The UN and Japan in an Age of Globalization:
The Role of Transnational NGOs in Global Affairs
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Let me return to an idea implicit in my earlier discussion: that the tension between NGOS and NSGs today is a revival of earlier conflicts in Medieval Europe, between the Church and the secular Monarchs. NSGs today wield temporal power in the sense of Legitimate Force or Violence: the NGOs speak for longer term values, which are not (supposedly) restricted to one country or epoch. More should be said about the limits of this parallel: there are significant differences between the centralized structure of the Medieval Papacy and its modus operandi, on the one hand, and the independent and separate standing of the transnational NGOs, on the other hand. But the central point holds good: the exercise of Force by Sovereign Nation State Governments is open to criticism by transnational standards, from NGOS and others, in a way that was easier and more intelligible in Medieval than in Modern times, before the Treaty of Westphalia than after it.
To pose a topical question: "Is the effectiveness of NGOs enhanced, or lessened, by their institutional fragmentation?" The answer to that question is not clear. Would the voice of a formal NGO Assembly be louder than that of a thousand distinct NGOs? Or is the effectiveness of NGOS (paradoxically) increased by the ability of separate and independent organizations to reach consensus? Certainly, the centralized authority of the Vatican undermined rather than strengthened its credibility at the Cairo conference. Vatican representatives at that meeting acted so like Nation State Governments in, e.g., forcing a conservative position on the smaller Latin American powers, that their tactics ended by generating resentment: these were seen as inappropriate to the occasion 6.
This question is part of a larger institutional problem facing the whole UN: how to make the Organization more democratic. The institutions of the European Union are currently criticized for their "democratic deficit": neither the central administration in Brussels, nor the Council of Ministers, is directly representative of the peoples whose lives their decisions touch. The recent enlargement of the authority of the European Parliament go some way to correct this deficit, but much more remains to be corrected. A similar criticism applies to the institutions of the UN. The General Assembly (e.g.) is no less a Cartel than the Security Council; and there is little chance for the citizens of any Member State to get a hearing in the agencies or bureaus of the UN - legislative or executive, judicial or technical - without cooperation from Government representatives, even where that Govemment treats its own citizens tyrannically. Unless that "deficit" can be remedied - it may be argued - the Governments of the Member States, however unrepresentative on the domestic level, will keep a monopoly of national representation, when the interests of the peoples over whom they rule come up for debate in the UN's institutions.
What alternative is there - a directly elected World Parliament? As matters stand, this proposal is visionary but impractical. The Governments of many Member States are unwilling to hold, on their telvitories, free and fair elections to which all permanent residents of the State have effective access7. So there is little prospect that these States have either will or experience needed to organize elections for a World Parliament that are acceptable by transnational standards.
For want of a World Parliament, then, some people look to NGOs to make the UN more representative. Norway's Department of Development Cooperation Prograrnmes (for instance) has commissioned a poll of NGOs aimed at two questions,
6. Transnational Representative Institutions
(Once again the Scandinavians took the lead in support of NGOs.) The consulting firm conducting the poll begins with a useful back-history of the problem:
- "How effectrve is NGO access to intergovernmental decision making?" and
- "How can it be made more democratic?"
As originally conceived in the UN Charter discussions, NGOs would be recognized by the Economic and Social Council as important participants in considering issues before the Council and that's all. Subsequently, large numbers of NGOs arrived at official UN conferences and made their presence felt through specialized conferences, and UN staff planning meetings. At the . . . negotiations for a New International Economic Order, NGOs were given the ability to produce in-house newspapers during . . . meetings in order to inform Governments about the on-going proceedings. [In] the discussions of the Human Rights Commission, NGOS were "asked" to monitor the behaviour of Govemments and to report back to inter-governmental bodies on the compliance of Governments to . . . international standards. In the World Health Organization, NGO expertise was given prominence in drafting international guidelines and standards on infant formula sometimes equal to or greater than individual Governments. The Bergen conference on sustainable development experimented with a five sided formula: Governments, business, youth, labour and environmental groups had to agree on . . . a statement. The European Union has now held ministerial / NGO level consultations. And the UNCED process [post-Rio] formally defined . . . the role of NGOS in [preparing] global conferences and their follow-up.
Several things are clear in this account. From the beginning, NGOs viewed the role grudgingly allotted to them by NSGs as insufficient. Early on, they felt the need to "make their presence felt" at meetings, by staging "counter-conferences, parallel events and demonstrations": even now they doubt if a current review of the status of NGOS by the Economic and Social Council will give their views adequate attention.
Finally they still need to follow a strategy of "counter conferences, parallel events, and demonstrations." The exemplary "counter-conference" was at the Human Rights meeting at Vienna, in Spring 1993. The Nation State Governments of the World met Upstairs in the Conference Hall, and worked their way through an agenda sanitized to avoid offending the People's Republic of China. (The Upstairs conference declined to listen to the Dalai Lama, or anybody who saw Tibet as raising issues of human rights.) Downstairs in the basement, the NGOS meanwhile listened to the Dalai Lama, took on other issues the NSGS evaded, and gave a running commentary on the meeting that the World Press by all accounts found more interesting, informative and entertaining than the Upstairs proceedings. Similar counter-events took place at the Rio Enviromnental meeting and the Cairo Population conference: at Cairo, the (female) Prime Minister of Norway Upstairs cooperated with the NGO Forum Downstairs, in planning initiatives that ended by being effective in the official proceedings.
Elsewhere, UN Secretariat and agencies have chosen to take NGOs on as partners: Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has regular meetings with humanitarian and other NGOs that work on the problems of refugees in war torn and starving regions. The documents following the Rio Conference - e.g., Agenda 21 - also acknowledge the environmental NGOs, while the Comrnission on Sustainable Development opens up its internal planning discussions to NGOS in a way that such political agencies as the Security Council rarely do.
Still, such alliances between NGOs and UN staff do not fully overcome the UN's democratic deficit. How is it decided which NGOs shall participate in such meetings? Who chooses which NGOs sit down and talk with Sadako Ogata? At these meetings, democracy is not "one person one vote": it is syndicalism, in which representation is tied to occupation, as with the Trade Union "block vote" in the British Labour Party, or the membership of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, based on the professions. Organizationally, then, much still needs doing to create modes of collaboration among NGOS and the UN bureaux and councils, before the UN's operations can seriously claim to be democratic.
Hitherto, in any case, the major humanitarian and environmental NGOs have been unwilling to coordinate their administrative practices, let alone establish a framework of common institutions. Much of their influence (the argument goes) comes from the fact that their goals are exactly defined. There was a long and painful internal debate before Amnesty International enlarged the organization's targets to include capital punishment: similar soul searchings preceded Greenpeace's decision to extend its area of activities to the Latin American South, as well as the prosperous North and Australasia. In Britain, the Aid and Environment Group is responsible for some coordination among different NGOs, and in Europe there is similar cooperation among humanitarian NGOs. For the most part, however, this collaboration is only arranged ad hoc, in response to the needs of a particular crisis in (say) Bosnia or Rwanda, not with any expectation of creating a standing Council or permanent Assembly of NGOs8.
The problem remains. From the start, the UN Organization was an "inter-national" (inter-State or inter-Governmental) organization. At its 50th anniversary, it is unwilling to broaden its representation of Citizens, at the cost of States or Governments. On the contrary, many Member States fear to offend the oligarchies that dominate their own politics. For now, the natural allies of NGOS are the UN Secretariat, or the technical and professional agencies. It is not that the goals of NGOS are intrinsically technical, but their single mindedness sharpens their attention in a quasitechnical way.
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Hari Srinivas - firstname.lastname@example.org