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Opening Remarks at the Panel on the Role of Civil Society

Ambassador Everton Vieira Vargas
Praia do Forte, April 26, 2013

My purpose today is not to voice the concerns of civil society regarding global governance, but rather to focus on the questions that I feel are relevant to civil society in the debate about the reform of the UN Security Council. I will raise points that sometimes seem to be overlooked in the process of reform. But, I warn you that it is far from my goal to provide definitive answers or explanations.

The idea of a global order implies reassessing the anarchy underlying international society, beginning with the challenges that affect everyone. As Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote some days ago in the Financial Times, an entire era is fading away: the era of three world wars – two “hot” and one cold – in which Europe and the US had a privileged relationship and in which the North Atlantic was the most important political and economic geopolitical theater.

The international economic situation is very fragile. The current crisis has shown its own characteristics. The industrialized countries are at the epicenter of the crisis and have realized how society can be affected by decisions taken by institutions whose purposes and methods of work are rarely understood by the man on the street.

We are witnessing a moment of profound and widespread political engagement. Across the world, civil society is broadcasting the message that new ways of doing things are needed - be they reform of banking systems in the Western world, political and social inclusion in the Arab World, mitigating climate change or eradicating poverty and combatting impunity. Social change produced by a myriad of factors has brought about a globalization of risks of all sorts, giving new meaning to the concept of security and reducing the options to control these risks.

Today we are witnessing a two-faceted situation: inequality of power, which leads to asymmetries; and acquisition of power, which affects the legitimacy of rules and institutions that govern the relations among States. At the same time, power is envisioned and used in different ways by those who hold it. Evidently, this is nothing new, but this discrepancy must be the focus of any reform.

The absence of a hierarchy among states and the asymmetries among them can only be compensated by a clear adaptation in international decision-making. Changes and challenges have accelerated the need for such adaptation. Today, the notion of what is global encompasses values, behavior, interests, rules and power.

There is a demand for a change of paradigm in order to effectively respond to challenges that no country or society can solve by itself. But the prerequisite for such change is the improvement of society itself, by adapting and updating its institutions. This is, perhaps, one of the key features of contemporary social and political phenomena.

The emphasis on society raises the question about the capacity of Governments to be an effective instrument of transformation. The call for reform is everywhere. Years ago, this call was mainly associated to the need for change in developing societies to free themselves of the shackles of poverty and underdevelopment. Today, it has spread to all countries, even those most impermeable to external influences, and it encompasses a wide range of political, economic, and social demands.

The idea of reform is recurrent today as a consequence of the clear discomfort with prevailing social and political patterns, arrangements and practices, both in the domestic and the international sphere.

But reforms will only take hold if there is a genuine partnership between State and society. Bobbio notes that man “does not believe anymore that in order to change society it is enough to change the political system, as it was possible to believe when the State was everything and society outside of the State was nothing” .

These transformations in the role and place of politics in our lives must have a direct bearing on the issue we are discussing today - the reform of the UN Security Council. In this long and laborious process, the role of civil society is crucial to get things moving forward.

As James Rosenau once said “the form of state action is determined partly (...) by the organizational and intellectual processes through which it was selected.” Central to these processes are the domestic concerns and interests and how they impact collective endeavors.

In the case of the Council, as with domestic political institutions, the engagement of social actors in the processes that used to be the exclusive purview of the State is key to ensuring the adaptation of these institutions so that they can be perceived as legitimate and capable of better responding to the demands of society.

It is in the nature of institutions to be rigid. However, in the case of the UN -- and specially that of the Security Council – from a social perspective, the rigidity that was thought to grant the stability necessary to prevent another catastrophe, like the one that ended in 1945, became an exercise in hegemony and opaqueness. National interests and domestic concerns have prevailed over broader collective goals.

Multilateral action is essentially political. Negotiators are guided by certain basic political ideas about the core features of the international order. The outcome of any political decision has to pass the test of legitimacy and acceptance. The Security Council's current work and decision-making processes are still largely informed by the geopolitical notions enshrined in the UN Charter. Therefore, the perception of civil society is that the Council is far from fulfilling its mandate in a convincing way since it is seen as a conduit to manage the interests of the most powerful states.

In view of recent developments on how to deal with the thorniest issues of international peace and security – the leitmotiv of its creation – it appears that the UN is facing twin crises: a crisis of legitimacy and a crisis of efficiency.

The crisis of legitimacy is part of a broader crisis of the structures of global governance as a whole. Countries are unwilling to make deeper commitment or sacrifices to institutions they consider unrepresentative. We see a symptom of this in multilateral negotiations, which are increasingly more difficult and less prone to produce concrete results – or sometimes even superficial results…

The crisis of efficiency reflects itself in the gap between the structure and procedures of the United Nations and the demands made of it not just by countries, but by an increasingly engaged citizenry, which is motivated by a growing diversification of the values that sustain political culture.

Both these crises highlight the urgency of change. In order to begin reform of the international political order, we cannot afford to wait for a political crisis of the magnitude of the recent financial crisis that led us to begin reform of the international financial order. From the perspective of civil society, reform may result from a process of creative destruction or lead to a new global political entity with sufficient power to prevent the increase of risks. History, however, has shown that the path to change is much more difficult and its outcome is frequently less clear than expected.

Reform of the UNSC will only make progress with the full engagement of the leaders of countries that have the ability to produce change. Their main instrument in this endeavor is the ability to explain to their domestic constituencies why reducing the inequalities of power does not necessarily imply less power and that the inclusion of new actors can lead to more effective fulfillment of the principles and norms enshrined in the UN Charter. Civil society has, in this regard, a crucial role to play in persuading and cajoling leaders and governments.

Perhaps the most interesting question regarding the participation of civil society in the process of Security Council reform is its absence. Why, in a process with such enormous potential implications for global governance, is civil society silent? In the economic arena, specially, civil society has not shied away from making its voice heard in issues of governance. In the issues on the Security Council agenda, civil society has been an active participant, lobbyist and contributor. Why, then, is so little said about Security Council reform?

It seems to me that this represents, in a way, a missed opportunity by us policymakers. We have not yet articulated, clearly and concisely, why Security Council reform should matter to civil society - why changing the composition of the Council would have a direct effect on dozens of issues and causes very dear to civil society. We need to engage more directly with think tanks, academics, NGOs and activists to explain our view of why a more representative Council would be a more effective one.

Increased participation by civil society in Security Council reform would be a natural step in the process of greater civil society participation in the United Nations. While it has played a role for many years - with varying degrees of effectiveness - the way in which it has played these roles has changed significantly over time.

With regard to the Council itself, the approval of resolution 1325 on Women and Peace and Security, in 2000, was a watershed. It mobilized numerous actors to engage with Council delegations and the Secretariat in order to advance women's issues in conflict settings. It set a precedent for greater involvement in other issues, ranging from the humanitarian impact of sanctions to the UN's role in post-conflict peace building.

Ten years later, women's issues once more played a catalytic role for civil society participation in the UN, with the process that led to the creation of UN-WOMEN. This was a particularly interesting case, inasmuch as civil society had now moved from engaging directly on substantive issues to dealing with the internal, structural UN issues that govern how the Organization handles substantive issues. It was, to make a long story short, an acknowledgement by civil society that it is not only issues that matter – but how these issues are dealt with also matter. Institutions matter.

It is time for a similar leap with regards to Security Council reform - and perhaps also with other supposedly "internal", "technical" UN issues, such as budget negotiations. The internal workings of the UN are critical to the results it achieves on the ground. If civil society wants to make a truly important difference, it needs to engage on issues of reform. If Member States want to achieve important results in the area of reform, they must work to bring civil society into the mix, without, of course, calling into questions the Member State-driven nature of the Organization.

The question for us here is: how can civil society engage itself and help solve this dilemma between the hardened inequality and the new dynamics of acquisition of power in an institution that is essentially a state one?

Many in the ranks of civil society doubt—if not mistrust –a reform process that by nature has to be conducted and decided by the UN member-states on the basis of their national interests. Where can we find grounds for consensus over a process that appears to outsiders to be intrinsically contradictory?


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