But the UN is only one arena for this transnational gun activism. Like IANSA, the NRA scours the world for gun–related issues to use in its fundraising and policymaking efforts. In this integrated global struggle, everything from a school shooting in Pennsylvania, and a paramilitary massacre in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, to the Holocaust is likely to turn up in the contending networks’ campaigns. Reciprocally, local groups facing gun control threats at home regularly seek NRA and WFSA aid, just as those suffering gun violence often turn to IANSA. The Brazilian referendum was only a recent example of a pattern visible also in places as far–flung as South Africa, Japan, and Great Britain.


Once international meetings actually begin, there is a perception among NGOs that national capitals exercise strong control over the negotiating space of their teams, and that as a result the scope for meaningful shifts in positions during negotiating meetings is often fairly minimal. In addition, NGOs do not have legal rights to formally put items on the agenda. They may be represented at Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings as observers, however, if parties agree, on the proviso that they are qualified in matters covered by the convention. Opportunities to intervene in meetings are normally restricted to opening or closing plenary sessions. NGOs’ ability to make interventions is subject to the discretion of the chairperson of the meeting and ultimately rests with the parties to the Convention. Spaces are provided, nevertheless, for position statements to be heard in the plenary sessions from groups claiming to represent different elements of civil society, such that in the past Climate Action Network has spoken on behalf of assembled NGOs, and the International Chamber of Commerce has made an intervention on behalf of industry.

At the same time, we have to recognise at the outset that only a fraction of global civil society organisations actively participate in these processes. Southern-based groups are under-represented in international negotiating processes because they lack the resources required to attend and meaningfully participate in international meetings held all around the world which place a high premium on legal, scientific and other forms of expertise that Northern elites tend to have in greater abundance. The international reach of some groups derives from their access to the decision-making process within powerful states. The influence of groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense (ED) on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and their ability to change the course of votes in the US Congress have provided key leverage in achieving positive environmental outcomes in the past (O’Brien et al. 2000). At the same time, such leverage ensures the groups voice and influence out of all proportion to the numbers they represent, generating concerns among governments. It accounts for the resistance of some developing country delegates to moves to open up regional and international policy processes to further participation from civil society. The argument is that well-resourced groups have an opportunity both to influence their own government at national level and to make their voice heard regionally – allowing them ‘two bites at the apple –  in a way which is not possible for other less well-resourced groups.

As noted in the introduction to this chapter, despite growing cynicism about the returns from continued engagement with the international negotiations on climate change, many groups remain committed to using those channels available to them to influence the future of the Kyoto Protocol. This choice takes place against a background of growing emphasis under international law, from the Rio declaration to the Aarhus Convention, on the importance of public participation (see Box 3.3). Agenda 21, for example, calls upon intergovernmental organisations to provide regular channels for NGOs ‘to contribute to policy design, decision-making, implementation and evaluation of IGO activities’ (United Nations 1992a).

In the spirit of Annan’s fork-in-the-road speech, UN reform needed to explore, among other topics, facilitating a better connection between global civil society and the organisation. As mentioned earlier, in 2003 Annan established a so-called Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations-Civil Society Relations under the chairmanship of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Cardoso Panel). The Cardoso Panel report emphasises intangible encouragements to civil society by way of calls on the UN system to consult more with multiple constituencies in addition to governments affected by policy and to establish a spirit of engagement at the level of international institutions and national governments (UN 2004a). Of the 30 proposals set forth in some detail none is of major consequence, although there is a motif of soft advocacy on behalf of greater global civil society participation as integral to a more effective United Nations in the future. The fourth proposal is indicative of the approach taken, geopolitically sceptical while still promoting a more positive future for civil society activities within the frame of the United Nations. The language of the proposal is revealing: ‘The United Nations should retain the global conference mechanism but use it sparingly to address major emerging policy issues’ (emphasis added) in circumstances where public understanding and opinions is important as the basis for ‘concerted global action’. Further, ‘[t]he participation of civil society and other constituencies should be planned in collaboration with their networks’ (UN 2004a). Here the word ‘planned’ acknowledges statist concerns about spontaneous or uncontrolled forms of participation.

It was only, however, with the onset of global conferences on policy issues, pioneered and prefigured by the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment in 1971, that the UN became a major arena for transnational civil forces, both as a source of pressure exerted on intergovernmental activities and as an occasion for transnational civil society networking and organising. Unlike the earlier low-profile roles intended to hide the influence of the NGOs in intergovernmental negotiations, here the intention was primarily to exert highly visible influence on the most powerful states and to gain attention for dissident views in the global media assembled to cover the event, although the supportive NGO roles of providing information and analysing policy options continued to be an invaluable equaliser on such occasions. This dynamic reached a climax in the 1990s with a series of high-profile UN conferences that featured strong and vivid participation by civil society actors, and the early articulation by commentators on the international scene of the presence of new political formation identified as ‘global civil society’ (Pianta 2001; Box 5.1). The very success of this informal penetration of UN processes induced a backlash on the part of several leading governments that sensed a loss of control by states of the policy-forming process, which made the holding of such conferences politically difficult. Representatives of large states described these conferences as ‘spectacles’ and as ‘a waste of money and time’, but the real objection was their showcasing of the vitality of civil society actors and networks that so often put governments on the defensive with respect to global policy debates. In effect, civil society actors were creative in their discovery of ways to make effective use of the United Nations to promote their aspirations, but the statist and geopolitical structuring of influence at the UN, which endures, also displayed its capacity to hit back, to control the purse strings of global diplomacy, and essentially to shut the off these informal, yet effective, channels of civil society access with respect to global policy formation on major issues.

There are also a large number of civil society actors around the world with issue-oriented agendas, especially in relation to environment and human rights. These actors make use of the United Nations to the extent relevant to their substantive preoccupations. EarthAction, World Wide Fund for Nature, and Greenpeace are environmental NGOs that push their causes at the UN whenever it seems useful. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International do the same with respect to human rights. One of the oldest and most widely respected organisations, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), has been active especially at the Geneva end of UN operations, but also in UN conferences around the world, particularly if the subject matter bears on feminist concerns or disarmament. WILPF has a civil society presence and possesses a strong internationalist identity that long antedates the establishment of the United Nations. The role and activism of WILPF prefigures in many respects the emergent reality of global civil society.