Global Policy Forum

Movement for Progress Gets Stuck in the Lobby



By Rowan Callick

January 2, 2010

Activists have a place at world-shaping conferences, but when they outnumber elected officials something has to give

TEN years ago, non-government organisations were locked out of the World Trade Organisation meeting at Seattle. Result: violence, chaos and failure.

In Copenhagen, the NGOs were mostly let in to the UN climate change summit. Result: less violence, but still chaos and, critics are again saying, failure.

Who will participate in such epochal multilateral conferences in future years, starting with the next climate change show, in Mexico late this year?

Canadian Naomi Klein, a celebrity anti-capitalism, anti-globalisation activist, condemned Danish police for attempting to limit access to the Copenhagen summit. "It's our world and we have a right to have our say," she said.

The Copenhagen conference, however, raises the question: who exactly does have the right to have their say as decisions are made about vexed global issues?

It is inconceivable that Klein voted for conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But he was at the conference and he was chosen by Canada's democratic process to lead the nation. What if all 34 million Canadians had wished, with Klein, to exercise what she claimed as a right?

Greenpeace said after two uninvited activists were removed from a royal reception in Copenhagen: "We thought it unfair that a representative of the whole planet wasn't invited. Earth needed a voice, it needed representation."

But does Greenpeace represent the whole planet? Through which process? It is a globalised agency, but it has local arms that need formal roots to provide some degree of accountability.

Greenpeace Australia, for instance, is a company limited by guarantee; it is governed by a general assembly comprising 50 or more members who are proposed and seconded by people who are already members.

Twenty members constitute a quorum. It elects the board.

Despite its narrow governance, Greenpeace palpably reflects a strong viewpoint among Australians, especially on issues such as climate change. Should this entitle its activists, however, to participate in international meetings such as Copenhagen, alongside representatives of elected governments? This will be a question debated hotly within the UN and other multilateral organisations as the repercussions of Copenhagen continue to reverberate.

At Copenhagen, the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change secretariat accredited about 30,000 NGO delegates, expecting about half that number to turn up.

Instead, almost all of them turned up and many more came unofficially. All expected to be accommodated in a conference centre that held 15,000. The WWF, for instance, sent 120 delegates, more than Australia took to represent 22 million people. The UN organisers responded by reducing the number of passes it issued to the WWF to 23.

But the UN had no say in whom the official national delegations chose to accredit as members of their teams. Many developing countries thus brought non-citizen climate change activists -- some paying their own way, some prominent members of NGOs -- into the negotiating sessions with them. They included American Kevin Conrad, part of the Papua New Guinea delegation, and Australian Ian Fry, with Tuvalu.

Marc Purcell, executive director of the Australian Council for International Development, an umbrella group representing prominent organisations such as Oxfam and World Vision that took teams to Copenhagen, says: "Many NGOs provided credible information during the meeting, having worked on climate change for decades before governments paid attention to the problem.

"They contribute a degree of transparency and accountability to the proceedings, raising public awareness about some of the detail. Governments recognise this, too, and provide them information on and off the record to suit their own ends as well, of course. They are part of the furniture of international conferences now."

He says the fact the Danes "could not organise the proverbial party in a brewery shouldn't be passed on to the NGOs for blame".

The Red Cross and the Anti-Slavery Society are among NGOs that have been involved in multilateral negotiations for a couple of centuries, he says.

But some government leaders and officials argue NGOs crowd out the space that they need at such fora.

"I understand that view," Purcell says. "But good luck if they want to work in China, where NGOs are government agents and echo the government line; they may be better off there."

The UN, he says, has well-established processes for NGOs at meetings. Typically they may register as attendees but may not participate in closed-door sessions. They may get together with governments beyond the formal forums, to discuss problems. Or they may be outside altogether but still communicating their views "and providing light and colour to what might be fairly drab international proceedings".

The prospects for Mexico are promising, he says. The government recently co-organised an annual conference hosted by the UN for NGOs, which went smoothly. The next such meeting takes place in Melbourne later this year.

Public scrutiny of NGOs is increasing, he says, as their prominence in public debates increases.

The Australian Taxation Office is one of the bodies taking a closerlook. It has already scrapped the charitable status of AidWatch, arguing that it is a purely political advocacy group, not a genuine charity, a move AidWatch is seeking to challenge in the High Court. The ATO is examining other groups now, too.

Purcell says many NGOs are members of organisations that, similar to the Australian Council for International Development, have a code of conduct requiring transparency and are working to improve their governance. Since 9/11, he says, the globalisation debate that formerly animated many NGOs has lost its momentum. "Climate change has a much larger global resonance than trade these days," Purcell says.

Ann Capling, a professor at the University of Melbourne and one of Australia's leading trade experts, points out that technically NGOs include businesses and trade unions, although they are often ignored even when they turn up, their arguments drowned out by the livelier polemic and street theatre of the radicals.

"Generally, however, NGOs are not subject to the same transparency rules as business," Capling says. She was a member of a recent Australian government delegation to a WTO meeting in Geneva, but she was there to advise officials, not to speak publicly.

Capling says international organisations tend to take different attitudes to NGOs, though the overall trend is towards closer engagement.

The WTO, for instance, established formal channels of engagement with NGOs after the Seattle debacle, although the anarchist "ferals" will always choose to stay outside. And the World Bank fully involves NGOs, partly relying on them to deliver development projects. But this increasingly leads to rifts between the multilateral bureaucracies and the governments that fund and employ them.

Executives in NGOs, and in the UN and similar agencies, frequently switch jobs from one to the other and find themselves politically aligned. Each tends to help promote the other's interests.

However, governments often take a different position.

Capling says they argue inside international treaty-making organisations that when they are making enforceable commitments, "they are logically the only groups that should be in the room. They are the people who can make deals, and make them stick."

But there are good arguments for including others in monitoring or seeking advice, or in other aspects of agreement-making, she says.

"The argument is made that NGOs should seek to influence the negotiating positions of their own national governments" rather than of multilateral organisations, although global NGOs view their mandate as the latter. Controversies surrounding such meetings are intensified, Capling says, because "while global treaties are very much the stuff of domestic policy, they are sometimes attenuated from domestic political processes".

Constitutions derived from the 19th century, for instance, frequently preclude trade agreements from the requirement for parliamentary approval.

In Australia, parliament did not need to consider the security treaty Paul Keating secretly negotiated with Indonesia, nor the government's ratification of the contentious UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that outlaws smacking.

Lowy Institute Pacific Islands specialist Jenny Hayward-Jones, a former diplomat, says while NGOs "bring some emotion and reality to government officials usually focused on technicalities, they verge on taking over the role of nation states" at some international meetings, "although no one elected them to do so".

In the Pacific, she says, "they claim they are giving a voice to the voiceless and to governments that are often weak. But have governments really handed over that responsibility?"

These voiceless, she says, tend to sound like the NGOs' own voices, "which never seem to speak for others, such as business interests that provide jobs".

The big hold-out against NGO participation remains the International Monetary Fund, which at one stage investigated the possibility of holding meetings on ships in international waters.

Such a move would ensure a calmer climate change conference next time, while setting it in the alarming metaphorical context of an ark full of politicians who had gone in two by two as the waters lap around the rest of us.



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