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

Stephen Toulmin

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8. The NGOs: Prophets or Politicians?

To conclude: Any account of the place of NGOs within the international system of institutions must address two fundamental issues. One of these is, at least on its face, philosophical rather than political; the other is more political than philosophical; but, in actual practice, these two issues are closely connected.

The first is the claim to "universality" often made in discussions of human rights. Historically, this idea goes back to the late 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Today, it is sometimes understood as implying that all of the rights claimed by people in the developed countries of Western Europe or North America are rights for people in any country: if it is morally objectionable for the police to torture prisoners in Holland, it is morally objectionable for them to torture prisoners in Zimbabwe, Paraguay and Malaysia as well. Universal imperatives against the deliberate infliction of cruelty do not ask where or when deliberately cruel actions are performed: at all places and times equally, avoiding these actions is part of the moral fabric of human existence.

Such claims underlie programs on which the major NGOs embark with conviction; and when the content of the moral point at issue is (say) torture. their force is not easily challenged - can torture be unpardonably evil in one country, yet defensible in another? But, recently the claim to universality has been challenged by Asian politicians - most strongly by Dr Mahathir, Prime Minister of Malaysia. To impose worldwide respect for the rights Europeans and Americans insist on for themselves at home is, he argues, a new Cultural Imperialism: an attempt to impose Western patterns of life on countries which have their own independent systems of moral thought and practice. Rather than let organizations like Amnesty poke their noses into Malaysian affairs, Westerners had best let Asians look after their own affairs.

This reply is self serving - the head of an NSG defend Sovereign Autonomy from encroachment. But there is more to it. Western insistence on "taking rights seriously" leads to exaggerations. In California, some see it as morally objectionable for people in restaurants to impose tobacco smoke on fellow-diners; but is it just as objectionable to smoke in restaurants in Bangkok or Accra? This appeal to universality is overdone12.

Immanuel Kant understood this point. He claimed only that moral maxims have a universal form. What substantive content any maxim cashes in for is a different matter: a topic for "casuistical digressions" analyzing its significance in particular situations13. Between the bare statement of a rule and its specific applications, then, lie questions of its meaning for different practical situations. What counts as "honor" or "dishonor" in a given country is far more the product of local history and custom than what counts as "kindness" or "cruelty": so, there is less ambiguity over tortur than (say) over matters of honor.

What can properly claim "universality" are the general themes of moral argument: their specific implications depend on the particular situations to which they are applied. One of the skills required of transnational NGOs is the discernment needed to see how general maxims match particular cases. To current critics of the claim to universality, we can reply that organizations like Amnesty International evoke world wide response: they "speak" to people in all countries alike. Subtlety and discernment are required in seeing how their general maxims fit the special problems of a new region14. But many moral issues are too plain to require interpretation. Like cholera and hunger, torture or arbitrary imprisonment has the same meaning in all countries. To that extent, the vision of idealistic NGOs as disinterested Voices for Humanity - or for environmental NGOs, as Voices for Nature - retains its philosophical charrn.

At this point, the second, political issue comes in, and the picture has another side. In disciplining rulers who contravened the general moral imperatives of human reason, the Medieval Church was unavoidably drawn into secular politics. The results could be unedifying. Popes and Cardinals learned to play politics like seasoned politicians, and cultivated that art to this day - as at the Population Conference. Transnational NGOs, likewise, operate unavoidably on the edge, if not the middle, of the political scene. However valid their moral claims, effective campaigns intended to put these into effect necessarily take them into the domain of public politics. In dining with NSGs, they "use a long spoon"; but they all pay a price for operating in the political arena.

With this in mind, we should return to the questionnaire to NGOs sponsored by the Norwegian Government. There, the contrast between basic moral goals and day to day political methods is much in evidence15. The questions on the questionnaire's first page are very general, and remain on the level of high principles:
a. Are the 'peoples' voices heard at [the UN's] international events [?]
b. Are the concerns of 'Nature' heard at international events [?]
c. Are you heard at international events [?]
d. Do Governments think 'peoples' voices are heard [?]
e. Do Governments think 'Nature' is heard [?]
f. Do Governments think NGOS are heard [?]

By the last two pages, however, we are plainly operating on the down to earth level of practical politics, and a distinctive political ~tvle has begun to show itself:

17. At NGO international events, do yoLl generally feel the potential dominance of a. northern NGOS / b. the larger NGOS / c. accredited NGOS / d. male-run NGOS / e. white-run NGOS / f. English language-run NGOs? ... ... ...
22. If you could re-structLu'e an NGO alternate conference, the first two things that yoLl would do are:
a. insist on gender / racial balance in NGO delegations
b. provide documentation / translation in additional languages
f. book all NGO partircipants into the same hotel / district
g. remove the podium and arrange chairs in a large circle . . .

By now, it is clear that, inter alia. the NGO movement has taken over the mantle of the radical Left. A concern for political correctness colors these questions: any procedure that fails any egalitarian demand is suspect. It is not enough that the moral goals of the NGO be achieved: they must be achieved in a perfectly equitable way.

I do not object to this coloration. The goals and methods of the Left have a long and proud historical ancestry going back, at the least, to the Sectarians of the English Commonwealth from 1649 to 1657: the Ranters and Diggers, Quakers and Levellers. I draw attention to this strand in the NGO movement here, because it helps to explain some other aspects of the NGOs' role in the practical politics of the UN. There, they also display the coloration of Left vs. Right - Equality vs. Privilege - familiar from the domestic politics of single States or countries.

Many people in NSG delegations, and some members of the UN bureaucracy, find this aspect of NGOS a stumbling block. Growing up within the comfortable etiquette of diplomacy, they react against the rough tactics of (e.g.) Greenpeace, whose public actions - notably, their attacks on Japanese whalers - they regard as deeply unpleasing: "Highly Undiplomatic: not Fair Play!"

This reaction to the NGOS is understandable, but we should avoid generalizing it. Many of the most influential NGOS - whether Amnesty Intemational, or Oxfam, or the International Commission of Jurists - are not specially radical in orientation: by origin and tradition, these organizations are Middle of the Road, if not Veering to the Right. Whatever impression we may get from the NGO questionnaire, there is no reason to expect all "non-governmental" organizations to share any uniform political coloration, any more than all members of the Roman Catholic Church have shared political views. The deeper factors that keep NSGs and NGOs at arm's length are on a level at which spokesmen for global moral goals are inevitably distinct from representatives of ,local political interests. So long as the major transnational NGOs protect their right to hold the activities of Nation State Governments up to public view and criticism, they create a "field" that can make it politically indispensable for NSGs to reorder their national policies, in ways that pay proper respect to the NGOs' global concerns.

In reply to this whole line of argument, some people might respond, both, that it risks drawing too sharp a distinction between democratic NGOs and nondemocratic NSGs, whose implications could be unhappy; and also, that it exaggerates the purity of the motives - i.e. the disinterestedness - of NGOs16.

Both reactions call for some qualifications. As to the first: the question it puts -
"Do NGOS truly represent the people whose interests they try to articulate in the World community? Do they represent, even, the views of their own field workers? In the last resort, do they represent anyone but the self-appointed activists who run them and draft their speeches?"
- states a legitimate challenge. But this paper was not meant to address that challenge. Clearly, NGOs rely on us taking at face value their claim to represent poor, deprived and tortured fellow humans, or the threatened species and environments of the Globe: to put the point at its weakest, different NGOs have different records in this respect, so the whole issue of the "representativeness" of NGOs deserves fuller discussion.

Similarly, for the second response: when I said, earlier, that Amnesty and Oxfam are not "inherently self-interested parties" to the global debate, my intention was only to contrast our understanding of their speeches and statements with our understanding of speeches and statements made by the representatives of Nation State Governrnents. Oxfam, Amnesty and other such agencies are advocates for groups of human beings, birds, animals and so on anywhere in the globe, that have no NSG to speak for them, rather than for individuals, corporations and the like within a particular tenitorial State: the contrast intended was my present one, between global concerns and local interests. (Here again, the standing of the Vatican as a "Member State" of the UN is anomalous.) On the other hand, the fields of operation of NGOs are, by now, crowded: as a result, there is an active competition for the leadership roles in any particular situation among those NGOs whose areas of concern are relevant to the case. To put the point bluntly: this competition calls into being a new realm for political activity as (e.g.) Greenpeace seeks to preempt a leading role over an environmental issue from (say) the Sien'a Club. The "internal politics" among the NGOs, too, is not the issue for this paper, though it deserves fuller discussion elsewhere.

In conclusion, let us return briefly to the role of professionalism in global affairs. Many of the areas of productive action by Non-Governmental Organizations (arguably) are ones in which the problems at issue lend themselves to professional intervention: areas in which there is enough practical experience, and intellectual consensus, for the solutions to be argued out to a stage at which reasonable agreement is within our grasp. Once issues move beyond the clash of preferences and parties, and become matters for professional analysis - as they often do in, e.g., the field of medicine or public health - the practical task is to persuade Nation State Governments to develop the political will needed to take the steps that the professionally informed community have agreed are needed to handle the problems concerned. So understood, the collaboration of NGOs with members of the UN Secretariat, in preparing the agenda and the papers for large International Conferences, takes on a new aspect.

In this respect, the record of Japanese public servants in the operations of the UN - notably, Mr Akashi and Ms Ogata - displays a professional excellence that explains the esteem in which they are held by the Secretary-General. In the thankless and endless tasks of the High Commission for Refugees, in the difficult negotiations of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia and the Sisyphean demands of the Bosnian conflict - in which every constructive step forward is followed by two frustrating steps back - their record illustrates well the lessons of this essay. It has argued that a capacity for military force is longer the primary measure of political influence on the global scene. As one result, in important ways, demilitarization has strengthened, not weakened, the position of Japan in the UN.

It has also argued that, in pursuit of transnational goals, the evident good faith of non-governmental organizations makes them more influential allies of the technical and professional agencies of the United Nations, than they can ever hope to be in its more purely political Councils. Working together, UNHCR and Oxfam (say) can practice the Politics of Shame, focusing the World's attention on the tragic situations in which - thanks to them - Nation State Governments can go on leaving the sick untreated or the starving hungry, only at the price of worldwide humiliation. Given the current World Disorder and taking all things together, this is one, somewhat promising aspect of an otherwise depressing situation.

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