Global Policy Forum

World Federalist Movement


October, 1996

Proposals to Democratize the UN

There is no one route to making the United Nations more democratic. The United Nations system is a complex network of intergovernmental institutions, and the democratization of all of them will be a complex undertaking. In WFM, there are several excellent proposals related to UN democratization being discussed and debated. These include the efforts of the Movimiento Federalista Europeo (Italian WFM member organization) to create Federalist Parliamentary inter-groups among national parliamentarians, the proposal for the creation of a consultative UN Parliamentary Assembly, and the call for a UN Forum of Civil Society Organizations to meet annually to develop strategies and caucuses among citizens groups.

For many years WFM has been the most active citizens group promoting more representative decision-making mechanisms at the UN. We now feel that an important first step is securing expanded rights for participation of citizens organizations at the UN. Progress on democratizing all areas of UN will depend to a large degree on increasing the transparency and accountability of UN bodies, and whether or not citizens groups, or non-governmental organizations in UN-parlance, are allowed to monitor and be more involved in international decision-making.

There is a discussion now emerging at the UN on expanding its existing arrangements for interaction with non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The relationship that NGOs have with the UN and in the international arena has seen dramatic changes over the last several years, and UN officials and members states have increasingly come to recognize that international debate and policy-making cannot be legitimate or complete without the participation of NGOs.

NGO Contributions to the United Nations

Citizens organizations have, since the very inception of the UN, played an active part in its work. Indeed, the "We the peoples" clause that begins the UN Charter was a result of NGO input at the San Francisco drafting convention; since then, NGOs have participated and contributed to virtually all areas of the UN's work. NGOs collaborated with UN operational projects in the field in post-war reconstruction of Europe, where private humanitarian organizations worked directly with UN refugee offices. Since the 1960s, NGOs have been integral in assisting UN agencies implement development projects, and a growing number of Southern NGOs have been consulting with UN agencies at the national and community levels. UN officials and governments welcomed this kind of practical NGO assistance.

In recent years NGO involvement in virtually all areas of the UN has grown exponentially. This is due to complex factors including the end of the Cold War, growth of democracy, advances in modern technology, and recognition of threats to the global environment. In recent years the UN has held the largest summits and conferences in history on the widest array of issues, involving the greatest number of citizens ever in intergovernmental policy-making. Recognition of the vital role of NGOs and other experts to addressing global concerns is almost universal among governments; identifying how this cooperation is to evolve in the UN is now the subject of intense debate.

In addition to assisting the UN in the field, NGOs attend and monitor meetings of the UN, make policy recommendations, and advocate the adoption of particular positions and programs in international fora. NGOs have become increasingly active at the UN on such issues as human rights, environmental preservation and sustainable development, women's rights, indigenous peoples' rights, disarmament, international security and peace. Humanitarian NGOs have served as contractors and assistants to the UN in providing humanitarian assistance in crisis, finance NGOs have provided specialized expertise to UN institutions, refugee organizations have provided information on the ground, human rights organizations have served as invaluable watchdogs of governments compliance to international treaties, indigenous NGOs have provided a voice to peoples too often unrepresented by national governments.

Insufficient Arrangements for NGOs at the United Nations

Despite the historic expansion and growth of NGO contributions to the international arena, the formal arrangements for NGO participation in the UN are completely inadequate, reflective of the world 50 years ago and throughout the Cold War period. In the UN at present, NGOs have consultative arrangements only with the Economic and Social Council, the UN body charged with examining economic and social issues. There are no formal arrangements for NGOs to participate or communicate with other very important decision making bodies of the UN, such as the General Assembly and its Main Committees.

But, NGOs contribute and are concerned with many issues outside of the Economic and Social Council, such as disarmament, peace and security, finance, trade, and international law. In practice NGOs have been participating and giving input for years to the General Assembly, its committees and subsidiary bodies, and to other UN agencies, committees, and commissions. Even the Security Council has benefitted from NGO input for 50 years. In virtually all Security Council initiated operations, expert, technical and humanitarian NGOs provide essential assistance.

Today there are many, many important negotiations taking place at the United Nations where NGOs are not allowed to observe or attend. Particularly worrying, there are currently five high level General Assembly working groups studying various topics of United Nations reform which have been closed to NGOs. These five working groups are covering the issues of strengthening of the United Nations System, Security Council reform, the Agenda for Peace, the Agenda for Development and the financial situation of the UN. The exclusion of citizens groups is unacceptable, particularly since these groups are making decisions on many of the proposals in the action plans adopted at the recent UN world conferences and summits. This exclusion is difficult to justify given that many of the most creative and thoughtful proposals for UN reform have come from civil society, from NGOs.

Current Status of Efforts to Improve NGO Arrangements

The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), recognizing the pressing need to update the arrangements for NGOs, recently completed an intense three-year negotiation and adopted a revised resolution governing arrangements with NGOs (E/1996/31 which updates the old resolution 1296 of 1968.). At the same time ECOSOC adopted a resolution E/1996/297 which recommended that the General Assembly examine at its 51st session this year establishing arrangements for the participation of NGOs in "all areas of the work of the UN" (see Appendix A).

The next step is for the General Assembly during the next year to decide the fate of this proposal. The current General Assembly President, Razali Ismail of Malaysia, has publicly indicated his support for the General Assembly to act positively on this resolution. The General Assembly Open-Ended Working Group on Strengthening the UN System discussed the issue last year behind closed doors but agreed to do nothing. Many governments have been discussing the establishment of a working group to focus on this issue and to move progressively forward. Yet such efforts are encountering strong resistance from some member states, particularly the United States, other permanent members of the Security Council and powerful and regressive countries in the G-77 group of developing countries.

We must clearly express our desire to member states for expanded NGO participation in the UN, a giant step forward to a more open, transparent, and democratic United Nations. The World Federalist Movement, working with other international NGOs, has taken the lead in efforts to mobilize NGOs and citizens to form a network to share information, strategize, and act on this issue.

More Information on NGOs and the General Assembly


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.