14 July 1998


14 July 1998

Press Release



Statement in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Reviews Achievements Of Citizens' Groups in Wide Range of International Activities

This is the text of a statement to the parliamentary group Parlatino in Sao Paulo, Brazil, today by Secretary-General Kofi Annan on "The Emerging Power of Civil Society":

It is a pleasure to be here, and it has been a privilege to visit Brazil as the first part of my journey through Latin America.

In the past decade the transformation which Latin America has undergone has provided a source of inspiration to all the world. The region has entered an era of democracy and stability, upheld by the pillars of good governance and the rule of law. It will be as much of an inspiration for the world to see the region build a future where these pillars become unshakeable. And much of the foundation for that future, I would venture, lies in people like you here today. It lies in the development of civil society. Because democracy is ultimately the product, not the creator, of civil society.

A strong civil society promotes responsible citizenship and makes democratic forms of government work. A weak civil society supports authoritarian rule, which keeps society weak.

I know that Brazil has understood this symbiotic partnership well. Your First Lady, Ruth Cardoso, spoke eloquently about that partnership at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference at the United Nations last year. She spoke of the unique role that the non-governmental, non-profit sector can play as an agent for change and as a partner in development -- about the youth literacy programmes in this country financed by the private sector, undertaken by universities and supported by UNESCO, that have brought literacy to thousands of people across Brazil. As Ms. Cardoso rightly noted: "We know from experience that the State by itself cannot meet the challenges of equitable, sustainable development, and that civil society's participation is essential."

The nature of diplomacy, too, is changing everywhere to take in civil society. Traditionally, diplomacy has been an activity conducted exclusively by State actors and a subject debated exclusively by paid experts. In the United Nations a few decades ago, the Governments of Member States were virtually the sole players in the international process; non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were seen as supporters, allies, and mobilizers of public opinion in favour of the goals and values of the United Nations Charter.

There is now a growing awareness among the public that any national project is influenced by international conditions -- whether these be the environment, Mercosul, intellectual property negotiations, or reform of the United Nations Security Council. And that awareness has been matched by engagement.

A milestone in civil society's engagement in intergovernmental processes was reached here in Brazil six years ago. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development at Rio became a focal point for NGOs involved in environment and sustainable development everywhere who understood that the summit agenda was their agenda. It attracted an unprecedented level of grass-roots engagement, from the preparations through the meetings to the follow-up to this day.

And to this day, Rio has become the benchmark against which future conferences and summits are measured in terms of civil society response -- whether it be the summit on women in Beijing, the human rights conference in Vienna, Habitat in Istanbul, the population conference in Cairo or the conference on climate change at Kyoto last December.

The global information revolution has transformed civil society before our very eyes. Take the international campaign to ban landmines -- the driving force behind last year's Treaty to ban the production, stockpile, export and use of these abominable weapons. The campaign demonstrated that there are no limits to what civil society can achieve in partnership with governments. A growing awareness among ordinary people, a grass-roots movement of conviction matched by courage, made governments acknowledge that the cost of landmines far outweighed the need to use them. Propelled by the demands of citizens everywhere, promoted tirelessly by regional and NGOs, the elimination of landmines became a truly global cause.

How did they do it? One thousand NGOs in 60 countries were linked together by one unbending conviction and a weapon that would ultimately prove more powerful than the landmine: E-mail.

Or more recently, look to the role of civil society in advocating the establishment of an effective and just international criminal court. A conference is currently under way in Rome to establish such a court, the missing link in the international legal system. In the run-up, the NGO coalition for an International Criminal Court brought together a broad-based

- 3 - Press Release SG/SM/6638 14 July 1998

network of hundreds of NGOs and international law experts to develop strategies and foster awareness. Again, the key to their network was E-mail and the World Wide Web.

It stands to reason that the relationship between the United Nations and civil society has changed beyond all recognition. Five years ago, when I was Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, an incident occurred in Somalia that taught us -- both in the United Nations and in the NGO community -- a lesson about the importance of understanding each other well.

With the United Nations Operation in Somalia came the first mandate of a peacekeeping operation to include the protection of humanitarian workers. On one occasion the NGO representatives -- 40 of them -- decided to have a picnic on the beach at Mogadishu. When the NGO workers were attacked there, they asked for the protection of United Nations peacekeepers. The United Nations commander's first reaction was: "Why didn't they tell me they were going to do this?"

I sometimes tell this story to illustrate a cultural gap between non-governmental organizations and the United Nations that is rapidly and happily disappearing. If the global agenda is to be properly addressed, a true partnership between NGOs and the United Nations is not an option; it is a necessity.

Today, NGOs are often on the ground before the international community gives the United Nations a mandate to act. They are indispensable operators in areas ranging from demining to human rights, from health care to refugees. And they are seen not only as disseminators of public information or providers of services, but also as shapers of public policy.

Yet despite the growing manifestations of an evermore robust global civil society, the United Nations has been inadequately equipped to engage it and make it a true partner in our work. And so when I took up the position of Secretary-General and embarked on a quiet revolution to reform the United Nations, enhanced cooperation with NGOs formed a crucial theme in my proposals. This stemmed from a recognition that our common work will be more successful if it is supported by all concerned actors of the international community.

Under the reforms I introduced last year, all substantive departments of the United Nations are designating an NGO liaison officer to facilitate access to the Organization. At the country level, where appropriate, the United Nations system is creating more opportunities for tripartite cooperation with civil society. Training programmes for United Nations staff will include a component dedicated to cooperation with civil society. This will be reflected in the curricula of the United Nations Staff College.

- 4 - Press Release SG/SM/6638 14 July 1998

Since taking office, I have similarly placed a high priority on building a stronger relationship with the business community, and on rebuilding private sector confidence in the United Nations. The basis for this new partnership is solid. The Organization is no longer prisoner to conflicting ideologies. We fully recognize that business is the main creator of wealth, jobs and prosperity, without which development cannot occur nor peace be sustained.

That is why we have engaged in a very constructive dialogue with business groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce. And that is why we have instilled a new awareness throughout the United Nations family that working with the business community can bring benefits to all. Indeed, all United Nations agencies are searching for practical ways to translate the potential of cooperation into concrete action.

One of the biggest challenges we face today is to secure an open and rule-based international economy. Markets are global, while governments remain local. National economies are becoming more and more interdependent. Our choice today is between regulatory consistency and chaos, and between spreading the benefits of globalization or reserving them for just a few. The United Nations has a keen interest in ensuring that markets remain open and that global engagement prevails over an inward-looking orientation.

As I stand here in the business powerhouse of Sao Paulo -- which, if it were a country, would be the twentieth biggest economy in the world -- let me suggest some practical ways in which business can interact with the United Nations:

First, you can make your views heard in United Nations debates, at world conferences and in the drafting of international conventions. Business was an important presence at the Rio Summit. This past April, the Commission on Sustainable Development conducted a ground-breaking dialogue among delegates from businesses, trade unions, citizens' groups and governments. The United Nations is not just open to your participation, it needs your expertise.

Second, you can cooperate on projects. This is taking various forms, a sign of great flexibility and creativity.

-- Some businesses see great value in advocacy. Insurance companies, for example, concerned about the cost of disasters caused by climate change.

-- Others, such as banks, are helping to promote investment through micro-finance projects to help poor people, especially women, start their own businesses.

-- Still others are focusing on "know-how". Information technology companies are contributing technical assistance to an automated customs system developed by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, so as to improve trade efficiency in developing countries.

- 5 - Press Release SG/SM/6638 14 July 1998

-- And then of course there is fund-raising, as we have seen in the generosity of Ted Turner, Rotary Clubs and many others. Such generosity is easily matched in the goodwill that accrues to the company or business on the giving end.

This past year, I have been hosting a series of gatherings involving eminent leaders of business and NGOs alike. And, in the year 2000, alongside the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations, civil NGOs will be holding a Millennium Forum that will provide an excellent opportunity to further cement our relationship.

As we move towards the end of the decade, NGOs agendas are focusing increasingly on ways to implement the goals reached at the conferences of the 1990s. But I hope you will also continue to share with us your vigilance in identifying future needs and priorities, for in a world where change is an essential condition of life, these will continue to evolve.

This changing world presents us with new challenges. Not all effects of globalization are positive; not all non-State actors are good. There has been an ominous growth in the activities of the drug-traffickers, gun-runners, money-launderers, exploiters of young people for prostitution. These forces of "uncivil society" can be combated only through global cooperation, with the help of civil society.

Information technology has empowered civil society to be the true guardians of democracy and good governance everywhere. Oppressors cannot hide inside their borders any longer. A strong civil society, bound together across all borders with the help of modern communications, will not let them. In a sense, it has become the new super-Power -- the peoples determined to promote better standards of life in larger freedom.

Every movement starts somewhere -- usually from scratch. There are no limits to what the campaigns of tomorrow can achieve -- campaigns not yet born, for causes not yet articulated, championed by hearts and minds still being formed. And it is often those single-minded enough to believe their mission to be the most important, who are also likely to make it the most successful.

* *** *

For information media. Not an official record.