Scholars of international relations have always been concerned with the activities of non-state entities in the complex web of structures and actors in world affairs. Some reject the idea that non-state organizations play a significant role while others embrace it. Recently, more attention is being paid to the role played by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in shaping policy agendas and, in particular, in leading campaigns towards the establishment of global regimes for such developments as banning land mines, reducing child labour, promoting sustainable development, ceasing the use of child soldiers, and creating an International Criminal Court.
An old term, civil society, has resurfaced to describe broadly the aggregate actions of NGOs, ranging from representatives of indigenous peoples and solidarity movements to issues surrounding women's rights and Tibetan independence, all of which engage in activism along a myriad of political lines. The term has been in use in political philosophy for many years, from Hegel to Gramsci to Habermas; and authors such as Paul Wapner have applied the concept to the transnational activity that takes place above the level of the individual and below the level of the state. What is new, arguably, is its current employment in conceptual self-description by NGOs in their search for strategic alliances. An upcoming conference in Montreal, for example, will be called the World Civil Society Conference: Building Global Governance Partnerships. Its intention is to bring NGOs together from around the world 'to propose changes and take action for new global governance partnerships and to create a wider support base for a stronger UN.'
The sweeping nature of potential coalitions amongst these groups was highly visible at The Hague Appeal for Peace Conference, held in the Netherlands, from 11 to 15 May 1999. At every level, the conference was a landmark event planned in commemoration of the 1899 Hague Peace Conference organized by the prevalent imperial powers of that era. Estimated numbers of participants ranged daily from 4,000 to 8,000, and have been officially listed as 10,000 in the Peace Matters Newsletter of The Hague Appeal for Peace. Though there were some governmental delegates and United Nations officials in attendance, the 1999 version (which preceded an inter-governmental commemoration in May) was organized and largely constructed by non-governmental activists who, collectively, labelled themselves 'civil society.' Cora Weiss, president of The Hague Appeal for Peace, proclaimed in the conference summary: 'This major end of the century conference is organized by civil society. This fact alone speaks volumes.'
But does it? Although those engaged in peace and human rights issues for many years seem quick to adopt this term as one which lends legitimacy to their causes, we would argue that it is - as any other widely used term in social science should be - open to critical inquiry. This in no way challenges the fundamental importance of the conference or The Hague Agenda for Peace and Justice for the 21st Century that emerged from it. But there are some ironies and, even, serious questions about the validity of the term that should be explored before we begin to use it with abandon. This essay will offer a step in that direction by describing the conference and initiating a conceptual discussion of its output and the implications for non-governmental activism and the broader role played by 'civil society.' In short, our central concern is that the vital and progressive work in which such actors engage could be threatened by attaching their role (or place) in world politics to such a vague, even confusing, term.
Rather than connoting a truly transformative phenomenon, it could be berated by opposing forces as a merely decorative mantle adopted by the self-righteous.
THE HAGUE APPEAL FOR PEACE CONFERENCE
The 1899 Hague Peace Conference, initiated by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, was itself unprecedented: 26 states gathered to establish permanent mechanisms of international law in order to resolve problems in warfare, reduce armament-building, and improve structural means towards the settlements of disputes. …