Human Rights

In Seoul, a global conference of NGOs focuses on forging deeper partnerships

The 1999 Seoul International Conference of NGOs represents the first major NGO meeting dedicated primarily to the question of how NGOs themselves might become better organized and empowered on a global level to address the broad range of challenges confronting humanity.

SEOUL Korea - Most of the major inter-national gatherings of civil society in the 1990s have been organized around a specific issue, such as environment and development, the equality of women, or peace.

These meetings were usually held in connection with major United Nations conferences such as the Earth Summit or the Fourth World Conference on Women - with the exception of the 1998 Microcredit Summit and the 1999 Hague Appeal for Peace.

The 1999 Seoul International Conference of NGOs continues the trend of independent global NGO meetings and represents the first such major meeting dedicated primarily to the question of how NGOs themselves might become better organized and empowered on a global level to address the broad range of challenges confronting humanity.

As such, the Seoul Conference, which was organized by NGOs themselves without any specific connection to a UN event and held here 10-15 October 1999, offered an important snapshot of the vision and vitality of international civil society. The picture that developed was one of a diverse worldwide movement that is surprisingly unified in its concerns and plans for action.

"The Conference brought together different groups of different people from different parts of the world," said Sudha Acharya, vice president of the Conference of NGOs, which was one of the sponsors of the event. "Yet there was a wonderful spirit of cooperation and unity."

Drawing more than 10,000 participants representing some 1,400 NGOs from at least 107 countries, the Seoul Conference addressed 10 major themes in nearly 200 workshops and five major plenary sessions. Those themes reexamined the output of the major UN conferences of this decade; among the specific issues addressed were environment, gender equality, social and economic development, education for all, and human rights.

Yet, it was clear that the overarching concern of the event was the issue of how to better organize and empower NGOs so that global civil society can act in a concerted way to address these problem areas.

This concern was reflected in the Conference's documents, which included an opening "Vision Statement," a "Millennium Declaration" and a "Draft Plan of Action." All of these documents stress the interconnected nature of the challenges facing the world and the need for coordinated action.

"We begin the new Millennium facing grave and interconnected challenges," states the Declaration, which was issued at the end of the Conference. "Yet, there are many reasons for hope. The last decades have witnessed the phenomenal growth of people's movements, civil society organizations and NGOs committed to addressing these ills.

"Increasingly there is more shared awareness of what is at stake and what we need to do together," the Declaration continued. "In this context, the Seoul Conference considered a number of interrelated themes, declared a shared vision for the 21st Century and agreed on concrete actions to make this vision a reality."

Striving for a vision

The Conference was sponsored largely by the two main associations of NGOs granted status by the United Nations - the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO) and the Executive Committee of NGOs associated with the Department of Public Information of the United Nations (the NGO/DPI Executive Committee) - along with a Korean partner, the Global Cooperation Society International (GCS), a Seoul-based NGO with chapters in 35 countries. The conference was hosted by Kyung Hee University of Seoul and held at the Olympic Park, site of the 1988 Olympic games.

The stated goals of the meeting were to "explore and monitor" implementation of the global action plans produced by the major UN conferences of the decade, to "strengthen NGO partnerships with the UN," and to "enhance communication and collaboration" among NGOs worldwide.

Both in the Conference's plenaries and in numerous workshops, much was said about the critical importance of NGOs and civil society in the coming millennium, especially in view of humanity's increasing interdependence. "NGOs are now becoming absolutely necessary for the rights, safety and happiness of all people," said Korean President Kim Dae-jung. "They are no less indispensable than the United Nations and national governments."

Young Seek Choue, president of the co-sponsoring GCS, urged NGOs to increase international collaboration and forge a "global common society" dedicated to reaching effective solutions to international problems for a "single global family."

"Globalization has made the world a 'borderless society'," said Dr. Choue. "However, we are still witnessing a number of conflicts and disputes arising among countries… To counter and overcome such anti-democratic and anachronistic inclinations of nation-states, NGOs with transnational influence must assume an active role."

Human rights links

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson told the gathering that NGOs played a key role in helping her office to protect and promote human rights, acting not only as "direct witnesses" to human rights violations, but also bringing such violations to light and therefore "shaming" governments into taking action to protect and promote human rights.

"Our work in the High Commission would be impossible without close contact with NGOs," said Ms. Robinson. "NGOs should concentrate on deepening the impact and widening the circle."

Ms. Robinson also said that progress in other issue areas, from peace to women's advancement to health, is intimately linked to human rights - a view that was echoed in other speeches and workshops.

"There was a connection throughout the conference to human rights themes, based on the idea that every other issue ultimately comes down to a matter of human rights" said Ronald Brinn, the UN representative of the International Association against Drug Abuse and Drug Trafficking, a Moscow-based NGO. "People pointed out that health is a human right, clean water is a human right and so on."

United Nations agencies that work regularly with NGOs expressed keen interest in the Conference. According to the program, more than 60 representatives of various UN agencies were involved in the Conference.

"The presence of so many representatives of international organizations of the UN system demonstrates that new partnerships are being developed," said Stan Bernstein, a senior research advisor with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). "This meeting reaffirms the growing recognition of the importance of NGOs."

The Seoul Conference also produced a draft Plan of Action, tentatively titled "An Agenda for Peace, Security and Development in the 21st Century," which offers up a list of endorsements, recommendations and action steps aimed fulfilling the promise of the UN global conferences of the 1990s.

The Agenda remains a draft document and has been posted at the CONGO website [www.conferenceofngos.org]. The plan is to have NGOs around the world continue to comment on the Agenda and then to present it in final form at the Millennium Forum in May 2000. (See related story.)

Among other items, the Agenda calls for the establishment of a "standing UN Peace force"; more peace education programs in schools and universities; wider recognition that human rights are "universal, indivisible, interdependent and interrelated"; a mobilization of "social movements and civil society for the promotion and protection of human rights"; inclusion by governments and the UN of women in conflict resolution processes; and steps to "ensure that global and regional economic institutions are held accountable to international human rights principles and standards."

"There was a sense of unity among NGOs in terms of really pushing on substantive fronts - and also on procedural fronts, in terms of their relationships with the UN and governments," said Rebecca Nichols, executive director of CONGO.

Ms. Nichols and others said United Nations agencies that work regularly with NGOs expressed keen interest in the Conference. According to the program, more than 60 representatives of various UN agencies were involved in the Conference.

"The presence of so many representatives of international organizations of the UN system demonstrates that new partnerships are being developed," said Stan Bernstein, a senior research advisor with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). "This meeting reaffirms the growing recognition of the importance of NGOs."

Lotte Albret Wissing, a project manager for the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, a Denmark-based NGO, said she believe the Conference marks a new era in the relationship between the UN and NGOs.

"The UN and NGOs have worked alongside for many years, sometimes as collaborating partners, sometimes with NGOs as implementing organizations of UN programs," said Ms. Wissing. "The Draft Programme of Action represents an important change in this relationship. In a very open-minded and action-oriented way, a collective NGO community is sharing its concerns, visions, commitments, plans, and enthusiasm with the UN through a common document."

Bahá'í participation

The Bahá'í community of South Korea was deeply involved in the Conference. More than 20 Bahá'ís participated in the Conference; they came both from within and outside Korea. Four Bahá'ís were invited as speakers at plenary sessions.

The community also sponsored a workshop entitled "New Millennium and New Civilization," which featured a panel of three Bahá'í scholars discussing "the practical application of spiritual principles" in helping to solve global problems. Among other themes, the workshop stressed the necessity of the advancement of women as a prerequisite for peace and justice and the importance of the concept of world citizenship.

The community also created and staffed an exhibition booth, one of some 112 in the main exhibition hall.

"The Bahá'ís of Korea viewed this conference as an important opportunity to share and exchange ideas with participants from many countries and representing diverse NGOs," said Kang Sungho, secretary of the Bahá'í Community of Korea, who also served as director of program planning for the Korean Organizing Committee of the Conference. "While Bahá'ís do not necessarily subscribe to the entire Program of Action for NGOs, the Bahá'í vision for the future is certainly in harmony with the vision that emerged from the conference, which is that people from every sphere of society should come together in a spirit of collaboration to work out and apply principle-based solutions to global issues."

More information about the 1999 Seoul International NGO Conference can be found at its website at http://www.ngo99korea.org

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