United Nations

UN "eminent persons" panel sees rise of civil society as a "landmark" event

UNITED NATIONS – As the world's problems grow ever more complex and globalized, the United Nations must reach out more vigorously to civil society — and give non-governmental actors more access to high level deliberations that have traditionally been reserved for governments.

That's the conclusion of a blue-ribbon panel charged a year ago with reviewing the relationship of the UN with civil society.

“The rise of civil society is indeed one of the landmark events of our times,” wrote former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, chair of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations–Civil Society Relations, in a letter accompanying the panel's final report in June 2004.

“Global governance is no longer the sole domain of Governments,” continued President Cardoso. “The growing participation and influence of non-State actors is enhancing democracy and reshaping multilateralism. Civil society organizations are also the prime movers of some of the most innovative initiatives to deal with emerging global threats.”

The report, entitled “We the Peoples: Civil Society, the United Nations and Global Governance,” outlines a series of concrete steps that the United Nations can take to strengthen partnerships with civil society.

Recommendations include regularizing the “cycle of global debate” on issues so that civil society is more widely included, taking specific steps to give civil society increased access to high-level bodies of the United Nations, including the Security Council, boosting staff and budgets for units and offices concerning civil society, and appointing an Under-Secretary-General responsible for overseeing an office that would engage the constituencies of civil society, indigenous peoples, the private sector, and parliamentarians.

“The United Nations should use its moral leadership to urge coordinated approaches to civil society, to encourage Governments to provide a more enabling and cooperative environment for civil society and to foster debate about reforms of global governance, including deeper roles for civil society,” the report states. “This should emphasize principles of constituency engagement, partnership, transparency and inclusion, with a special emphasis on those who are normally underrepresented.”

This kind of engagement with civil society is necessary, the report says, because it is no longer possible for the world's governments by themselves to solve complex global problems, such as HIV/AIDs, poverty, environmental degradation, and ethnic strife.

Public opinion is key

“Public opinion has become a key factor influencing intergovernmental and governmental policies and actions,” states the report. “ The involvement of a diverse range of actors, including those from civil society and the private sector, as well as local authorities and parliamentarians, is not only essential for effective action on global priorities but is also a protection against further erosion of multilateralism.”

Much of the report discusses the growing influence of civil society, which it defines as “associations of citizens entered into voluntarily to advance their interests, ideas and ideologies,” such as trade unions, professional associations, social movements, indigenous peoples' organizations, religious and spiritual organizations, academia, and public benefit non-governmental organizations. Its analysis includes an extended discussion of the changing nature of democracy.

“[C]itizens increasingly act politically by participating directly, through civil society mechanisms, in policy debates that particularly interest them,” the report says. “This constitutes a broadening from representative to participatory democracy. Traditional democracy aggregates citizens by communities of neighborhood (their electoral districts), but in participatory democracy citizens aggregate in communities of interest. And, thanks to modern information and communication technologies, these communities of interest can be global as readily as local.”

This trend arises in part, the report says, because of the processes of globalization, which have made traditional forms of representation less relevant.

“Elected legislators and parliaments seem to have little impact on decisions made intergovernmentally or in the supervision and regulation of international markets,” says the report. “And the traditional separation of powers — having a legislative body of elected representatives to supervise and oversee the executive function — does not apply so clearly in international intergovernmental institutions.”

Since more decisions are being reached in international forums and organizations, it is becoming more important to develop a stronger framework for global governance with democratic accountability to citizens everywhere, the report says. “The emerging pillars for this framework are civil society, global roles for parliamentarians, public opinion and global media. People concerned about such issues are using new channels to express their political interests, through global civil society networks and global social movements.”

Engagement with religion

The report specifically calls for greater engagement with religious and spiritual groups. “These groups provide powerful community leadership, shape public opinion, provide advice on ethical matters, facilitate reconciliation between conflicting communities and identify the needs of vulnerable groups,” the report says.

It also urges greater outreach to trade unions, and it supports the importance of reaching out to the private sector, as part of an overall engagement with non-governmental actors.

Mary Racelis, one of the report's authors, said perhaps the most important message of the panel was simply that the UN and governments must appropriately recognize the growing influence and capacity of civil society organizations.

“In a sense, we are calling for a new mindset on the part of the UN,” said Dr. Racelis, a sociologist at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. “The UN has to reach out and recognize and draw in, on a multi-stakeholder basis, different views, in the debate that leads towards better global governance.”

Dr. Racelis also said the report's discussion of representative democracy versus participatory democracy was not meant to tear down traditional forms of democracy, but rather to strengthen them.

“In so many parts of the world, the majority of people are often poor and disadvantaged, and, for various reasons, either don't vote, or if they do, are captured by a structure that doesn't represent their interests,” said Dr. Racelis.

“We know that people who are left out of society sometimes turn to other means, such as terrorism or crime or violence,” said Dr. Racelis.

Strengthening democracy

“What we are saying is that representative democracy is fine, but there must also be recognition that participatory democracy is now the trend,” Dr. Racelis said. “And we are trying to say to member states that this is a very positive development that can strengthen democracy.”

Jeffery Huffines, immediate past president of the Committee of Religious NGOs at the UN, said the report would be welcomed by most NGOs. “The power of this report is that it offers a step-by-step, rational process whereby member states of the UN can more effectively engage key constituencies of civil society across the board,” said Mr. Huffines, who hosted several meetings with representatives of the panel, to help provide input from faith-based NGOs. Mr. Huffines is also the representative of the Bahá'í community of the United States to the UN.

The panel was appointed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in February 2003. Its members are affiliated with governments, NGOs, academia, and the private sector. In addition to Mr. Cardoso and Dr. Racelis, they include Bagher Asadi of Iran, Manuel Castells of Spain, Birgitta Dahl of Sweden, Peggy Dulany of the United States, André Erdös of Hungary, Asma Khader of Jordan, Juan Mayr of Colombia, Malini Mehra of India, Kumi Naidoo of South Africa, Prakash Ratilal of Mozambique, and Aminata Traoré of Mali.

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