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STANFORD - When today's children are old enough to vote, they may cast ballots for their representatives to the United Nations, the World Bank or some other successor international agency.
To survive in a changing world, international institutions will need to represent the interests of individuals and not just national governments, believes Stanford University law Professor John Barton.
Increasing global interactions already have created a kind of ad hoc international judicial system to which individuals and corporations can appeal independent of their governments, Barton said. However, citizens' ability to influence international law-making on the front end is lagging behind.
Barton, a specialist in international law who serves frequently as a consultant to the World Bank and other international agencies, would like to see democracy on the international level sooner rather than later. He suspects, however, it will come gradually, as more leaders of international agencies are forced to consider it as a strategy to improve their effectiveness.
Ultimately, he said he believes, the United Nations will be unable to function without a democratically elected body "for the same reason you can't function long at the national level without providing some mechanisms for the opposition to be heard."
"An opposition provides communications channels that either change the government or warn it that there's an important group of people who have a set of concerns that aren't being taken care of," he said.
But if the same voters elect national and international representatives, why isn't it duplicative to elect both?
Because, Barton said, nationally elected leaders wind up ignoring opposition positions on the international level. He illustrated this with an example from Europe, where most of the world's experience with international democracy resides:
"In most countries of Europe, members of the Green parties are elected to the national parliament," he said. "They are usually part of the opposition to the government formed. Therefore, when the government of one country decides to push a particular policy in the European Union, it is going to de-emphasize the Greens as compared to the people who voted it into power.
"The result is that the Greens don't get represented in the inter-party machinations of Europe when the prime minister of France negotiates with the chancellor of Germany."
The European Union, however, also has a directly elected international assembly where the Greens who are elected by French citizens sit beside the Greens elected in other countries. The Greens are still a minority in this forum, Barton said, but "they can find alliances and forge coalitions that can make trouble for European policy that is reached over their heads."
This difference between the European Union's popularly elected legislature and its national-leader-dominated executive branch, he said, is akin to the difference in the United States between the president and the Congress, who are elected by the same voters but don't always agree.
Although the European parliament doesn't have as much power as Congress to make trouble for the president, he said, its powers gradually have been expanded with each European Community reform.
"The assembly doesn't have veto power, but at the very least, it provides legitimacy for the decisions of the international community, and it provides a mechanism for working on problems that otherwise might not be faced."
Another European body, the Council of Europe, illustrates the important role international elected bodies can play as "an outlet for political ideas that aren't popular with heads of state in general," Barton said.
"The Council of Europe focuses on human rights problems, and its parliamentarians were among those first to criticize the Greek junta 10 or 20 years ago when the military was in power and abusive. They are the people who criticize Turkey right now on its human rights problems. The national governments of Europe don't want to run the political costs of criticizing another government with whom they have all kinds of relationships."
Similarly, he said, the Council of Europe has "taken the lead in opening bridges to the newer democracies in Eastern Europe."
The "legitimacy" that a legislative body would add to international institutions, Barton said, might convince them to "make incremental reform in that direction."
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank, for example, are increasingly perceived as non-representative of the world, Barton said. They are seen as institutions dominated by a few of the wealthiest nations, who impose their views on the developing world by attaching conditions to financial assistance.
Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly and many of its subsidiary development and welfare agencies are perceived by many as illegitimate for opposite reasons. Run by the General Assembly, where the governments of developing countries constitute a majority, they are viewed by developed nations as wasteful pork-barreling operations that provide benefits primarily to the wealthiest citizens of developing countries.
All these agencies could benefit from mechanisms that promote a wider input to their decision-making, Barton said. Non- governmental participation is particularly important in funding development projects, he said, "because you want a politically acceptable balance between environmental and development concerns. It is also important for getting new issues on the agenda, such as an antitrust-type issue or international science policy."
Some argue that international non-government organizations, such as the World Wildlife Fund or Amnesty International, already serve as a counterweight to national governments. They are expected to participate heavily in the new U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development, a watchdog organization on development and environmental issues that was agreed upon at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Barton disagrees.
"At this point, these non-government organizations provide the only real non-government input," Barton said. "But in my judgment, they often reflect the ideas of the developed world about what would be good for the developing world. The number of these organizations that are based in places like Washington, London and New York is absolutely amazing."
Barton says he believes legislative and judicial branches of international institutions also could help the United Nations in peace- keeping. National government representatives can now vote to send police troops into another country uninvited, he said, but "their executive action becomes more legitimate if it is balanced with some representative and judicial institutions." The Somalia intervention, he said, has demonstrated that "you can't declare martial law for long without a criminal law system, and you can't face the hard problems of creating a criminal law system without some representative system to make politically hard decisions."
In a recent law review article, Barry Carter of Georgetown Law School and Barton argue that "individuals and corporations can play an indispensable role in helping to call nations to account." They see a growing international consensus in court and arbitration panel decisions on human rights and the rules of fair play in international business and trade. Individuals increasingly can initiate judicial review actions that pressure outlaw states.
"The United States has been one of the slowest nations to accept international judicial penetration of its legal system," they wrote, often refusing to accept judicial review by international panels or even to consider other countries' court decisions in its own domestic courts.
Since that article was written, Barton said, he has been encouraged by the U.S. Congress' vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would subject the United States to outside review of disputes that arise over enforcement of the agreement with Mexico on a wide range of environmental and labor issues.
Elected international legislatures are further in the future, he conceded, although he has recommended it now for the U.N. Economic and Social Council. The idea will appeal more broadly, he believes, as fewer and fewer problems can be solved at the national level.
"I think it's an obvious complement to the executive-oriented aspects of our existing international organizations."
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