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[INTERVIEW] Eclectic pair says UN, EU aren't listening to grassroots voices

'Atlas' co-founders say new global democratic governance system needed

By Ko Dong-hwan

You can find the article on The Korea Times website at this link.

Atlas Freedom Marathon is held each year to bring together activists who, by uniting under Atlas, stand for democracy and freedom across the planet. This one is from London, the U.K., in September 2022. Courtesy of Atlas
Andrea Venzon joins a demonstration in London, the U.K., with a picket supporting Ukraine under the Russian invasion, in March 2022. Courtesy of Atlas

The term "global citizenship" denotes people who are no longer limited by geographical borders and who share common goals ― like fighting the climate crisis or forming a solidarity movement against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The current world order has shaped people in ways that, regardless of their nationalities, are often moved by international events and can easily monitor how many like-minded people there are in other parts of the world via social networks like Facebook, YouTube or various new smartphone apps.

Likewise, existing global governance systems, like the United Nations or the European Union, purport to act on goals shared by people from different countries. Many still have faith in the roles of those organizations.

Nonetheless, according to Andrea Venzon and Colombe Cahen-Salvador, the co-founders of Atlas, there are many out there who have lost faith in these organizations. The pair, with their NGO and 22,000 supporters from 134 countries and 1,500 active volunteers across the world, embarked on a world tour earlier this month to meet local people in diverse contexts. It's their mission to listen to the voices of the grassroots and learn how their needs can be served through an alternative global governance system that is truly democratic.

"The biggest problem with existing global organizations is that they are non-democratic," Venzon, an Italian, told The Korea Times during his stopover in Seoul as part of the pair's global consultation campaign. "All these entities don't offer alleys to include citizens to different degrees. The EU has a directly elected Parliament but it's a truly weak parliament. It doesn't even have a legislative initiative and cannot promulgate laws on its own."

Atlas Freedom Marathon is held each year to bring together activists who, by uniting under Atlas, stand for democracy and freedom across the planet. This one is from London, the U.K., in September 2022. Courtesy of Atlas
Colombe Cahen-Salvador speaks on a mic during a pro-democracy protest organized by Atlas in front of the Chinese Embassy in London, the U.K., in June 2021. Courtesy of Atlas


"The UN is, at best, a very indirect democracy as well. As a citizen, I don't have any way to make my voice heard. I cannot even petition it. And I think it is one of the biggest problems of our times. The organization was conceived after World War II by the winners of the conflict, who retained almost absolute power in the Security Council, while ordinary citizens were completely excluded by the institutional design. As a consequence, there is very little power and leverage to take on some of the biggest challenges of our times, like settling wars," Venzon said.

Salvador said the existing organizations lacked "binding competencies" on behalf of each member state and that they always put national interests over global interests. "It's because of their structures, whereby citizens don't participate directly," said the Frenchman. "So we never think of a common global interest."

Two months into the action, Atlas' main objective now is to have their representative run in the 2025-26 UN Secretary-General election and promoting to the world leaders the "model" of their alternative global governance system. The pair understands it will be almost impossible for their model to be acknowledged by the member states and their representative to be chosen for the UN's top job. Yet, they're at least banking on raising awareness of what they are committed to doing.

"Once we have the model, we'll be able to understand whether we would collaborate with the existing global organizations or not," said Salvador. "I would assume that on topics like the climate crisis, we will need to work with global institutions that include major polluters that are also authoritarian, like China. We are, however, pessimistic about the collaboration improving anything on topics like democracy."

Atlas Freedom Marathon is held each year to bring together activists who, by uniting under Atlas, stand for democracy and freedom across the planet. This one is from London, the U.K., in September 2022. Courtesy of Atlas
Colombe Cahen-Salvador and Andrea Venzon join a grassroots consultation meeting in Taipei, Taiwan, Jan. 10, 2023, with local Taiwanese. This was the pair's first leg of the global consultations campaign this year. Courtesy of Atlas


"My wish is that we all cooperate as the world doesn't need further divisions. It needs cooperation," said Venzon. "However, if the UN cannot stop Russia from invading Ukraine nor support South Korea in the difficult situation with North Korea, I wish for our alternative democratic global governance to be able to fill those gaps. So, it will have to compete and be better than the UN at dealing with those issues."

In 2017, the pair started Volt, the first pan-European party, to unite Europeans in "the age of divisions" when the U.K. was leaving the EU and far-right political factions like Marine Le Pen in France and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) were gaining traction. After two years of work, they elected Volt's representative to the European Parliament. The party then elected more MPs and local representatives across Europe. The success gave them the inspiration to unite people across the world.

"The topics we care about go well?beyond Europe, from climate change to democratic erosion," said Salvador. "So, why not try to bring political action beyond Europe, too? So, that is why?Atlas was founded."

After meeting journalists, activists and those from academia in Korea, the pair later this month will depart for Japan and the U.S. to continue having consultation meetings with local grassroots people.

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