The UN and Japan in an Age of Globalization:
The Role of Transnational NGOs in Global Affairs

Stephen Toulmin

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1. Introduction: The Problem

The questions to be addressed here - about the weakness or incompleteness of the existing United Nations Organization - raise three loosely related sets of issues.

(1) Some of these call for comparisons between the different parts of the UN: the regular staff of the Secretariat, the political core and the technical agencies, the Security Council or the General Assembly, peacekeeping or peacemaking, and the relative efficacy of such peripheral institutions as the International Court of Justice. Which programs, agencies and organs of the United Nations work best?; Which of them work least well?; How far is the weakness of some parts inherent in the tasks they have been given?; Or do they perform worse than they might, in ways that can be remedied by better organization and management?

(2) With the present constitution and structure of the United Nations, is there reason to think that these weaknesses are too deep-seated to be corrigible? If so, which parts of the Organization are most gravely compromised, which are open to correction? More important: What most seriously compromises the efficacy or the authority of the United Nations? And are there systematic differences in this respect, as between (e.g.) its technical and political branches?

(3) Finally: Do other organizations, whose operations parallel those of the UN, perform better some of tasks that the UN itself is least good with? What legal status do these organizations have, and how do they stand in comparison with the UN's august claims? Or are the efficacy of the United Nations and its agencies undelmined by the very grandiosity of its Charter? Is the UN, as a result, open to criticism for a "democratic deficit" - i.e., its distance from the People of the World whose interests it exists to protect?

This essay will say little about the first group of issues, except to comment on the relative success of the professional (or professionalized) agencies, in contrast to those whose functions are purely political and diplomatic: this contrast will point toward the deficiencies that are most deep seated and hardest to correct. Rather, the essay focuses on the problems that result from the dominance within the Organization of Nation State Governments (NSGs) - institutions whose motives are too often suspect - as compared to the apparent weakness of those other Non-Governmental Organizations (or NGOs), whose actual influence is out of proportion to their seeming power. Later, we shall have occasion to notice how the NGOS compensate for their weakness by judicious collaboration with the staff of the Secretariat, and how the Secretariat in turn forwards its own transnational agenda by drawing NGOs into the preparation and execution of their policy proposals.

I will start by making preliminary remarks about deepseated constitutional problems inherent to the UN as it stands. Historically, the title of the Organization is a misnomer: it is not a Union of Nations so much as a Cartel of Nation State Governments. Nations and States do not coincide. Some Governments rule countries that are homelands to people of many Nations: Russia and the USA both fall into this category. Conversely, the homelands of many Nations overlap territories governed by several Governments: the most vexed case is the Kurds, who inhabit contiguous parts of four States but have no single Government ready to represent them. The modern Nation State was invented in the 17th century to serve relatively monoethnic countries: France, Holland, England or Sweden. Yet, today, even the most homogenous Nation States and Cities comprise substantial minority populations. Los Angeles is an extreme case: primary education is available to children of the City in some ninety languages. On a lesser scale, however, multiethnicity is a phenomenon of contemporary life almost everywhere.

At the inaugural conference in San Francisco, the UN could clearly not have been launched as the United States Organization, even though that name is less misleading: the name "United States" was preempted. (In any case. people find plenty of reasons to claim that the UN has been an instrument of American power.) Still, the official terminology has it right: membership in the United Nations belongs to Member States, not to Member Nations.

The closer we come to the political pinnacles of the UN Organization, as a result, the less guarantee there is that the people who have standing to speak in its councils speak for Nations, rather than that for State Governments - these too often represent monoethnic, oligarchic subgroups of a given population. (Fill in your own examples.) When spokespersons for Member States address, say, the Security Council, informed listeners know that their speeches present the opinions of sub-groups in the domestic politics of that Member State, and interpret the speeches in light of that inforrnation. But, when the debates concern worldwide problems like Human Rights or Population Control, it is hard to cut a way through the thickets of domestic politics to the serious transnational issues. As a result, the hermeneutics of Councilspeak generate cynicism, of the kind that was evident in the counter activities of the NGOS at the Vienna Human Rights conference of 1993, and again, in 1994, at the Population conference in Cairo. (1 shall return to this point.)

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