Global Policy Forum

Civil Society in Chile Sceptical about Reforms


By Gustavo Gonzalez

Inter Press Service
July 26, 2005

While governments loudly proclaim the importance of civil society in the international community, non-governmental organisations and independent observers are following the United Nations reform process with scepticism.

"Civil society will mobilise in the run-up to the September U.N. General Assembly around the question of the democratisation of the United Nations and the discussion of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)," Chilean architect Miguel Santibáñez told IPS. "We want these issues, rather than the questions of security in the fight against terrorism, to be the focus of the U.N. reforms and the general assembly," said Santibáñez, president of the Youth Corporation for Development and Production (JUNDEP), a Chilean NGO.

In the early 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the United Nations began to debate in-depth reforms of the world body's organisational structure, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan designated a working group to draw up proposals to introduce to next month's General Assembly of the 191 U.N. member states in New York. However, the reform process runs the risk of running aground due to discrepancies over the proposed expansion of the Security Council, which is currently made up of five permanent members - Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States - and 10 rotating members. The proposition is to enlarge the Security Council to 25 seats while leaving in place the veto power of the five permanent members, and creating another six permanent seats without the right to veto, which would go to Germany, Brazil, India, Japan and two African countries still to be selected.

But conflicting interests will make it difficult to reach agreement on Security Council reform, and will tend to ensure that the United Nations remains largely ineffective on security issues, while failing to strengthen it in key areas, like the protection of human rights and development challenges, say analysts. NGOs thus argue that it is more important for the General Assembly to analyse the slow progress made towards the MDGs, which were assumed by the international community in 2000. Among the specific targets set is the commitment to cut poverty and hunger in the world to half of the 1990 levels by 2015.

Santibáñez, who has been taking part in monitoring the U.N. reform process in representation of Chilean NGOs, said that in the international order, there are global actors that enjoy a certain degree of independence "and are profoundly undemocratic, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in particular." He recommended an effort to democratise these institutions as well as the United Nations, in order to move towards more democratic decision-making methods and resolutions that can actually be enforced.

"Today the U.N.'s biggest problem is its political irrelevance, which is the result of its agenda becoming bland or soft, since there are no consequences whether or not countries live up to its decisions," said Santibáñez. The U.N. should also be equipped with the effective capacity to enforce protection of human rights, as demonstrated by the genocide in the western Sudanese region of Darfur and other recent humanitarian crises, the activist added.

"The (U.N.) Commission on Human Rights, in Geneva, is heavily politicised and fraught with pressure that the strongest countries exercise on the weakest...This reduces its legitimacy, and alternative formulas are needed to solve the problem," Santibáñez argued. Agustí­n Toro Dávila, an expert on international crises and conflicts at the University of Chile's Institute of International Studies, told IPS that human rights should be given a more prominent place in the U.N. Charter and that all countries should be committed to respecting them. "Human rights are infringed due to many circumstances. But will powerful countries comply with a sanction that is imposed on them for failing to respect human rights? What has happened in terms of the human rights of the prisoners held by the United States at (its naval base in) Guantánamo (Cuba), for example?" remarked the retired army major.

Pedro Oyarce, director of foreign policy at the Chilean Foreign Ministry, told IPS that his government supports the creation of a permanent U.N. Human Rights Council that would have real teeth. The official also said the centre-left Chilean government encourages the "deepening of democratic systems of government, which best guarantee the promotion and protection of human rights."

A key aspect of the U.N. reforms, he said, "is mobilising states so that they are collectively capable of dealing with threats to international peace and security." Juan Francisco Coloane, an analyst of international affairs, remarked to IPS that the United Nations "has an authoritarian, relatively undemocratic internal hierarchical structure, which undermines its credibility with respect to the protection of human rights."

Coloane concurred with Toro Dávila that the highest U.N. human rights body "should have much more political clout, and should not only be a monitoring body, but a supranational one with a strong legal content." In his view, the central aspect of the debate on U.N. reforms, which also involves the question of human rights, "is the implantation of a new charter on international law, which is not being implemented." Globalisation is only applied in the area of trade, "but at the level of international law, it is practised very little," he said.

Civil society should have greater participation in the U.N. reform process, but that should happen through stable state policies that survive the transition from one administration to another, which is not currently the case, said Coloane. For his part, Oyarce said that "As a national and international actor, civil society is steadily growing in importance. It is not possible to have an orderly global world without its cooperation." He added that the United Nations must work more closely with the organised citizenry. "We have to be capable of awakening public interest in international affairs. That task begins at the internal level. The participation of citizens is decisive in any strategy for the prevention of crises and conflicts," said the official.

More Information on UN Reform
More Articles and Papers on the Millennium Summit and Its Follow-Up
More Information on the Millennium Summit and Its Follow-Up
More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGO Access at the UN


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