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Non-Governmental Diplomacy

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 13 (IPS) - Diplomacy is no longer an exclusive arena of governments, as proven in the past decade by the growing role of civil society organisations in the international debate -- and by the repeated successes of the World Social Forum, now in its fourth year.

This process has been particularly evident since 1992, when the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was held in Rio de Janeiro, also known as the Earth Summit, followed by other global summits on social issues, which included the active participation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The definition of this "non-governmental diplomacy", the context of its development, its objectives and limitations will be the theme of a seminar during the Fourth World Social Forum (WSF), to take place Jan. 16-21 in Mumbai, India's largest city and economic centre.

The three previous WSF were held in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, emerging as a sort of counterweight to the World Economic Forum, which held its annual meeting of government leaders, business executives and financiers at the same time in the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos.

Times of purely inter-governmental relations have ended, says a document by Henri Rouillé d'Orfeuil, president of the France-based Coordination SUD, and Jorge Eduardo Durao, head of the Brazilian Association of NGOs (ABONG), that will serve as the basis for a WSF seminar, promoted by these groups as well as the Volunteer Action Network India (VANI).

It is no coincidence that the three are all national federations of NGOs. Creating collective civil society organisations at the national, regional or international level, and defining common positions, proposals and demands are necessary if non-governmental diplomacy is to be effective, say D'Orfeuil and Durao.

This compensates for the "weaknesses" of the NGOs, which come under criticisms in terms of their legitimacy and representativity in speaking on behalf of civil society, they argue. Furthermore, the groups have to overcome the great differences in their focuses as well as contradictions between their missions.

The "construction of a world in solidarity", with international rules that are more just and sustainable, is the aim of their actions.

And that attitude does not necessarily contradict the policies and actions of governments.

ABONG president Durao said in an IPS interview that the fact that the WSF is being held this year in Mumbai reveals "a certain parallelism" between the non-governmental diplomacy and the official diplomacy of Brazil, India and South Africa, which in June created the Group of Three, an alliance of the developing world's leaders to strengthen their stance in international negotiations.

In the weeks leading up to the latest ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), held in September in the Mexican resort of Cancún, the Group of 20 (G20) developing countries emerged, consolidating their stance against farm protectionism and subsidies in the industrialised world. Brazil, India and South Africa serve as the leaders of that group.

The non-governmental diplomatic battles are unfolding on four fronts. In talks on social problems, for example, NGOs are pushing industrialised countries to contribute 0.7 percent of their gross domestic product to development aid -- a promise not kept -- and to take effective steps towards achieving what are known as the Millennium Development Goals.

The millennium goals, agreed by the world's heads of state and of government in 2000, aim to cut in half by 2015 infant mortality rates, the number of children not enrolled in school, the 800 million people facing hunger and the populations without access to clean water, among other variables that are the product of poverty and social exclusion.

The other fronts, say D'Orfeuil and Durao, are the environment, economy, trade, and also geopolitical questions, particularly as they relate to the multilateral system.

The global order will be a constant item of discussion in the major conferences and panels of the WSF in Mumbai, where an estimated 75,000 people are to gather this week.

"Global governance", "Militarism, war and peace" and "International trade" are some of the central themes to be taken up by the thousands of participants.

"Combating unilateralism and reforming the United Nations" is the topic of a debate organised by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE) and NGOs from other countries.

There is consensus against unilateralism, but the U.N. is an uncomfortable issue that divides opinions, says Cándido Grzybowski, IBASE director-general.

The WSF is a meeting of civil society, while the U.N. is an organisation of governments, which even excludes parliaments, he adds.

Expanding the membership of the U.N. Security Council, where Brazil, India and South Africa each want a permanent seat, or dismantling it because it is an anti-democratic body in which only the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia hold veto power, is a polemic afflicting the U.N.

According to Francisco Whitaker, a Brazilian member of the WSF International Council, alongside Grzybowski and Durao, civil society no longer just exerts pressure and makes demands, but rather is beginning to take direct action.

One example of this is the peace initiative for Israel and Palestine, presented several weeks ago in Geneva by groups without ties to government. Spokespersons from these Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are to speak at the closing session of the WSF on Jan. 21.

The great contribution of the WSF is a new way of "doing politics". It is a new method of "articulating organisations and social movements horizontally, without a command structure or a hierarchical pyramid," Whitaker, representative of the Brazilian Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission, told IPS.

This approach is key both for international and domestic relations. The WSF is "an historic experience" of unity for India, providing a space for overcoming political and caste divisions, he said.

The "untouchables" of the lowest caste, numbering 170 million people (slightly fewer than the population of Brazil), are organising and will participate in the World Social Forum alongside their fellow Indian citizens "and treated as equals," says Whitaker.

. (END/2004)


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