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To Happy Days …

‘When the danger grows, so does what saves us’ (Hölderlin)

Rédigé par : Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, Translated from French by Emme Johnson

Date de rédaction :

Type de document : Article / document de vulgarisation

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Initially published in French on Mediapart :


Monique Chemillier - Gendreau, international lawyer, gives her analysis of the global health crisis brought on by the Covid-19 epidemic as a consequence of a lack of democratic political organisation on all levels. She links it primarily to the damage caused to the environment by the transforming of natural and agricultural spaces into artificial environments, and the increased amount of capitalist exploitation of natural resources. An opinion that is shared by numerous AGTER members.

In the text published with her approval below, she details her thoughts on a global political and judicial landscape that would warn us against any breaches to public interest and would guarantee its security. But Monique Chemillier-Gendreau shares with Hannah Arendt (and many others…) the belief that the latter only makes sense in a democracy that believes in the equal public expression and political influence of all, including those who are currently marginalised and overlooked. She therefore offers up this proposal as a contribution to the global public debate which she hopes, like us, is a debate which we will see develop in order to create a global political community who lack any way out from the current and extremely harmful international “order” of things.

Distinguished Professor in public law and political science at Paris-Diderot University, Monique Chemillier-Gendreau specialises in International Law and State Theory. At a debate conference in 2009 organised by AGTER, she set out the “double standards” which are typical of international law today, and the consequences of this regarding the use of natural resources. This law is very effective when it comes to protecting the interests of transnational investors and commercial powers, and offers no help to individuals or groups that are victims of fundamental rights violations. We share her opinion that an effective supranational law must be created to protect these rights above all else. This means transnational political actions to break the anti-democratic reasoning that currently presides over global developments. In this spirit AGTER has joined the campaigns by and for a UN treaty binding multinationals and states. This text was written by Monique Chemillier-Gendreau and was first published on 28 April 2020 by Mediapart

Mathieu Perdriault (AGTER)

To happy days …

An unknown virus has been spreading across the world since the beginning of the year. A deathly and invisible threat that forces us to avoid one another as though a danger to each other; society as we know it has been turned inside out as one does a glove and it has exposed what we have up until now kept hidden. It has surely caused a significant number of deaths and shined a harsh light on the limits of health systems in developed countries, including some of the richest among these. Elsewhere it has unquestionably exposed the populations of the poorest countries to extreme danger, forcing them protect themselves by undertaking an impossible task, lockdown. But this is just the half of it.

This inside out glove has exposed the dangerous course on which the world has been set for decades. By forcing budget pressures on hospital services in developed areas and by neglecting these services in places where they are already insufficient, panic stricken political leaders have found themselves completely taken off guard by the arrival of the pandemic. In France, the blatant lack of preparation for this type of event, the shameful selling off of mask reserves, the outsourcing of the pharmaceutical industry just to increase profits and the lack of resources for scientific research, have placed the government in a ‘make-do’ situation. By opting for a lockdown from which they do not know how to get out, they have taken a course which radically questions the freedoms of the public. Deprived of any other way of protecting their population, they benefit from the forced acquiescence of it. When this acquiescence wavers, a moral and guilt-inducing discourse unfolds. And yet, everywhere, countless initiatives contradict the self-interest fostered by our economic and social model, testifying to the permanence of the fraternity that exists between humans.

But this inside-out glove has also revealed, at least to those with open eyes, that the response to the issues which humanity as a whole now faces, cannot just be a sum of national policies, especially not if these are the only changes that are made.

There will always be something missing, that is the community of people who can no longer refuse to see themselves for what they are: a common destiny, the name that Hannah Arendt gave to a political association of free people.

Thus, following the health crisis which is at the forefront, comes the developing economic crisis, along with the ecological catastrophe already in process, and it is a crisis of civilisation which ultimately emerges. The whole world, dominated by a capitalist system which does not cease to deepen inequalities and destroy nature, is now a drunken ship with nothing on its horizon other than its inevitable shipwreck by way of unexpected brutalities.

If there were ever a time to regain control, this hitherto unseen destruction is the opportunity the world must grasp to finally end its already largely under-way destruction, and create an entirely different society. Thus, having banished the terror of the unknown, people will dance with joy on the ruins of the old world which threatened to carry them away.


To do this we must:

  • Not cheat regarding the findings that are to be observed

  • Measure the risks of an exit from this crisis that is directed towards a return to our previous situation or towards other downward paths

  • Seize this opportunity to set up the radically different foundations of a fair and viable global society

I. - The findings

1. The two elements which have been visible since the start of the pandemic relate to the hospital crisis and to the lack of control over production of pharmaceuticals and sanitary products within the States.

Regarding hospitals, and just taking France (a country that remains among the most privileged in this domain) as an example, liberal reasoning has led, over the last several years, to the closure of hospital beds and to the per-service pricing which has caused continued cuts to resources. The managerial reasoning of businesses has contaminated the public sphere and has caused it to lose sight of its purpose, a better health for all.

Regarding the pharmaceutical industry, a key element in the protection of a populations health, it has been handed over to the interests of large financial groups and outsourced almost entirely to countries with cheap labour force.

2. The crisis cruelly highlights the inequalities that taint all societies. These vary depending on whether social security systems, like those put in place after the previous global catastrophe (the 1939-45 World War) are available, or whether it is a society where no such thing exists, or it exists to the benefit of a few, such as the USA and all countries deemed ‘developing’. These inequalities are currently gaping before the risk of illness and death. They are going to increase in the coming months with the economic consequences of the pandemic.

3. This pandemic has also revealed the erosion of democracies. The harmful effects of too much centralism and of a vertical system of power in a country like France are clear in the homogeneity of the measures applied to the entire territory. Necessary in the worst affected zones, these have seemed inexplicable in other regions less affected by the virus. A decentralised state like Germany has faced the pandemic with the best conditions. In many countries, the loss of credibility of leaders has accompanied the peoples growing dissatisfaction regarding the representative forms of democracy that are worn out.

4. The states, confronted with a situation for which they are largely responsible, bring in policies for economic support directed towards individuals and/or businesses. But these emergency measures leave the questions that are to come unanswered: how far will this support go, especially as the balance sheet for the crisis can be shown and will reveal bankruptcies in large numbers? Will it involve sustainable support for essential work, like those which shone out during the crisis, or the resuscitation of financial markets, without any obligation for them to maintain and develop this essential work? How will the immense debt in which the states will find themselves be financed in the end?

5. The virus has shown its ability to spread throughout the entire planet. The pandemic has crudely revealed the discrepancy between an economy deeply engaged in globalisation, (particularly the outsourcing of essential production for pure cost-effectiveness, with no consideration for the social and environmental costs) and politics, (remaining within the control of the national states). The weakness of the European Union throughout this crisis, as well as the less visible but more profound and radical failure of the International Institutions system, the United Nations and the satellite Organisations which depend on it (including the World Health Organisation), crudely shows the mortal inequality of a globalised economy without political institutions that are capable of enforcing the general well-being and protection of the environment. In this way, the renewal of the international cooperation, founded on the need for global solidarity among humans, will doubtless be at the heart of future reflections.

6. This drift by the economy away from political control has, over many decades, led capitalism to satisfy the performance requirements, seemingly unlimited, of the shareholders and the capital-rich. Capitalism, which was initially a commercial capitalism before becoming industrial in the 18th century and then financial in the 20th century, has entered into a new phase, digital capitalism. Clearly this digital capitalism intends to seize the opportunity presented by this crisis to consolidate this change and increase its earnings from digital activities, imposing from now on Just-In-Time work everywhere. The question therefore is to determine whether the system will continue on its path, dragging humanity to a deadly impasse, or if a new political project of the right scale and with the right objectives can still avoid the shipwreck. 1

7. The argument used to justify both downgrading public services in countries where they used to be stable and the inability to provide these services in societies where they have never had them, is always that there is a lack of public money available for this. But no state has ever succeeded in introducing an effective policy against corruption and tax evasion, which themselves are two scourges of the Earth. We know however that from fighting these evils there comes the possibility to free up considerable sums of money to invest in public policies. Why hasn’t the European Union, which boasts its aim to conquer tax havens, not succeeded in eliminating those that depend on the UK (whilst it was still a member of the EU) or those that exist inside the Union (Luxembourg, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus)?

8. Meanwhile States have without exception, (and this includes the poorest States), developed considerable military budgets. In a large part of the world, including in developing countries, the economies are militarised economies. In several countries the police themselves are militarised. The magnitude of evermore sophisticated arms that are available to all armies, the maintaining of conflicts to which the rest of the world has become indifferent despite the immense suffering inflicted on populations (Syria, Yemen, Mali among others). Disarmament, despite being on the United Nations General Assembly programme, or the general regulation of arms set down by the Charter of the United Nations as one of the responsibilities of the Security Council 2, has never been taken seriously. The five States, permanent members of this Council, are the biggest sellers of arms. And the international Humanitarian Law developed by the Geneva Conventions, and many other laws, remains a type of mantra. Finally, we must condemn the place of nuclear arms, to which the powers which claim exclusivity cling so fiercely, within our large military budgets. Object of political consensus, these arms consume a considerable part of public budgets (37bn Euros is set aside for the modernisation of this weaponry in France). Contrary to common belief, these arms do not insure the safety of the world. They put it in extreme danger.

9. Finally, the most important analysis to draw from the current chaos, is the link between this crisis, to all appearances a health crisis, and the ecological catastrophe which is its source. Aware now of the climate changes visibly affecting peoples lives, our societies are less aware of the destruction of biodiversity. Yet the disruption of ecosystems and natural habitats favours the transmission of infectious vehicles by depriving the virus of its usual hosts or bringing these hosts within closer proximity of concentrated urban areas. Monocultures and industrial farming use an ever reduced number of varieties and strains, spreading across the planet populations that are genetically very similar and which increase the likelihood of the mutation of pathogens. The huge use of pesticides and antibiotics risks creating resistant forms or forms that are tolerant to our current available means of fighting them. The current pandemic was only unpredictable to governments that ignored the warnings, but it was predictable to the rarely listened to researchers, studying nature conservation and the changing of land use (deforestation, extension of agricultural land or urban and peri-urban areas, industrial farms) and worrying about the damage to the self-regulation of ecosystems. The issue we face is therefore not only how to contain epidemics, but also how to hinder the processes that enable them to surface.

II. - The risks brought to light by this pandemic

1. The first and without doubt the biggest of these risks is that of a return to things as they were before, that is to say a race to globalisation (to distinguish from ‘la mondialisation’), without brake or control. To chase after the same production-driven economic model, polluting and unsustainable, the same international division of work, the same consumer culture, the same austerity for public budgets, with the continued devaluation of public health and education services, the continued cutting of budgets dedicated to research, to housing, to transport, to culture, the same attacks more or less cunning against social rights, the same infatuation for public/private partnerships (PPP) with their eventual disastrous consequences for public finances, the same submission of States to the interests of world finances, the same elimination of the difference between what is in the public interest and what is in the name of profit, and for the people for whom their position in the production chain has enabled them to leave behind under-development, the same frenzy of consumption/consumerism. The deployment of digital industries and the extension of their field following the lockdown of many populations (tele-working, virtual-learning, population control), will lead to a rise in multinationals in this field, and their domination over our lives, already visible before 2020, will increase rapidly. We already know the consequences of these trends so we can paint a picture of the society which will follow: return to production at a high carbon cost, mass tourism, unlimited international trade following increasingly outsourced production, intensive agriculture, deforestation, apathy against environmental destruction, a constant increase in inequalities, increasing migration and repression of migrants, decrease in cultivation, the decline of science and a return to faiths, loss of freedoms and increased control of populations, military operations which come with a higher human cost and which are disastrous from an environmental point of view.

2. The second risk is already beginning among societies. An intensified national self-interest boosted by the protectionism and “sovereignism” which comes with it. These terms cause much confusion because they suggest a “clear” position when in reality it is always mixed. Even under the prevailing rationale of the World Trade Organisation, whose aim is to favour an always increased opening-up of markets, the States have continued to deviously protect their own economies. The recent campaign for increased protectionism is simply an admission of failure of any search for the mutual interest of people. Paired with the concept of “sovereignism”, the return of protectionism’s popularity is only dangerous if it is approached with only the exclusive interests of a nation in mind and no consideration for the interests of others. We know from past experience what these theories have caused; competition between societies which leads to conflicts. Today, panicked governments protect their stocks of medicine and sanitary materials and go so far as to steal, sometimes shamelessly, the supplies of others, turning their backs on crucial international solidarity.

We have forgotten that it was a wave of philosophy named “solidarism” which, after the First World War, led to the first tentative international organisation, the League of Nations. This first attempt did not survive the crisis of the 1930’s and the fanatic militarisation of this era and failed to avoid the confrontation that was the Second World War. Then, with the creation of the United Nations in 1945 and the specialized Organisations, we believed we had created a more united world, with multilateral mechanisms the like of which, we thought, would guarantee peace as well as economic and financial regulation. On a European scale, we went even further by inventing an integration which enabled us to remove the idea of intra-European wars. However on both levels, European and global, these Organisations failed to become representative of real political communities. The political space has remained national.

And the error was to try to make two distinct concepts coexist; the concept of sovereignty, understood not as a legitimate autonomy of a people but as the absolute independence of a power with the impunity of its leaders, and the concept of attempting to maintain peace by forbidding war and respecting the standards of International Law. This continued ambiguity has weakened the United Nations. By looking to return to sovereignty, we remove multilateralism, along with not only the flaws which caused its failure but also the hope with which it came.

3. The third risk, linked to the previous, is that of opening the door to the possibility of modes of governing by fear, with all the damage that this does to democracy. The pandemic is plastered over social networks, resulting in inaccuracies of information, and this uncertainty favours a collective anxiety. This anxiety is in turn the ideal conditions in which to let the authorities’ temptation to become more severe flourish. Worries about safety take priority over concerns about freedom, and scared minds do not understand that the two are linked. And so the whole world, in a matter of weeks, gives up one of our first freedoms, that of coming and going 3. The need for emergency measures is timely for all executive powers encouraged by military metaphors.

III. - The foundations of a radically different society

A global society aiming to avoid its looming collapse must, to survive the current health crisis in a healthy and sustainable way, carry out a complete change. Long and difficult, this could however be successful if the foundations are solidly laid out. This will only be the case if an agreement is created in the very depths of society, based upon principles which are considered inviolable, and as long as institutions are capable of enforcing them. These principles will have to be discussed and then shared to different levels, national, regional and universal. Becoming mutual, these will enable humanity to start its way towards a political community founded on a promise, made amongst people themselves, to respect these principles for the benefit of all. Institutions must be liberating so as to guarantee each person access to the realisation of this promise. Together we must form a new global agreement which enables us to renew the idea of safety within a democratic conception of social life, on both a national and global level.

A. - Non-derogable principles

1. To consider the rights of humans, such as those stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as those stated in the two United Nations Covenants (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) as unalterable and accountable before all national and international jurisdictions. To give the same power to the Geneva Conventions and to other laws outlining human rights, especially the treaties forbidding certain weaponry, in case of armed conflict.

2. Because there are no rights for some without obligations for others, to promote, as soon as possible, a universal declaration of human, social and environmental responsibilities, which will be addressed to the States, companies, international Organisations and actual people. It is about not being satisfied with small changes which begin to recognise the social and environmental responsibilities of multinational societies, but to wholly implicate all participants in pursuit of a common global interest. This declaration would serve as a universal normative reference for all jurisdictions dealing with compensation claims from victims of fundamental rights violations. 4

3. To consider the interests of each people in light of a global interest and to view the protection of this common interest of all peoples as a fundamental principle of global society and to place the requirements of the law of supply and demand below this interest. This must lead to, for example, favouring the shortest supply chains for food or essential products. It is about inverting the paradigm which has been dominant up until now, and reintroducing the business law into a hierarchy of rules which forbids it to break the more important rules of public law.

4. To duly note the interdependence of all peoples and the necessity for relations between them to be managed by an international law enabling the protection of the weakest and controlling the strongest, for which sovereignty must give way to the demands of the global community.

5. To replace competition with mutual assistance and consider all activities which contribute to the common good (health protection, common access to medicines and water, environmental protection, public scientific research, open access to education, decent housing, transport, culture and reliable information), as under the protection of the general interest. The Organisations concerned, on an international level (ILO) as well as national, must review the hierarchy of jobs (and the wages pertaining to them) according to their general usefulness.

6. To impose disarmament based on the idea formulated in article 26 of the Charter of the United Nations (see paragraph 8 of the findings) and define the necessary minimum of world human and economic resources that should be allocated to weaponry which remains necessary, but only in two instances: when a people is in a situation of legitimate self-defence, or when it must participate in collective safety operations.

7. To set up a list of industries which are polluting or dangerous for human health and the future of humanity and nature, and forbid them without delay. To direct all international ground transportation, passengers as well as goods, to rail. To put in place economic retraining policies which protect all those who would have to leave their job and engage in new occupations.

8. To reduce inequalities by the universal application of tax justice principles imposed on all States and forcing them to reduce the highest incomes as soon as they diverge from a ratio of 1 to 5 between the lowest (regarding guaranteed income) and highest incomes.

9. To create a global Fund for health, social, environmental and peaceful solidarity, financed by the international tax measures applied to financial transactions, the incomes of multinationals and on polluting activities. This would serve the following purposes:

  • to ensure the global market conditions for indispensable medicines and enable its availability to all;

  • to support the professional retraining policies necessary by the application of points 6 and 7;

  • to help States in which the populations have profited from outsourcing and which will suffer from a return to shorter supply chains;

  • to promote social rights in countries where they are insufficient or even nonexistent, so that they meet the best possible standards;

  • to support each state which has to, in order to protect the common interest if its people, undertake nationalisations or acquire state holdings.

10. In order to insure the independence of political leaders in their decision making and to free them from the obsession of reelection, a rule will be created stating that political mandate on a national or international level cannot be renewable, which will be a universal standard.

B. - Institutions

We can only outline here what the institutions for this proposal of a different world would look like. A collective reflection would enable us to specify further. But it will have to include the following:

1. To acknowledge the failure of the United Nations in its attempt to be representative of the whole of humanity, and also the impossibility of reforming it partly because of its bureaucratic decline, partly because of the barrier in the Charter to all true reform due to the need for it to be accepted by the 5 permanent members of the Security Council. And considering that, in spite of its positive achievements, it no longer accomplishes the aims for which it was created, to see in time its dissolution whilst an Organisation which is better adapted to present times will be put in place.

2. To work on the creation of a new universal political Organisation (which could be called the Global Organisation of Peoples) which would put in place a new global Covenant with the objectives of peace, the safeguarding of nature and the guarantee of universal social rights.

This Organisation will have to insure:

  • a) the recognition of different national communities and their autonomous abilities as long as these are compatible with international right 5;

  • b) a way to maintain the peace, inspired by the United Nations, but entrusted to a Security Council composed of entirely equal members (20 or 25), who are elected every 3 years by the Parliament of the Organisation;

  • c) adherence to the regulation of arms which is determined by this Security Council, and the creation of a genuinely international and integrated intervention force, capable of embodying the notion of collective security;

  • d) the non-derogable nature of International Law by the authorities of the various States. This International Law includes the core of human rights as referred to in article 1 of the above principles, and added to this will be the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities referred to in principle 2 along with the standards developed by the global Parliament;

  • e) the democratic nature of both the new organisation and in particular of the procedures forming the new international standards. These procedures will be based on a bicameralism principle, the world bicameral Parliament being composed of one Assembly representing the national communities and a second representing the social powers themselves 6. All international laws significant in the social and environmental fields will have to be voted on by these two Assemblies, providing they have already received the approval of an environmental and social council. The council will be composed half of members elected for their expertise and half of citizens of the world chosen by lottery.

3. To review all of the specialised institutions of the United Nations system which have become the battleground of rivalries between major powers and international lobbies. To reintegrate a World Trade Organisation into the universal system (the current WTO is not part of the United Nations system) and to subject it to the same conditions as the other specialised institutions: these will have to be provided with real regulatory powers exercised according to democratic procedures. The assemblies representing the National Communities will also be reinforced by assemblies representing the social powers of sectors concerned with the goals of the institution. Procedures will be put in place in order to avoid a conflict of standards between different institutions by always insuring the success of the standard which most favours freedom and social and ecological rights.

4. To consider the major regional institutions that already exist (African Union, European Union, Organisation of American States and other regional Organisations) as the institutional reins of the Universal Organisation and put procedures in place which enable consistency between their policies and the goals of the Universal Organisation.

5. To reinforce international justice by :

  • making the jurisdictions of the International Court of Justice compulsory (currently, the States are not obliged to accept this jurisdiction) along with those of the International Criminal Court (no National Communities would be able to, by refusing adherence to its statute, ensure their protection from persecution by it);

  • creating a World Court of Human Rights with compulsory jurisdiction for all National Communities similar to the European Court of Human Rights;

  • creating an International Constitutional Court which would be able to monitor the conformity of the Constitutions of the National Communities and of their laws and administrative practices in relation to their commitment through the International Covenants on Human Rights.


The principles defined above, as well as the outlined renewal of international institutions, are the conditions necessary to guarantee that there would be no return to things as they were before. Without doubt some of you will consider this project utopian. But the balance of power is only unfavourable in its appearance. The affliction of Covid-19 will become the most incredible opportunity if it provides the chance for the peoples of the planet, in all their elements (essential and under-appreciated professions, migrant workers and/or essential seasonal workers, unemployed victims of factory closures carried out by greedy shareholders, refugees condemned to a non-life in the camps, youths deprived of a future, inhabitants of chanty towns and favelas, oppressed minorities) to emerge into a worldwide public space of which they themselves are citizens, to announce the type of world they refuse, and what sort of future they demand. And so, these people will confirm that the utopia is not an impossible dream from a wild imagination, but rather a way of outlining what has not yet happened and what is in their power to make happen.

This document does not aim to provide a finished proposal, but to open the debate…in the hope that all those who seize it will bring it to life.


Paris, 39th day of confinement, Monique Chemillier-Gendreau (Translated from French by Emme Johnson)


1 The foundations of a new society defined in point III will enable us to specify the questions of scale and objectives. It is in this way that these objectives targeted are those shown especially by principal number 3, consisting of taking into account the interests of each people in light of a global interest and subjecting the mechanisms of market to this interest also. Regarding the question of scale, if we cannot disconnect the human societies which currently form a common world, they do not necessarily make up one single world. The political communities at their core remain diverse and they interlock with larger levels (nations, continents and finally the world). It remains essential to preserve diversity as a whole. Also, the common principles should be applied to each level in their own way but still according to modalities to be defined individually.

2 Charter of the United Nations, article 26. “In order to promote the establishment and maintenance of international peace and security with the least diversion for armaments of the world’s human and economic resources, the Security Council shall be responsible for formulating, with the assistance of the Military Staff Committee referred to in Article 47, plans to be submitted to the Members of the United Nations for the establishment of a system for the regulation of armaments.”

3 Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.”

4 See the project developed by the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural and United World, and for more details on this draft declaration, see Alain Supiot, « Les tâches de l’OIT à l’heure de son centenaire », Revue internationale du travail, vol. 159 (2020), n° 1.

5 In the spirit of a fundamental renovation of global society, it will be necessary to open the debate on the identification of these national communities. We must cease with the recognition of single States, so-called sovereign States, as subjects of international society (a recognition which currently depends on the other States and in particular on the five permanent members in terms of access to the United Nations). Certain people, who have been too long ignored, will regain their place in the new world.

6 Many reflections have already been developed regarding this point, especially with the idea of a representation of Parliaments or of the civil society. The latter has taken shape over the past few decades through various experiences: social forums, large international Non-governmental Organisations, movements against the Euromissiles, a platform of French NGOs for Palestine, etc; We must now find a way to give these movements international representation. Most importantly we must not let the representatives of the States alone control the decisions.