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UNRISD Research Findings Underline Ambivalent Developments in UN Discussions on Future Participation of Civil Society

21 Jun 2005

Diplomats, researchers and practitioners gathered in Malta from 11–13 February 2005 to discuss multistakeholder diplomacy and other aspects of contemporary diplomacy. The event, which was organized by DiploFoundation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malta, the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), was part of the preparatory process of the World Summit on the Information Society and Internet Governance’s (WSIS) second phase, to be held in Tunis in November 2005.

The conference examined the multistakeholder approach to diplomacy in general, with particular focus on the role and impact of various stakeholders in the WSIS process. Diplomacy used to be the exclusive domain of trained diplomats representing their country in every aspect. Circumstances are changing now. Diplomacy today is characterized by a complex network of various actors including states, international organizations, civil society, and the private sector—which, in turn, has its own organizational divisions. Not only do civil society representatives and business actors engage in diplomatic negotiations, but the places and occasions for these are manifold. Negotiations in international organizations, for example, include both bilateral and global negotiations.

The conference provided an overview of the changing setting of diplomacy today, something that had not been done in the past. Participants believed that diplomacy today is becoming even more multifaceted and that this new form of diplomacy obliges diplomats and other actors to adapt to the changing environment. They expressed the need to prepare diplomats and other actors to be able to engage in meaningful negotiations.

Several conference contributions dealt with examples of multistakeholder diplomacy, and some of UNRISD's research findings from the UN World Summits and Civil Society Engagement project were presented in this context. This project, which is now coming to an end, focuses on multistakeholder diplomacy in a multilateral organization, namely the United Nations. It includes national studies that investigate the impact of a UN summit (including the preparatory process) at the domestic level, as well as thematic studies. One of the papers elaborates the history of UN summits; it also draws from these experiences to analyse UN activities in the areas of conference organization and civil society participation in international policy making.

Three preliminary findings of this research paper were presented in Malta. The first of the these findings was that the summits allowed several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to participate in international policy discussions. The conference processes—with various regional, general and thematic preparatory meetings—were relatively open to civil society engagement. Second, the representation of various sectors of society, from grassroots level to international NGOs with branches all over the world, nevertheless remained imbalanced, with the majority of accredited organizations being either European or North American.

Third, the arrangements—both ongoing and planned—for future civil society participation within the UN policy discussion process set more restrictions with regard to NGO participation. The document on UN–civil society relations prepared by the Secretary-General’s Panel of Eminent Persons on Civil Society and UN Relationships proposes establishing a single accreditation process for the entire UN system, including its sub-bodies and agencies. Though this measure may reduce bureaucratic overlaps, it in fact limits the access of NGOs to parts of the UN system as ad-hoc accreditations are limited. The arrangements for the conference on the follow-up of the UN Millennium summit and other world conferences, which will be held in September 2005 in New York, are an example of restricted NGO participation. The UN secretariat argues that space and security conditions in the UN headquarters would necessarily limit the physical presence of other delegates except state representatives. The NGO hearing therefore takes place in June 2005 in New York.

The conference on multistakeholder diplomacy brought together viewpoints of diplomats, as well as of NGO representatives who have gained some experience in negotiations. Both new actors and new settings add to the complexity of diplomatic negotiations. So far, there have been different arrangements, some more successful than others. Discussions at the conference in Malta agreed that the enlarged participatory possibilities in diplomacy constitute both an opportunity and a challenge.

Britta Sadoun