The role of NGOs and the private sector in international relationsJanuary 8, 2007 - nr.51
General observations and specific recommendations
This chapter begins with a number of general observations. These are intended as a frame of reference. The AIV then goes on to indicate how the Dutch government could help to strengthen the role of NGOs and the private sector in each of the international organisations covered in this report.
- The growing role of non-state actors is creating more responsibilities and generating more criticism. Governments, the private sector and NGOs are fundamentally different entities, and their roles and functions differ accordingly. It is the responsibility of governments and the bodies that oversee them (such as parliaments) to guide complex and often far-reaching international decision-making processes to a satisfactory conclusion. NGOs and companies can play a key role in identifying trends and providing information. They cannot, however, take part in the decision-making process itself.
- The organisations discussed in this report have seen the scope of their activities widen considerably over the years. New social developments have forced many to address issues that go beyond their original, already broad, remit. To achieve these many and varied goals, they have become increasingly reliant on the additional knowledge and/or resources of NGOs and private enterprises. Many governments have now come to recognise this.
- While there are few obligations in international law for organisations to consult or include NGOs and other civil society organisations in decision-making processes, there does seem to be a trend in that direction. As a result, the image of international organisations as a framework for intergovernmental negotiation is being replaced by one in which different actors compete and cooperate. It is clear, for example, that NGOs are fully involved in the debate on human rights and the environment, while their share in financial and economic development and security is relatively small, yet growing.
- Far from undermining international organisations, the expertise of NGOs, the private sector and individual companies can actually strengthen them. Positive input by nongovernmental organisations increases and improves the output of governments.
- Involvement by NGOs and companies in international decision-making processes can help to further increase the legitimacy of international organisations by reducing the gap between citizens and government and by helping to generate popular support for decision-making. The added value of NGOs for international organisations lies chiefly in their ability to supply additional knowledge, make international relations more transparent, promote values that transcend the interests of individual states and provide specific assistance in monitoring compliance with international law. The latter could be regarded as a full and final recognition of the countervailing power that NGOs have being trying to apply to policy-making for decades.
- As their position strengthens, NGOs increasingly find their legitimacy being questioned, especially in countries governed by dictatorships, where the authorities do all they can to undermine their work. At the same time, it is important to recognise that not all NGOs working within international organisations are behaving responsibly. To boost their credibility and public support and thereby increase their legitimacy, NGOs should join forces more often, rather than acting unilaterally.1 NGOs themselves increasingly recognise the need to encourage such coalitions.
- It is sometimes argued that giving NGOs a role in international organisations could undermine national democratic processes.2 According to this line of reasoning NGOs should instead lobby their own national governments to represent their interests. However, national governments have their own agendas. If a given issue is not a priority at national level, it is unlikely to be given sufficient recognition at international level. The AIV therefore feels that influential NGOs should be entitled to promote their own interests.
- This report concentrates on two of the roles of NGOs: their contribution to the development of standards and values and their role in implementing and supervising compliance with international rules. NGOs tend to have close links with human rights bodies, but far less access to other bodies and policy areas. This close relationship with human rights bodies is partly due to the specific nature of human rights. After all, promoting and protecting human rights is fundamentally unthinkable without the active participation of groups of individuals who uphold these rights vis-à-vis the governments that have established the relevant standards. Similar views are gaining currency in other policy areas in which NGOs figure prominently, such as international environmental protection. In this report, the AIV has explained why NGOs and, in certain cases, the private sector should be given access to areas other than human rights and the environment. The AIV believes that NGOs and companies could, for example, make a valuable contribution to the work of international financial and economic institutions and the UN Security Council.
- The Cardoso Report on UN-civil society relations acknowledges the importance of non-state actors in upholding the international order. However, the report has been sharply criticised by NGOs, partly because it refers to coalitions and partnerships without specifically indicating which organisations are meant. The AIV endorses this criticism and feels that a clear distinction should be maintained between NGOs and the private sector in view of their largely divergent goals and tasks. Moreover, too free a use of the term ‘partnership governance’ – as in the Cardoso Report – carries with it the risk that the expectations placed on NGOs and companies could deflect attention from the obligations and responsibilities of the state. The AIV feels that this risk should be taken seriously. In calling for a bigger role for NGOs and the private sector, this advisory report is not advocating a commensurate reduction in the responsibilities of the state as the primary actors in the international legal order.
Proceeding from these general observations the AIV makes the following specific recommendations relating to the international organisations covered by this report.
The United Nations
- The government should ensure that existing and future UN reforms (e.g. those relating to the Human Rights Council) include measures to maintain and, wherever possible, strengthen NGO participation. This means providing a counterweight to states that are opposed to civil society involvement, and ensuring that removing practical obstacles to NGO participation, does not radically curtail their powers. While NGO participation in the UN system is formally not at risk, it is not yet firmly established.
- The Cardoso Report stresses the UN’s networking character over its role as a creator and standardsetting and monitoring. The AIV feels that this view could weaken the organisation. If anything, the UN’s role as guardian of international law should be strengthened. This calls for greater self-awareness as an independent organisation than a label like ‘network manager’ would suggest.
- The role of NGOs is most highly developed within the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). However, there is growing criticism of the decision-making procedure that governs the consultative status of NGOs and the accreditation process. The Cardoso Report suggests various ways to improve the situation. The AIV supports the most important of these, namely reducing existing UN procedures to a single overall procedure administered by the General Assembly (UNGA). This new procedure would entail a practical assessment of the work of NGOs by the UN Secretariat. The AIV feels that this procedure, which would be similar to the one used by the Council of Europe, would make a real difference. The EU is in favour of this step, and the AIV urges the government to promote it energetically.
- The AIV acknowledges the need for closer cooperation between the UNGA and the non-governmental sector. The UNGA and its committees have in the past sought and received input from NGOs and independent experts within academia. This should be continued. In his response to the Cardoso Report, the UN Secretary-General argues that NGOs should be accredited to the main UN committees and invited to attend informal hearings prior to the main meetings. The AIV supports such initiatives, provided they do not slow progress towards full participation. Until agreement is reached, proposals to intensify informal contacts between NGOs and the UNGA and its committees should be supported.
- The AIV notes that so far the response to the Cardoso Report appears to be concentrating mainly on the procedural aspects of NGO participation. The AIV sees this as a missed opportunity. After all, the value of NGOs for UN agencies lies chiefly in their practical experience. This applies equally to any complex issues involving the UN Security Council, such as the restoration of the rule of law and reconstruction in general. So while procedural improvements are always welcome, the key is to maximise the practical potential of NGOs.
- The recently established Human Rights Council could help to boost NGO involvement. NGOs could, for example, do more to assist the special rapporteurs and the annual human rights survey in the member states.
- The relationship between NGOs and the UN Security Council should be strengthened in fundamental ways. NGOs can play a particularly important role in conflict prevention and peacebuilding, two areas with which the UN Security Council is increasingly concerned. The Security Council is now also more involved with human rights issues; this is increasing its workload as well as its need for specific expertise. The AIV supports the Cardoso Report’s recommendation that the UN Security Council strengthen its links to civil society by extending and further facilitating participation in the informal meetings of the Arria Formula. The role of NGOs in promoting peace and security can also be amplified by means of the UN Security Council proposal to include NGOs in ex-post evaluations of peace missions.
- The government should press for NGOs to be given a key role in the work of the Peacebuilding Commission. This is especially important in view of their experience in post-conflict regions and the establishment or re-establishment of the rule of law there. Sufficient scope should be given to community representatives in postconflict regions and to an independent analysis of conflicts. The Commission would also be well advised to send out field missions early on, in order to involve local community representatives in the peacebuilding process.
- The UN as a whole should improve its links with civil society through a single dedicated agency. The AIV supports the idea of appointing a designated NGO contact at the Secretariat, at Deputy Secretary-General level. Such a post would be crucial, both for improving coordination and for underscoring the importance that the UN attaches to maintaining contact with civil society. Funding for the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), which is held in high esteem by NGOs, must be guaranteed.
- In its recent reports and documents, the UN discusses ways of encouraging companies to help it meet its goals. The AIV fully supports these efforts. The importance of guarding against overlapping responsibilities is obvious, but it still bears repeating. It should also be remembered that companies do not always help to further UN goals, despite its claimed commitment to corporate social responsibility and voluntary codes of conduct. It is therefore important to ensure that initiatives such as the Global Compact are not simply used for PR purposes. Companies must be encouraged to practice self-regulation. If this does not work, binding regulations may be required, even if they are only applied to companies beyond the critical reach of the internet and the countervailing power of consumers and their organisations.
- Cooperation between traditional International Labour Organisation (ILO) players and general NGOs can be further enhanced. Employers’ organisations and trade unions are already active throughout the ILO and account for a large proportion of civil society input. Nevertheless, cooperation with NGOs can be further improved and strengthened, especially with regard to ILO-related activities, some or all of which fall outside the traditional scope of trade unions and employers’ organisations.
- The World Trade Organisation (WTO), with its highly effective, coercive sanctions mechanism, occupies a special place in international law. At the same time, recent developments surrounding the various systems for settling disputes have made it more likely that a WTO panel or the Dispute Settlement Body will be confronted with arguments that fall outside the strict scope of WTO law, such as those based on internationally recognised human rights or the need to protect the environment. WTO law is also becoming increasingly intertwined with other aspects of international law. The AIV feels that this makes cooperation with specialised NGOs even more desirable and necessary.
- The settlement of trade disputes can also have a far-reaching impact on other policy areas, such as food safety and workers’ and trade union rights. This, too, makes it vital for the WTO to harness the specific expertise of NGOs on human rights and other areas, both in its negotiations and in its settlement of disputes. This will also make the organisation more transparent and familiar to a wider public. The AIV therefore advises the Dutch government to press for the formal adoption of amicus curiae briefs to enable NGOs to participate in the WTO dispute settlement system. Based on a procedure to be determined, a list can be drawn up of carefully selected NGOs that could assist the WTO in dispute settlement procedures. The relevant organs of the WTO courts should then be encouraged to consult these organisations.
- The Dutch government should continue to work with the EU to ensure more openness within the WTO. Meetings of WTO panels and the Appellate Body should as a rule be open to the public, with only sensitive cases being heard behind closed doors.
- Finally, the AIV would like to see NGOs given a bigger role in the WTO Trade Policy Review Mechanism. At the very least NGOs should be permitted to submit shadow reports in order to supply the WTO with extra information, by analogy with the reporting procedures governing human rights conventions.
The World Bank and the IMF
- In the 1980s, the World Bank and the IMF began consulting NGOs through general discussion fora, the IMF/WB Highly Indebted Poor Countries Initiative for Debt Relief and similar bodies. However, many of these consultations are not held directly with the World Bank and IMF themselves, but between civil society and the governments of the countries concerned. The AIV feels that this needs to gradually change and urges the government to take appropriate steps.
- Compared with other international economic organisations, including the IMF, the World Bank has made significant efforts to further NGO participation. Much of this is due to its recent focus on poverty, gender and the environment, areas in which NGOs have always had specific expertise. The Bank has also stepped up cooperation with business and industry, partly to help it meet its share of the Millennium Development Goals. Another key development is that NGOs are now involved in the World Bank’s monitoring procedures, notably the Inspection Panel. Compared with the World Bank, the IMF’s links with civil society and the private sector are underdeveloped, though it has taken steps to improve them in recent years. Although these contacts became closer in the 1990s, there is still no permanent discussion forum. Pressure from NGOs has led to greater transparency within the IMF, with the result that many of its documents are now made public and an External Relations Department has been established with a designated NGO contact. The government should press the IMF to continue this trend over the coming years.
- The AIV notes that the participation of NGOs at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF is becoming increasingly difficult, thanks in part to the actions of some of their own representatives. Inaccessible locations, strict security requirements and the allocation of separate meeting rooms to NGOs are severely obstructing even the participation of genuine NGOs. The problems experienced at the meeting in Singapore in September 2006 were typical. The government should therefore continue to insist on free access for NGOs to the annual meetings of both financial institutions.
- Finally, the IMF operates an Independent Evaluation Office which occasionally invites economic research institutes to verify information, but rarely consults NGOs. The AIV advises the government to find ways to improve matters, based on the recommendations contained in this advisory report.
- The AIV feels that civil society can play a key role in linking national and European interests. Conditions for participation by non-governmental actors within the EU are favourable, partly because one of the EU’s Strategic Objectives for 2005-2009 is to give stakeholders more opportunities to actively co-determine EU policy. The Dutch government must help to ensure that these good intentions are fully met.
- The European Commission has proposed introducing a registration system for lobbyists and lobbying organisations. A joint code of practice or common set of minimum regulations for lobbyists must also be developed. The Commission is calling for a stricter system of self-regulatory monitoring and disciplinary measures for incorrect registration and/or infringements of the code of practice. The AIV advises the government to support this two-pronged approach.
- Involvement in the democratic process within the EU should be encouraged more generally through the introduction of a legal framework for non-state participation. Since the future of the EU Constitution is now unclear following the ‘no’ votes by France and the Netherlands, further steps towards participatory democracy may also be uncertain. The AIV therefore advises the government to examine what it can do to move this issue forward independently.
The Council of Europe
- The AIV is satisfied with the measures the Council of Europe has taken so far to expand NGO participation, and with the corresponding efforts of the Dutch government. After much delay the Netherlands has now adopted the collective complaints procedure under the European Social Charter. The Council of Europe is currently the only international organisation to adopt a legally binding instrument recognising NGOs as legal persons. Although the Netherlands has signed this convention, the ratification process is not yet complete. However, the AIV takes note of the government’s intention to debate the Fundamental Principles on the Status of Non-governmental Organisations in the Senate by 22 November 2006 and is confident that the procedure will be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.
It is important for international organisations to remain outward looking. NGOs, companies and the private sector can play a crucial role in this process, partly by helping them to identify key issues, warning them when they risk becoming too esoteric or introspective in addressing certain problems, and denouncing unnecessary red tape. NGOs, companies and the private sector are also vital links between the wider, global political perspective and everyday local and regional concerns.
1 See also the Cardoso Report, proposal 23 op. cit.
2 This has been posited by John Bolton, the current US ambassador to the UN: John R. Bolton, Should we take global governance seriously?, Chicago Journal of International Law, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 2000.
Advice on the role of civil society and the private sector
In advisory report 41, Reforming the United Nations: A Closer Look at the Annan Report, the AIV briefly addressed the role of civil society and the private sector. Due to the importance of the subject, the AIV expressed its desire to issue a separate advisory report about it. The government welcomed this initiative in its response to the report. The government agrees with the AIV that NGOs play an important role in many areas, including development, environment and human rights, thereby contributing to the normative structure. The same applies to the business community. The High-Level Panel was right to issue a recommendation encouraging cooperation between the UN and various actors (including NGOs and the business community), in setting normative guidelines for the management of natural resources in post-conflict countries and countries at risk of conflict.
The government also stated that, in response to the Cardoso Report, the Netherlands has expressed its support for improving relations between the UN and civil society actors. Obviously these actors will be involved in the work of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Talks on the resolution based on the Cardoso Report have been plagued by difficulty and seem to be focusing on streamlining accreditation procedures. The government believes this is a missed opportunity to highlight the important role that civil society actors play in global issues and has invited the AIV to examine this in its advisory report on the topic. Regarding the need for collective action to combat modern threats, the UN Secretary-General emphasises the importance of an active civil society and a dynamic private sector working alongside national governments and intergovernmental organisations, but says little else on the matter. The government would also like to hear the AIV’s views on this matter.
The AIV decided to address these issues, and work on the advisory report is currently in progress.
Mr F. Korthals Altes United Nations and International
Chairman of the Advisory Council on Financial Institutions Department
International Affairs Bezuidenhoutseweg 67
Postbus 20061 2594 AC Den Haag
2500 EB Den Haag
Date February 2007 Fax 070-3486167
Our ref. DVF/CI – 038/07 Email email@example.com
Re: Response to the AIV advisory report
‘The role of NGOs and the private sector
in international relations’
Dear mr. Korthals Altes,
We would like to thank the Advisory Council on International Affairs for their advisory report, ‘The role of NGOs and the private sector in international relations’. This report followed on from the advisory report on ‘Reforming the United Nations: a closer look at the Annan report’ which came out in response to the report of March 2005 by the former Secretary-General entitled, ‘In Larger Freedom: towards Security, Development and Human Rights for All’. This report stressed how indispensable civil society and the private sector are to establishing security, development and human rights. In its initial advisory report, the AIV only touched briefly on the UN’s relationship with NGOs and private enterprises. This subsequent advisory report goes into more detail on this issue, and also considers a number of other organisations, such as the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Community / European Union and the Council of Europe.
The government notes with satisfaction that the AIV’s vision on the involvement of NGOs and the private sector in international organisations is in line with current policy. In a fast-changing world in which nation states find it harder and harder to keep up with the pace of change and the associated global challenges, this policy is based on an acknowledgment of the necessity of partnerships with non-state actors. The aim is therefore to strengthen their position in international decision-making structures. In the end the decision-making process will benefit from a dynamic civil society which defends common global interests – such as the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, conflict prevention and management, reconstruction and the upholding of human rights – thus providing a counterbalance to the tendency of nation states to pursue only their national interests. The government regrets the fact that the June 2004 report of the Panel of Eminent Persons (the Cardoso Panel established in 2003 by former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan) on the relationship between the UN and non-state actors in the context of globalisation did not lead to a substantive discussion aimed at strengthening the UN.
The AIV’s report, which deals specifically with NGOs and companies, is balanced and gives a clear picture of the positive and negative aspects of the roles of these actors in international organisations, although it pays less attention to the role of companies than to that of NGOs. In the following, we first respond to a number of general observations made by the AIV, and then to the specific recommendations for each organisation.
The report quite rightly pays less attention to the operational role of NGOs at country level than to their role as global players. In the government’s view, it is this latter role that deserves more recognition. The participation of NGOs in international forums should be put on a formal footing. Naturally, the government is also aware of the importance of the input of NGOs in government policy plans and good collaboration at country level between the field offices of international organisations and local NGOs. Here too, there is room for improvement.
The AIV notes the increasing input of NGOs and their growing acceptance of their role in the provision of information, knowledge and expertise, and sometimes in monitoring procedures. But, as the AIV points out, there is still a long way to go. As was clear during the process of establishing the new Human Rights Council and the Peacebuilding Commission, not all member states accept the participation of NGOs as a matter of course. Establishing this participation will require further efforts.
There is still a group of countries, and not necessarily totalitarian countries, which insist on the intergovernmental nature of international organisations, and only see a secondary role for NGOs. There should be more discussion of this position, not just in the international organisations, but also in the countries themselves. Action has been taken in an EU context on the participation of human rights NGOs in the Human Rights Council, but the government also intends to pursue the issue of strengthening the global role of NGOs more generally in its bilateral dialogue and the EU dialogue with the countries concerned. There is also a role for local NGOs themselves in this. Many NGOs in developing countries are financed directly by western countries, in some cases by NGOs. As the AIV observed, this often makes their governments suspicious. Local NGOs should be encouraged to gain their government’s confidence through dialogue, and to point out their own role in the global process. The government intends to bring this point to the attention of Dutch NGOs with partner organisations in the countries concerned.
The AIV points to the recommendation in the Cardoso report with regard to the establishment of a central UN fund to facilitate the participation of NGOs from developing countries at global level. The question is whether this is a realistic solution. Existing funds, which would have to be integrated into the central fund, are beset by systematic shortfalls. What is more, donors who are prepared to finance NGO participation at specific meetings (e.g. thematic Summit conferences) will be less willing to put this money into a central fund. The Netherlands also finances NGO participation at international meetings on an ad hoc basis. The government recognises, however, that we need to look for a formula for promoting more systematic participation of NGOs from developing countries in international forums.
The government agrees with the AIV that NGOs can gain in legitimacy by acting effectively and credibly. Such action is possible if they can rely on worldwide support and if their organisation is of good quality. This applies mainly to well-known international NGOs. Efficient collaboration also gives good results, as illustrated by the negotiations on the International Criminal Court and the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. It is becoming more and more common for western NGOs to act together with NGOs in developing countries.
The effectiveness of NGOs is also determined by the values and interests they represent. NGOs which stand for a very narrow theme (e.g. for or against abortion) or for a very broad, vague concept (‘peace’) tend not to be taken very seriously in the multilateral arena, while NGOs which are guilty of serious breaches of the peace sideline themselves in the process. In terms of accountability, the government welcomes efforts of NGOs such as the drawing up of the International Non Governmental Organisations Accountability Charter and other voluntary codes of conduct to which they commit themselves. Like the AIV, the government is in favour of self-regulation. Regulation from above would be grist to the mill of a number of governments that would rather get rid of NGOs than stimulate them. With respect to private companies, although the government shares the AIV’s opinion that the commercial nature of their activities puts them in a different position to that of NGOs, self-regulation should be the guiding principle here too.
As mentioned earlier, the AIV goes into less detail about the role of companies. It acknowledges the important contribution that companies can make to global goals, but mainly addresses the issue of corporate social responsibility. The AIV mentions the growing number of partnerships between the UN and companies as a positive development, but does not take this point any further. On this issue, it is worth noting the common criticisms that companies have too much influence on international priorities, that partnerships come into existence outside the UN system, and that companies tend to opt for fast results, often at the expense of an all-embracing, coherent policy focused on sustainability. It is claimed that partnerships of this kind can actually weaken the UN.
In spite of the possible risks, it is quite rightly widely recognised that companies can play a valuable role in addressing major global problems such as climate change, extreme hunger, the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases. Their active involvement in these fields is indispensable. Moreover, they also have a contribution to make to natural resource management in conflict and post-conflict situations, and in recent years have gained a prominent position as donors. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spends nearly USD 2 billion per year. In the Netherlands there are a number of companies which donate tens of millions of euros annually. Another example is the contribution of businesses all over the world to the funds related to the UN Foundation, which was launched with a philanthropic gift of USD 1 billion from Ted Turner to support the UN goals.
The AIV emphasises the distinctive roles of states, NGOs and companies in the decision-making process. The knowledge and expertise of the two last-named actors should be utilised, but they should not act as (co)decision makers. The government recognises these different responsibilities, but points out that there are good examples of collaboration in the field of decision making; these include partnerships such as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which work to implement policy and in which non-state actors have a say in the decision-making organs.
Furthermore, new forms of cooperation are emerging in which governments, NGOs and companies take joint responsibility for making decisions about regulations and for their global enforcement. An example of this is the Kimberley Process (regulations concerning certification of diamond sourcing, and its monitoring), Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI: regulation and certification with regard to the auditing and transparency of profits from raw materials) and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC: certification of the sourcing and sustainable management of timber).
The government appreciates the fact that the AIV has not restricted its focus in this report to the UN, but has also looked at other organisations. We now turn to the various recommendations, in which there is a clear emphasis on the UN.
The United Nations
In the context of Kofi Annan’s proposals for reform, the Netherlands has called for greater involvement on the part of NGOs and the private sector, with the necessary provision for measures to safeguard the legitimacy, manageability, effectiveness and efficiency of these processes.
In line with the AIV, the government sees a need to improve the way decisions are taken on the consultative status of NGOs and to strengthen the accreditation process. The NGO committee of ECOSOC, where the first round of the selection procedure for NGOs with consultative status takes place, is highly politicised. It is noticeable that it is the very countries which are against the role of NGOs that seek a place on the committee. Last year, for instance, the committee issued a negative recommendation on three NGOs which promote the rights of homosexuals, bisexuals and transsexuals, even though these NGOs fulfilled all the relevant criteria. In the end, intensive lobbying from the EU contributed to a positive decision by ECOSOC.
In view of the fact that the Netherlands (and the EU) are in favour of NGO involvement in all UN organs, support is provided for the introduction of a general procedure, under the auspices of the United Nations General Assembly, with an initial selection by the Secretariat (as recommended in the Cardoso report). It should be noted here that the Secretariat’s Department of Public Information also has an accreditation procedure for NGOs. However, given the completely different nature of this collaboration – the aim of which is to spread knowledge throughout the UN – it would not be appropriate to merge these procedures.
To emphasise the importance of the UN’s relationships with NGOs (and other non-state actors) and to ensure a coherent policy, it would be a good idea to strengthen the Secretariat’s structure for these issues, for example by appointing an Under-Secretary-General or Assistant Secretary-General. So far, the restructuring plans of the new Secretary-General do not provide for this. The government feels that it is important to guard against undesirable effects of bureaucracy that only make access more difficult for NGOs. An alternative that could be supported would be to strengthen the UN NGO Liaison Service.
The government applauds – and supports the further development of – the existing practice at the UN General Assembly of holding hearings, informal debates, and meetings of the President and Vice-Presidents with NGOs on particular subjects. On 21 November 2006 there was a meeting of the Forum on General Assembly and Non-Governmental Organisation Relations, organised by the office of the President of the UN General Assembly and the United Nations Foundation, to discuss further potential for NGO participation. One bottleneck is posed by the physical limitations of the UN building for accommodating a large number of non-governmental representatives. This is taken into account in the implementation of the Capital Master Project (renovation of the UN headquarters in New York).
The government shares the AIV’s view that contacts between the Security Council (UNSC) and NGOs could be strengthened. The AIV sees concrete potential for doing this in the recommendations of the Cardoso report, which makes a number of interesting and seemingly workable suggestions. However, the government would wish to emphasise here the improvements that have already been made, and to guard against the tendency to look for solutions in further institutionalisation or in increasing the number of formal meetings. The UNSC is increasingly drawing on the knowledge and expertise available from NGO sources. The important role of NGOs in promoting a sustainable reconstruction process has been explicitly pointed out in numerous UNSC resolutions, and the Secretary-General makes grateful use of information which field offices gain from regular contacts with NGOs in his reports to the UNSC. The UNSC also sometimes makes its own field visits, such as the recent visits to Afghanistan and to the Great Lakes region. During such visits there is intensive contact with the local NGO world.
The government is with the AIV in supporting strong civil society and private sector involvement in the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). The Rules of Procedure laid down at the first meeting of June 2006 set out the measures to be taken by the chairman to be able to consult the relevant actors on a regular basis. However, there is no agreement to date on the regulation of their actual participation in PBC meetings and country-specific gatherings. Until this is addressed through a working group set up for the purpose, it has been decided that the PBC chairman will decide on a case-by-case basis what the level of participation will be. For the meetings on Burundi and Sierra Leone, it has been decided that NGOs and other non-governmental actors will take part and be allocated speaking time, as advocated by the Netherlands.
The government shares the AIV’s view on the desirability of early PBC field missions to countries on its agenda in order to guarantee the involvement of all the relevant actors. However the government maintains that this must not mean continuous supervision and steering from PBC headquarters in New York. The countries themselves have prime responsibility for the process, in which the PBC should only play a supportive and facilitating role.
Like the AIV, the government is of the opinion that NGO involvement in the Human Rights Council (HRC) could be increased, particularly in regard to the new instrument for periodic studies of the human rights situation in member states (Universal Periodic Review; UPR). Not all HRC members share this view and they are putting up a number of barriers to NGO participation, which would actually mean going backwards compared to the former Commission on Human Rights. The government will however continue its efforts, together with its EU partners, to ensure a meaningful participation of NGOs in the UPR. With regard to intensifying the role of NGOs in the work of the Special Rapporteurs, we can report that secretariats already have regular contact with the NGOs. The extent to which this translates into concrete collaboration between NGOs and mandate-holders generally depends on the latter individuals. Planned country visits by Special Rapporteurs are usually known in advance, which gives NGOs the opportunity to provide some active input. The active participation of NGOs in the dialogue with Special Rapporteurs was noticeable in the second session of the HRC (September/ October 2006). This kind of participation was certainly not common at the time of the Commission on Human Rights. It has since been agreed that a Code of Conduct will be drawn up for Special Rapporteurs. The EU will strive to ensure that the current freedom of the Special Rapporteurs is maintained, including their interaction with NGOs.
Within the UN system there are also special forms of collaboration with non-state actors. The AIV mentions the ILO, in which employees’ and employers’ organisations participate on an equal footing with governments. The government shares the AIV’s opinion that it is also important to take a broader view of ILO affairs, and sees a role in this for participating organisations which could provide this broader view via their networks. Another example of special NGO participation is UNAIDS, the UN programme set up in 1996 to coordinate all UN activities to fight HIV/AIDS. Besides ten UN organisations and 22 individual member states, there are five NGOs on the central decision-making body of UNAIDS. They have speaking rights but no voting rights. Discussions are now being held on strengthening the position of these NGOs, including the possibility of giving them voting rights.
Another special form of collaboration is in operation at UNESCO, the only UN organisation that works with an extensive network of National Commissions. These commissions form a link between the organisation and individual member states by maintaining contacts with their own national governments and the principal national institutions, both governmental and non-governmental.
The government endorses the AIV’s view that the Global Compact constitutes an important instrument within the UN for working with companies. Companies are encouraged to help promote UN principles in the areas of human rights, basic labour standards, the environment and anti-corruption activities by signing a code of conduct. In turn, the UN supports the companies in integrating these principles into their business practices. It is therefore important that companies do not use the Global Compact purely for PR purposes. The UN Global Compact Office responsible for the management of the Compact and support to the companies keeps a public list of companies that do not fulfil their annual reporting obligations. To date, 538 companies which have failed to report for two years have been struck off the list of participants (335 in October 2006 and 203 in January 2007). The office also plays a role in promoting partnerships with organisations within the UN system. However, it is not yet standard practice for UN organisations to enter into partnerships with companies through this office with the aim of safeguarding the principles of the Global Compact. A number of Dutch companies have joined the Global Compact, and in 2006 a group of them took the initiative of setting up a Dutch branch.
It is worth mentioning in this regard that in 2005 the UN Commission on Human Rights (the precursor of the Human Rights Council) mandated a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises. The government is cooperating actively and last year gave detailed answers to a questionnaire on national policy with respect to corporate social responsibility. The final report of the Special Representative will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2007.
As indicated above, the AIV mentions the growing phenomenon of partnerships, but does not address the details, such as the question of the fields in which partnerships with companies are highly desirable and those in which fields they are less so. One successful example is the partnership of the World Food Programme (WFP) with the Dutch company TNT. TNT provides WFP with services and technical know-how worth at least EUR 5 million per year, in order to optimise the effectiveness and business knowledge of the organisation. WFP is actively pursuing such partnerships at present.
Two major partnerships in the field of health are the above-mentioned Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI, 1996) and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (GFATM, 2002). GAVI came into existence because of the need felt within the UN system to involve companies on an equal footing with member states in fighting the dramatic fall in immunisation rates, especially in Africa. NGOs have been involved in this too, though to a lesser degree. In the GFATM, on the other hand, the private sector, NGOs, local communities, governments and international organisations all participate on an equal footing. Completely new structures were created outside the UN for this organisation. Experience has shown that major industries, such as those involved in foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals, tobacco and alcohol, can exercise significant influence from outside. For example, on several occasions they have managed to block, for a considerable time, WHO guidelines that were disadvantageous to them. Ways of collaborating constructively are therefore very welcome, although it is also essential to guard against a weakening of the UN’s position.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO)
The government shares the AIV’s view that besides their role in lobbying and information provision, NGOs can also play a greater role in the WTO’s supervisory mechanism. The input of knowledge by NGOs specialised in areas closely related to the WTO’s field is invaluable, and can supplement the expertise already provided to the WTO by independent experts.
As the AIV notes, the EU is actively engaged in improving access for NGOs, addressing issues such as formally establishing the possibility of amicus curiae interventions by NGOs within the dispute settlement procedures and making meetings of WTO panels and the Appellate Body open to the public. The latter is a particularly sensitive issue for members of the G77, as emerged in the case arising from EC measures concerning meat and meat products (‘the hormones case’), in which the EU and the US took the initiative to go public. In the context of the Trade Policy Review Mechanism, the government welcomes shadow reports by NGOs in the area of trade, as they can provide a useful counterbalance to the often rather dry reports of member states.
As the AIV has indicated, companies have no direct access to the dispute settlement procedure, but since it deals with what are essentially trade disputes arising from a complaint by a company, they are involved in this way.
The World Bank and the IMF
The government shares the AIV’s view that direct links between the World Bank/IMF and NGOs are desirable. As the AIV notes, a positive trend can be seen here, and it is already standard practice for field offices to maintain contacts with local NGOs and other civil society actors, and for field missions from headquarters to include meetings with these actors.
With respect to NGO access to annual meetings, we must guard against incidents such as occurred in Singapore becoming a trend. The World Bank and the IMF have not ruled out NGO access to annual meetings and had already expressed their objections to Singapore’s hard line on the participation of NGOs. At the request of the Netherlands, in the margins of the ASEM summit on 13 September 2006, the EU also made a statement expressing its objections to the actions of the Singapore authorities. This pressure eventually resulted in the admittance of most of the NGO representatives who had been blacklisted.
The AIV’s recommendation to ask the Independent Evaluation Office (IEO) to involve NGOs in its work is supported by the Dutch government. The Dutch director on the IMF Executive Board will be asked to raise this issue with the IEO.
The government supports the AIV’s view that the NGO world has an important role to play in connecting the national and the European processes, and that conditions for pursuing non-governmental participation within the EU are favourable. The AIV’s recommendation to give stakeholders more opportunities to help formulate EU policy is in line with Dutch efforts on this issue.
With the aim of increasing the transparency and legitimacy of EU governance, the EU published the Green Paper ‘The European Transparency Initiative’ on 3 May 2006. The AIV advocates Dutch support for the proposals made in this document for the introduction of a registration system for lobbyists and lobbying organisations. In its response to the Green Paper (see Parliamentary Papers 22112 no. 463), the government welcomes the Commission’s proposal to adapt the existing CONECCS database (Consultation, the European Commission and Civil Society), which makes clear which interest groups and lobbyists participate in which forms of consultation. This will enable the database to function as a voluntary registration system for all interest groups and lobbyists at EU institutions. With regard to EU rules for lobbyists, the government considers it too early to argue for stricter rules, since the Commission has not yet made a concrete proposal. It should be possible to set up the voluntary registration system in a way that stimulates extensive participation, e.g. by ensuring that it leads to priority access to certain information, to a place on various invitation lists, to better access to Commission officials and to inclusion on a published list of lobbyists. Such benefits will make lobbyists feel that their position and credibility are strengthened by registration.
With regard to the legal basis for more systematic cooperation between all the EU organs and civil society, the government endorses the importance of article 1-47 of Title VI of the Constitutional Treaty, which recognises the role of participatory democracy. However, even without a formal legal basis for non-state participation, the influence of civil society in the European arena is already being increased by certain developments. Examples include the increasingly public nature of Council meetings and the Commission’s regular consultations, as a policy-initiating body, with non-state actors. The government is not in favour of establishing a legal basis for non-state participation outside the context of a possible treaty amendment. It is the government’s view that using such means to establish a practice which has already established and proved itself autonomously would be disproportionate.
The Council of Europe
In the context of the Council of Europe, the government has completed the approval procedure for the European Convention on the Recognition of the Legal Personality of International Non-Governmental Organisations. Ratification will soon take place so that the Convention can enter into force for the Netherlands on 1 May 2007.
The government agrees with the AIV that it is important for international organisations to remain ‘outward looking’. NGOs and the private sector have a role to play not only in identifying key issues for the international community, but also in taking action on them. With their knowledge of local problems and needs, NGOs play a particularly important role in practically linking international and regional processes with local ones. The government is well aware that the global development of civil society as a counterbalance to the narrow interests of nation states is not a straightforward process. The government will continue to pursue this goal, partly through the EU, and will also continue to stimulate civil society actors to take part in this process in their own right.
A copy of this letter has been sent to the Presidents of the House of Representatives and the Senate of the States General.
Bernard Bot Agnes van Ardenne-van der Hoeven
Minister of Minister for
Foreign Affairs Development Cooperation