National Post

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Monday, December 13, 1999

The uncivil society
National Post

In a speech delivered last week in Montreal to the World Civil Society Conference, Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary-general, said he wants to bring the United Nations "closer to the people" by embracing the "NGO revolution." According to Mr. Annan, this is "the new global people-power, or whatever else you wish to call this explosion of citizens' concern at the global level." And the "international civil society" constituted by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) is "the best thing that has happened to [the UN] in a long time."

The term "civil society," like the "Third Way" and "soft power," is a slippery one. Its traditional meaning is the network of clubs, societies and private associations, from charitable foundations to tennis clubs, that enable citizens to co-operate for common purposes -- relieving poverty, improving their neighbourhood or playing tennis. Civil society is, therefore, a social concept rather than a political or bureaucratic one. And if the international civil society celebrated by Mr. Annan were the same idea on a larger scale, it might be a good thing.

In fact, NGOs began that way. They were voluntary organizations established to relieve hunger in the Third World, such as Oxfam, or to gain publicity for political prisoners, such as Amnesty International. Over time, however, they ceased to be bodies concerned with improving international life by voluntary action and became organizations for lobbying government and changing official policies. They gradually became political pressure groups.

Nor do they represent a cross-section of political opinion. As Lorne Gunter has established on these pages, they are almost invariably on the Left -- advocating greater welfare spending, tighter economic and environmental regulations and, at Seattle, restrictions on free trade. And some of them, Greenpeace for instance, are highly controversial pressure groups -- at home and abroad.

NGOs thus operate not as a civil society, but as semi-independent government agencies. These NGOs lobby the UN and other international bodies to press for domestic legislation that might be impossible to obtain democratically. Sometimes they do so with the connivance of government, sometimes not. Recent Canadian examples include the push to outlaw corporal punishment and litigation attacking Ontario's policy of funding Catholic schools.

Mr. Annan, however, has his own reasons for welcoming "international civil society." His vision for the UN as an independent global power operating on behalf of humanity as a whole rather than of member governments lacks one obvious requirement: democratic legitimacy. Indeed, if the member-states are not the UN's electorate -- and they are highly skeptical of the secretary-general's global ambitions -- then it has no electorate to be accountable to. Hence the Montreal Conference was held to discuss how the international civil society of NGOs could become a kind of world Parliament to which the UN and its agencies could then agree to hold themselves accountable.

If this were to succeed, it would be the first case in history of a government electing its voters.

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