Academic journal article Global Governance

The Emerging Roles of NGOs in the UN System: From Article 71 to a People's Millennium Assembly

Academic journal article Global Governance

The Emerging Roles of NGOs in the UN System: From Article 71 to a People's Millennium Assembly

Article excerpt

The relations between the UN system and what is referred to as civil society are dynamically growing and changing. In this article I focus on five aspects: (1) evolving procedures for UN--nongovernmental organization (NGO) relations presided over by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC); (2) broadening of NGO involvement at UN headquarters; (3) the present scope of NGO involvement in the UN system; (4) growing NGO involvement in the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO); and (5) NGO conferences. (1) I conclude with an overview and a few thoughts about implications for global governance. But necessary insight on the importance of these topics requires that we first place them in their broader context.

The foundations for systems of governance are often created by constitutions and treaties, but these documents, as in the case of the UN Charter, emerge out of documents and practice that have gone before. Constitutions and treaties continue to grow and evolve in the light of practice that builds upon them. This is certainly true of systems for global governance that are emerging out of the UN Charter. There is no more dynamic area of growth and change through practice in the UN system than that involving NGOs and other aspects of "civil society." Before focusing on more recent aspects of this dynamic sector of emerging global governance, it is essential to recognize that NGOs were deeply involved before and during the creation of the UN.

There were representatives of 1,200 voluntary organizations present at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. They played a significant role in writing the first seven words of the charter: "We the peoples of the United Nations ..." and also in the inclusion of Article 71, providing that "the Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations." They also fought for the inclusion of individual human rights (mentioned seven times in the charter) and for educational cooperation in the pursuit of friendly relations among nations (Article 55). But the roots of present NGO activities go much deeper into history. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking at a commemoration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recently reminded his audience:

Before the founding of the United Nations, NGOs led the charge in the adoption of some of the Declaration's forerunners. The Geneva conventions of 1864; multilateral labour conventions adopted in 1906, and the International Slavery Convention of 1926; all stemmed from the work of NGOs who infused the international community with a spirit of reform. (2)

A succinct overview of recent rapid change in the nature of NGO involvement in the UN asserts that, from the earliest days, many NGOs monitoring activities at UN headquarter cities in the system were large membership and service organizations, such as the Rotary, the International Conference of Free Trade Unions, and the International Chamber of Commerce. Some had full-time paid staff, often retired members or officers of the organization. But, beginning with the Women's Conference in Mexico City in 1975 and culminating with the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) or Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, many new kinds of NGO representatives began to show an interest in the deliberative process of ECOSOC and large UN-sponsored conferences. Many of the new NGO actors are national instead of international in character, and they are increasingly activist and issue based. Although more NGO representatives come from Europe and North America, there has been a significant growth in those coming fr om Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Newly involved organizations also reflect a generational change, because new constituencies often have younger representatives. (3)

Building on Article 71, focusing on NGO relations with ECOSOC, NGOs are emerging throughout the UN system. …

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