Concern over small arms as a global issue first emerged in the early 1990s, as conventional disarmament organisations, domestic gun control groups, UN officials, foundations, and scholars held conferences, began research, and published books on the role of small arms in conflicts and crime worldwide. The NRA and other national gun groups quickly took notice. In 1997, they established a transnational network, the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA) – two years before pro–control forces formally created the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). WFSA now comprises 38 NGOs from around the world, primarily domestic sporting associations, firearms organisations, and gun manufacturers’ groups (WFSA URL). (IANSA claims over 700 member organisations in more than 100 countries, including domestic gun control groups and international development and human rights NGOs [URL]). Just like IANSA, WFSA’s most important function is facilitating communication and exchanging ideas through conferences, publications, and a website. As its website declares, WFSA has a ‘noble purpose: to further the study, preservation, promotion and protection of sport shooting activities on every continent.’ Its ‘Project on Myths’ refutes ‘statistical myths and pseudo–scientific facts’ about firearms. Pro–gun groups then use this information to combat control measures. Meanwhile, WFSA’s image committee promotes ‘a true and accurate portrayal of the time–honored traditions and heritage of sport shooting.’ As one part of this, it presents an annual ‘Ambassador Award’ for a public figure interested in sport shooting who has made the greatest ‘social contribution.’ The 2006 winner: Italian gun-maker Ugo Gussalli Beretta (WFSA URL).
An additional challenge to NGOs working internationally came with the major change in the geo-political climate after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Legislation and guidelines issued by the US government and the subsequent declaration of a ‘war on terror’ by President Bush, put a much higher accountability burden on non-profit organisations than in the past. Issued first in 2002 by the US Department of the Treasury under the authority of the Patriot Act and updated since, the Anti-Terrorist Financing Guidelines: Voluntary Best Practices for US-based Charities address foundations and cross-border philanthropy. This measure takes the first step to put in place detailed regulations governing the operations of financial institutions, including foundations and NGOs. Similar and sometimes more stringent measures have been discussed at the European Commission, the Council of Europe and the OECD (Anheier and Daly 2005) with regard to financial audits and the review of foreign organisations.
The UN approach
Even though democracy is not a precondition for UN membership and the word ‘democracy’ does not appear in the UN charter, since 2005 the UN has also made a foray into democracy promotion. According to Newman and Rich,
It is not one of the stated purposes of the United Nations to foster democracy, to initiate the process of democratisation or to legitimise other actors’ efforts in this field [democracy promotion]. (Newman and Rich 2004: 5)
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, democracy promotion means imaginative responses to demands from global civil society. The best form of empowerment is success, the knowledge that engagement leads to meaningful outcomes. Action designed to fulfil an emerging global social contract or covenant – the consequence of numerous debates, campaigns, arguments taking place all over the world – offers a political project that can help to recast democracy at local and national levels. A good example of what is meant by this is the enlargement of the European Union. The European Union can be understood a new type of multilateral organisation at a regional level, promoting, as it were, regional public goods. Membership of the European Union for newly emerging democracies has become an appealing political project that does take democracy forward. In the same way, a global social covenant could offer a political project for ‘civilising’ globalisation and pressing for global public goods like resource redistribution or global action to tackle climate change that represents an alternative to backward-looking sectarianism.
The third type of tool is communication and dialogue. Essentially this means engaging both government and civil society in debates among themselves and with outsiders. This was mainly what the peace and human rights groups did in the 1970s and 1980s and it is also sometimes the job of diplomats. As the EU’s External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten put great emphasis on political dialogue within the EU framework.
The discursive model proposes that the public is highly differentiated in terms of the roles various members play in the processes of public debate and decision. A small minority plays a distinct leadership role, aggressively pursuing its favoured actions, while at the other end of the participatory continuum are much larger mass audiences that do little more than receive information about the issue and retain some of it. Price and Neijens (1997) distinguish six different types of actors in public debate, arrayed roughly from the smallest and most active groups to the largest and least active aggregates. Political leaders, policy experts and interest groups comprise the ‘elites’, both within and outside the sphere of formal government who play active roles throughout all the phases of decision making (we place NGOs and public advocacy groups in the last of these categories). Members of the press serve as critical conduits for information and opinion exchange between these elites, as well as to their followers in attentive publics, made up of people following the issue, discussing it and forming opinions and, finally, to more expansive but minimally engaged mass audiences.
The UN Panel on UN-Civil Society Relations follows in this tradition. It describes participatory democracy as a process in which ‘anyone can enter the debates that most interest them, through advocacy, protest, and in other ways’ (UN 2004: paragraph 13). But a few pages later it acknowledges that there are practical constraints: ‘if the United Nations brought everyone relevant into each debate, it would have endless meetings without conclusion’ (2004: paragraph 23).