political level, progress could follow the pattern of the recent creation of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. In the case of the OSCE Assembly, parliamentarians from all 35 countries of the OSCE met in 1991 in Spain for the founding session. But most of the advance work for the founding conference was carried out through the office of the Speaker of the Spanish Parliament.

The OSCE model was what the 1993 Canadian parliamentary committee (SCEAIT) had in mind when they urged that "Canada . . . offer to host the preparatory meeting of the Assembly in the Parliament Buildings . . ." However, the collaboration of the office of the Speaker of the Canadian Parliament could not be obtained, unless the Speaker had some prior assurance that organizing such an event had the approval of the government. Therefore, any conference of MPs from around the world to organize a parliamentary assembly for the UN would require the blessing of the Canadian government. This requires a decision of the federal Cabinet.

Obtaining the support of Cabinet for a UNPA is a task which has not caught the imagination of either the former Foreign Affairs Minister (Andrº Ouellet) or of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Christine Stewart). However, neither Ouellet nor Stewart have dismissed the UNPA proposal out of hand or ruled out possible Canadian support in future.

Perhaps in Lloyd Axworthy proponents of a UNPA have found someone to champion the proposal and shepherd the idea through Cabinet.

World Federalist Analysis

World Federalists see the world as one society, one which would benefit greatly by establishing a means of self-government in order to make law and take action on those global issues which are beyond the competence of national governments. The world's governing institutions, especially the family of institutions which make up the United Nations System, must be given more autonomous powers, and must also become more democratically accountable.

Creation of a UN Parliamentary Assembly is a practical and modest step. Yet the effect of such an Assembly would bring into being a completely new voice in global politics. As democratically elected individuals, they would represent the interests of the world's citizens. Members of a UN Parliamentary Assembly, unlike current representatives of governments at the UN, would be free of instruction, free from the constraints of raison d'ºtat, free to take a global perspective. They would be free to exhort the governments in the General Assembly to take action in ways they think citizens would want.

The UNPA would not yet be a true parliament, but the precursor to a parliament. It would not have legislative powers. But even in its initial states, with a largely symbolic and consultative role, a Parliamentary Assembly could do a great deal of good. Most importantly, a UNPA would become a symbol with which to change the outmoded ideological mindsets of the nation-state world we live in. In place of today's state-centric ideology, which makes a virtue of national selfishness and exclusivity, a parliament would advance the idea of the world as a democratic community of citizens who share common vital interests and values.

A UN Parliamentary Assembly would be a powerful symbol of a united world.

Recommended Action

Letters to the new Foreign Minister might usefully begin with some expression of appreciation for his support for a UNPA as Foreign Affairs Critic while the Liberals were in opposition and when he was a member of the Standing Committee on External Affairs and International Trade. Will he continue to support a UNPA as the new Foreign Affairs Minister? What action does he expect to take to advance the UNPA proposal?

Letters can be directed to: Hon. Lloyd Axworthy Minister for Foreign Affairs Lester B. Pearson Building 125 Sussex Drive Ottawa, Ont. K1A 0G2

This paper was prepared by Fergus Watt at the WFC national office.

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