Magazine article UN Chronicle

Civil Society and a Global Norm

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Civil Society and a Global Norm

Article excerpt

What Should the United Nations Be Doing?

"Civil society" is an arena, not a thing, and although it is often seen as the key to future progressive politics, this arena contains different and conflicting interests and agendas. Global institutions are still the prisoners of a state-based system of international negotiation, and find it exceptionally difficult to open up to non-state participation at any meaningful level. We may dream of "global community", but we don't yet live in one, and too often "global governance" means a system in which only the strong are represented and only the weak are punished. What should the United Nations be doing to reconcile the demands of the different actors who will shape the regimes of the twenty-first century?

When United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan talks of the "new diplomacy," he is echoing a common perception that the characteristics of global governance--the rules, norms and institutions that govern public and private behaviour across national boundaries--are changing in new and important ways. As economic and cultural globalization proceed, the State's monopoly over governance is challenged by the increasing influence of private actors, both for-profit and not-for-profit. There is already a consensus among the donor community that a "strong civil society" is crucial to successful development performance. It is already clear that governance in the next millennium is unlikely to mean a single framework of international law applied through a unified global authority. More likely is a multi-layered process of interaction between different forms of authority (States, citizens and markets), and different forms of regulation (laws, conventions and social norms), working together to pursue common goals, resol ve disputes and negotiate new trade-offs between conflicting interests.

As a result of the political openings of the last decade, civic groups increasingly feel that they have the right to participate in global governance. Much less attention has been paid to their obligations in pursuing this role responsibly or to concrete ways in which these rights might be expressed in the conduct of international institutions and the governance of global regimes. The first set of issues--and by far the most contentious--concerns legitimacy and accountability: who speaks for whom in a civic alliance or network, and how are differences resolved when participants vary in strength and resources? There are really two questions that are being asked: is representation the only route to civic legitimacy in global governance? If so, how "representative" must an organization be in order to qualify for a seat at the global negotiating table?

It is no accident that questions about legitimacy are being raised at a time when civic groups have started to gain real influence on the international stage. In that sense, they are victims of their own success.

Both Governments and civil society face difficult questions in linking different levels of their activity together--local, national, regional and global. For Governments, these questions are somewhat more straightforward, since they have a chain of intergovernmental structures through which debate and decision-making can be linked. The situation is much more challenging for civic groups.

Civil society involvement in global governance cannot be legislated into existence or imposed from above. Nevertheless, the United Nations has a crucial role to play in nurturing this historic shift, both as "midwife" and as "host", in making sure that its own structures and mechanisms are open to participation and serve as role models for the rest of the international community. This is far from the case at present. Since many of the questions concern dilemmas of structure, governance and accountability in international alliances, the United Nations--as the body charged with negotiating and monitoring global standards--has a special responsibility to lead in this field. …

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