Press Releases

                                                                                                                     22 June 2004

    Expert Panel Presents Recommendations for Strenghtening Relations Between UN, Civil Society

    Entitled ‘We the Peoples: Civil Society, the United Nations and Global Governance’

    NEW YORK, 21 June (UN Headquarters) -- With public opinion influencing world affairs more than ever, an expert panel examining the relationship between the United Nations and civil society has launched a set of recommendations for strengthening such ties, and called on the world body to engage the “colourful plurality” of civic groups for more effective action on global priorities.

    Given the rapidly changing international scene -- particularly the spread of social movements that had accompanied the past decade’s information revolution –- the United Nations was challenged to be more than just an intergovernmental forum, said former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Chairman of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations/Civil Society Relations. To further its goals, the world body must become more attuned and responsive to citizen’s concerns and enlist greater public support, he said.

    Mr. Cardoso was in New York today to brief representatives of United Nations Member States, Secretariat staff, members of the media and representatives of intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations on the release of the Panel’s first report, “We the peoples: civil society, the United Nations and global governance”, which contained 30 proposals on strengthen United Nations-civil society engagement. The United Nations Office in Geneva launched the report simultaneously, with both events linked by video.

    Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette, who opened the briefing, said that the Secretary-General had established the 12-member expert Panel last year as an essential step towards overall United Nations reform. She added that, while civic groups and non-governmental organizations had generally been associated with the Organization’s work, as that segment of the world community had grown and had become more vocal, the need to enhance and intensify the relationship had become more vital than ever.

    “Global governance is no longer the sole domain of governments”, Mr. Cardoso said of the growing influence civic networks and non-State actors now had on the international decision-making process. He noted civil society’s unique ability to spot emerging issues and threats and to hit upon innovative solutions. “So today, constructive engagement with civil society is not an option for the United Nations, but a necessity.”

    But at the same time, he said that enhanced engagement and interaction with civil society should not be seen as a “threat to governments of the United Nations system but as a powerful way to invigorate the multilateral process”. Governments and the United Nations must reach out and make full use of the expertise that non-governmental organizations, the private sector, parliamentarians and local authorities could offer.

    Several members of the Panel, Kumi Naidoo of South Africa and Mary Racelis of the Philippines joined Mr. Cardoso in New York, while Malini Mehra of India, Bagher Asadi of Iran and André Erdös of Hungary joined the discussions from Geneva. The Panel’s other experts include Asma Khader of Jordan; Juan Mayr of Colombia; Prakash Ratilal of Mozambique; Birgitta Dahl of Sweden, Peggy Dulany of the United States, and Aminata Traoré of Mali.

    From Geneva, Mr. Asadi said that civil society “in all its colourful plurality” was now a part of world decision-making, particularly in the development debate. State actors alone were finding it increasingly difficult to address the problems of their constituencies without the help of local-level actors. The Panel’s report stressed a national–level focus and on enhancing the role of national civil society actors and institutions that could help governments shape truly effective policies. He added that NGOs could also lend a helping hand in implementation, particularly as civic actors had a better idea of hard realities on the ground.

    Mr. Cardoso said the Panel’s proposals for enhancing civil society engagement had been organized around four main principles: ensuring the United Nations became an outward looking organization; connecting “the local with the global”; helping strengthen democracy in the twenty-first century; embracing a plurality of constituencies. The experts also stressed the convening role of the United Nations, as well as the importance of strengthening civil society’s relationship with the Security Council.

    Reviewing some of the proposals, Mr. Naidoo said the United Nations should use its convening role more creatively to bring all actors in the multi-constituency process together. Multi-stakeholder approaches in the past had led to more coordinated approaches and significant progress in addressing such global challenges as climate change, debt, gender issues, and HIV/AIDS. The United Nations should step up its efforts to galvanize global networks, promote innovations in multilateralism, and tailor specific forums for special needs.

    Second, he added, the United Nations should invest in multi-stakeholder partnerships in efforts to achieve advances on global issues. To accomplish that, however, it must strengthen staff skills and adjust management practices to become more systematic in building global partnerships. The Organization must also view partnerships as vehicles for achieving global goals, rather than simply as United Nations partnerships. Such partnerships must be driven by needs, not viewed as funding opportunities.

    Another proposal, he said, stressed the need to pay more attention to civil society in developing countries, which often saw a northern bias in global non-governmental organizations. The United Nations should focus its engagement at the country level, and engage civil society in strategic planning, not just implementation. The Organization should appoint specialists and local staff and set up a special fund to build stronger relationships with all constituencies.

    Ms. Racelis focused on the proposal to depoliticize the non-governmental organization accreditation process, and to focus more on the technical merits and expertise such organizations could bring to the discussion. She suggested that the accreditation process be shifted from the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to the General Assembly, which has a broader agenda. She added that she had seen the way that some members of the Committee on NGOs seemed to delay the accreditation of certain groups more out of State interest, rather than a true appraisal of what they could bring to the table.

    While the current process was made up of four or five accreditation mechanisms in different divisions, the Panel’s proposal would consist of a single process. The new mechanism, which would be located in the Secretariat, would handle all applications and advise governments on who should be accepted.

    A representative of civil society asked the Panel how shifting the process to the General Assembly would help. What would stop the same countries that scrambled for seats on the Third Committee and the Commission on Human Rights so they could quash the voices of those groups that were critical of their governments from doing the same thing in the Assembly?

    A representative on the current non-governmental organization Committee questioned the establishment of a new mechanism. He criticized the report for suggesting that the body wasted money by meeting twice a year and only approving “four or five” organizations. He said that the Committee worked hard and weighed the participation of all applications for participation in a fair and open manner.

    Ms. Racelis said that drawing from the Security Council’s excellent relationship with civil society, the panel hoped the General Assembly might actually open a space where some groups might be invited to speak on particular issues of concern. What the panel sought overall was a more transparent process.

    She also highlighted the proposal that an office of constituency engagement and partnerships be set up. Such an office would incorporate and build on existing entities, such as those that dealt with constituencies and partnerships, and be headed by a high-level position in the Secretary-General’s office. A special fund should be set up to level the playing field between the North and South, which should focus on assisting southern non-governmental organizations to come together with northern voices.

    Mr. Naidoo said the proposed method of accreditation would be aimed at satisfying the three conditions of coherence, efficiency, and legitimacy. Governments would still have the final say for accreditation, but Secretariat staff would initially examine the applications.

    Mr. Cardoso commented that the final decision for non-governmental organization accreditation would always be in the hands of Member States, but it was necessary to involve different actors in the process. The Committee was dealing with vital issues, but it was possible to transfer some of its functions to another body. The Panel was not trying to jeopardize the work of any other decision-making body in the United Nations.

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