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Future of United Nations - Civil Society Relations

Questions in assessing the Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons in relation to the challenges of the 21st Century (Part #1)


Glossary: definitions
List of proposals of the Panel of Eminent Persons
Constitution and operation of the Panel
Century
Conceptual and legal issues
Issues of method
Self-reflexive issues
Issues of democratic process and governance
Issues of information technology: web and internet
References

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Background

This note is an attempt to highlight dimensions and questions arising from the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations appointed by the UN Secretary-General in February 2003, and chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The Panel Report was presented on 11 June 2004 (A/58/817) [more on Panel website]. The website of the Global Policy Forum (GPF) provides links to a number of documents, notably from NGOs, commenting on the Panel's activities and the challenges. These include earlier comments by the author Response to GPF's Report, "NGOs and the United Nations" (25 June 1999) and a Statement on Secretary-General's Report on NGOs (21 May 1999). Both of these argue strongly in favour of a focus on the value of the web environment in reframing the challenges of UN-Civil society relationships as argued most recently by the author in Practicalities of Participatory Democracy with International Institutions: Attitudinal, Quantitative and Qualitative Challenges (2003). Since that time most active international NGOs now make extensive use of NGOs and seek to make creative use of websites.

The Panel's Report has been followed by:

The focus of this note is on a broader framing of the report and its conclusions and is not intended as a commentary on the relevance of the conclusions within the frame considered appropriate by the UN Secretary-General and the Panel. As such it follows from earlier comments by the author on earlier efforts by the UN to address, explicitly or implicitly the role of international NGOs in relation to the UN system. (see references below)

In particular this note is concerned with the degree to which the Report responds to the urgency of the challenges facing society and the planet, notably as articulated in the report of a conference sponsored by the Stanley Foundation conference of June 2004 (Updating the United Nations to Confront 21st Century Threats: the Challenge to the High-Level Panel) prepared for a distinct UN High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change.

Given the concerns in official investigations of the activities of the intelligence community in relation to the threat of terrorism, the focus here is on whether the "global intelligence failure" and "lack of imagination" (identified by a US Senate investigation of the response to terrorism) should not also be recognized in relation to other threats and the appropriate institutional reform. As noted by the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee:

"While we did not specifically address it in our report, it is clear that this group-think also extended to our allies and to the United Nations and several other nations as well, all of whom did believe the Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs," [more]

The point has been made that other organizations, like the intelligence agencies, can suffer from bureaucratic inertia, lack of imagination and simple hostility to unconventional thinking. All institutions have a tendency to the "groupthink", and the tendency to downplay dissenting voices, for which the CIA was criticized.

The note below takes the form of questions through which to reflect on the Panel's conclusions in terms of the adequacy of UN-Civil Society relations to the challenge of the times. The questions, appropriately reviewed, might be considered vital to any balanced evaluation of the Panel's Report on the future of UN-Civil Society relations.

Briefly stated, the Report is an admirable positive articulation of what should have been a reality in the 1990s, if not in the 1980s and the 1970s. However it fails to address the realities of the United Nations' demonstrated inability to give real substance to such aspirations - or to take meaningful account of the information technologies (available for decades) that would make the advocated changes possible in the immediate future. It could be argued that the very political correctness of its positive language precludes its acknowledgement of real challenges. Such complacent denial leaves the United Nations increasingly paralysed and marginalized in the face of the nastiest of threats, such as terrorism. "Terrorism" might even be explored as the consequence of a pattern of past failures in UN dialogue with "civil society" and its dissident perspectives -- such as those now articulated in the World Social Forum. It could be understood as the failure to come to grips with the survival concerns of peoples who are, faced with this denial, thereby forced to become increasingly "uncivil". This crucial gap in communications is exemplified by the fact that 9/11 occurred in 2001 -- the UN Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.

 The questions below are clustered firstly as a response to the Report's Glossary, its List of Proposals, and then as clusters of questions cutting cross the organization of the Report.


Glossary: definitions
List of proposals of the Panel of Eminent Persons
Constitution and operation of the Panel
Century
Conceptual and legal issues
Issues of method
Self-reflexive issues
Issues of democratic process and governance
Issues of information technology: web and internet
References

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Glossary: definitions

NGOs are defined in the Report as "all organizations of relevance to the United Nations that are not central Governments and were not created by intergovernmental decision, including associations of businesses, parliamentarians and local authorities". Does this mean that all such organizations that are relevant to the UN are recognized as "NGOs", namely that those not so recognized are irrelevant to the UN? Given the consultative relationship criteria, does this mean that only those accepted as fulfilling UN criteria of representativity are relevant? What kinds of civil society bodies are considered as "non-NGOs"?

Civil society is defined as "associations of citizens (outside their families, friends and businesses) entered into voluntarily to advance their interests, ideas and ideologies...Of particular relevance to the United Nations are mass organizations..., trade unions, professional associations, social movements, indigenous people's organizations, religious and spiritual organizations, academe and public benefit nongovernmental organizations" Does this mean that all civil society bodies are potentially NGOs for which Article 71 allows for consultative relationships? Since the definition is inclusive rather than exclusive, and the UN has traditionally supported liberation movements, does civil society include networks and movements labelled as "terrorist"? What about secret societies with non-pecuniary agendas? If not, how is the exclusion from "civil society" of bodies implicitly defined as part of "uncivil society" achieved? Are such networks irrelevant to the UN?

If the UN Charter derives its mandates from the concept of "We the peoples..." which bodies are irrelevant to the United Nations and how is this decided? What does that imply for the excluded?

To what extent, as argued elsewhere (Public Management, 1995) is such ambiguity being deliberately used as a form of "definitional game-playing" and "conceptual gerrymandering" to advance particular interests and to marginalize other interests? Has the UN considered apologizing for its decades-long apartheid-like separatist approach to civil society in which it only recognized certain bodies from civil society as acceptable and of relevance?

Is the relationship to civil society being reframed through the Article 71 relationship to NGOs, or is it bypassing the Article 71 provisions on the Secretary-General's initiative, as with the Global Compact initiative in relationship to multinational corporations?

To the extent that civil society bodies are NGOs, do all civil society bodies (from international to local) now have the right to enter into consultative relationship with the UN and to seek participation in UN meetings? Or is it only some bodies that are distinguished - as NGOs - as having that right? Within what framework does the UN then expand its relationship with civil society?

Is the distinction between "civil society" and "NGOs", from a United Nations perspective, more accurately stated as the distinction between the multitude of bodies representing the interests of "we the peoples" ("civil society") to which the United Nations would, in principle, like to relate and be seen to relate in its public relations initiatives -- as opposed to the necessarily limited number of bodies ("NGOs) to which the United Nations is capable of relating in practice, through its various consultative and other administrative procedures, and taking account of its political and other constraints (see para 44)? Do remarks made with respect to "civil society" mainly reflect a sense of what the United Nations ought to do, and would (to the extent possible) claim to be doing, whether or not this corresponds to the reality in practice?

ssible) claim to be doing, whether or not this corresponds to the reality in practice?


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