Civil Society & the United Nations (1997)

This document has been made available in electronic format
by the International Co-operative Alliance (ICA)
Dec., 1997
(Source: ICA Review, Vol.90 No.4, 1997, pp.81-83)

Civil Society and the United Nations
Cyril Ritchie*

International civil society organizations have a constantly growing role
in national and international life, whether in promoting democracy,
guaranteeing freedoms and rights, saving the environment, promoting
sustainable development, setting technical and professional standards,
galvanising educational and cultural renewal, advancing the boundaries
of science and research, or ensuring the survival of victims of man-made
and natural disasters. The list could be much prolonged, and applies
equally to the role of the agencies and organizations of the United Nations
System, a unique constellation of organized human endeavour that is also
striving to improve the human condition.

Civil society and the UN System are together engaged in the essential
task of making the world better, safer, cleaner, healthier.... a world where
all have the opportunity to live out their lives in justice. Those are the
goals of the UN; those are the goals of civil society organizations.

In what directions is the UN relationship with civil society likely to

First, it seems probable - and desirable - that there will be growing
interaction at the regional level. National and regional civil society
organizations are growing apace, and most international NGOs have
regional affiliates. The regional UN economic and social commissions
constitute natural focal points for co-operative action.

A second future development is almost certain to be the expansion of
civil society relationship beyond the issues under the jurisdiction of
the UN Economic and Social Council. Indeed this has already been
happening. For example, NGOs have been called upon to serve as
monitors of a number of UN-supervised elections. NGO involvement
with the UN General Assembly includes NGO interventions at times
when the Assembly has transformed itself into a Committee of the
Whole. And a General Assembly Working Group is considering
appropriate ways and means for enhancing the contribution of civil
society to the work of the Assembly (though it is making next to no

A third new direction is the evolution of civil society presence at the
UN into a permanent body representing all the voices of civil society.
This idea received important support in the report of the Commission
on Global Governance, Our Global Neighbourhood, which proposed
the establishment of a Forum of Civil Society, consisting of
representatives of organizations accredited to the General Assembly
which would meet every year before the Annual Session of the Assembly.
The United Nations University is working with key civil society networks
to convene a World NGO Conference in Japan in 1999, to consider
mutually reinforcing civil society and UN System programmes. And
this Conference will be a natural lead in to the implementation of the
UN Secretary General's proposal for a Millennium People's Assembly
in the year 2000. 

In addition, it seems evident that strengthened relationships between
civil society and the UN could be immensely beneficial in two areas of
deep concern:

a.	In the renewal and reinvigoration of the UN, the voices of competent
	and relevant civil society organizations need to be taken more fully
	into account. Many of the most incisive ideas - and certainly much of
	the goodwill for constructive change - come from civil society which
	believes, often with fervour, in the principles of the UN Charter.

b.	The same need for civil society involvement applies to implementing
	the agreements, accords, resolutions and programmes adopted at UN
	world conferences and summits. It is no longer sufficient - if it ever was
	- to assume that governments will act upon the promises and
	commitments that they collectively make at such conferences and
	summits. The end of the Conferences is the beginning of the follow-up
	actions which need the concerted efforts of governments, people, and
	civil society organizations.

These organizations, nationally and internationally, indeed have a crucial
role in helping and encouraging - and if need be, prodding and shaming -
governments into taking the actions to which they have given endorsement
in the international fora. Civil society organizations are now essentially
important actors before, during, and increasingly after, governmental
decision-making sessions.

On all continents, civil society organizations are continually increasing
in number. This development is inseparable from the aspiration to
freedom and democracy which today animates the international
community and the great majority of nations.

Civil society organizations display much imagination, persistence and
competence in their daily activities. These organizations need to be
fully engaged in regional and global issues, and therefore need to work
better together, exchange more information on successes and failures
in activities, and share research and training. I trust the International
Co-operative Alliance will continue and reinforce its leadership role in
civil society, to the benefit of humanity.

*  Mr. Ritchie is President of the Federation of International
    Institutions established in Geneva.