Bringing Multilaterals into the 21st Century: Why States Need to Listen to Their Citizens

23 October 2014, by Maina Kiai, Article 19.

This post was originally published on the Article 19 website.

Earlier this month, officials from more than 50 countries gathered in Indonesia for the Bali Democracy Forum, a multilateral event styled as a venue to promote “the principles of equality, mutual respect and understanding.”

The idea behind the Forum is noble. But conspicuously absent were those whom these democratic leaders supposedly represent: the people.

A few days before the meeting, Bali police announced that all protests in the area would be banned to “ensure the event runs smoothly”, according to a report in the Jakarta Post. Eight prominent Indonesian civil society organizations later pulled out, calling the Forum a “ceremonial event”.

It’s tempting to label Bali an anomaly, but unfortunately, it’s symptomatic of a broader trend within multilateral organizations today – whether at formal bodies like the United Nations or informal alliances such as the Bali Forum. Multilateralism is mired in its mid-20th century origins, dominated by an undemocratic, state-centric approach and tone-deaf to the concerns of people who actually comprise the member states.

On October 28, I will present a report to the UN General Assembly arguing that it’s time to address this shortcoming. The thrust of the report is simple: multilateral institutions must democratise themselves by fully respecting the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, both inside their halls and within their spheres of influence. Above all, this means allowing ordinary people effective participation and input.

To be clear, my recommendation isn’t simply about boosting civil society’s profile. It’s also about multilaterals preserving their own legitimacy.

I am convinced that the traditional approach to multilateralism is doomed to fail in the 21st century, an era where people are more connected, more informed, and more aware of the impact that multilaterals can have upon their lives. Multilaterals institute development projects, spur economic and political reform, help shape international law, and more. Ordinary people need a channel to influence these critical decisions, or their anger and frustration will boil over.

As my report demonstrates, multilateral institutions are not doing enough to ensure that people outside the state power structure have their say.

First, multilaterals’ engagement strategies are typically weak. Very few give civil society full participation in agenda-setting and decision-making. Access to information policies are spotty, and most institutions lack mechanisms whereby people can file complaints if they feel they have been wronged by multilateral action (the World Bank being one notable exception). Sectoral equity is an issue as well, with the private sector playing an increasingly dominant role in implementing the global development agenda, often at the expense of civil society involvement.

Even those multilaterals that have implemented engagement policies for civil society have often done so clumsily.

The UN, for example grants “consultative status” to some NGOs, allowing these organizations to participate in select UN processes – a rare bright spot. But the process of accrediting these NGOs has been dogged by crass politicization. As of April 2014, at least 48 NGOs have seen their applications continually deferred. Perhaps not surprisingly, 46 work on human rights. One of them, the International Dalit Solidarity Network, has been waiting for accreditation since 2008, having seen its application unilaterally blocked by repetitive questioning from India.

Reprisals by states against activists who cooperate with multilateral institutions are another area of grave concern. One of the most noteworthy instances was the case of Cao Shunli, a Chinese activist who was arrested in 2013 just before boarding a flight to attend China’s Universal Periodic Review before the UN. She died in custody, after being denied medical care.

Multilateral institutions must react aggressively when such reprisals take place, including by intervening in specific cases and publicly condemning the member state involved.

Multilaterals don’t rank much better when it comes to protecting assembly rights, a valuable channel for constructive engagement when properly opened.

There have been numerous reported violations to the right of peacefully assembly during multilateral institutions’ summits in recent years, notably those organized by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Group of Twenty (G20). At least one – the International Olympic Committee – bans peaceful assemblies at their events altogether.

No one is expecting multilaterals to police assemblies themselves, but they do have obligations with respect to how local authorities do so. This starts with setting standards to ensure that states follow international best practices when policing multilaterals’ on their behalf.

It’s a fallacy to say that governments already provide “enough” representation for their people at the multilateral level. We don’t eliminate other forms of political participation at the domestic level because people elect representatives, and we shouldn’t do it at the international level either.

The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are among the best tools we have to promote pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness. These rights satisfy people’s fundamental desire to take control of their own destinies. And I emphasize that these rights are indeed fundamental – not simply because they are inscribed in the law, but because they speak to something present inside each and every one of us as human beings.

When people are denied these rights – whether at the local, national or international level – no good can follow. It is time for multilateralism to fully account for this, by expanding beyond state action alone and including the effective participation of a variety of voices within those states.

Multilaterals are undoubtedly citadels of power, but they need not be impenetrable fortresses.

Note from the Editor

The UNCAC Coalition issued a press release welcoming the report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai entitled “Multilateral Institutions And Their Effect On Assembly And Association Rights (A/69/365)”