United Nations

At the UN, civil society representatives gather for the Millennium Forum

Issuing a lengthy Declaration to world leaders at the Millennium Summit, participants find they have much to say about globalization - even if they don't always agree about its impact.

UNITED NATIONS - Representatives of more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from more than 100 countries gathered here for five days in May to formulate a collective vision for the new century, focusing specifically on the role of the United Nations and civil society in the issue areas of peace, poverty eradication, human rights, the environment, globalization and the revitalization of the United Nations.

Organized by NGOs and convened as the Millennium Forum, the gathering drafted and adopted a strongly worded declaration outlining such a vision - and suggesting a series of concrete, practical steps that governments, the UN and civil society can take to achieve it.

"Our vision is of a world that is human-centered and genuinely democratic, where all human beings are full participants and determine their own destinies," states the We the Peoples Millennium Forum Declaration and Agenda for Action, which was adopted by the Forum on 26 May 2000. "In our vision we are one human family, in all our diversity, living on one common homeland and sharing a just, sustainable and peaceful world, guided by universal principles of democracy, equality, inclusion, voluntarism, non-discrimination and participation by all persons, men and women, young and old, regardless of race, faith, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity or nationality."

The Declaration will be presented to world leaders gathered at the Millennium Summit in September. The Forum was originally suggested by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and its output represents one of the main official contributions of civil society to the Summit, which is expected to be the largest gathering of heads of state and government ever held.

The Millennium Forum itself was viewed by some as an historic event. "I really have no hesitation at all in using the word 'historic,' because I don't believe that an event of this kind has ever been held at the United Nations," said Miles Stoby, an Assistant UN Secretary General and the Coordinator for the Preparations for the Millennium Summit and Assembly. "This is the first occasion when a global civil society forum has been convened to discuss the entire global agenda at the seat of the only truly global organization, the United Nations."

The Forum also highlighted the degree to which globalization has perhaps become the overarching issue of the new decade. The theme knitted together other issues in the Forum's Declaration, and the extent of the debate over its benefits and harms indicated a wide difference of opinion within civil society over exactly how to understand, characterize and assess the phenomenon.

"'Globalization' needs defining," states the Declaration's opening sentence in its section on the topic.

Many of those gathered at the Forum sought to reach a consensus, and the final Declaration cautiously acknowledges some of globalization's benefits. "Globalization and advances in technology create significant opportunities for people to connect, share and learn from each other," states the Declaration.

On the other hand, the Declaration also states that "globalization is a process of economic, political and cultural domination by the economically and militarily strong over the weak".

The Forum concluded that a stronger and more democratic United Nations - working in close partnership with civil society - can best deal with the harms caused by globalization and the other interconnected challenges facing humanity.

"Globalization should be made to work for the benefit of everyone: eradicate poverty and hunger globally; establish peace globally; ensure the protection and promotion of human rights globally; ensure the protection of our global environment; enforce social standards in the workplace globally," the Declaration states. "This can happen only if global corporations, international financial and trade institutions and governments are subject to effective democratic control by the people. We see a strengthened and democratized United Nations and a vibrant civil society as guarantors of this accountability."

Global diversity

Held 22-26 May 2000 at the United Nations headquarters building in New York, the Forum drew at least at least 1,350 people from more than 106 countries. While more than 1,800 organizations of civil society, with headquarters in 145 countries, registered to attend the Millennium Forum, a shortage of funds for travel prevented many from coming to New York. Some who could not attend participated in deliberations via the internet, watching as select events were broadcast over the World Wide Web and responding to documents by email as they were posted.

Participants' primary concerns ran across a wide range of issues, from peace to human rights, from women's issues to development. The groups they represented ranged from small locally based community organizations to international networks with millions of members. Moreover, representatives attended from at least 311 organizations with headquarters in some 85 nations in the developing world or regions considered "in transition" from Communist to democratic governments.

"This is a remarkable group," remarked Paul Hoeffel, chief of the NGO Section of the UN's Department of Public Information, surveying the crowd during the Forum's final plenary. "The diversity of NGOs is unprecedented, especially here in New York."

The Forum's overarching theme - "The United Nations for the 21st Century" - encompassed six main sub-themes: 1) Peace, security and disarmament; 2) Eradication of poverty, including debt cancellation and social development; 3) Human rights; 4) Sustainable development and environment; 5) Facing the challenges of globalization: achieving equity, justice and diversity; and, 6) Strengthening and democratizing the United Nations and international organizations.

Opening and closing plenary sessions took place in the UN's General Assembly Hall. The six sub-themes were dissected and discussed in a series of eight "interactive" plenary sessions and in numerous smaller working group sessions, held in various conference rooms at the UN and the UN Church Center building.

Papers on each sub-theme emerged from these sessions - and points from those papers were incorporated into the main Declaration. These and other Forum documents can be read in full on the Forum's website at http://www.millenniumforum.org.

"For me, one of the most important outcomes of the Forum was the advance that global civil society made in working together across issues," said Techeste Ahderom, Co-Chair of the Forum and the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations. "In the past, NGOs and civil society have been largely compartmentalized, working mainly on issues of their own local, regional or nationalistic concern. But as we have seen at other NGO forums, there is a worldwide process of networking and integration. And the Millennium Forum - as the final Declaration shows - has carried this process forward."

Globalization and colonialism

From the opening session, which featured speeches by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, International Labour Organization Director-General Juan Somavía, Council of Parliamentarians for Global Action Chair Maj-Britt Theorin and Third World Network Director Martin Khor, it was evident that globalization would be the most hotly discussed issue of the Forum.

Mr. Annan said that growing advocacy and action of NGOs worldwide in recent years amounted to an "NGO revolution" and that the UN welcomed NGOs as partners. He noted, however, that many NGOs have begun to protest the processes of globalization, which he said has come to be the defining issue of our new age.

"I think the protesters [at the WTO meeting last year in Seattle] were sending a message that many people feel lost and vulnerable in this fast-changing world - that we need to reach out and explain to them the link between the local and the global," said Mr. Annan. "In the world of the 21st century, not only people and nations are interconnected; issues are, too."

"The cure does not lie in protesting against globalization itself. I believe the poor are poor not because of too much globalization, but because of too little - because they are not part of it, because they are excluded," said Mr. Annan.

Mr. Khor's speech, however, set the tone for much of the week when he compared globalization to colonialism, saying that it amounted to little more than a process by which large corporations and banks in the developed world seek to open markets in the developing world solely to increase profits - much as colonialism in an earlier era stripped the developing world of raw materials and labor without much reciprocal benefit.

"It has become a cliché that globalization has benefits, but the benefits accrue to only some, and what we need to do is have a better distribution of benefits," said Mr. Khor. "The problem is that this is only half the truth. The people that win through globalization may actually be causing the losses of those who lose. I am sure you will not make a critique of colonialism to say that some benefit from colonialism and [therefore] we want to distribute the benefits of colonialism better…. The globalization we have today is a globalization that re-promotes colonialism."

Mr. Annan, Mr. Khor and many other speakers indicated that whatever one's view of globalization, the world needs strong and genuinely democratic international institutions to control its effects, and the best candidate for that task is an empowered United Nations.

"We need to rebuild the power of the United Nations as a truly democratic and participatory institution, not only by bringing in the NGOs like ourselves, but making sure that the developing countries have a proper voice and decision not only in the United Nations but in the global system of finance, economics, trade, investment and social policies," said Mr. Khor.

Concrete points for action

Throughout the plenary sessions and workshops, Forum organizers asked participants both to dream about their vision of a better world and to propose concrete actions that can be undertaken by governments, the United Nations, and civil society itself. In the final Declaration, these actions were linked to each of the Forum's six main sub-themes.

In the section on poverty eradication, the Declaration states that "poverty is a violation of human rights" and that "with some 1.3 billion living in extreme poverty, it is the most widespread violation of human rights in the world." Among the action steps proposed are the establishment of a "Global Poverty Eradication Fund," aimed at ensuring full access to credit for the poor worldwide; the full implementation of the commitments made at the 1995 World Summit for Social Development; and cancellation of the debts of developing countries.

On the issue of peace, the Declaration calls for the creation of a universal culture of peace, through general global disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, full acceptance of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and promotion of universal peace education. The Declaration also urges the establishment of a corps of professionally trained mediators and an international, non-violent, inclusive, standing volunteer Peace Force to assist in conflict prevention and resolution in conflict areas.

The Forum's Declaration stresses the "indivisibility, interdependence and interrelatedness of all human rights," calling on all governments to ratify without reservation the main internationally recognized human rights treaties. It calls on governments "not to justify neglect of one set of rights over the other; but to ensure that all individual and collective human rights are safeguarded in the pursuit of sustainable development, investment and trade." The document demands that human rights defenders be protected, stresses the importance of ending all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls, and urges greater emphasis on human rights education worldwide.

In the area of sustainable development, the Declaration upholds the importance of Agenda 21 and urges governments to return to the commitments made at the Earth Summit, including the promise that developed nations would allocate 0.7% of their GNP to overseas development assistance. The Declaration also emphasizes the importance of a stronger partnership between government and civil society in carrying out Agenda 21.

In the section on globalization, the Declaration urges governments to make serious "commitments to restructure the global financial architecture based on principles of equity, transparency, accountability, and democracy, and to balance, with the participation of civil society organizations, the monetary means to favor human endeavor and ecology ." It also urges governments to pay "particular attention to eradication of unequal taxation, tax havens, and money-laundering operations and to impose new forms of taxation, such as the Tobin tax." It urges international financial institutions to "eliminate the negative conditionalities of structural adjustment programs."

The Declaration also calls for measures to strengthen the United Nations. It urges that the Security Council be reformed through enlarged membership, enhanced flexibility, transparency and accountability, and eventual elimination of the use of the veto.

Global Civil Society Forum

One objective of the Forum was to discuss how worldwide civil society could become better represented at the UN.

The final paragraph of the Declaration proposes "the creation and funding of a Global Civil Society Forum to meet at least every two to three years in the period leading up to the annual session of the General Assembly, provided that such a forum is conducted democratically and transparently and is truly representative of all sectors of civil society and all parts of the world."

Little progress was made, however, in defining exactly what shape such an ongoing Forum might take. Ideas ranged from asking the UN to convert the little-used Trusteeship Council into a "Global People's Assembly" to simply continuing international networking that emerged as such a powerful tool for NGOs in the 1990s.

In the final minutes of the Forum, participants adopted a resolution appointing the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with ECOSOC (CONGO) to convene a meeting to continue discussions on how to establish such a Global Civil Society Forum (GCSF).

The rather loosely worded and hurriedly constructed resolution also indicated that representatives of the DPI/NGO Executive Committee (which represents NGOs recognized by the UN's Department of Public Information) as well as the Millennium Forum Executive Committee, should be involved. Comments from Co-Chair Ahderom suggested that any GCSF should establish its own secretariat, its own leadership structure, and its own procedural methods.

The drafting process that led to the Declaration was among the Forum's liveliest activities. Although the Forum's organizers had intended that points for inclusion into the Declaration emerge from the main plenary sessions and workshops, a series of "public hearings" were also held by members of the Declaration's drafting committee during the Forum.

Pera Wells, a Forum participant who came from the Center for Indigenous Education in Australia and who joined the Declaration's drafting committee, saw the Declaration drafting process as an exercise in participatory democracy on a global scale.

"It wasn't democratic in the sort of careful, deliberate sense you would associate with a formal democratic procedure, because there was no time for reflection and evaluation," said Ms. Wells. "What happened around the drafting of the Declaration is that the conference found its way towards establishing the dynamics of a global village."

"It was a bit like a marketplace," Ms. Wells continued. "It was entirely open and it allowed for the possibility for anyone to put forward their point of view in a way that seemed to me very healthy. The process wasn't based on who you represented. It was based on the value attached to the idea you presented."

To read the entire Declaration, follow this link.