A World Citizens Initiative

Michele Fiorillo

The Case for a Global Participatory Democracy

Time is high for a reform of the United Nations, and many proposals are in discussion towards its 75th anniversary which will be celebrated on October 2020.

This honorable institution – born in the wake of the end of the Second World War, with the aim to preserve peace on earth – is nowadays generally perceived like a weak old elephant attacked by many arrows, almost on the point to fall down. An urgent renovation is needed – everyone sees that. But towards which direction?

Raison d’Etat and intergovernamentalism are increasingly prevailing in the UN system, blocking de facto the necessary development of a stronger global governance in front of the new challenges of the Millenium. Therefore, what we need is to build up a ‘counter-power’ by the citizens who are aware of the common destiny of humanity and the necessity of cooperation instead of antagonism. But: how could it be possible the emergence of such a civic activism on the planetary stage?

As acute observers noticed, the huge mobilizations against the Iraqui war (2003) was not only the birth for a transnational European public sphere[1], but also the affirmation of a new world public opinion[2] -something similar to what already happened in the 60s  with the mobilization of young students all over the world against the Vietnam war and the last breathes of Occidental colonization.

Since then, day by day, more and more citizens are more and more connected on a global level thanks to social networks, increased facilities in travelling, and growing economic, educational, scientific and artistic cooperation, despite the limitations that nationalisms and authoritarian regimes are trying to impose to the free movement of the people.

On this progressive development of a global civil society is based the ‘cosmopolitan’ hope for the democratization of globalization. But it’s likely that this will not happen without a strong help by an institutional approach.

Therefore, one question it could reveal to be central: how to put the citizens at the center of the UN project?

Once more, as always, we need to exercise political imagination.

The World Federalist Movement had started since a quarter of a century a fundamental campaign towards the introduction of a United Nation Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) as a first step towards a World Parliament, finally representing the citizens of the world[3].

However, this approach could reveal to be not enough in an age where ‘parliamentarism’ is under attack almost everywhere, and the distance between institutions and people are growing, at least in the eyes of public opinion. As many democratic theories have shown, representative institutions alone are not enough to outline a full quality of democracy: representative democracy, to survive, has to be integrated by modern forms of direct and deliberative democracy. If that is true at a national level, that should be even more true at the international one: therefore, if our aim is to reach progressively a global democracy, we need to imagine innovative tools for an transnational participatory democracy.

Such kind of institutional instruments would enable us to raise awareness among the people about the complexity of global governance and would help to mobilize the growing global public opinion for a direct influence on the destiny of the world community.

One of this tools could be the introduction of a World Citizens’ Initiative (WCI) on the model of the ECI (European Citizens' Initiative).

The European Citizens’ Initiative, introduced in the European Union with the Treaty of Lisbon (2007), is the first example of transnational participatory democracy. The experiment has demonstrated that it can work, despite some difficulties that are now under revision, thanks to the pressure of NGO’s activists, willing to improve and make easier its functioning.

Now, the idea is very simple: why not imagine that also within the United Nations framework something similar could work?

If our aim is to give a voice to world citizens, we will find the technical solutions and the relative institutional mechanisms to be addressed in the appropriate manner, with the help of legal experts. However, we can already start to figure out concretely how a UN WCI could work.

In practice, making proportions, if for the ECI are necessary signatures from a minimum of 7 countries out of 28 EU Member States, for an hypothetical WCI, for instance signatures from a minimum 48 countries out of 193 UN Member States would be necessary. With regard to the number of signatures: if for the ECI a minimum of 1 million signatures is required – within a EU population of 511 millions, as of 1 January 2017 – for a WCI for instance 15 millions signatures would be necessary, being world population about 7,5 billion, as of 1 July 2017.

That would be an hypothetical threshold for an initiative to be addressed to the Secretary general, who would have the role to propose the issue to the UN General Assembly for discussion, on behalf of the citizens of the World.

We can imagine that in particular cases also Security Council could be addressed by a special WCI, with a bigger threshold, say for instance 100 millions signatures. Moreover, the debate on the proposal issued by a specific WCI could be established as mandatory – within the sessions of the General Assembly or of the Security Council – under condition of a doubled threshold of signatures – say 30 millions for the issues addressed to the GA and 200 millions for the ones addressed to the SC. A very high threshold – say for instance 500 millions of signatures- could be used by the citizens to urge the Security Council to (re)consider peace-keeping interventions and stop the war in every point of the planet.

By an organizational point of view, we could imagine online registrations and signatures on a web specific platform set-up by UN Secretariat. But also offline registrations and signatures through the UN offices (and peacekeeping missions) all over the world and –when the agreement is possible- through national and local authorities of the Member States. NGOs would be allowed to collect signatures, too, under special authorization. This integrated online/offline approach could enable even citizens of countries governed by authoritarian regimes to participate to WCI campaigns and be part of a growing democratic global community.

In this respect, the WCI could be seen as a powerful instrument for the long-term objective of a global democracy. A cosmopolitan tool, in the hand of the many – not the few wealthy global élites – to counter big corporate interests that are at the moment mainly governing the world together with the will of hegemony of the great powers and the natural egoisms of the nation States.

Movements like the one represented in the World Social Forum could use the WCI as a counter-power to global capitalism. Ecologist activists could have one more instrument to campaign against climate change and environmental crimes, moving from square and street mobilizations like the “People’s Climate March” to international institutions. Civil rights battles could try to achieve their goals in a specific country through the active solidarity of many people from all the corners of the world.

Civic platforms like avaaz.org, experienced since years in public opinion campaigning, could transform their big potential in terms of data collection and civic mobilization in a decisive support for citizens and organizations willing to engage in a WCI.

Influential intellectuals, famous artists and other global personalities would be easily involved as testimonial for the different campaigns, catalyzing the media attention and spreading ideas about a different shape of global governance among national and global public opinion.

By a legal point of view, the main road to introduce a WCI in the UN system could be found – precisely as for the UNPA – by using the article 22 of the UN Charter: “The General Assembly may establish such subsidiary organs as it deems necessary for the performance of its function”.

Giving direct voice to the citizens of the world would help the General Assembly to increase its “performance” and credibility in the commitment for the peace in the world, showing itself as the place where global issues raised by the people are heard and taken into great consideration.

Making other steps forward towards a global democracy, we could imagine a deliberative “citizens chamber”, complementary to the General Assembly and to the UN Parliamentary Assembly (UNPA) to be established on the way of a World Parliament.

That ‘deliberative chamber’ could be shaped on the model of experimented ‘citizens assemblies’. It would be a panel of citizens randomly selected by drawing lots on a global level – say in a  symbolical number of 500, as the participants to the ancient Athenian boulé- among the ones registered on a specific UN web platform - chosen from different cultural backgrounds and different social sectors. This  World Citizens Assembly (or World Citizens Council) would meet for instance one week before each General Assembly and Security Council meeting, in the UN ‘capitals’ (New York, Genève) deliberating on the issues in their agenda, with the possibility to propose ad debate also new topics. A UN global civic digital platform for deliberation could allow continuous debates and consultations among citizens on a transnational level, stimulating also the organization of local citizens assemblies on global governance. This local citizens assemblies could send proposals to the “World Citizens Assembly/Council”, which would be renovated each year, allowing potentially each citizen of the planet to be part of it, once in life.

All that could be seen as ‘fantapolitics’, of course. But what today appears just as an imagination’s fruit could become a tangible institution in the future.

It has been like that for the International Criminal Court: from a powerful idea to the reality, thanks to a broad coalition of Ngos campaigning for its construction and ratification.

Nothing less has to be made now: build up a broad coalition of civil society organizations and create a growing civic mobilization, pushing politics to do a step forward towards a brave renovation of UN system, in the pusuit of participation.

The strength of the democratic regulative idea will do the rest, as always in history, in the short or long term.


The idea of a World Citizens Initiative, modeled on the example of the European Citizens Initiative, was at first proposed by Michele Fiorillo during the session at the European Parliament of the UNPA campaign meeting in Brussels (16 October 2013 - see the report of the UNPA campaign meeting, contained in “L’Unità Europea”, settembre/ottobre 2013, Anno XL, n. 5, p. 13 – available at www.mfe.it/site/fileMfe/archivio/UE/UE_2013_05.pdf ). More recently, the proposal was adopted by the last WFM Congress held in The Hague on July 2018, and a campaign has been promoted by Democracy Without Border together with Democracy International and CIVICUS (worldcitizensinitiative.org ).

Per le note sugli autori:


Michele Fiorillo, Scuola Normale Superiore (Pisa), former member of WFM Council and UEF Italy Central Committee. He is among the founders of the CIVICO Europa/We Europeans campaign and the ideator of the UN World Citizens Initiative concept.

[1]                     Juergen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ‘February 15, or What Binds Europeans Together: A Plea for a Common Foreign Policy, Beginning in the Core of Europe’, Constellations, 10 : 3, p. 294 – issued originally in the Frankfurter Allgemeine on 31th May 2003. 15th of February is the day of the simultaneous demonstrations against the imminent start of the Iraqi War in many cities, that for the authors were “a sign of the birth of a European public sphere” (p. 291).

[2]                     “The fracturing of the Western alliance over Iraq and the huge antiwar demonstrations around the world this weekend are reminders that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” (Patrick Tyler, ‘A New Power in the Streets’, New York Times, February 17, 2003)

[3]                     www.unpacampaign.org

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