The Basics of Democracy: 2. Accountability (or The Other Side of the Coin)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, democracy is

“A system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives”

while the Collins Dictionary gives as first definition

“government by the people or their elected representatives”.

According to dictionaries, legitimacy is the one and only ingredient for a democracy recipe


countless elected governments over the history changed their nature and became autocracies.

Hitler and Mussolini won regular elections and so many actual dictators even nowadays. Who watched the events in Egypt a few years ago, or more recently in Turkey, understands the problem.

That’s why a modern democracy cannot just be legitimate because even a fully legitimate government could take arbitrary decisions, betraying the popular mandate.

The necessary completion of legitimacy is accountability.

Political bodies are held accountable for their choices when they assume full responsibility. Of course, this means also accepting the consequences for the wrong choices, furthermore for the illegal ones.

There is a wide range of accountability tools:

a parliament able to dismiss the government that it doesn’t trust anymore; an impeachment procedure for serious misconduct of ministers or heads of state; a court able to stop or repeal laws contrary to the fundamental social contract (the Constitution, the bills of rights); some constitutional body  able to dissolve the parliament; the right of the electorate to chose new parliament members when disappointed by the previous ones… and the list could go on and on…

Citizens have the right to know how the public money is used, to which extent the objectives have been achieved and what expectations have been met; they have the right to appeal to a judiciary authority if their rights are violated and if those responsible for public interests are taking illicit advantages from their positions.

We are sometimes so accostumed to this other side of democracy that sometimes we end up forgetting how it is essential…. arriving to commit the mistake of thinking that “exporting democracy” (if ever democracy is exportable) just means organizing free elections. A nice democratic exercise but – without accountability – almost useless.

Now, you’ll ask, does accountability exist at supranational level?

Well, there is something, here and there. Often accountability is just hanging on the thin thread of responsibility of national representatives in front of their governments or their parliaments (if democratic!). But here is the good news: it’s slowly growing.

The XX century didn’t see much of that, but now a number of international organisations are establishing mechanisms for individual or collective claims (like the World Bank Inspection Panel); ombudsmen (as UN Ombudsman’ Office created in 2002), independent audit offices.

And we have to give merit to civil society which has struggled for that.

Of course, there is still much to improve. In a real supranational democracy, both political and legal accountability have to be equally developed.

Once more, the European Union arrived first -with its Court of Justice and its institutional system of checks and balances-, even if there is still more than something to improve in the field of economic governance.

In South America, several supranational courts followed the same path. Regional organizations have an advantage over the global ones: a common background of shared values helps.

But what’s more interesting about accountability is that is not so relevant if member states are democratic or not as accountability channels – when established – are open to all the citizens and NGOs, no matter where they are, while legitimacy channels often cut off a good number of them.

This seems to me a good reason to work on the other side of democracy.


If you want to learn more about accountability of international organizations, you can download here the Berlin Report by the International Law Association

How to Make World Peace

It just happened to me to watch Troy Davis’ presentation at TED X Strasbourg

and I think that any global citizens should watch it as well: I couldn’t explain better how making world peace is the ultimate goal of supranational democracy…. and why supranational democracy is exactly what is needed to get there.

Thank you Troy Davis!

The Basics of Democracy: 1. Legitimacy

We associate legitimacy with free elections.

National legal orders are perceived as legitimate if they are the result of a democratic constituent process and if parliaments (and governments) are periodically renewed through free elections.

In international organizations, it isn’t so simple.

International law knows just one way to recognize as legitimate an IO: the respect of the rule of law.

It is that simple:

1. An organization is legitimate if it has been established by a valid and ratified international treaty and respects international law.

2. It works legitimately if it respects its establishing treaty and the rules and procedures adopted according to it.

This is not surprising, as most of the International organizations were created after WWII when the world was much less interconnected and the state was considered the only legal framework for democracy.

Luckily, something is (very slowly) changing.


I. What if rules and procedures just cover a mere balance of powers, ignoring the rights of individuals or even of the weaker states?

II. How can legitimacy work in a society of states, which is not a society of equals? How a governance system may fairly represent all them?

III: Is it possible to imagine a legitimacy stemming not from states but from individuals and, if so, how?

Of course, we could imagine more and more problems to solve, but these are enough to start with… so, let’s try to offer some contribution to the solution.


Beside this legitimacy descending from the respect of the rule of law there is (or should be!) another, more substantial point: an organization is perceived as legitimate if it pursues the objectives assigned to it and reflects the common values shared by its members. And perception is important when the effectiveness of the decisions adopted rests on national systems of enforcement.


An organization is considered legitimate if its decisional bodies are perceived as representative of its members. As states are all but equals,  it is accepted in most international organizations the principle that Member States are represented differently as they reflect different realities (in size, wealth, power)

The decision-making bodies nonetheless enjoy a greater or lesser degree of representation depending on the way they reflect directly or indirectly the membership. When their representation is mediated by weighted voting, it is quite possible that some states do not feel adequately reflected in the number of votes they express.

Are the current parameters the correct ones to reflect their differences? Could we imagine different criteria to make some countries more prominent than others (and not just the winners or WWII or those having bigger GDP?). No matter there are better ways to reflect their contributions to the world, as the HDI index or even more creative, as the Good Country one.


Of course, it would be all different if representativeness was referred to individuals, instead of states.

In this case, it would be necessary to pay specific attention to the main form of legitimacy: free elections and – as a consequence – an elected parliament. This is what already happens in the EU and this is what many scholars and activist think should happen in the United Nations. Today, 24 parliamentary assemblies are institutionally part of international organization, the oldest one being the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, established in 1946

The equal representation of the states and the equal representation of their citizens, therefore, are potentially in conflict: proportional representation applied to whole humanity would make a couple of countries rule the world (if they just voted all the same, something whitch I doubt, but still…). So, some kind of degressive proportionality has to be imagined, weighting more the citizens of small countries and less those of the bigger ones. You may think all this is nothing but a speculative exercise, but I assure you that this may be something very realistic if only it is given a chance (and for sure it is worth the effort of distinguished colleagues).

Without going so far, some international organizations are equipped with parliaments which are not directly elected, but represent nonetheless their citizens through national parliaments’ members. It is a first step. Even in the EU the story started so: the Assembly of the European Economic Community asked from the very beginning – and obtained step by step – to become a real parliament.

Interesting examples of such parliamentary bodies are the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe,  the Pan-African Parliament of the African Union, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, while the Parlamento del Mercosur is rapidly evolving into a directly elected chamber. Unfortunately, these important institutional actors mostly play a consultative role.

But parliaments are not the only possible tools for democratic legitimacy.

Alternative solutions do exist, grounded on creativity and political will.

Have a look at what happens in the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tubercolosis and Malaria, in the Kimberley Process, in the Internet Governance Forum, in the Global environmental facility. All of them involve in original ways states, individuals and other stakeholders. And they are all different!

There is much room for legal creativity in the globalized world and it is time to take advantage of it.

Being a Global Citizen (or The “Demos” Problem)

The two components of the word democracy are “demos” and “kratia”, in ancient greek: people and power/authority.

The authority existing -in greater or lesser degree- in international organisations is nowadays indisputable, but to have it exercised in the interest of the people, or legitimized by the people we need…. the people!

And therein lies the problem.

Many excellent scholars tried to build theories to frame global democracy: transnational democracy, cosmopolitan democracy, post-modern democracy. An important contribution was offered by legal theories such as global constitutionalism and global administrative law but….still nobody recognizes as certain the existence of a global population, a “demos” giving to these theories a necessary factual substrate.

There are several good reasons to explain why the very existence of a global demos is still controversial: the dubious legal capacity of individuals in international law; the distances; the deep cultural and linguistic gaps. A people is made so by a number of common features: cultural, linguistic, religious; it is the product of a common history and of shared values and traditions; it shares a sense of belonging. This is what we study at school and, later on, at university.

But is it still so?

I think I am a global citizen. If you are reading this post, chances are that you are too.

The social fabric is rapidly evolving, what has held true ten years ago -or even one year ago- no longer corresponds to reality.

Two indicators are essential to tell you if you are part of the emerging global demos:

1) you feel a citizen of the world, a human being inside humanity. Internet and social networks allow you to connect to people living in different countries, cultures, mindsets. The low cost travelling companies, the decrease in communication costs and the sharing economy had an impact on your life, encouraging your mobility and your opennes to new experiences and people.

2) you know that what happens in other areas of the world affects your reality, be it for good or for bad. You care about global problems and global public goods, you sign global petitions and get involved in global discussions, you visit websites as Avaaz or, maybe you even join some NGO operating globally.

We are still a minority right now. Too many obstacles prevent most of the citizens to be global citizens: poverty, digital and cultural divide, ideology. But the number is growing. Daily.

For this reason, those who mantain that a global demos is still missing are right, but stating the contrary is not entirely wrong. There is a global demos in the making. And we are part of it.

Somebody saw this coming, some time ago 🙂

Supranational Vs International

Why “supranational”?

When I started this blog I was in doubt. Such a strange word in the title? Will it be understood? Why not global democracy? or international democracy?

But no, no doubt. I know what I want to express here and it is not promoting some unspecified kind of global democracy. And, for sure it is not promoting international democracy.

Inter-national means between or among nations: an international organization is a system where states cooperate to common goals. The will of the organization is the result of internal procedures aimed at putting together the will of the largest number of states, as expressed by representatives of states.

Supra-national, instead, means over the nations: a supranational organization is over and beyond the authority of states. It expresses its own will.

We recognize a supranational organization by a number of distinguishing features: the decisions are adopted through majority vote; they are binding; bodies made up by individuals interact with bodies representing states, the rule of law and the respect of the decisions are guaranteed by courts.

But first and foremost, a supranational organization is able to impose its decisions even over states who disagree. And, in order to do so, it enjoys its own legitimacy, derived directly from citizens.

The best example of such  autonomous legitimacy is in the first two paragraphs of art.10 of the Treaty establishing the European Union:

“1. The functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy.
2. Citizens are directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.
Member States are represented in the European Council by their Heads of State or Government and in the Council by their governments, themselves democratically accountable either to their national Parliaments, or to their citizens.”

Now, you’ll think that I’m describing a peculiar system, which is just European,  but it isn’t so.

It’s true that this word, supranational, was the expression of what the Founding Fathers wanted for Europe (it appeared already in the Europe Declaration, 1951), but the system evolved over time and for sure it is much more supranational now than 60 years ago.

Other events occurred over the last decades; regional integration organizations evolved in south America, in Africa, in the Gulf: the seeds of supranationality were spread around and they started to sprout in different soils.

What was even more unexpected, even global organizations knew smaller but significant improvements: dialogues with civil society flourished here and there, ombudsmen, mechanisms for claims and  audit bodies were established. Individuals appeared on the stage.

To make a long story short, supranationality is not anymore an exclusive of the old continent, even if there it started first.

And here is where I want to arrive: individuals are an essential ingredient of democracy. They provide an organization with a legitimacy of its own. Purely international or intergovernmental systems may be (maybe?) efficient, but can hardly be defined democratic. And democracy simply is not a parameter of legitimacy in international law.

An easy reply could be: aren’t states representative enough of their own citizens to legitimate also the organization they join? Formally, it is so.

Substantially (i) most of them are not exactly democratic (and in global organizations this is a major flaw) and, (ii) even in the democratic ones, governments are often entrusted with foreign policy outside an effective parliamentary control and manage it in a logic of realpolitik, paying a special attention to national interests.

For all these reasons, I believe that international democracy is an utopia at best, most likely an oxymoron.

Global democracy is supranational or it is not democracy.

Democracy, What Does it Mean?

We know (or think to know) the exact meaning of the word “democracy”. Our idea of democracy is grounded on personal experiences of democratic – or undemocratic – national systems as well as on something we studied at school: the Magna Charta, the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, the United States Declaration of Independence.

And we all know the origin of the word in ancient Greece from the two words “Demos” and “Kratia“: people and power. So, democracy literally means power to the people or power for the people. No doubt it means for us free elections, equality, pluralist society, fundamental rights,  access to justice.

We tend to forget, nonetheless, that this definition is relative in space and time. In the ancient Athens as in the 13 American colonies there was an aristocracy living on the work of slaves and women enjoyed very few fundamental rights. Only in the XX century, our democracies acquired the current structure and still… we cannot say they perfectly mirror our ideal of democracy. Let’s face it: democracy is more a process than a state. Whatever the democracy we are in, there is always something we can do to improve it. This is clearly recognized in international rankings – such as the Democracy index or the Global democracy ranking.

Both rank countries according to levels or degrees of democracy, not just by its existence/non-existence. Not only democracy is different according to historical evolution, it is also different according to the territorial dimension we are in. Democracy in a city-state is radically different from democracy in a big country: different ways to build consensus, different ways to participate. In the first it is easy to use the instruments of direct democracy, in the second it is less. And still, both are states.

The difficulties involved in moving this democracy model from the state to the global arena are all too evident: we deal with a community of states and a community of individuals (humanity!), both crossed by deep cultural differences and dramatic inequalities. Not only there isn’t a shared concept of democracy in a framework different from the state, but it is simply impossible to apply to international organizations a model of democracy conceived in the eighteenth century for the state. Several attempts have been done by academia to build an autonomous model, but we are far from a shared vision. Moreover, international organizations are the result of a different evolutive path over the centuries, grounded on the principles of international law: a law for states, not for individuals inspired by the different logic of international relations.

So, a new democratic model for global institutions has to be implemented and, at the same time, old visions  -not serving us anymore- have to be dismantled. Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before we imagine an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

My suggestion is to ground this process on values more than on rules and institutions: let’s identify values first. My choice? Legitimacy, Accountability, Inclusiveness. They will be explored, one by one, in the following posts.

Which is your idea of democracy? Do you have a different list of values? A ranking of priorities? I’d love to know!

Starting With Why

The global challenges and concerns we face today are well known: the peaceful coexistence of states and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the climate change and the need for sustainable development, the threats to financial stability, the tragic inequalities across the planet in wealth and democracy.

We need to do something. And, first of all, we need to reflect on what to do.

To face such challenges and to guarantee global public goods, the international community has created after world war II a number of international organizations responsible for the pursuit of specific goals, which have been given more or less adequate competences and tools.

Are these organizations democratic? Are they efficient? if the answer is no (or not enough) how could they be improved?

This is the topic to be explored here.

Answers will be offered, comments and contributions will be welcome. The aim is starting a fruitful dialogue because – as history teaches us – democracy is the result of a social pact: we are all involved.

Democracy nowadays cannot just be national as problems and challenges are getting more and more global.  It’s globalization, baby.

To try to respond to the challenge, I decided to focus on what are (at least for me!) the three key ingredients of a modern democracy: legitimacy, accountability, inclusiveness. I built on them a paradigm for democracy in international organisations which I called democratic experimentation.

As individuals are an essential ingredient of democracy, I think that democratic international organization should be supranational, or move towards more advanced forms of supranationality. But how individuals can interact on a global stage, legitimize global institutions, hold them accountable? It’s not that easy.

They may interact as civil society or just as informed public opinion. Internet plays a major role in allowing them to become global citizens, if (and where) internet access is guaranteed.

So many topics to discuss about, so important to deepen the analysis and offer solutions. The debate is open and you’re all welcome!