Nongovernmental Organizations in the United Nations System: The Emerging Role of International Civil Society
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Nongovernmental Organizations in the United Nations System:
The Emerging Role of International Civil Society



In February 1993, the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established an open-ended working group (OEWG) to update, if necessary, its arrangements for consultation with nongovernment organizations (NGOs) and to introduce coherent rules to regulate the participation of NGOs in international conferences organized by the United Nations (UN). 1 The review provides an important opportunity to clarify the roles and functions of NGOs in the international community, issues which have always been controversial. The review also has the potential to contribute to [End Page 107] current debates about the growing importance of civil society 2 in international norm-setting, although this possibility seems, as yet, remote. 3

My aim is to foster connections between the related projects of the ECOSOC review and post-cold war reconceptualizations of international civil society and governance. Without linking with theoretical debates about the future shape of the international community, it is likely that the review will be narrow in its scope and reach myopic and pragmatic, rather than visionary, conclusions. Alternatively, as I will argue, the review could help to foster new forms of relationships between NGOs and states in the context of new understandings of international democracy.

My discussion is divided into two sections. Part I examines the history and context of the ECOSOC review and its likely outcomes, focussing on what principles should guide UN-NGO consultative relations. This examination reveals the tenacity of many of the issues which have precipitated the review and the likelihood that, like its forerunners, this review will leave these issues unresolved, resulting instead in piecemeal readjustments to the status quo. I argue that this would be a regressive outcome, muffling the innovative contributions of the more recently formed NGOs and ensuring a chaotic, rather than orderly, movement of civil society from the fringes to the center stage of the UN system.

Part II canvasses some of the theoretical debates about the growing importance of international civil society. The dominant realist view of international relations is contrasted with alternative liberal and postliberal paradigms which place importance on individuals and social movements as international actors. These perspectives present a challenge to the statist supremacy assumed by current international arrangements and provide an important context for the ECOSOC review by recognizing the crucial role of international civil society. I conclude that the potential for the ECOSOC review to fail to come to grips with the fundamental tensions of the historical relationship between states and NGOs could be reduced by situating its deliberations within the broader context of the future of international governance. If such a contextualization were achieved, the review could assist in the urgent task of reconceptualizing relations between [End Page 108] states and nonstate entities and extending the discourse of international law beyond the interests of states to hear the many voices currently excluded.

I. The ECOSOC Review

The UN Charter makes one reference to NGOs, in Article 71, which allows that ECOSOC “may make suitable arrangements for consultation with nongovernmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence.” 4 The effect of this provision was unprecedented in that it formalized the extensive consultative relationships which had existed during the years of the League of Nations. 5 But Article 71 also limited the earlier practices by confining mandated consultation to the areas covered by ECOSOC 6 and by limiting involvement to “consultation” in contrast, for example, to the ability of representatives of UN specialized agencies and member states to “participate without vote” in ECOSOC deliberations. 7 The present arrangements for consultation with NGOs, the subject of the review, are set out in ECOSOC Resolution 1296(XLIV) of 27 May 1968 (hereinafter Resolution 1296). 8 By 1993, nearly 1000 NGOs had been granted formal consultative status with ECOSOC by way of these arrangements. 9 There is no doubt that the extent of NGO involvement in UN activities has vastly exceeded the expectations of those who drafted the Charter and dramatically outstripped the scope of these legal provisions.

In this part of my article the primary focus is the principles which should guide UN-NGO relationships. I...