Empowering Change?

The UN Secretary-General’s take on global protests is conservative, but realistic

Opinion | Catharine Eibl | March 2012

"We face a once-in-a-generation opportunity to empower people in our changing world." These were not the words of a protester on Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol or Wall Street, although they could have been. They were the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

On 16 Feb., Ban took to the red carpet podium in the Hofburg’s imperial reception hall cautioning Austria’s political elite to listen more carefully to the protest calls that had filled the streets of Cairo, Athens and New York in recent months. The UN, he promised, would support the young protesters’ demands for change.

A momentous statement, coming from the Secretary-General of the UN. Yet the protesters might disagree: Their demands stretch far beyond what Ban suggested.

Ban described the Arab revolutions and protest movements in Europe and the US as the struggle of a young generation for economic equality and democracy. So far, so good.

The crux is how democracy is defined. Comparing the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement has become a commonplace, but obliterates important differences. It is true that both the protesters on Tahir Square and the campers outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London were frustrated about political corruption, lacking involvement in political processes and a bleak economic situation with rising unemployment and rents. However, they differed as to the political remedies.

Judged by the outcome of the Tunisian or Egyptian revolutions, "democracy" for the protesters in these countries meant representative democracy based on free and fair elections. Both countries have put their hopes in their newly elected parliaments. If Tunisians’ hopes seem realistic, the success of Egyptian democracy is more uncertain. It will depend on how effectively the parliament can thwart the military’s ambitions.

For Occupy London or Occupy Wall Street, true democracy has a different meaning. Their ideal is a leaderless direct democracy where decisions are made purely by consensus. The like-minded Spanish group Democracia Real YA (Real Democracy NOW) makes the point clearly in its manifesto. The document interprets the Ancient Greek word demokratia as meaning that "government is made by everyone of us."

Occupy has practised this form of decision making on a small scale. A YouTube video, uploaded by Wall Street occupiers, shows the procedure in action: Motions are announced by a spokes-person and repeated in chorus to ensure that everybody in the square can hear them – the now legendary "human microphone". Objections are discussed, and decisions are made only once

everyone has signalled their approval by a show of hands.

While the political establishment might find Ban Ki-moon’s support of the protesters meaningful, perhaps even radical, Occupy protesters will consider his proposals (creating jobs and appointing a UN Adviser on Youth) woefully inadequate: To them, true equality can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of the existing political system.

It is not surprising that the UN does not subscribe to all of Occupy’s demands. International organisations are at odds with the direct democracy model because decisions are made by delegates on behalf of their people, rather than by the people themselves. In the protesters’ eyes, the UN lacks legitimacy as the world’s  organ of peace keeping and conflict resolution.

Indeed, Ban’s speech revealed ambiguous feelings towards the protesters’ power to challenge governments. Although he stressed that the world’s three billion young people were "not a threat", but an "opportunity", Ban also issued a warning: Ben Ali was forced out of office because he had refused to listen to his people’s demands; the same might happen to political leaders elsewhere. In a direct democracy, it certainly would.

Protesters might dismiss Ban’s speech as an attempt to contain change within the existing system. In fact, however, what Ban proposes comes quite close to their demand for more direct involvement in politics.

"The beauty of direct democracy," a young woman from Occupy Wall Street says in a YouTube video, "is that it adjusts to get everyone on board with what’s happening." Ban stressed the importance of bringing people on board by giving them a voice in politics. This can be done in a parliamentary system that takes its representative task seriously.

Direct democracy works well for Occupy assemblies, but it would be impractical, to say the least, in running a country. Lengthy and cumbersome, it makes it impossible to take the decisive action necessary, for example, to stop Europe from slithering into recession.

Radical idealism is important because it draws attention to persisting inequalities. However, Ban Ki-moon’s speech is a more realistic assessment of what works.


Catharine Eibl is an Oxford graduate and student of Advanced International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy in Vienna.

Other articles from this issue