Origins and principles


Opposition to the World Economic Forum (WEF) was first expressed in a protest meeting and demonstration in Davos in January 1999. Members of Le Monde Diplomatique/ATTAC and the Brazilian Landless Movement (MST) were among the participants. A year later, Brazilian social entrepreneur Oded Grajew (see Grenier 2004, 133-4) and director of the Brazilian Commission for Justice and Peace Francisco Whitaker met with the French ATTAC and Le Monde Diplo director Bernard Cassen to discuss the possibility of a larger alternative forum (Whitaker 2004a; Teivanen 2002). ‘Their discussion produced three central ideas for the forum. First of all, it should be held in the South, and more concretely in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Second, the name should be World Social Forum (WSF), changing only one key word from the adversary’s name. And third, it should be organised over the same dates as the WEF, partially because this symbolism was considered attractive for the media’ (Teivanen 2002: 623) Soon afterwards, the mayor of Porto Alegre and the governor of the state, Rio Grande do Sul, both belonging to the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT, Workers’ Party), agreed to support the forum financially and logistically. The first WSF which took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, marked the beginning of the social forum phenomenon. It was the first global civil society event designed to take place in the South, with the express purpose of bringing together activists and global civil society organisations working on diverse issues, through diverse methods, within a format described as a social forum.

The record of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) is in many ways similar. The organisation’s powerful Dispute Settlement Mechanism is obliged to take any treaty obligations between disputing states into account, but has not so far applied this provision in relation to human rights treaties. Nor has it allowed non-state actors to submit materials. Economic and social rights activists do not have a common position on how trade should relate to these rights. While some would like to see the WTO take human rights obligations on board (Howse and Mutua 2000), others treat the idea of a ‘merger and acquisition’ (Alston 2002) of human rights by trade lawyers with suspicion, for the same reasons that Uvin treats the co-option of rights by the World Bank with scepticism. For the time being, they need not worry. The official stance of WTO has not shifted. Nonetheless, an important concession to what can only be described as a regard for the right to health has been made, as the result of massive civil society pressure, at the WTO negotiations in Doha: developing countries are allowed ‘flexibility’ in importing and exporting generic drugs when they can demonstrate that a national health crisis requires it (WTO 2003).

But the main adversaries of economic and social rights are no longer to be found in state governments. They are the international financial and trade organisations. As seen above, the World Bank is a partial exception, seeking to co-opt rather than oppose rights language along the lines of ‘we’ve always done it’. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been more explicit in its hostility. It has stated that ‘IMF was not a signatory to the Covenant … IMF did not specifically take States’ obligations under the Covenant into consideration when negotiating or consulting with them…’ (UN CESCR 1999). Thus, the IMF refuses to take a position on how states are supposed to mediate between their human rights obligations and the obligations imposed on them in respect of loans. Various governments, including those of Argentina and Egypt, have made it clear to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that, when negotiating with the IMF, they do not have the power or leeway to resist particular measures in the name of human rights (Dowell-Jones 2004: 80). So far, despite all the protests against the financial institutions in recent years, civil society pressure specifically in relation to its (legal, political or moral) human rights obligations has been fairly minimal. The first legal study of possible human rights obligations of the Bank and Fund was published only in 2001 (Skogly). What little pressure there has been has had no noticeable effect at all.

At the level of rhetoric, Uvin identifies two devices. The first is to claim that development organisations have always been in the business of fulfilling human rights, and more specifically economic and social rights. Thus he quotes the World Bank, which claims that ‘its lending over the past 50 years for education, health care, nutrition, sanitation, housing, environmental protection and agriculture have helped turn rights into reality for millions’ (World Bank 1999: 3–4). Even such rhetorical adoption of human rights may not be entirely without consequences. Katarina Tomasevski, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education, has described how the Bank has been persuaded to shift from a position of charging fees for primary education to championing free education (Tomasevski 2005: 719–20).

At the global level, campaigning for a UN complaints procedure for individuals, to be established via an ‘optional protocol’ to the Covenant, has since 1993 become one of the main focuses of the human rights community. Numerous unofficial drafts exist. Nonetheless, it was not until 2003 that the UN Human Rights Commission established an ‘Open Ended Working Group’, that is, a talking shop, to consider such a protocol. The year 2006 will be crucial for the individual complaints procedure. After three years of deliberation, the Working Group will hold its last session, and the first session of the new Human Rights Council, convening in June 2006, is expected to decide whether or not to go ahead with drafting a protocol. If there is not enough support, there will be no individual complaints procedure in the foreseeable future (ESCR Protocol Now URL).

Meanwhile, developing countries sought to add another right to the international catalogue: a United Nations resolution adopted in 1979 said that ‘the right to development is a human right and that equality of opportunity for development is as much a prerogative of nations as of individuals of nations’ (quoted in Sengupta 2002: 863, emphasis added). Given the confusion between ‘states’ and ‘nations’ that is inherent in the very name of the United Nations, this statement transformed development from a human into a state right, more specifically a right of poor states. Thus, it was closely related to the idea of the New International Economic Order. The 1986 Declaration on the Right to Development, adopted by the UN General Assembly, puts more emphasis on the individual level, while also spelling out that there are multiple duty-bearers in relation to human rights. But the Declaration has little legal status and little implementable detail. To this day, independent experts, open-ended working groups and UN task forces are making little-noticed attempts to clarify (or obfuscate) the right to development (Salomon 2005).

Conflict, institutions and globalisation

While wars might be fought in the name of free society, such is their intrusion into rights that, when won, democracy has to struggle to re-emerge in the aftermath. Even so, the struggle can be won, as the settlement after the Second World War showed, involving as it did the greatest advance in human freedom in history, with the establishment of the United Nations and the proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while the development of international institutions has proceeded with no significant check ever since, until perhaps – and we can’t yet be sure – the present time.

Given the rapidly changing contours of global climate policy, those groups that are flexible in their approach to the issue and that show themselves willing to engage with new actors in order to construct imaginative and diverse coalitions of interest are likely to be more successful in the long- term. A reading of where power lies in the climate debate suggests that attention increasingly needs to turn to the power brokers in the global political economy. Pension funds, export credit-rating agencies, banks, as well of course as the larger multilateral development banks that oversee the allocation and use of significant sums of aid money, are central actors in day-to-day decision-making, in direct and indirect ways, about whether resources are channelled into activities which benefit or undermine the goal of climate protection.  Groups with more access to the legal and scientific expertise necessary to meaningfully engage the international negotiations on climate change appear to enjoy the most influence on climate policy, as traditionally understood. Yet ultimately the real agents of change may be those groups which are able to alter the behaviour of economic and corporate actors whose decisions chart the climate footprint of the global economy in more direct and immediate ways than the governments that continue to attract most attention from civil society activists.

Implications for future strategy

Amid the diversity of mobilising and organising strategies described above, it is impossible to foresee in precise terms the future course of civil society engagement with the climate change issue. In general terms, however, we can expect to see the proliferation of new constellations of state and industry coalitions: both continued lobbying of states to implement the terms of the Kyoto Protocol and renewed efforts to target the largest polluters and foot-draggers directly through a variety of strategies of civil regulation. There is also growing interest in the possibility of forging links with other elements of civil society, including non-traditional allies such as trade union organisations (Obach 2004). Building popular awareness about the issue and strengthening the case for action may also imply an expansion of public education work by civil society organisations, important strategically for leveraging pressure on governments and companies. Such public education and shaming strategies exist alongside the creation of strategic links to other sectors and policy issues in order to improve the salience of the climate change issue. This has taken the form of efforts to draw into proactive coalitions those sectors most likely to be detrimentally affected by climate change, as we saw above. As in the case of the insurance industry, there is an important supportive role that can be performed by international organisations such as United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP URL) in catalysing and providing a platform for these coalitions.

New targets and strategic alliances

Targeting the multilateral development banks

A development actor that has the potential to finance a number of important climate protection initiatives, as well as reduce the climate-changing impact of other leading development actors, is the World Bank. In addition to being an implementing agency of the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the Bank has a separate Climate Change Programme made up of three components: Climate Change Overlays Programme; World Bank AIJ programme and the Global Carbon Initiative. The Bank also has a Clean Coal Initiative intended to encourage the use of ‘environmentally-friendly’ coal technologies.

We should recognise at the outset that many of the world’s most important political and economic actors benefit enormously from the processes and practices that create climate change. Most systems of large-scale industrial production and energy provision are based on the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change. To the extent that climate change highlights the unsustainability of the fossil-fuelled growth trajectory that underpins the contemporary global economy, it focuses scrutiny on the economic growth strategies promoted by the world’s leading global economic institutions, most notably the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Because of the enormous global climate footprint that results from the increased movement of goods transported around the world as a result of lower trade barriers, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the governments that created and sustain it necessarily also enter the spotlight. Internalising the externality of dangerous climate change amounts to demanding that the richest and most powerful economies of the world transform the economic structures that have brought them their economic wealth (the abundant supply and exploitation of cheap reserves of fossil fuels). We should not underestimate the political obstacles to doing this. The threat that action on climate change poses to traditional patterns of economic production and energy consumption is evident in the response of the Bush administration in the U.S to the Kyoto Protocol.

But as with the global parliament or UNEPS, that is the point! The resistance to the Tobin Tax is not about money, it is about power. The main geopolitical actors are unwilling to allow the UN to become an independent actor that can fulfil the goals of the ‘responsibility to protect’ ethos in an efficient and a political manner. It is unlikely that independent financing for the UN will occur without a major global civil society movement that would have to be on a scale comparable to that which brought the International Criminal Court into being. In most respects the ICC would seem far more threatening to statist prerogatives than would independent financing for the UN. In this sense, the political will of global civil society must be strengthened if such an indispensable reform is to become a live political project in the years ahead.

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.

The successful movement to establish an International Criminal Court (ICC) is illustrative of a reformist move that came into being, at least formally, outside of these limits on feasibility. William Pace, a leader of the NGO coalition that collaborated with governments in the late 1990s, likes to tell the story that he was advised by many within the UN that the ICC project was impossibly utopian given the firmness of US opposition. In this instance, the mobilisation of global civil society appeared to create a momentum that overcame geopolitical resistance. Of course, the success may be less than meets the eye if the ICC fails to produce significant indictments and prosecutions in coming years. The first real opportunity for the ICC seems likely to arise out of its anticipated role in dealing with allegations of crimes against humanity in the context of the Darfur genocide in Sudan. There are other important indications that civil society initiatives can obtain results despite geopolitical opposition: the separate requests to the International Court of Justice for Advisory Opinions with respect to the legality of nuclear weapons and of the Israeli security wall; the push for a treaty of prohibition on the use of anti-personnel landmines; and widespread adherence to the Kyoto Protocol restricting greenhouse gas emissions. Such successes should not be overstated. A minority of opposing states can still nullify the ‘success’ by refusing to comply with or by simply ignoring the institutional or normative claims. The lesson here is that global civil society, acting in collaboration with sympathetic governments, can pursue reformist projects that stretch, if not break free of, the geopolitical limits on political action, and that such action is an indispensable contribution to the global reform process, within and without the United Nations.

The structures and norms of the world have altered so much since 1945 that it is tempting to suggest that the United Nations inscribes within its multitude of actors and operations a set of arrangements that no longer reflect the fundamental characteristics of world order, and that it might be best to redesign a world organisation that takes proper account of the emergence of global civil society, of market forces, and of radical shifts in relative power among states and regions. That is, UN reformism is not responsive to the real challenge of adjustment, which is structural renewal, or at least transformation. Such an outlook makes sense from the apolitical perspective of pure reason, but it is not worth seriously entertaining, as starting over is at this point completely beyond the horizons of possibility, and any such advocacy by civil society actors would exhibit a spirit of futility. The only practical course is to strengthen the United Nations as it has evolved over the course of its history. Such an effort is difficult enough if ambitiously conceived, and may turn out to be also impossible, as it must overcome the resistance of entrenched interests to reforms that are otherwise widely supported and seem sensible. For instance, enlarging the permanent membership of the Security Council is opposed in some governmental quarters because it will allegedly produce a more unwieldy body less able to respond effectively to crises. At the same time, recasting the composition of membership within the scope of the present frame of 15 members seems virtually impossible due to the refusal of Britain and France to give up their individual status and agree to a consolidation of European membership. This would dilute their independent roles as permanent members, but greatly facilitate the restructuring of the Security Council. In effect, widely needed and generally accepted reforms are often blocked by the entrenched vested interests of particular members in retaining outmoded features. The nationalist myopia of a single country can often outweigh the more general interest of all states in enhancing UN effectiveness and legitimacy. The Security Council expansion debacle shows the most dysfunctional features of the UN reform process.

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.

Perceptions and representations

 There is also the highly contested terrain of representation as it pertains to the United Nations. The UN is represented variously by its most ardent supporters as offering by far the straightest road to peace, justice, and global governance. The UN is generally represented by its fiercest critics as a dream palace of illusion, as ‘a dangerous place’ where ‘irresponsible majorities’ rule the roost, and as an irrelevant talking shop when it comes to the critical challenges of global security and the world economy. Richard Perle, an influential neoconservative, and Dore Gold, a leading Israeli diplomat, illustrate how far this hostility to the United Nations can be carried (Perle 2003; Gold 2004). This spectrum of representations explains why it seems often impossible to achieve a consensus on the content and character of global reform. Both clusters of representations, the favorable and the critical, tend to proceed from the premise that the UN is the boldest global experiment ever in establishing a normative framework and an institutional authority that challenge the primacy of the sovereign state. Such talk about the UN seems inflated, even grandiose. It overlooks the extent to which the boldest and most consequential organisational initiatives on an international level, at least with respect to overriding sovereignty, can be more convincingly associated with either the European Union or the triad of international financial institutions – the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO) – rather than with the UN (Falk 2004: ch. 3). The IMF and World Bank are nominally linked to the UN but are operationally autonomous, while the WTO was deliberately established with no formal link to the UN. At this stage of history even governmental critics treat the UN as a sufficiently important arena for achieving the legitimisation and implementation of policies that they rarely advocate the policy option of withdrawal. But acknowledging this importance is not the same as a shared commitment to a stronger or more effective organisation in relation to the Charter (the goal of genuine UN reform, as distinct from the United States’ geopolitical or hegemonic understanding of effectiveness). It is this encounter in the realm of representation, and related imaginaries of world order, that has made previous reformist efforts in the UN setting so often founder. Such a realisation of these difficulties erodes commitments to reform and suggests the need for a politics of reform for the UN on the part of those who believe that the UN has the potential to contribute more to peace, justice, equity, and sustainability in the world.

It is in these ideological and historical circumstances that this chapter considers the issue of UN reform from the perspective of global civil society. It begins by presenting the debate on reform as emerging out of a swirl of conflicting political projects, and then proceeds to discuss how reform has accompanied the evolution of the UN. Because changes in the Charter of the United Nations are often impossible to achieve by formal amendment, the story of reform is often mainly told in terms of shifting patterns of practice, especially in the Security Council and Secretariat, which adapt the UN to changing values and imperatives, and amount to what might be described as ‘reform from within’. This discussion is followed by a consideration of three important reports addressing UN reform produced on the initiative of the Secretary-General. This is essentially a state-friendly approach to UN reform that can be understood as ‘reform from above’. A further section considers some prominent initiatives that emanate from global civil society and enjoy widespread support in the more radical reformist domains, and can be understood as ‘reform-from-below’ (and without), although on occasion with crucial collaborative support from coalitions of governments. It is this pattern of political action that successfully brought the International Criminal Court into being despite intense opposition from leading geopolitical actors. That is, this kind of globalism is a new form of diplomacy that should not be regarded as either traditionally statist in character or a postmodern instance of non-state transnationalism. It is really a diplomatic hybrid that could be tentatively identified as the ‘new globalism’.


The subject of the reform of the United Nations, the embattled target of neoconservative wrath that has been given a new intensity by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s criticism of the Iraq war, is bound to be a site of struggle in the current period. On the one side are these efforts, led by the Americans and given a sharp edge by the designation of John Bolton, a leading critic of the UN, as the US representative, to marginalise the United Nations generally, but especially in relation to peace and security and the work of the specialised agencies dealing with poverty, health, and children. On the other side are the great majority of UN members, led by moderate governments, receptive to the outlook of Kofi Annan, who seek to bring the UN into the twenty-first century in a manner that is consistent with humanitarian values, development and democratization priorities, and security concerns, exhibiting sensitivity to the problems and interests of weak and strong members alike. Representatives of global civil society have much at stake in this debate over the future of the United Nations. Although it has been assumed that civil society actors have been generally perceived as supporters of a strong UN, and could be expected to stand shoulder to shoulder with Annan and his governmental allies, it is also true that influential NGOs in the United States, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and, less visibly, Move America Forward, have long had the UN in their sights, and regard the Bush presidency and the UN oil-for-food scandal as an opportune moment to promote vigorously their anti-UN agenda.