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The Sovereign Limits of Global Civil Society: A Comparison of NGO Participation in UN World Conferences on the Environment, Human Rights, and Women

  • Ann Marie Clark (a1), Elisabeth J. Friedman (a2) and Kathryn Hochstetler (a3)


The increased visibility of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and social movements at the international level invites continuing evaluation of the extent and significance of the role they now play in world politics. While the presence of such new actors is easily demonstrated, international relations scholars have debated their significance. The authors argue that the concept of global civil society sets a more demanding standard for the evaluation of transnational political processes than has been applied in prior accounts of transnational activity. Further, most empirical studies of this activity have focused on a limited number of NGOs within a single issue-area. Using three recent UN world conferences as examples of mutual encounters between state-dominated international politics and global civic politics, the authors develop the concept of global civil society to provide a theoretical foundation for a systematic empirical assessment of transnational relations concerning the environment, human rights, and women at the global level.



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1 Others have observed that further investigation is necessary. Martin Shaw observes that “too little attention has been paid” to the “empirical analysis of [social movements in civil society] and their relevance to the global/interstate contexts.” Thomas G. Weiss, David P. Forsythe, and Roger A. Coate note that “the differences, conflicts, and tensions in the interstate order are relatively well documented and discussed; this is not true for the nonstate order.” Shaw, , “Civil Society and Global Politics,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 23 (Fall 1994), 648; Weiss, , Forsythe, , and Coate, , The United Nations and Changing World Politics, 2d ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1997), 252–53.

2 Although there are many variants of the concept, civil society is made up of “some combination of networks of legal protection, voluntary associations, and forms of independent public expression.” Cohen, Jean L. and Arato, Andrew, Civil Society and Political Theory (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 74. Ronnie Lipschutz and Shaw review conceptions of civil society in international relations theory. See Lipschutz, , “Reconstructing World Politics: The Emergence of Global Civil Society,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 21 (Winter 1992), 389–91; and Shaw (fn. 2), 647–49.

3 See, for example, Schmitter's discussion of how civil society contributes to democratic consolidation. Schmitter, Philippe C., “Civil Society East and West,” in Diamond, Larry et al. , eds., Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies: Themes and Perspectives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 247.

4 See discussion of this point in Keck, Margaret E. and Sikkink, Kathryn, Activists beyond Borders: Advocacy Networks in International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998), 3234.

5 Wapner, Paul, “Politics beyond the State: Environmental Activism and World Civic Politics,” World Politics 47 (April 1995), 313. See also Smith, Jackie, Pagnucco, Ron, and Chatfield, Charles, “Social Movements and World Politics: A Theoretical Framework,” in Smith, , Pagnucco, , and Chatfield, , eds., Transnational Social Movements and World Politics: Solidarity beyond the State (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997).

6 Risse-Kappen, Thomas, “Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Introduction,” in , Risse-Kappen, ed., Bringing Transnational Relations Back In: Non-State Actors, Domestic Structures and International Institutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 3.

7 Lumsdaine, David Halloran, Moral Vision in International Politics: The Foreign Aid Regime, 1949–1989 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 25.

8 Tarrow, Sidney, “Cycles of Collective Action: Between Moments of Madness and the Repertoire of Contention,” in Traugott, M., ed., Repertoires and Cycles of Collective Action (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1995), 91. Emphasis in original.

9 Snow, David A. and Bedford, Robert D., “Master Frames and Cycles of Protest,” in Morris, A. D. and Mueller, C. M., eds., Frontiers in Social Movement Theory (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 137.

10 Bichsel, Anne, “NGOs as Agents of Public Accountability and Democratization in Intergovernmental Forums,”; in Lafferty, W. M. and Meadowcroft, J., eds., Democracy and the Environment (Brookfield, Vt.: Edward Elgar, 1996), 241.

11 Organizations falling into the latter category sometimes call themselves social movements, but we have chosen to use the term nongovernmental organization to refer to groups with both types of aims. This term is the most appropriate choice for this article since it is also the UN designation for such groups.

12 Many NGOs, of course, use both simultaneously. Works that address social movements' political roles directly are: Hochstetler, Kathryn, “The Evolution of the Brazilian Environmental Movement and Its Political Roles,” in Chalmers, D. et al. , eds., The New Politics of Inequality in Latin America: Rethinking Participation and Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Wapner (fn. 5). See also Clark, Ann Marie, “Non-Governmental Organizations and Their Influence on International Society,” Journal of International Affairs 48 (Winter 1995).

13 Willetts, Peter, “The Pattern of Conferences,” in Taylor, P. and Groom, A. J. R., eds., Global Issues in the United Nations' Framework (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989), 37.

14 Elisabeth J. Friedman observed the Vienna NGO forum; the NGO forum of the Latin American and Caribbean Regional PrepCom for Beijing at Mar de Plata, Argentina; and the Beijing conference, both the NGO forum and the official conference, as an accredited NGO representative. Kathryn Hochstetler observed four preparatory meetings of the Brazilian NGO forum for the UNCED in 1990 and 1991; a Latin American NGO preparatory forum sponsored by Friends of the Earth in Sao Paulo, Brazil; and the official and parallel meetings of the UNCED Fourth PrepCom. Throughout this article, we refer to the conferences either by their title or by the city in which they were held.

15 The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, and some later conferences might also fit into our conceptual framework.

The largest difference between the 1994 Cairo conference and the conferences analyzed in this article may be that the first population conferences (Rome, 1954, and Belgrade, 1964) were specialist conferences characterized by specialized, knowledge-based, consultative interactions between NGOs and governments. These conferences were cosponsored by a transnational scientific organization, the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP). Planners for the 1974 population conference in Bucharest, although themselves a group of academics and government specialists, decided that it should not be another specialist conference. Thus, the Bucharest and later Mexico City (1984) and Cairo (1994) conferences were more broadly based, but still had a significant knowledge-based component. Paul Taylor, “Population: Coming to Terms with People,” in Taylor and Groom (fn. 13), 151.

Applying our analytical categories to Cairo, our initial research suggests that the procedures governing NGO participation were not particularly contentious because alliances were built based on the shared knowledge component. With some possible exceptions, cleavages were characterized by NGO-to-government agreement on various sides of substantive issues rather than by disagreements between governments and NGOs.

16 We use official conference and PrepCom (Preparatory Committee Session) to distinguish governmental proceedings from NGO forums.

17 Sally Morphet cites estimates of 255 to 298 NGO observers. Morphet, , “NGOs and the Environment,” in Willetts, Peter, ed., “;The Conscience of the World”: The Influence ofNon-Governmental Organisations in the U.N. System (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institutions, 1996), 144 n. 35.

18 Weiss etal.(fn. 1), 239.

19 UN Document A/Conf.32/41, “Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights,” Tehran, April 22 to May 13,1968, part 1, para. 2, and annex 1, parts 5 and 6.

20 United Nations Department of Public Information (New York), Yearbook of the United Nations 1993, vol. 47 (Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff, 1993), 908.

21 International Commission of Jurists, “Preliminary Evaluation of the UN World Conference on Human Rights,” The Review ofthe International Commission ofJurists 50 (1993), 109; Amnesty International, “Human Rights Groups Take Centre Stage,” Amnesty International Newsletter 23 (September 1993), 8.

22 See Fraser, Arvonne, The U.N. Decade for Women: Documents and Dialogue (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987); United Nations, The United Nations and the Advancement of Women 1945–1996 (New York: United Nations Department of Public Information, 1996).

23 The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and the International Conference of Scientific Unions were the early “hybrids.” Morphet (fn. 17).

24 For example, only two representatives per accredited NGO were permitted to participate on a limited basis in the governmental conference at Mexico City.

25 See Stephenson, Carolyn M., “Women's International Nongovernmental Organizations at the United Nations,” in Winslow, A., ed., Women, Politics, and the UnitedNations (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995).

26 See Appendixes II and III in Rowland, Wade, The Plot to Save the World: The Life and Times of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin and Co., 1973).

27 UN Document E/Conf.66/34 (76.N.1), “World Plan of Action for the Advancement of Women,” Mexico City, 1975, in The United Nations and the Advancement of Women, 1945–1995 (New York: UNDPl, 1995), 27, 185.

28 “Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights,” UN Resolution III, May 11, 1978, 7.

29 Both groups were coordinated by the former Irish diplomat Sean MacBride, who held simultaneous leadership positions in two major human rights NGOs. MacBride was the secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) from 1963 to 1970 and chaired the International Executive Committee of Amnesty International from 1964 to 1974. Tolley, Howard, The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates for Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 105–9.

30 Willetts, Peter, “From Stockholm to Rio and Beyond: The Impact of the Environmental Movement on the United Nations Consultative Arrangements for NGOs,” Review ofInternational Studies 22 (January 1996), 67.

31 Rowland (fn. 26), 1.

32 We discuss North-South tensions between NGOs later in the paper in “Unaligned NGO Frames.”

33 Terra Viva, June 15, 1992, in Earth Summit: The NGO Archives (hereafter cited as Earth Summit), CD-ROM (Montevideo, Uraguay: NGONET, 1995). This CD-ROM contains primary documents pertaining to the Rio conference. Where possible, dates and pages cited are from the original documents.

34 Centre for Applied Studies in International Organizations, “Report on the Participation of NonGovernmental Organizations in the Preparatory Process of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development,” August 1992,10, in Earth Summit (fn. 33).

35 For one version of this argument, see Finger, Matthias, “Environmental NGOs in the UNCED Process,” in Princen, T. and Finger, M., eds., Environmental NGO in World Politics: Linking the Local and the Global (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

36 UN Resolution 44/228, December 22,1989.

37 “Some Proposals from NGOs for the World Conference,” NGO-Newsletter (February 1993), in Nowak, Manfred, ed., The World Conference on Human Rights: Vienna, June 1993: The Contribution of NGOs: Reports and Documents (Vienna: Manz, 1994), 217. The position of high commissioner was not established by the conference but was approved in the following General Assembly session. A tribunal has not been established.

38 Helena Cook, “Amnesty International at the United Nations.” In Willetts (fn. 17), 195.

39 Gaer, Felice D., “Reality Check: Human Rights NGOs Confront Governments at the UN,” in Weiss, T. G. and Gordenker, L., eds., NGOs, the UN, and Global Governance (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1996), 59.

40 Martha Alter Chen, “Engendering World Conferences: The International Women's Movement and the UN,” in Weiss and Gordenker (fn. 39).

41 See Bunch, Charlotte and Reilly, Niamh, Demanding Accountability: The Global Campaign and Vienna Tribunal for Women's Human Rights (New Brunswick, N.J.: Center for Women's Global Leadership; New York: UNIFEM, 1994).

42 WEDO, “A Brief Analysis of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,” November 30,1995.

43 In the preparatory process for the Rio conference and others, the official meetings received one of three designations, which provided for different levels of NGO participation. “Formal” meetings, with governmental statements for the record, allowed NGOs to be present, to give presentations if asked or allowed by the chair of the meeting, and to lobby. “Formal informal” meetings allowed the presence of NGOs at the discretion of the chair. “Informal” meetings involved many kinds of gatherings. Most of the actual governmental negotiating sessions were scheduled as officially informal meetings, meaning that NGOs had no systematic access to them.

44 “The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations,” NGO-Newsletter (October 1992), in Nowak (fn. 37), 208.

45 Azzam, Fateh, “Non-Governmental Organizations and the UN World Conference on Human Rights,” The Review of the International Commission of Jurists 50 (1993), 95.

46 Cook (fn. 38), 192.

47 UN Resolution 48/108, December 20,1993.

48 Earth Negotiations Bulletin, April 10,1995, online.

49 E/CN.6/1995/L.20, April 10,1995.

50 Brundtland Bulletin 16 (July 1992), 8, in Earth Summit (fn. 33).

51 Manfred Nowak and Ingeborg Schwartz, “Introduction: The Contribution of Non-Governmental Organizations,” in Nowak (fn. 37), 5, 7.

52 Fraser (fn. 22), 60,147,199; Chow, Esther Nganling, “Making Waves, Moving Mountains: Reflections on Beijing '95 and Beyond,” Signs 22, no. 1 (1996), 187.

53 NGO Parallel Activities,” NGO-Newsletter (July 1993), in Nowak (fn. 37), 225.

54 Zheng, Wang, “A Historic Turning Point for the Women's Movement in China,” Signs 22, no. 1 (1996), 196.

55 See Morgan, Robin, “The NGO Forum: Good News and Bad,” Women's Studies Quarterly 24 (Spring–Summer 1996).

56 International Press Center, Press Release, no. 160, June 8,1992, in Earth Summit (fn. 33).

57 “Addendum 2 to the final report of the NGO-Forum, UN Document A/Conf.157/7/Add 2 of 24 June 1993,” and “Analytical Report of Working Group A,” in Nowak (fn. 37), 105.

58 Compare the three-page statement by Amnesty International, “Our World: Our Rights,” AI Index. IOR 41/19/92 (December 1992), with “World Conference on Human Rights: Facing Up to the Failures,” AI Index: IOR 41/16/92 (December 1992), the 39-page document issued the same month by Amnesty International.

59 A contrast between many governments' sense of relief after the Vienna conference and NGOs' strident criticisms appears in Schmidt, Markus, “What Happened to the ‘Spirit of Vienna’? The Follow-up to the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the Mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights,” Nordic Journal of International Law 64 (1995), 599.

60 WEDO, Beyond Promises: Governments in Motion One Year after the Beijing Women's Conference (New York: WEDO, 1996).

61 Centre for Applied Studies in International Organizations (fn. 34), 26.

62 See Frank Ching, “Is It an NGO, or a GONGO?” Far Eastern Economic Review July 7,1994, 34.

63 This finding contradicts Wapner's expectation that his analysis of the parallel activities of Northern NGOs on the environmental front could be extended to all NGOs. Wapner (fn. 5), 316.

64 “ELCI Global Meeting on Environment and Development for NGO-Nairobi,” in Earth Summit (fn.34).

65 Centre for Applied Studies in International Negotiations, “NGO Activities at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development and the Global Forum,” 25, in Earth Summit (fn. 34). About fifteen hundred people registered at the women's tent.

66 Friedman, Elisabeth, “Women's Human Rights: The Emergence of a Movement,” in Peters, J. and Wolper, A., eds., Women's Rights, Human Rights: International Feminist Perspectives (New York: Rout-ledge, 1995), 2527.

67 Amnesty International published a book on women's rights in March 1995 at the launch of a campaign on women's rights in the lead-up to Beijing. Amnesty International, Human Rights Are Women's Right (New York: Amnesty International, 1995). Human Rights Watch began a research and monitoring project on women's human rights in 1990 and published the results of its five years of work in 1995. Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Project, The Human Rights Watch Global Report on Women's Human Rights (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1995).

68 Kari-Oca Declaration of the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples on Territory, Environment and Development, May 25–30,1992, Kari-Oca (Rio de Janeiro), Brazil, in Earth Summit (fn. 34).

69 Alan Riding, “Bleak Assessment as Rights Meeting Nears,” New York Times, April 25, 1993, 11.

70 Centre for Applied Studies in International Negotiations Issues and Non-Governmental Organizations Programme (fn. 34), 16.

71 Ibid., 11.

72 Stephenson (fn. 25), 143.

73 Charlotte Bunch, Mallika Dutt, and Susana Fried, “Beijing '95: A Global Referendum on the Human Rights of Women” (Manuscript, Center for Women's Global Leadership, Rutgers University, n.d.).

74 Boyle, Kevin, “Stock-taking on Human Rights: The World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna 1993,” Political Studies 43 (1995), 91.

75 On the International Commission of Jurists, see William J. Butler, “A Global Advocate of Freedom,” In Memoriam: Niall MacDermot, sp. ed., The Review of the International Commission of Jurists no. 57 (1996), 20; Ustinia Dolgopol, “Niall MacDermot, A Life Exemplifying Courage and Vision,” In Memoriam: Niall MacDermot, sp. ed., The Review of the International Commission of Jurists, no. 57 (1996), 34; and Tolley, Howard, The International Commission of Jurists: Global Advocates for Human Rights (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 144–45. On Amnesty International, see Amnesty International, “Statute of Amnesty International,” Amnesty International Report 1997 (London: Amnesty International Publications, 1997), 355.

76 Alan Riding, “Human Rights: The West Gets Some Tough Questions,” New York Times, June 20, 1993, 4:5.

77 “Vienna: A Search for Common Ground,” UN Chronicle 30, no. 3 (1993), 59.

78 Nowak and Schwartz estimate that over 70 percent of NGOs at Vienna were small Southern NGOs participating at the global level for the first time. Nowak and Schwartz (fn. 51), 8. According to a survey of five hundred NGOs that “go to, or wish to go to UN conferences in the 1990s,” 76 percent felt “restricted” by larger NGOs; 75 percent by English-language NGOs; and 71 percent by Northern NGOs. Benchmark Environmental Consulting, Democratic Global Governance: Report of the 1995 Benchmark Survey of NGOs (Oslo: Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1996) 2628. See also Gaer (fn. 39), 58.

79 Peter Uvin makes the point that Southern NGOs have a good deal to gain from cooperating with larger Northern NGOs. “Third World NGOs increasingly attempt to link up with Northern INGOs [international NGOs] in order to influence rich country governments. … Northern INGOs increasingly serve as lobbyists for their Southern partners, working with them to promote policy change at the summit.” Uvin, “Scaling Up the Grassroots and Scaling Down the Summit: The Relations between Third World NGOs and the UN,” in Weiss and Gordenker (fn. 39), 167.

80 Imber, Mark, Environment, Security and UN Reform (New York: St. Martin's, 1994), 102.

81 Earth Negotiations Bulletin, April 10,1995, online.

82 United Nations, Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, annex II, agenda 21, principle 3.10, in United Nations A/Conf.151/26/Rev. 1, vol. 1,1993, 32.

83 Imber (fn. 80).

84 See “Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Held in Beijing from 4 to 5 September 1995; Including the Agenda, the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action (Extract)”—and Country Reservations—in The United Nations and The Advancement of Women 1945–1996 (New York: United Nations Department of Public Information, 1996).

85 Posner, Michael and Whittome, Candy, “The Status of Human Rights NGOs,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 269 (1994), 283, as excerpted in Steiner, Henry J. and Alston, Philip, eds., International Human Rights in Context (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996), 491.

86 ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 (July 25,1996) replaces ECOSOC Resolution 1296 (1968), which formerly governed NGO consultative status.

87 Willetts points to a document (Decision 1/1) that indicated such restrictions during the Rio preparatory process and seems to have been incorporated into Resolution 1996/31. Willetts (fn. 30), 74–75.

88 ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, July 25,1996, paragraphs 5, 6, 7,20.

89 Ibid., section IX, paragraphs 68–70.

90 Centre for Applied Studies in International Negotiations, “Report on the Participation of NGOs,” 26, in Earth Summit (fn. 33).

91 Azzam (fn. 45), 95; David B. Ottaway, “Women Having Their Way at Rights Conference,” Washington Post, June 17,1993, A39.

92 UN Document A/Conf.32/41 (fn. 19), part 3, res. 9.

93 WEDO (fn. 42), cover letter.

94 UN Document A/Conf.157/23, “Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action,” June 25,1993, part 1, para. 11.

95 EESI Earth Summit Update, no. 8, April 1991, 8. See also Earth Summit Bulletin, June 16,1992.

96 Earth Negotiations Bulletin, March 1995 and September 1995.

97 See Manfred Nowak, “Written Report by the General Rapporteur, Manfred Nowak, as adopted by the Final Plenary Session of the NGO-Forum,” UN Document A/Conf. 157/7, June 14,1993, part D, para. 3, in Nowak (fn. 37), 83.

* An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, held in Toronto, March 18–22,1997. We would like to thank Juergen Dedring, James A. McCann, Jackie Smith, and Carolyn Stephenson for helpful comments. Eric Shibuya and Jennifer Suchland provided research assistance. Any remaining errors are, of course, our responsibility alone. The ordering of the authors' names is alphabetical.


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