Background

Civil society and the United Nations have historically been linked to one of the primary organs of the UN. Article 71 of the Charter of the United Nations gives the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – a principal organ – the ability to make arrangements for consultations with non-government organizations. As a result of this declaration, ECOSOC presently consults with 2,100 registered NGOs.1

From 1990s onwards, the relationship between the UN and civil society organizations began to reflect the changing world order.

At the First Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992, the UN adopted ‘Agenda 21’ along with a Declaration of Principles. It dealt specifically with environmental degradation and could be seen as an initial caveat to the present day global movement towards halting climate change and global warming. More importantly, it identified a shifting UN decision-making process.

The UN recognised the need for embracing civil society and partners that are essential for sustainable development and these include: women, farmers, young people, trade unions, business and industry, local authorities, scientists, indigenous peoples and NGOs working in environment and development.2 

The official recognition of the inclusion of civil society in the decision making processes at the UN and its agencies came with Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. It states:

“Environmental issues are best handled with participation of all concerned citizens, at the relevant level. At the national level, each individual shall have appropriate access to information concerning the environment that is held by public authorities, including information on hazardous materials and activities in their communities, and the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes. States shall facilitate and encourage public awareness and participation by making information widely available. Effective access to judicial and administrative proceedings, including redress and remedy, shall be provided.”3

With the inclusion of civil society in its decision-making processes, the Rio World Summit set the groundwork for increased cooperation between civil society and the UN. The Conference on Sustainable Development (CSD) and the Fourth World Conference on Women (WCW) saw civil society participation and its outcomes as one of the highest with the Fourth WCW witnessing 300,000 NGOs participate with 2600 NGO accredited.4  

Civil society organizations balance social responsibility and grassroots participation in an era of globalization. Programmes such as the UNDP through its CSO Advisory Committee give civil society the platform where they can provide opinions, advocacy strategies and policy engagements.5 However, some of the most significant changes for civil society participation at the inter-governmental level include the addition of voting on decisions and participating in dialogues with governments.
In 2006, for example, civil society acknowledged the extremely important role they play in the UNAIDS Programme Coordinating Board through a letter addressed to UNAIDS that confirmed this: “We know achieving universal access will never happen without us. Policy makers at international, regional and international level will never deliver unless civil society holds them accountable and plays its full role in the work universal access entails.”6  

Other UN agencies like the International Labour Organization and its Tripartism system ensures that employers' and workers' organizations have an equal voice with governments on policymaking, labour standards and labour regulations.7  

Furthermore, in UN Conference on the Environment and Development (UNCED) and subsequent major conferences, CSOs became increasingly prominent - present in the informal negotiating sessions where final conference text was refined, invited to be on the formal government delegations and presenting plenary speeches.8

The emergence of Global Civil Society and its potential to challenge the deficiencies in - if not provide the remedies for - today's mechanisms of global governance9 is a way forward to tackle together the challenges of the world.

End Notes

1 Background Information, Information about the Council, About ECOSOC, (2008). Date of Access: 07 July 08. Available at:
www.un.org/ecosoc/about/

2 Earth Summit+5, Special Session of the General Assembly to Review and Appraise the Implementation of Agenda 21, (New York), (23-27 June 1997). Date of Access: 07 July 08. Available at:
www.un.org/ecosocdev/geninfo/sustdev/es&5broc.htm

3 Report of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, (Rio de Janeiro, 3-14 June 1992), (12 August 1992). Date of Access: 10 July 08.
www.un.org/documents/ga/conf151/aconf15126-1annex1.htm

4 UN System and Civil Society – An Inventory and Analysis of Practices, Background Paper for the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations Relations with Civil Society, (May 2003). Date of Access: 08 July 08. Available at:
www.unece.org/env/pp/ppif/UN%20SYSTEM%20AND%20CIVIL%20SOCIETY.doc

5 UNDP and Civil Society Organizations, UNDP, (New York), (2008). Date of Access: 14 July 2008. Available at:
www.undp.org/partners/cso/

6 Civil Society and Universal Access, UNAIDS, (Geneva), 2008. Date of Access: 14 July 2008. Available at:
www.unaids.org/en/Partnerships/Civil+society/csUA.asp

7 www.ilo.org/global/About_the_ILO/Structure/tripartism/lang--en/index.htm

8 UN System and Civil Society – An Inventory and Analysis of Practices, Background Paper for the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations Relations with Civil Society, (May 2003). Date of Access: 08 July 08. Available at:
www.unece.org/env/pp/ppif/UN%20SYSTEM%20AND%20CIVIL%20SOCIETY.doc

9 UN System and Civil Society – An Inventory and Analysis of Practices, Background Paper for the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations Relations with Civil Society, (May 2003). Date of Access: 08 July 08. Available at:
www.unece.org/env/pp/ppif/UN%20SYSTEM%20AND%20CIVIL%20SOCIETY.doc