Professor Richard Falk has a usefully compact essay, here, on the role of what is called global civil society - international NGOs - in UN reform and global governance generally. He mentions an essay by David Rieff and me, in the yearbook Global Civil Society 2004/5, that is critical of the idea of global civil society. That essay can be found in the final page proofs form on my school webpage, here (scroll down to get to the text). Here is Professor Falk's essay:
Reforming the United Nations: A Global Civil Society Perspective
by Richard Falk
March 31, 2005
(HT: Zaman Daily News)
As portrayed in the media, the issue of UN reform is often reduced in the public mind to enlarging the permanent membership of the Security Council to make it more representative of the power structure of states in the world as of 2005.
There is no doubt that this issue has a significant substantive and symbolic importance in showing the capacity of the UN to adjust to changes in the relations among states, and especially to give states that were either defeated in World War II or situated in Third World regions a proper place at the head table of the United Nations, and the inability of the membership to agree upon a solution despite a major push in the period leading up to the millennium in 2000 illustrated the difficulties of achieving even reforms that were accepted as necessary. More recently, it has been recognized that the essential agenda of UN reform runs far deeper and is far wider than an expanded membership for the Security Council, and poses decisive challenges and opportunities for global civil society in these early years of the 21st century.
The profound character of the reformist imperative was most clearly articulated by UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, when in a September 2003 speech to the General Assembly he said: "We have come to a fork in the road. This may be a moment no less decisive than 1945 itself when the United Nations was founded... I believe the time is ripe for a hard look at fundamental issues, and at the structural changes that may be needed in order to strengthen them. History is a harsh judge: it will not forgive us if we let this moment pass." In effect, the Secretary General was saying the UN must change to survive as the institutional centerpiece of hope for a better world. Such a call, made beneath the shadow of the controversial Iraq War undertaken by its leading member without the benefit of a mandate from the Security Council, and in a manner so defiant of the UN Charter that Annan had himself publicly declared it 'illegal' violates the core conception of the United Nations as an organization dedicated, above all, to the prevention of war (allowing only a narrow exception for wars of self-defense). The UN was also under a related somewhat earlier dark shadow cast by the obvious implications of the 9/11 attacks on the United States, indicating the menacing rise of non-state political actors and the related inability, already acknowledged in the 1990s, to treat crises internal to states as beyond the purview of the UN, and as raising difficult questions about the nature of wars undertaken in self-defense. Such a realization was also reinforced by the rise of international human rights as a challenge to the territorial supremacy of the sovereign state. Additionally, on several earlier occasions, most notably in the course of talks given at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Annan had indicated the importance of the United Nations finding a way to make its structure and operations more receptive to the participation of both global market forces and civil society actors, thereby acknowledging that the image of world order as constituted by sovereign states was no longer adequate more than fifty years later. And so there was little doubt that the Secretary General's dramatic words about a fork in the road were a timely acknowledgement that the UN needed fundamental reforms if it were to adapt to the changing needs of the 21st century.
The relation of civil society actors to the United Nations has been complex and problematic from the time of founding. There is no doubt that the peoples of the world, and their associations and representatives, who hoped for a more peaceful, orderly, and humane world looked upon the establishment of the United Nations as a historic positive step, and believed that over time it would encourage the emergence of a warless world governed by the rule of law, especially with respect to the use of force to resolve international disputes. The UN was seen in 1945 as an idealist dream coming true, and as offering the best prospect of curbing the international behavior of sovereign states. The long strategic and ideological conflict associated with the cold war often resulted in stalemates within the Organization, and suggested that the important developments in the area of peace and security were carried on by traditional modes of statecraft. It also became painfully clear that the voices of civil society, although acknowledged as formally relevant, were not heeded in the conduct of the central activities of the UN. [box with Charter provision] The UN was, as clearly intended by its founding governments, a club of, by, and for states, and dominated by the strongest states, suggesting the persistence of geopolitics as the foundation of world order in the decades following upon World War II. This realist image of the UN coincided uncomfortably over the years with lingering idealist expectations, accounting for both disappointments about the failures to implement the Charter and an insistence by peace and justice forces that members live according to the guidelines of the Charter.
Throughout the period, civil society actors increasingly focused on issue areas such as human rights, environment, social justice or shaped movements opposing the Vietnam War or informing the worldwide anti-apartheid campaign. In the 1970s and the 1980s, civil society energies led to the emergence of both robust anti-nuclear movements and anti-authoritarian networks that proclaimed their belief in "détente from below," joining activists East and West in collaborative undertakings that defied the rigid boundaries of the cold war, epitomized the Berlin Wall. What is notable about these developments is that they took shape almost entirely outside of the United Nations. It was only with the onset of global conferences on policy issues, pioneered by the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1971, that the UN became a major arena for transnational civil forces, both as a source of pressure exerted on inter-governmental activities and as an occasion for networking and organizing. This dynamic reached a climax in the 1990s with a series of high-profile UN conferences that featured strong and vivid participation by civil society actors, and the early articulation by commentators on the international scene of the presence of new political formation identified as 'global civil society.' The very success of this informal penetration of UN processes induced a backlash on the part of several leading governments, sensing a loss of control by states of the policy-forming process, and making the holding of such conferences politically difficult. In effect, civil society actors were creative in their discovery of ways to make effective use of the United Nations to promote their aspirations, but the statist and geopolitical composition of the UN, which endures, also displayed its capacity to hit back, and essentially to keep the doors closed with respect to its major undertakings.
The Secretary General, as political leader and moral authority figure, has struggled to balance the contending forces and aspirations of the Organization. To gain help and support he constituted two prominent panels to study reform prospects, and to deliver reports in 2004. The first of these panels was composed of 'Eminent Persons,' chaired by Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil, and was charged with looking into to the relations between the United Nations and civil society. It issued its report of June 7, 2004. ["We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations, and global governance," Report of the Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations, A/58/817] It covers the subject-matter comprehensively, offering 30 proposals for reform. The second initiative was charged with reconsidering the role of the United Nations with respect to peace and security, was similarly constituted, chaired by Anand Panyarachun, former Prime Minister of Thailand, submitted its report on December 4, 2004 to the Secretary General. ["A more secure world: Our Shared Responsibility," Report of the Secretary-General's High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change," UN Publications, 2004] Kofi Annan has indicated that he will submit his own report on these security issues in March 2005. This latter report is exclusively dedicated to the substantive issues associated with the current global setting, and does not directly acknowledge the role or significance of global civil society, but its language and approach does reflect to some degree civil society perspectives, including especially its call for reconfiguring security as 'human security' rather than as either "national security" or "collective security."
In the background is the question of whether civil society actors should devote their energies and resources to this debate on UN reform, or concentrate their efforts on grassroots contributions to human betterment. This is old debate that revives the view that the civil society effort to shape a consensus on UN reform via the report of an independent international commission led nowhere, and was largely ignored within the United Nations itself. [The report was published under the title Our Global Neighborhood (Oxford, 1995) on behalf of the Commission on Global Governance.] The issue of UN reform overlaps with and is intimately related to the discourses on 'global governance.' It is notable that the Global Civil Society 2004/5 features as its lead contribution as essay by Kenneth Anderson and David Rieff that counsels international NGOs to give up the pretensions associated with claiming the existence of "global civil society" and to playing a role in the construction of global governance. In their words, "...international NGOs should give up their claims to represent global civil society, give up their dreams of representing the peoples of the world-indeed, devote fewer of their resources to advocacy and more time and care to the actual needs of their actual constituencies, and re-establish their claims of expertise and competence." [26-39, at 36] Such an admonition can be heard either as a rather sinister message to get out of the way of a resilient geopolitically administered world order or as a counsel to civil society actors to focus their efforts in ways that ensure greater effectiveness. [The advice is rendered more controversial by the authors insisting that if international NGOs, and their intellectual spokespersons emphasize criticisms of the American role in the post-9/11 world that this is "the surest" way to guarantee the "irrelevance" of civil society perspectives and values. At 37-38.] Such a direction of advice would suggest that civil society actors have little role in shaping the debate on UN reform, or more generally, on the future shape of global governance.