At the inaugural conference in San Francisco, the UN could clearly not have been launched as the United States Organization, even though that name is less misleading: the name "United States" was pre‘mpted. (In any case, people find plenty of reasons to claim that the UN has been an instrument of American power.) Still, the official terminology has it right: membership in the United Nations belongs to Member States, not to Member Nations.
The closer we come to the political pinnacles of the UN Organization, as a result, the less guarantee there is that the people who have standing to speak in its councils speak for Nations, rather than that for State Governments - these too often represent monoethnic, oligarchic subgroups of a given population. (Fill in your own examples.) When spokespersons for Member States address, say, the Security Council, informed listeners know that their speeches present the opinions of sub-groups in the domestic politics of that Member State, and interpret the speeches in light of that information. But, when the debates concern worldwide problems like Human Rights or Population Control, it is hard to cut a way through the thickets of domestic politics to the serious transnational issues. As a result, the hermeneutics of Councilspeak generate cynicism, of the kind that was evident in the counter activities of the NGOs at the Vienna Human Rights conference of 1993, and again, in 1994, at the Population conference in Cairo. (I shall return to this point.)
The Variety of Non-Governmental Organizations
This last example brings us to the central topic of this essay. My subject is the tension in the institutions of global governance, between Nation State Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations . I will first sketch the number, scale and variety of the "nongovernmental organizations" active in different practical situations: this done, I shall be better placed to map the particular areas in which this tension is most evident. I will then focus on the major transnational NGOs, which (I shall argue) play a role in global affairs today that needs fuller understanding than it often gets.
The term "nongovernmental" is what Aristotle calls a privative term: it defines its instances by what they are not. A familiar everyday example is the term "amateur", as applies in Sport: "amateur" golfers do not play golf for a living, do not teach others to play golf, do not sell golf clubs and equipment, nor do any other things that endanger their amateur status. (Despite its etymology - the word amateur, from the Latin amat, refers to one who "loves" an activity - amateurs do not lose their status if they stop enjoying the game!) In its broadest sense, the term "nongovernmental" is applied to any organization or institution that performs a public function, but is not a part of the Government of the territories in which it works.
To narrow the overall class of NGOs down a first stage: in the mid 20th century, Nation State Governments began to hive off public functions that were previously the responsibility of government departments, to newly established bodies set up in ways that insulated them from political criticism. This activity had gone a long way, before State enterprises began to be explicitly privatized in the 1970s or '80s: before that, the line between the "governmental" and the "non-governmental" had become very thin - the Arts Council in Britain, which gives public funds to orchestras, art museums etc., and the SNCF, which runs the French railways, were dependent on and answerable to the Government for overall policies and control of their budgets, so they might as well have been government departments. With this in mind, the Economist launched the name quangos - "quasi-nongovernmental organizations." The insulation of such bodies from Government was something of a pretense, and to this extent their independence was a sham. So let me begin by setting "quangos" aside, as outside the class of NGOs I shall be discussing here.
I also say little in this essay about a second, and more numerous class of NGOs. In many countries, including some of the poorest in Africa, farming cošperatives and other local organizations are set up without any blessing from the Government of the Member State in which they operate: these organizations facilitate, or finance, better methods in farming, irrigation, medicine, education and other cošperative activities. These NGOs are typically local, and operate on a small scale: in a single country, or a single locality. They raise funds from a variety of sources: partly, as loans from IDA, the low interest branch of the World Bank, more often from charitable organizations like Oxfam, sometimes as grants or loans from the U.S. AID, the British ODA, or similar agencies in other Governments: notably, those of Canada, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries.
These local NGOs have strictly delimited goals, and are usually somewhat fragile - dependent on one, or a few, funders and activists. Their need to keep good standing with their donor agencies obliges them to guarantee the quality of the "work product" from their grants or loans; so they tend to keep their heads down, and are disinclined to develop an independent stance over matters of general policy.
Moving to a somewhat larger scale of operation, a substantial number of agencies are not confined to limited localities, but maintain more extensive - or even world wide - areas of concern. Once these organizations have developed international ambitions, they seek "observer status" at the United Nations, which can give them access to UN Headquarters, to papers that the UN Secretariat prepares for circulation to recognized NGOs, and to some direct participation in conferences in their special areas of concern. (More of this later.) The status is so helpful that people sometimes think of NGOs in ways that treat only nongovernmental organizations with UN observer status as being genuine "NGOs" at all. However much the potential role of NGOs was a factor in the preparatory discussions of the UN Charter, it is worth recalling that many influential NGOs were established, and proved their worth, at a time when cošperation between the UN and external NGOs was in a very early stage of development. In a few cases, indeed, the lifetime of particular NGOs had long antedated the UN itself: the ICRC - the International Committee of the Red Cross - is a prime example.
Having set on one side the nongovernmental organizations I am not concerned with in this essay, let me sharpen my focus, and identify the large, transnational NGOs that are my main concern. Several kinds of organization are relevant here, and have much in common. Their scope is world wide, and they pursue their topics on a global scale. They operate on a transnational basis: for administrative purposes, their headquarters may be located in one particular country, but their work is carried out by networks of local organizations, which have local autonomy and raise most of their own funds. Typically, they take no money from either industry or government, but get it through subscriptions from individuals who have their "cause" at heart. Most crucially, they seek to protect their independence of judgment, and their claim to be impartially critical, by keeping a distance from both Nation State Governments and the United Nations - dining with them (as the English saying is) "using a long spoon."
The purest instances are those transnational single-issue NGOs that concentrate, in some cases, on humanitarian issues, in some on problems of the environment, in some on abuses of human rights. The first group includes the ICRC, the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam), MŽdŽcins sans FrontiŹres and the Save the Children Fund; the second includes Worldwatch, the World Wild Life Fund and - most particularly - Greenpeace; the third includes Amnesty International (the pioneer post-1945 NGO), the network of regional organizations that makes up Human Rights Watch, and such impromptu organizations as the group of Nobel Peace Laureates who joined to exert pressure on the Military Government of Burma to release the country's elected leader, Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Another group of NGOs is grounded in shared commitments of professionals in different disciplines and countries. Physicians together, or lawyers together, find a common cause in the distinctive values of their professions. Organizations such as the World Psychiatric Association, World Medical Association, or International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, conduct a transnational defense of medical values - including the values of the public health movement - in a way that transcends the policy of all Nation State Governments. (Israeli and Palestinian physicians who meet over the injured body of a shared patient, will approach his treatment in the same frame of mind, and set aside all considerations that rest only on questions of citizenship or nationality.) The same can be said in the legal profession for, e.g., the International Commission of Jurists and other such institutions.
Finally, a few transnational NGOs engage in charitable work from a commercial, not a professional or academic angle. In modus operandi, a business consultancy like McKinzie resembles Greenpeace or Amnesty: it has branches in two dozen countries, each of which is an independent operation with traditions and experience that allow it to address the special problems of its own country; but which pool technical ideas about working with clients, and handling other issues that go beyond their own boundaries. Meanwhile - though the NSGs of Europe grumbled at "unscrupulous currency dealers" - the Soros Foundation started the Central European University in Budapest and Prague in less time than it took the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, its intergovernmental counterpart, to buy marble for its grandiose entrance hall. In the background, of course, older Foundations of commercial origin (Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, etc.) continue to operate multinationally, or sometimes transnationally.
None of these groups of organizations - humanitarian, professional or commercial - is tempted to act as agents for a National Government. If anything, their relations with Government are conducted at arm's length to preserve both the appearance and the fact of independence. As we shall see, the efficacy of their operations, and their credibility for those who benefit from them, depends on keeping a real distance in these relations, so that political disputes among States or peoples do not touch the NGOs' reputations as honest brokers or disinterested bringers of aid.
In number and variety, the NGOs have multiplied since World War II, but their historical origins are much older. Like so much of the educational or social services given by the State in modern secular societies, the work of NGOs was in earlier times undertaken by Churches and religious orders. (In Europe from 1200 on, the Medieval Christian Church was in effect a transnational institution, with a standing above, and apart from the secular rulers of the time. ) As we know it now, the tradition of NGOs dates from the establishment of the ICRC in Switzerland in 1865. To this day, indeed, the ICRC succeeds, by acting with great care, in keeping the confidence of countries with very different cultural and religious traditions: peoples and governments in most parts of the world have learned to accept its impartiality and independence.
Reasons for the Influence of NGOs
So much by way of background about the general nature and standing of NGOs. Now, let me turn to the central issue for this essay, about the significance of the large, financially independent transnational NGOs in global affairs. The fact that NGOs have been increasingly influential over the last twenty years is clear to observers of current events. The decline of the USSR's political authority on the international stage was accelerated by its hostile reactions to the award of Nobel Prizes to Boris Pasternak, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and AndrŽ Sakharov, while Amnesty's campaign for Soviet prisoners of conscience only made matters worse: Mikhail Gorbachev therefore felt bound to invite representatives from Amnesty International to visit Moscow, to discuss reforms that might help restore Russia's standing in the larger world.
More recently, humanitarian, environmental and human rights organizations have worked with the international Press and Television to draw their viewers and readers' attention to ecological catastrophes and oppressive regimes, massacres and famines, from Alaska to Rwanda, Somalia to Guatemala, Bosnia to Kashmir. In response, the World Powers, large or small, have felt bound to acknowledge disasters they might have preferred to ignore, and have reacted by despatching mobile hospitals and food supplies, election observers and armistice monitors. Suffering that is visible on the TV screens of richer countries touches the conscience of electors, and so of politicians also: what the Eye cannot help seeing, the Heart cannot help grieving about.
The fact that NGOs are influential is undeniable: what is less obvious is why their influence has increased at this time. The alliance of NGOs and the media is a potent instrument of change; but about the deeper significance of NGOs something more has to be explained. In particular, what we face at this time is not just a growth of influence for NGOs, but a shift in the balance of influence as between NGOs and Nation State Governments. The significance of NGOs becomes more apparent, as people find more and more suspect the claim of NSGs to "sovereignty". In a dozen ways, we are at a turning point in the history of State Power and Sovereignty: the spotlight is leaving the governments of totally Sovereign Nation States, and other actors are becoming visible on the global stage. In the long run - I shall argue - the Nation State Governments can no more monopolize the political conduct of global affairs than OPEC can monopolize the World market for petroleum.
The heart of the matter is this. The birth of Nation States from the 1650s on, after the Peace of Westphalia, was - in practical terms - the work of Louis XIV of France. After a brush with dissident nobles in the Fronde, he used all available force to create the unitary State that France has since remained, both as a monarchy and as a republic. In theoretical terms, European ideas about the power of the Nation State are dominated by the model in Hobbes' Leviathan. On this view, the prime function of the Sovereign is to provide security to his Subjects or Citizens: for this he is given a monopoly in the legitimate exercise of Violence in the State. The authority of the Sovereign is displayed in the use of State Violence, to preserve domestic order by the power of the Police, and to protect the State's external integrity by the power of its Armed Forces. Against the Sovereign's legitimate Force, Hobbes saw no scope for any legitimate resistance. The execution of King Charles I in 1649 marked for him the final breakdown of the State: even the secession of the Dutch Republic from the Spanish Crown in the 1570s or '80s had, in his eyes, been illegitimate.
In the three and a half centuries since the Peace of Westphalia, the political Powers of the World have constructed a diplomatic system in which every Sovereign is free to ensure the domestic order and external integrity of the State. By both formal and tacit agreement among these Sovereign authorities, all States respect each other's monopoly in the domestic use of Violence, and they will resist each other's external use of Force, only if their own compelling interests are threatened. In this sense, the Westphalian Order created a Cartel of Nation States.
The United Nations Treaties did nothing to weaken the power of this Cartel: rather, they created a new instrument for existing Sovereign States to use in their own interest. Under the UN Treaties (as in other Treaties) States took on voluntarily accepted limits on their Sovereignty: in principle, at least, they retained their option to leave the UN, and resume unqualified authority to defend their State interests as they thought best. Since the end of the Cold War, the authority of States to protect Sovereign interests has been qualified in ways that are now familiar. A new rhetoric constructed around such novel ideas as human rights law and the international community - a community with needs and interests of its own - is winning currency in debates at the UN, as well as in other forums: the force of this rhetoric deserves careful scrutiny.
The crucial transition was the case of Iraq vs. Kuwait. Initially, the attempt by one member of the UN and OPEC Cartels to seize the assets of a fellow member was found unacceptable for purely Westphalian reasons. But the penalties to which the Sovereign State of Iraq was exposed, and the lengths to which the alliance opposed it went in its interpretation of the Security Council's resolutions, give evidence of a change of view. The use of those resolutions, for instance, to warrant intervention between the Baghdad authorities and their Subjects in Kurdistan to the North, and in the Delta to the South, imposed restraints on the exercise of Iraqi Sovereignty that had very little to do with its seizure of Kuwait.
On the contrary, these actions rested on pre-Westphalian ideas of State Sovereignty. In short, the actions of Saddam Hussein against the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs were condemned as those of an "unjust" Sovereign: Iraqi Kurds were entitled to appeal for support and understanding in resisting those actions, as much as the Netherlanders of the 1570s were entitled to support and understanding against religious persecution by Philip of Spain's Army. On the Hobbist view, the only "injustice" a Sovereign can do to his Subjects is to fail to preserve the State's domestic peace and its external integrity: acting on this view, most Member States of the UN are quick to object to any "external" interference in their "internal" affairs - e.g., the People's Republic of China, challenged about Tibet. Yet this is just the argument the Security Council did not let Saddam use in his own cause.
On a pre-Westphalian view, however, a Sovereign's obligations went beyond those of preserving domestic peace and external security. Legitimate Violence may be a way to create and maintain an effective State; but, if a Sovereign were to retain legitimacy, his actions must meet other conditions. In general, it was not acceptable for Subjects to rebel, but the way in which Philip II persecuted the Netherlands Protestants gave them a right to "abjure" their earlier loyalty to the Spanish Crown. Loyalty was a two-way affair. The Sovereign was expected to act in his Subjects' interests, not just vice versa: if he failed in these requirements, he invited difficulties of other kinds. The murder of Thomas Becket (say) made King Henry II of England an object of contempt to people of conscience all the way across Europe: as a result , he was not forced but shamed into submitting to the authority of the Church.
Claims about a Sovereign's "injustice" carried conviction for Aquinas but, until 1991, they had little weight in the UN. At the high point of the Modern Nation State, matters of Power were interpreted as questions about a State's ability to bring Military Force into action. (Stung by the Catholic Church's criticisms, Stalin reputedly asked, "How many divisions has the Pope?") In the early 20th century, the central issue for British diplomacy was the numbers of battleships available for service in the German, French and British navies, respectively: during the Cold War, the rival numbers of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in the forces of the US and the USSR played a similar part in the strategic debate.
Since 1989, the capacity for Military Force is longer the only measure of political influence. Even now, Shame may only a limited ability to (say) change the minds of the Burmese junta. But limited power is not zero power: in the balance of influence, one strength of the NGOs is the role of Shame, as a counterweight to Force. So one reason why major transnational NGOs can win and retain public respect just is their manifest abstention from Violence. As I wrote some years ago,
. .in the eyes of decent human opinion, moral challenges are never answered by displays of force. The day that Amnesty International takes possession of a machine gun, let alone an atom bomb, its ability to gain a hearing and influence events will be at an end. . Amnesty International's moral authority is that much the greater, just because it is a Lilliputian institution.2
While the Superpowers boasted about nuclear arsenals, NGOs were seen as inherently nonviolent. While the policies of NSGs were slanted by their own ambitions, and the speeches in the Security Council were aimed at national advantage, NGOs seemed free of ulterior interests - grinding no axes, uncommitted to one country rather than another, speaking not for any Government but for its victims, the sufferers and the oppressed. Put idealistically, NGOs became Humanity's Conscience, and were taken seriously because their arguments were disinterested. Of course, this view involved an element of exaggeration. If pressed, UN officials who handled nongovernmental organizations would reply that NGOs can act in ways as self-interested as those of any Government. But this reply involved a counter-exaggeration, too. The basic insight still holds good: Oxfam and Amnesty are not inherently self-interested parties, and their arguments can be taken as meaning just what they say.
The Political and Technical Faces of the UN
On a less high flown level, the shifting balance of influence was in evidence at the Conferences on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, Human Rights in Vienna, most recently on Population Policy in Cairo. At Cairo, a coalition of NGOs and women's groups - above all, from the developing countries that suffer most from population pressures - played a major role by preventing the representatives of NSGs from making concessions to the Vatican and other conservative male religious groups, which were trying to destroy the effectiveness of the Conference's final documents. NSG spokespeople are exposed to a clash of interests among different groups on their domestic scene: so, Benazir Bhutto presented a more conservative Islamic view than one might expect from a woman of her education. The interests for which the NGOs spoke were less ambiguous and more clearly defined; and they mounted a powerful operation to defend the central purposes of the Conference.
Here we can begin to answer one of the larger questions facing this meeting, about the relative efficacy of the UN's political and technical agencies. In ways exemplified in the Cairo proceedings, the UN's political / diplomatic activities have all the turmoil of domestic politics, but on a larger stage. They are subject to the familiar criticisms that ordinary people direct at politicians back home: that they are "corrupted by" the groups whose needs they serve, "subservient to special interests" and so uncommitted to the Public Good.3 The technical activities are effective, on the other hand, to the extent that their goals are defined in advance clearly enough to ensure a consensus. We may thus form an impression that the technical agencies of the UN function well, and its political institutions badly. But this impression rests on a confusion over this division of tasks. The single-mindedness of NGOs makes them natural allies of the technical agencies: in their work, they turn to the same technically equipped professionals - agricultural scientists, hydrologists or physicians - whose advice and opinions the UN agencies rely on, and whose knowledge and skills are of use in the kinds of practical situations that the NGOs also address.
In passing, let me remark on a stratagem that NGOs use to shift the field on which issues are debated. At the end of the Cold War, groups like International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility argued that nuclear weapons are a public health problem, like communicable diseases and polluted drinking water, so that nuclear disarmament has to be viewed as a public health issue. The stratagem had both strength and weakness. On the one hand, it focused attention on the catastrophes that will follow any use of nuclear weapons: the problems created in the affected countries would be too vast for the Public Health authorities to tackle effectively.4 Policy debates about nuclear weapons or disarmament, per contra, have for long focused not on radiation and the like, but on the balance of interests involved in nuclear deterrence: diplomatic issues that a Public Health approach cannot resolve.
Certainly, there is a virtue in replacing political and diplomatic issues by technical and professional ones, wherever this is practicable; but it cannot be done completely, or in all cases equally. On the contrary, medical information serves only to spell out, in detail, the consequences that should be a necessary component in all political and diplomatic equations: even after these have all been taken into account, there is still substantial room for NSG bargaining to go on as before.
The Reaction of NSGs to the Influence of NGOs
Meanwhile, the very things that draw NGOs into a natural alliance with the UN's professional or technical agencies enhance the difficulties between NGOs and NSGs: these we must now turn to. They come from NSGs seeing their hands forced by the influence of NGO's and their media allies. The absolute sovereignty of Nation States is now constrained, not just by their economic interdependence, but also by the ability of selfappointed NGOs to raise a worldwide response from world opinion by their advocacy of humanitarian, environmental, medical or human rights causes.
The difficulties in question are sometimes trivial: a matter of differences of style or even injured pride. At a meeting in the Netherlands, I spoke of Greenpeace as a serious organization, and was surprised by the Japanese representative's disgust: Greenpeace and its works filled him with distaste. But it was clear that his reaction was a response, in part, to the deliberately shaming and melodramatic character of Greenpeace's public demonstrations, which are intended to put the industry or government being criticized in the wrong before the general public. Yet this is only one half of Greenpeace's mode of operation. The other half acts as a counterbalance: in the corridors of the UN, the organization tries to persuade the object of its attacks that it would do better to sign a treaty (say) or to enforce environmental controls, that they had been slow to adopt.5
Behind injured feelings, however, lie real and painfully embarrassing difficulties. The intervention in Somalia by the United States and the United Nations was triggered by the humanitarian crisis at Baidoa: public attention was caught by heart wrenching television images of children with swollen bellies, and other marks of disease and starvation. The initial international response was a flow of medical help and food to relieve this crisis; but it was soon clear that much more was needed. The prevalence of banditry and the risk of injury and even death to aid workers, at the hands of gangs run by a dozen rival warlords, persuaded the US government and the UN to introduce military forces, hoping - vainly - to establish a a stable governmental framework in Mogadishu, which might regain effective authority over the rest of the country.
The story is fresh in our minds. Its opening was the most ironic of all: unarmed aid workers and television cameramen on shore near Mogadishu harbor watched and filmed Marines in full combat gear crawling ashore, as though ready to meet well dug in enemy troops, rather than American civilians. But before long the security situation became totally ambiguous: disgusted by the apparent ingratitude of people they were trying to help, politicians insisted on bringing home, out of harm's way, first the US troops, and eventually the entire UN contingent.
It was (and still is) unclear if peaceful humanitarian doctors or relief workers and heavily armed government armies can operate effectively on the same groung: this is no clearer in Bosnia than in Somalia, and the dissonant policies of the United States and the European powers toward the arms embargo against Bosnia only underline the lack of a practical solution. Yet State governments remain open to a well-intended pressure (or temptation) to interpose forces, in places where much good can seemingly be done in an otherwise desperate situation. The intervention at Goma, on the Rwanda-Zaire border, was one case where government force and humanitarian agencies cošperated to good effect in the short term, to relieve an immediate disaster; but the intervention's inconclusive political effect leaves the underlying problems as obscure as ever.
For the time being, States having a capacity for disinterested helpfulness are liable to slip into political quagmires, once their help goes beyond medical supplies and food, and involves putting armed force on the ground. In President Clinton's speeches, the rhetoric of "national interests" blurs into one of "our natural humanitarian interests"; but (as in the case of Haiti) his political critics are now becoming hard nosed about the limited extent of America's truly "national" concerns.
Yet there is little doubt that the underlying tension will continue. People in the rich countries will go on demanding that their Governments react to disasters of all kinds - floods or starvation, torture or "ethnic cleansing" - and the political implications of that demand will remain as ambiguous as ever. In situations of anarchy (Somalia) or civil war (Bosnia and Rwanda) the lack of effective authority puts humanitarian workers at risk in ways no outside State can remedy, short of imposing a colonial administration. So it is no wonder that the ways in which governments react to calls for intervention in good causes are coming to sound like the alarm from the Trumpeter of Cracow - the first arrow to the throat brings it to a sudden stop.
Earlier, we remarked on the narrower, pre-Westphalian concept of Sovereignty. When a Sovereign's treatment of his Subjects deeply offended the Consciences of the other Powers, considerations of Shame could oblige him to change his policies and correct his actions, in ways that left questions about Force and Violence on one side. In the three centuries and more of the Modern era, appeals to morality and shame lost much of this effectiveness. A few rulers - King Bomba of Naples in the early 1800s - and a few major powers - the 19th century Ottoman forces in Bulgaria - acted in ways so outrageous as to attract general condemnation; but Shame was rarely sufficient to change their minds or their policies. Now, however, though we still face unresolved practical problems, our situation at least testifies to the renewed power of Shame as an influence in global affairs. Some current regimes - the Burmese junta, for instance - are still in effect shameless. Even there, however, an awareness of being international pariahs, and the experience of being besieged by a delegation of Nobel prize winners, weakens their ability to ignore outside criticism and continue imposing their power with unrestricted Force . Though something less than outright Shame, this is a move in the same direction.
Transnational Representative Institutions
Let me return to an idea implicit in my earlier discussion: that the tension between NGOs and NSGs today is a revival of earlier conflicts in Medieval Europe, between the Church and the secular Monarchs. NSGs today wield temporal power in the sense of Legitimate Force or Violence: the NGOs speak for longer term values, which are not (supposedly) restricted to one country or epoch. More should be said about the limits of this parallel: there are significant differences between the centralized structure of the Medieval Papacy and its modus operandi, on the one hand, and the independent and separate standing of the transnational NGOs, on the other hand. But the central point holds good: the exercise of Force by Sovereign Nation State Governments is open to criticism by transnational standards, from NGOs and others, in a way that was easier and more intelligible in Medieval than in Modern times, before the Treaty of Westphalia than after it.
To pose a topical question: "Is the effectiveness of NGOs enhanced, or lessened, by their institutional fragmentation?" The answer to that question is not clear. Would the voice of a formal NGO Assembly be louder than that of a thousand distinct NGOs? Or is the effectiveness of NGOs (paradoxically) increased by the ability of separate and independent organizations to reach consensus? Certainly, the centralized authority of the Vatican undermined rather than strengthened its credibility at the Cairo conference. Vatican representatives at that meeting acted so like Nation State Governments in, e.g., forcing a conservative position on the smaller Latin American powers, that their tactics ended by generating resentment: these were seen as inappropriate to the occasion.6
This question is part of a larger institutional problem facing the whole UN: how to make the Organization more democratic. The institutions of the European Union are currently criticized for their "democratic deficit": neither the central administration in Brussels, nor the Council of Ministers, is directly representative of the peoples whose lives their decisions touch. The recent enlargement of the authority of the European Parliament go some way to correct this deficit, but much more remains to be corrected.
A similar criticism applies to the institutions of the UN. The General Assembly (e.g.) is no less a Cartel than the Security Council; and there is little chance for the citizens of any Member State to get a hearing in the agencies or bureaus of the UN - legislative or executive, judicial or technical - without cošperation from Government representatives, even where that Government treats its own citizens tyrannically. Unless that "deficit" can be remedied - it may be argued - the Governments of the Member States, however unrepresentative on the domestic level, will keep a monopoly of national representation, when the interests of the peoples over whom they rule come up for debate in the UN's institutions.
What alternative is there - a directly elected World Parliament? As matters stand, this proposal is visionary but impractical. The Governments of many Member States are unwilling to hold, on their territories, free and fair elections to which all permanent residents of the State have effective access.7 So there is little prospect that these States have either will or experience needed to organize elections for a World Parliament that are acceptable by transnational standards.
For want of a World Parliament, then, some people look to NGOs to make the UN more representative. Norway's Department of Development Cooperation Programmes (for instance) has commissioned a pollof NGOs aimed at two questions,
"How effective is NGO access to intergovernmental decision-making?" and
"How can it be made more democratic?"
(Once again the Scandinavians took the lead in support of NGOs.) The consulting firm conducting the poll begins with a useful back-history of the problem:
As originally conceived in the UN Charter discussions, NGOs would be recognized by the Economic and Social Council as important participants in considering issues before the Council and that's all. Subsequently, large numbers of NGOs arrived at official UN conferences and made their presence felt through specialized conferences, and UN staff planning meetings. At the . . . negotiations for a New International Economic Order, NGOs were given the ability to produce in-house newspapers during . . . meetings in order to inform Governments about the on-going proceedings. [In] the discussions of the Human Rights Commission,
NGOs were "asked" to monitor the behaviour of Governments and to report back to inter-governmental bodies on the compliance of Governments to . . . international standards. In the World Health Organization, NGO expertise was given prominence in drafting international guidelines and standards on infant formula sometimes equal to or greater than individual Governments. The Bergen conference on sustainable development experimented with a five sided formula: Governments, business, youth, labour and environmental groups had to agree on . . . a statement. The European Union has now held ministerial / NGO level consultations. And the UNCED process [post-Rio] formally defined . . . the role of NGOs in [preparing] global conferences and their follow-up.
Several things are clear in this account. From the beginning, NGOs viewed the role grudgingly allotted to them by NSGs as insufficient. Early on, they felt the need to "make their presence felt" at meetings, by staging "counter-conferences, parallel events and demonstrations": even now they doubt if a current review of the status of NGOs by the Economic and Social Council will give their views adequate attention.
Finally, they still need to follow a strategy of "counter-conferences, parallel events, and demonstrations." The exemplary "counter-conference" was at the Human Rights meeting at Vienna, in Spring 1993. The Nation State Governments of the World met Upstairs in the Conference Hall, and worked their way through an agenda sanitized to avoid offending the People's Republic of China. (The Upstairs conference declined to listen to the Dalai Lama, or anybody who saw Tibet as raising issues of human rights.) Downstairs in the basement, the NGOs meanwhilelistened to the Dalai Lama, took on other issues the NSGs evaded, and gave a running commentary on the meeting that the World Press by all accounts found more interesting, informative and entertaining than the Upstairs proceedings. Similar counter-events took place at the Rio Environmental meeting and the Cairo Population conference: at Cairo, the (female) Prime Minister of Norway Upstairs cooperated with the NGO Forum Downstairs, in planning initiatives that ended by being effective in the official proceedings.
Elsewhere, UN Secretariat and agencies have chosen to take NGOs on as partners: Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has regular meetings with humanitarian and other NGOs that work on the problems of refugees in war torn and starving regions. The documents following the Rio Conference - e.g., Agenda 21 - also acknowledge the environmental NGOs, while the Commission on Sustainable Development opens up its internal planning discussions to NGOs in a way that such political agencies as the Security Council rarely do.
Still, such alliances between NGOs and UN staff do not fully overcome the UN's democratic deficit. How is it decided which NGOs shall participate in such meetings? Who chooses which NGOs sit down and talk with Sadako Ogata? At these meetings, democracy is not "one person one vote": it is syndicalism, in which representation is tied to occupation, as with the Trade Union "block vote" in the British Labour Party, or the membership of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, based on the professions. Organizationally, then, much still needs doing to create modes of collaboration among NGOs and the UN bureaux and councils, before the UN's operations can seriously claim to be democratic.
Hitherto, in any case, the major humanitarian and environmental NGOs have been unwilling to coordinate their administrative practices, let alone establish a framework of common institutions. Much of their influence (the argument goes) comes from the fact that their goals are exactly defined. There was a long and painful internal debate before Amnesty International enlarged the organization's targets to include capital punishment: similar soul searchings preceded Greenpeace's decision to extend its area of activities to the Latin American South, as well as the prosperous North and Australasia. In Britain, the Aid and Environment Group is responsible for some cošrdination among different NGOs, and in Europe there is similar cošperation among humanitarian NGOs. For the most part, however, this collaboration is only arranged ad hoc, in response to the needs of a particular crisis in (say) Bosnia or Rwanda, not with any expectation of creating a standing Council or permanent Assembly of NGOs.8
The problem remains. From the start, the UN Organization was an "inter-national" (inter-State or inter-Governmental) organization. At its 50th anniversary, it is unwilling to broaden its representation of Citizens, at the cost of States or Governments. On the contrary, many Member States fear to offend the oligarchies that dominate their own politics. For now, the natural allies of NGOs are the UN Secretariat, or the technical and professional agencies. It is not that the goals of NGOs are intrinsically technical, but their single mindedness sharpens their attention in a quasitechnical way.
Transnational Judicial Institutions
The peripheral institutions of the UN have similar limitations, arising from the fact that the UN is intergovernmental not transgovernmental, international not transnational. The World Bank is a good example. Its statutes prevent it from making loans directly to agricultural cošperatives or other NGOs. All of its funds have to go via NSGs for allocation within a country, and some of them fail to reach their intended beneficiaries, being diverted to pay for Mercedes cars for the State Žlite. Yet, as the Grameen Bank found in Bangladesh, local agricultural cošperatives (run by women) default on their loans at a markedly lower rate than regular commercial firms, let alone Governments. This discovery has, however, been frustratingly slow to influence thinking at leading international financial agencies.9
For NGOs in the field of human rights, however, the crucial global institutions are judicial; and there the weaknesses of a purely inter-governmental system are flagrant. The International Court of Justice, e.g., adjudicates only disputes as between States: more exactly, disputes between States that allow it jurisdiction in the case in question. In the Nicaraguan civil war, Nicaragua tried to sue the US Government over the CIA mining of the harbor at Corinto; but the US Administration rejected the jurisdiction of the Court, so no ruling could be put into effect. This leaves no provision for actions in which individual citizens, or classes of citizens, seek to press claims against Sovereign States: specifically, claims in which NGOs like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch publicize offenses by State authorities against their own citizens.
As matters stand, indeed, Sovereign Immunity - a product of the Westphalian era - stops individuals bringing suits in the domestic Courts of their own country; and the Cartel of inter-Governmental institutions stops them doing so under International Law. Even less are there tribunals in which transnational humanitarian agencies can bring "class action" suits for groups of citizens who are penalized, or discriminated against, by the Government of a State. Whether as individuals, as classes, or through NGOs as guardians, Citizens have no "standing" in the tribunals responsible for adjudicating matters of International Law.
In the judicial realm, in a word, we conspicuously lack trans-national tribunals, to determine the rights of Citizens against Nation State Governments, and to hand down rulings enforceable for a Citizen, and against a State. However much NSGs may now concede their economic interdependence, few of them would think of surrendering to outside Courts any right of adjudication between the State and its Citizens. Sovereign Immunity is the last refuge of Leviathan, the last appeal of rulers who remain above the Law, so above the rights of their own Citizens - and who claim the right to do so in the name of national autonomy.
One rare exception is that created by the Treaties establishing the institutions of the European Union, e.g. the European Court of Human Rights. As before, these treaties imposed on Member States voluntarily accepted limitations; but by now there is a body of practical law, from cases in which Member Governments were held by the Court to have contravened individual rights entrenched in those Treaties.10 If such problems face unquestioned Citizens of European States who seek protection from the Court of Human Rights, how much harder is it for Residents who are unreasonably kept from Citizenship. If these issues of Standing were resolved, a new field of action will open up for the transnational humanitarian NGOs that now operate by the Politics of Shame: rousing public indignation, and embarrassing NSGs that find themselves held in scorn across the globe. For who would not prefer to see Nation State Governments exposed to enforceable judicial orders to right the wrongs they do their citizens and residents?11
Human rights is not the only field that can profit from a transnational judicial forum or tribunal. In due course, scientific consensus may be achieved about environmental issues, and generate a world wide Code of Environmental Practice. Respect for this Code could become the subject of a global system of administrative law: opening to NGOs a chance to initiate actions before a World Environmental Court, for injunctions requiring a State to change its the laws and practices, as a threat to Nature and public health in their own or neighboring countries.
Does this idea at present sound fanciful? If so, let me remark that the procedures for such a system are already in place and operative in the United States of America, where practices and laws that survive challenge in the system of State Courts are open to review in the Federal Courts, and can be struck down there. National Governments that resist the adoption of Federal institutions on a European scale will (needless to say) at first reject any such Federal jurisdiction; but, given the impotence of State borders in the face of a Chernobyl disaster, the obstacles to a global jurisdiction of environmental and public health issues may not for long remain insuperable.
The NGOs: Prophets or Politicians?
To conclude: Any account of the place of NGOs within the international system of institutions must address two fundamental issues. One of these is, at least on its face, philosophical rather than political; the other is more political than philosophical; but, in actual practice, these two issues are closely connected.
The first is the claim to "universality" often made in discussions of human rights. Historically, this idea goes back to the late 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Today, it is sometimes understood as implying that all of the rights claimed by people in the developed countries of Western Europe or North America are rights for people in any country: if it is morally objectionable for the police to torture prisoners in Holland, it is morally objectionable for them to torture prisoners in Zimbabwe, Paraguay and Malaysia as well. Universal imperatives against the deliberate infliction of cruelty do not ask where or when deliberately cruel actions are performed: at all places and times equally, avoiding these actions is part of the moral fabric of human existence.
Such claims underlie programs on which the major NGOs embark with conviction; and when the content of the moral point at issue is (say) torture, their force is not easily challenged - can torture be unpardonably evil in one country, yet defensible in another? But, recently the claim to universality has been challenged by Asian politicians - most strongly by Dr Mahathir, Prime Minister of Malaysia. To impose worldwide respect for the rights Europeans and Americans insist on for themselves at home is, he argues, a new Cultural Imperialism: an attempt to impose Western patterns of life on countries which have their own independent systems of moral thought and practice. Rather than let organizations like Amnesty poke their noses into Malaysian affairs, Westerners had best let Asians look after their own affairs.
This reply is self serving - the head of an NSG defend Sovereign Autonomy from encroachment. But there is more to it. Western insistence on "taking rights seriously" leads to exaggerations. In California, some see it as morally objectionable for people in restaurants to impose tobacco smoke on fellow-diners; but is it just as objectionable to smoke in restaurants in Bangkok or Accra? This appeal to universality is overdone.12
Immanuel Kant understood this point. He claimed only that moral maxims have a universal form. What substantive content any maxim cashes in for is a different matter: a topic for "casuistical digressions" analyzing its significance in particular situations.13 Between the bare statement of a rule and its specific applications, then, lie questions of its meaning for different practical situations. What counts as "honor" or "dishonor" in a given country is far more the product of local history and custom than what counts as "kindness" or "cruelty": so, there is less ambiguity over torture than (say) over matters of honor.
What can properly claim "universality" are the general themes of moral argument: their specific implications depend on the particular situations to which they are applied. One of the skills required of transnational NGOs is the discernment needed to see how general maxims match particular cases. To current critics of the claim to universality, we can reply that organizations like Amnesty International evoke world wide response: they "speak" to people in all countries alike. Subtlety and discernment are required in seeing how their general maxims fit the special problems of a new region.14 But many moral issues are too plain to require interpretation. Like cholera and hunger, torture or arbitrary imprisonment has the same meaning in all countries. To that extent, the vision of idealistic NGOs as disinterested Voices for Humanity - or for environmental NGOs, as Voices for Nature - retains its philosophical charm.
At this point, the second, political issue comes in, and the picture has another side. In disciplining rulers who contravened the general moral imperatives of human reason, the Medieval Church was unavoidably drawn into secular politics. The results could be unedifying. Popes and Cardinals learned to play politics like seasoned politicians, and cultivated that art to this day - as at the Population Conference. Transnational NGOs, likewise, operate unavoidably on the edge, if not the middle, of the political scene. However valid their moral claims, effective campaigns intended to put these into effect necessarily take them into the domain of public politics. In dining with NSGs, they "use a long spoon"; but they all pay a price for operating in the political arena.
With this in mind, we should return to the questionnaire to NGOs sponsored by the Norwegian Government. There, the contrast between basic moral goals and day to day political methods is much in evidence.15 The questions on the questionnaire's first page are very general, and remain on the level of high principles:
a. Are the 'peoples' voices heard at [the UN's] international events [?]
b. Are the concerns of 'Nature' heard at international events [?]
c. Are you heard at international events [?]
d. Do Governments think 'peoples' voices are heard [?]
e. Do Governments think 'Nature' is heard [?]
f. Do Governments think NGOs are heard [?]
By the last two pages, however, we are plainly operating on the down to earth level of practical politics, and a distinctive political style has begun to show itself:
17. At NGO international events, do you generally feel the potential dominance of a. northern NGOs / b. the larger NGOs / c. accredited NGOs / d. male-run NGOs / e. white-run NGOs / f. English language-run NGOs?
. . . . .
22. If you could re-structure an NGO alternate conference, the first two things that you would do are:
a. insist on gender / racial balance in NGO delegations
b. provide documentation / translation in additional languages
. . . . . .
f. book all NGO participants into the same hotel / district
g. remove the podium and arrange chairs in a large circle . . .
By now, it is clear that, inter alia, the NGO movement has taken over the mantle of the radical Left. A concern for political correctness colors these questions: any procedure that fails any egalitarian demand is suspect. It is not enough that the moral goals of the NGO be achieved: they must be achieved in a perfectly equitable way.
I do not object to this coloration. The goals and methods of the Left have a long and proud historical ancestry going back, at the least, to the Sectarians of the English Commonwealth from 1649 to 1657: the Ranters and Diggers, Quakers and Levellers. I draw attention to this strand in the NGO movement here, because it helps to explain some other aspects of the NGOs' role in the practical politics of the UN. There, they also display the coloration of Left vs. Right - Equality vs. Privilege - familiar from the domestic politics of single States or countries.
Many people in NSG delegations, and some members of the UN bureaucracy, find this aspect of NGOs a stumbling block. Growing up within the comfortable etiquette of diplomacy, they react against the rough tactics of (e.g.) Greenpeace, whose public actions - notably, their attacks on Japanese whalers - they regard as deeply unpleasing: "Highly Undiplomatic: not Fair Play!"
This reaction to the NGOs is understandable, but we should avoid generalizing it. Many of the most influential NGOs - whether Amnesty International, or Oxfam, or the International Commission of Jurists - are not specially radical in orientation: by origin and tradition, these organizations are Middle of the Road, if not Veering to the Right. Whatever impression we may get from the NGO questionnaire, there is no reason to expect all "non-governmental" organizations to share any uniform political coloration, any more than all members of the Roman Catholic Church have shared political views. The deeper factors that keep NSGs and NGOs at arm's length are on a level at which spokesmen for global moral goals are inevitably distinct from representatives of local political interests. So long as the major transnational NGOs protect their right to hold the activities of Nation State Governments up to public view and criticism, they create a "field" that can make it politically indispensable for NSGs to reorder their national policies, in ways that pay proper respect to the NGOs' global concerns.
In reply to this whole line of argument, some people might respond, both, that it risks drawing too sharp a distinction between democratic NGOs and nondemocratic NSGs, whose implications could be unhappy; and also, that it exaggerates the purity of the motives - i.e. the disinterestedness - of NGOs.16
Both reactions call for some qualifications. As to the first: the question it puts -
"Do NGOs truly represent the people whose interests they try to articulate in the World community? Do they represent, even, the views of their own field workers? In the last resort, do they represent anyone but the self-appointed activists who run them and draft their speeches?" -
states a legitimate challenge. But this paper was not meant to address that challenge. Clearly, NGOs rely on us taking at face value their claim to represent poor, deprived and tortured fellow humans, or the threatened species and environments of the Globe: to put the point at its weakest, different NGOs have different records in this respect, so the whole issue of the "representativeness" of NGOs deserves fuller discussion.
Similarly, for the second response: when I said, earlier, that Amnesty and Oxfam are not "inherently self-interested parties" to the global debate, my intention was only to contrast our understanding of their speeches and statements with our understanding of speeches and statements made by the representatives of Nation State Governments. Oxfam, Amnesty and other such agencies are advocates for groups of human beings, birds, animals and so on anywhere in the globe, that have no NSG to speak for them, rather than for individuals, corporations and the like within a particular territorial State: the contrast intended was my present one, between global concerns and local interests. (Here again, the standing of the Vatican as a "Member State" of the UN is anomalous.) On the other hand, the fields of operation of NGOs are, by now, crowded: as a result, there is an active competition for the leadership roles in any particular situation among those NGOs whose areas of concern are relevant to the case. To put the point bluntly: this competition calls into being a new realm for political activity as (e.g.) Greenpeace seeks to pre‘mpt a leading role over an environmental issue from (say) the Sierra Club. The "internal politics" among the NGOs, too, is not the issue for this paper, though it deserves fuller discussion elsewhere.
In conclusion, let us return briefly to the role of professionalism in global affairs. Many of the areas of productive action by Non-Governmental Organizations (arguably) are ones in which the problems at issue lend themselves to professional intervention: areas in which there is enough practical experience, and intellectual consensus, for the solutions to be argued out to a stage at which reasonable agreement is within our grasp. Once issues move beyond the clash of preferences and parties, and become matters for professional analysis - as they often do in, e.g., the field of medicine or public health - the practical task is to persuade Nation State Governments to develop the political will needed to take the steps that the professionally informed community have agreed are needed to handle the problems concerned. So understood, the collaboration of NGOs with members of the UN Secretariat, in preparing the agenda and the papers for large International Conferences, takes on a new aspect.
In this respect, the record of Japanese public servants in the operations of the UN - notably, Mr Akashi and Ms Ogata - displays a professional excellence that explains the esteem in which they are held by the Secretary-General. In the thankless and endless tasks of the High Commission for Refugees, in the difficult negotiations of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia and the Sisyphean demands of the Bosnian conflict - in which every constructive step forward is followed by two frustrating steps back - their record illustrates well the lessons of this essay. It has argued that a capacity for military force is longer the primary measure of political influence on the global scene. As one result, in important ways, demilitarization has strengthened, not weakened, the position of Japan in the UN.
It has also argued that, in pursuit of transnational goals, the evident good faith of non-governmental organizations makes them more influential allies of the technical and professional agencies of the United Nations, than they can ever hope to be in its more purely political Councils. Working together, UNHCR and Oxfam (say) can practice the Politics of Shame, focusing the World's attention on the tragic situations in which - thanks to them - Nation State Governments can go on leaving the sick untreated or the starving hungry, only at the price of worldwide humiliation. Given the current World Disorder and taking all things together, this is one somewhat promising aspect of an otherwise depressing situation.
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