Another innovation agreed at the Vienna conference may have been of more practical relevance to the status of economic and social rights. It was decided that the UN should have a global ‘face’ of human rights in the form of a high commissioner. The second incumbent of this post, the vocal Mary Robinson, committed herself to redressing the imbalance of attention between civil and political versus economic and social rights. She famously emphasised time and again that extreme poverty was the worst kind of human rights abuse. This constituted a paradigm shift. Most human rights experts at that time, and perhaps still, would have identified situations of genocide or ethnic cleansing as the worst form of human rights abuse. Most development experts would have been inclined to think of extreme poverty as an intractable problem, not a human rights violation.

‘It’s a war of perceptions’, Army Brigadier General John Custer, head of intelligence at Central Command, told CBS News’ 60 Minutes. ‘They [the insurgents] understand the power of the Internet. They don’t have to win in the tactical battlefield. They never will. No platoon has ever been defeated in Afghanistan or Iraq. But it doesn’t matter. It’s irrelevant’ (Pelley 2007).

How? On the screen. Television, Ignatieff wrote, ‘is the instrument of a new kind of politics’, one in which NGOs seek to circumvent bilateral governmental relations and institute direct political contacts between far-flung people. This notion, exemplified in the paradigms of ‘mobilizing shame’ and ‘global witness,’ today dominates the ‘third sector,’ from relief agencies to human rights organisations and community movements. For us, that new politics has been generalised and radicalised. Global civil society is unthinkable without media, without a virtual public space and access to its means of production and distribution. Indeed, under the banners of opening-democratic-spaces and overcoming-the-digital-divide, creating and defending those media zones has become one of the chief preoccupations of the new political movements of our time. The current concern with information and communications technology for development is just one indicator of this phenomenon. But civil society – and the new people politics – is not what it used to be.

It seemed that images could make governments undo what previous images had apparently galvanised them to do. ‘The media got us into Somalia and then got us out’, wrote John Shattuck, former US assistant secretary for human rights and democracy in the Clinton era (1996: 174). The story was obviously more complicated than that (and the counter-example of over-exposed and under-defended Sarajevo can serve as shorthand here) but the message is conventional wisdom today. No major human rights or humanitarian organisation would undertake a major advocacy campaign, and certainly not one aimed at influencing Northern policy makers, without a comprehensive media strategy.

Much of the conflict between pro–gun and pro–control forces is vicious. The groups critique one another’s policy positions and allege deception and misrepresentation. Personal attacks are common. So are efforts to exclude the other side from participation or to de-legitimate institutions in which it appears to be making gains. Yet despite contradictory content, the framing of the contending sides’ messages, like their media strategies, is quite similar. Both networks portray themselves as moral actors representing the global public interest. Both mix scientific studies and rational arguments with emotional, even histrionic, appeals to their own constituents. Both portray their opponents as so misguided, self–interested, deceitful, even evil, that persuasion, debate, and compromise is impossible. Both identify powerful, shadowy and suspect sources as their foes’ bankrollers: for IANSA, the global gun industry is the dark force behind WFSA; for the NRA, George Soros is IANSA’s ‘sugar daddy,’ along with a ‘broad collection of left–wing foundations’ and European governments (La Pierre 2006a: 8, 11). Both sides seek to strip each other’s networks of more moderate members. And both sides highlight the other sides’ missteps. For instance, in early 2007 a leaked draft of an NRA fundraising pamphlet, ‘Freedom in Peril’ drew media accusations of xenophobia, extremism, and racism. In a milder passage, it described the UN and IANSA as ‘part of a marching axis of adversaries far darker and more dangerous than gun owners have ever known’ (NRA 2007: 1). IANSA quickly responded by placing a link to the online version of this ‘scathing attack on gun control advocates, NGOs, the United Nations, feminists and the media’ on its website (IANSA 2007). For its part, the NRA has festooned its attacks on IANSA with unflattering outtakes of Rebecca Peters, taken from the ‘Great Gun Debate’ (LaPierre 2006b; see Box 10.1).

The first risk is that it is a fragile movement on stilts, with shallow support structures incapable of dealing with setbacks and shifts in political mood. Live 8, the massive global music concert coinciding with the 2005 G8 summit was an event focused not on raising money but on raising public awareness on Africa, featured barely a single voice from Africa, an event about Africa, not of or from Africa. Criticism of this feature of Live 8 has been well rehearsed, but it is perhaps emblematic of an event focused on the exercise of communicative power by those best in a position to exercise that power, rather than a deliberate attempt to share and invest others with such power. The opportunity of Live 8 was to provide the Make Poverty History campaign with a set of supporters and voices that could nurture it through the inevitable difficulties that lie ahead. Most opinion polls suggest that public support in the UK in particular for efforts to tackle poverty is very widespread, but also very fragile. While the main justification of celebrity-led campaigns is their ability to reach a large number of people, some evidence suggests that their impact is short lived and shallow. Research in Britain shows public concern about poverty in poor countries reached a high of 32%, in April 2005, prior to the G8 meeting in Gleneagles in June, and two years has declined to 22%, its lowest level since the study began (Darnton 2007).

The final negotiations on the compliance procedure for the Kyoto Protocol were conducted behind closed doors. Some NGOs nevertheless belonged to networks of experts on compliance that were able to access the discussions. Others managed to secure participation on government delegations. For example, Gulbrandsen and Andresen (2004: 60) cite the case of Samoa acting as co-chair of the Joint Working Group on Compliance while having a US lawyer from FIELD on its delegation ‘who is said to have played an important role in the compliance negotiations and in the G77 discussions’. The fact that questions of sinks and flexibility mechanisms attracted most attention, at the expense of time on compliance, at least until the final stages of negotiations, provided an opportunity for research-oriented organisations with these types of legal and technical competence. They operated as intellectual leaders as a result of their ability to frame the compliance issue in a novel and constructive way (Gulbrandsen and Andresen 2004: 67). To some extent, this also reflects the sort of division of labour discussed above, allowing CIEL and WWF to focus on these issues, with less involvement from more activist groups such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. In particular, knowledge gaps on the issue and the lack of priority given to it by most delegations meant that the persistence and experience of these groups was important in forging the compliance regime. In this regard, Gulbrandsen and Andresen (2004: 68) note:

their capacity to influence the way the issue was framed appears to have been quite substantial when compliance was coined in more technical and politically neutral terms in the early phase. As positions polarised towards the end of the negotiations, their influence was substantially reduced.

Finally, global civil society is uneven and unequal in the gendering of risk perceptions. As Jude Howell shows in Chapter 1, the gendered nature of global civil society is ambiguous. On the one hand, civil society may be a sphere more permeable to women than the market and the state due to its roots in charity and voluntarism. On the other hand, civil society is seen by some feminists as a ‘public’ and hence historically exclusively male domain. As Howell points out, the theorists and activists who reinvigorated the concept did not problematise this heritage. Hence, risk framing in global civil society is likely to be male-dominated. Despite the campaigns on violence against women, a universal but ‘private’ risk such as rape is not likely to get the same consideration as climate change or terrorism.

It is relevant that the market for allegiances is not a zero sum game. The buyer can absorb many loyalties with differing intensities. He or she can be loyal to the King, increasingly believe in democratic values, be a devout Muslim, wear blue jeans and love consumer culture. The issue here is not how the messages are received and gain adherence, but rather what steps are taken so that audiences have access. Guobin Yang, using Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink’s analysis (Keck and Sikkink 1998), argues, ‘in information politics, advocacy networks generate politically usable information and move it to where it will have the most impact’ (Yang 2006). It is that effort to shift and achieve platforms for usable information that is the essence of the growth at the global level of this competition by civil society organisations.

Fourth, the discourse of civil society has been appropriated across the ideological spectrum to propel particular political agendas and positions. Feminists need to be particularly cautious when the language of civil society is used in debates about state deregulation, user choice and community provision of welfare services. There is the danger that the language of civil society and related concepts of community and social capital becomes an ideological device for justifying a particular vision of the state, which entails the return of welfare services to the family, and in practice to the unpaid and undervalued female carer.