President Trump’s UN and a Good Time Had by All
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 23 Jan 2017
Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service
President Donald Trump has tweeted that “The UN has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk, and have a good time.”
It takes less to have good time for some people than for others. Having sat through many long sessions in human rights bodies at the UN in Geneva, I could hardly wait to get out and have a good time elsewhere. I recall one year in particular when the UN Commission on Human Rights went on repeatedly till three in the morning. The “coffee bar” which was just outside the meeting room would close around 8 PM, but they would leave a couple of buckets of ice cubes on the bar so we could serve ourselves.
I had a woman friend from New York, a leading human rights lawyer, who would come each year. She was blind so I would take care of her “seeing eye” dog in the Palais des Nations and take the dog out for a run in the UN park. In compensation, she would bring a couple of bottles of “duty-free” whisky which I would put in a flask and around 10 PM we would have a couple of drinks in the coffee bar to keep us going to the end.
There was only one year that the meetings went till 3 AM. The other years the sessions would stop at midnight because UN staff – interpreters etc – had to be paid for a full day even if they had worked only from midnight until 3 AM. But the 3 AM year, I had with me the “Man Friday” of the Dalai Lama, a monk who is usually with him to get things, meet people etc. The monk had not had a vacation in a long time, and the Dalai Lama thought that he might have a good time by staying in Geneva for a week. It was a week of the Commission on Human Rights so I always had him with me and would try to explain what was going on, the meaning behind the speeches.
At 10 PM he would come with me for our nightly whisky, but as a monk he did not drink alcohol, though I always offered him the possibility. He must have said some mantras for strength because he always held out till 3 AM as well.
When not listening to talks and having a good time, what is the role of Non-governmental representatives at the UN – people probably not at the front of President Trump’s vision of the UN? However,there is growing interest in the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within the United Nations system in the making and the implementation of policies at the international level. NGOs are more involved than ever before in global policy making and project implementation in such areas as conflict resolution, human rights, humanitarian relief, and environmental protection.
NGOs at the UN have a variety of roles — they bring citizens concerns to governments, advocate particular policies, present alternative avenues for political participation, provide analysis, serve as an early warning mechanism of potential violence and help implement peace agreements.
The role of consultative-status NGOs was written into the UN Charter at its founding in San Francisco in June, 1945. As one of the failings of the League of Nations had been the lack of public support and understanding of the functioning of the League, some of the UN Charter drafters felt that a role should be given to NGOs. At the start, both governments and UN Secretariat saw NGOs as an information avenue — telling NGO members what the governments and the UN was doing and building support for their actions. However, once NGOs had a foot in the door, the NGOs worked to have a two-way avenue — also telling governments and the Secretariat what NGO members thought and what policies should be carried out at the UN. Governments were none too happy with this two-way avenue idea and tried to limit the UN bodies with which NGOs could ‘consult’. There was no direct relationship with the General Assembly or the Security Council. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in Article 71 of the Charter was the body to which “consultative-status NGOs” were related.
What in practice gives NGOs their influence is not what an individual NGO can do alone but what they can do collectively. ‘Networking’ and especially trans-national networking is the key method of progress. NGOs make networks which facilitate the trans-national movement of norms, resources, political responsibility, and information. NGO networks tend to be informal, non-binding, temporary, and highly personalized. NGOs are diverse, heterogeneous and independent. They are diverse in mission, level of resources, methods of operating and effectiveness. However, at the UN they are bound together in a common desire to protect the planet and advance the welfare of humanity.
The role of NGO representatives is to influence policies through participation in the entire policy-making process. What distinguishes the NGO representative’s role at the UN from lobbying at the national level is that the representative may appeal to and discuss with the diplomats of many different governments. While some diplomats may be unwilling to consider ideas from anyone other than the mandate they receive from their Foreign Ministry, others are more open to ideas coming from NGO representatives. Out of the 193 Member States, the NGO representative will always find some diplomats who are ‘on the same wave length’ or who are looking for additional information on which to take a decision, especially on issues on which a government position is not yet set. Therefore, an NGO representative must be trusted by government diplomats and the UN Secretariat. As with all diplomacy in multilateral forums such as the UN, much depends upon the skill and knowledge of the NGO representative and on the close working relations which they are able to develop with some government representatives and some members of the UN Secretariat. Many Secretariat members share the values of the NGO representatives but can not try to influence government delegates directly. The Secretariat members can, however, give to the NGO representatives some information, indicate countries that may be open to acting on an issue and help with the style of presentation of a document.
It is probably in the environmental field — sustainable development — that there has been the most impact. Each environmental convention or treaty such as those on biological diversity or drought was negotiated separately, but with many of the same NGO representatives present. It is more difficult to measure the NGO role in disarmament and security questions. It is certain that NGO mobilization for an end to nuclear testing and for a ban on land mines and cluster weapons played a role in the conventions which were steps forward for humanity. However, on other arms issues, NGO input is more difficult to analyse.
‘Trans-national advocacy networks’ which work across frontiers are of increasing importance as seen in the efforts against land mines, for the International Criminal Court and for increased protection from violence toward women and children. The groups working on these issues are found in many different countries but have learned to work trans-nationally both through face-to-face meetings and through the internet web. The groups in any particular campaign share certain values and ideas in common but may differ on other issues. Thus, they come together on an ad hoc basis around a project or a small number of related issues. Yet their effectiveness is based on their being able to function over a relatively long period of time in rather complex networks even when direct success is limited.
These campaigns are based on networks which combine different actors at various levels of government: local, regional, national, and UN (or European Parliament, OSCE etc.). The campaigns are waged by alliances among different types of organizations — membership groups, academic institutions, religious bodies, and ad hoc local groupings. Some groups may be well known, though most are not.
There is a need to work at the local, the national, and the UN levels at the same time. Advocacy movements need to be able to contact key decision-makers in national parliaments, government administrations and intergovernmental secretariats. Such mobilization is difficult, and for each ‘success story’ there are many failed efforts. The rise of UN consultative-status NGOs has been continual since the early 1970s. NGOs and government diplomats at the UN are working ever more closely together to deal with the world challenges which face us all.
(1) This interest is reflected in a number of path-making studies such as P. Willets(Ed.) The Consciences of the World: The Influence of Non-Governmental Organizations in the UN System (London: Hurst, 1996), T. Princen and M. Finger (Eds) Environmental NGOs in World Politics: Linking the Global and the Local (London: Routledge, 1994), M.Rech and K. Sikkink Activists Without Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), Bas Arts, Math Noortmann and Rob Reinalda (Eds) Non-State Actors in International Relations (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001) and William De Mars NGOs and Transnational Networks (London: Pluto Press, 2005).
René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 23 Jan 2017.
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