Panel on civil society relations sees a networked UN

(UNITED NATIONS NEW YORK, 21 June) People's organizations and businesses are key actors in the world's political and social affairs, and the United Nations needs to involve them more actively in the processes leading up to decisions by governments, according to the report of an independent panel released today. The panel was chaired by former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

Among the recommendations of the 12-member Panel of Eminent Persons on UN-Civil Society Relations, appointed last year by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, are that the General Assembly involve civil society organizations more regularly in its affairs, that civil society dialogue with the Security Council be extended and deepened and that civil society groups should be more closely involved in UN field work. The Panel also suggests the establishment of a special fund to help civil society organizations in developing countries build up their capacity to work effectively with the UN.

In a letter transmitting the study to the General Assembly, the Secretary-General welcomed the Panel’s  “valuable contribution to the UN reform process”, and asked Member States to give it careful consideration. He said he himself and his staff would also consider it carefully, and come back to the Assembly in the autumn with further comments and suggestions on practical steps.

Paradigm shift

The major thrust of the report, entitled “We the Peoples: Civil Society, the United Nations and Global Governance”, is to promote a paradigm shift in how the United Nations organizes its work -- a shift, it suggests, that is already underway.

The traditional intergovernmental process -- with governments negotiating a global agreement that UN agencies and Member States then implement -- is being supplemented by “global policy networks” that bring together constituencies such as local governments, civil society and business, along with central governments, in joint initiatives for policy analysis and action. These changes impel the UN to reach out beyond its core membership of central governments, although remaining essentially a multilateral intergovernmental body in decision-making.

Procedurally, networks can be involved through an array of UN-sponsored fora: interactive high-level roundtables to survey issues; global conferences to define norms and targets and initiate action; multi-stakeholder partnerships to actualize norms and targets; multi-stakeholder hearings to monitor compliance and revise strategies; and Global Public Policy Committees to engage specialist parliamentarians.

Two-way global-national street

The report also argues for a realignment of the relationship between the global and the local in the Organization’s work.

From an approach that is largely top-down -- global agreements transmitted to governments for national implementation -- the Panel seeks more of a two-way street. The United Nations, governments and a range of civil society actors would collaborate on strategies for translating global agreements into programmes relevant to the national context, while pushing the lessons learned from national processes upward to inform the setting of the global agenda.

The United Nations should be more active in tackling the “democracy deficits” to which global governance is prone, the report says. In 21st century democracy, the Panel says, public opinion, reverberating globally via digital communications, is emerging as a powerful force in shaping policies and priorities. Better incorporation of civil society and strengthening of the role of parliamentarians in international deliberations would address a primary inconsistency in today’s political world – that the substance of politics is increasingly international, while the process of politics (how decisions are agreed) remains primarily national. The Panel also states that international organizations should be more accountable and transparent.

The Panel also supports the idea of a central office to oversee the various forms of interaction of civil society organizations with the UN.

Briefing Member States

Before presenting his report in person to the UN Secretary-General this morning, President Cardoso briefed national delegations and civil society representatives at the United Nations in New York and in Geneva, via videoconference.

 “Over the years, the UN’s relationship with civil society has strengthened greatly and multiplied,” the Panel report says. But “difficulties and tensions have arisen, particularly in the deliberative process.  Governments do not always welcome sharing what has traditionally been their preserve . . . At the same time, many in civil society are becoming frustrated; they can speak in the UN but question whether anyone is listening, or whether their participation has any impact on outcomes.”

The panel on civil society relations was appointed in February 2003 as part of Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s comprehensive reform of the United Nations. Along with President Cardoso, it includes 11 additional members affiliated with governments, non-governmental organizations, academia and/or the private sector. They are Mr. Bagher Asadi (Iran), Mr. Manuel Castells (Spain), Ms. Birgitta Dahl (Sweden), Ms. Peggy Dulany (United States), Mr. André Erdös (Hungary), Mr. Juan Mayr (Colombia), Ms. Malini Mehra (India), Mr. Kumi Naidoo (South Africa), Ms. Mary Racelis (Philippines), Mr. Prakash Ratilal (Mozambique) and Ms. Aminata Traoré (Mali).

For more information, contact Tim Wall of the UN Department of Public Information, 1-212-963-5851, wallt@un.org; or John Clark, Project Director, Panel of Eminent Persons on UN-Civil Society Relations, 1-917-367-5089; clark2@un.org.

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