No sleeping after Seattle

Chee Yoke Ling says that civil society must build on recent successes
to meet the coming environmental challenges

Civil society took its first step into global environmental politics at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. At Seattle last year it marched against the effects of globalization epitomized by the World Trade Organization (WTO). In the intervening decade, civil society organizations (CSOs) gained tremendous experience, channelled their increased professionalism more effectively, and networked faster and better through the Internet.

They successfully integrated environment and development, in the context of North-South equity, during the Rio process. The unprecedented convergence of so many groups and movements in Seattle also linked environmental, social, economic and democracy issues. And they have increasingly recognized the importance of both negotiating within the system and taking direct action outside it to influence decision making.

Civil society’s participation, facilitated by increasing access, contributed to the more holistic Rio agreements and empowered it to play a global advocacy role. Subsequent United Nations conferences and the work of commissions, such as the Commission on Sustainable Development, and the implementation of United Nations conventions – and multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) – have continued to open up the process to CSOs, and helped improve relations between them and many governments, especially in the South.

Fundamental issues
Implementing the Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity, for example, have thrown up fundamental issues – including the need to reconcile environmental imperatives with the South’s requirements for development, the need to adjust Northern production and consumption, and the need to drastically trim increasing corporate power. Pressure has begun to shift from emphasis on privatization and markets to greater public control and accountability over natural resource use and social goals. CSOs are therefore challenged to present complex analyses, to combine intellectual contributions with hands-on experience in national policy and intergovernmental negotiations, and to strengthen alliances amongst like-minded people both inside and outside government.

The dominance of the WTO and the Uruguay Round has, however, frustrated or slowed down the implementation of many United Nations commitments. As a handful of global corporate players aggressively seek to corner practically every aspect of the economy, groups have found themselves making the connections between the specific problems that they address and root causes in the dominant economic system. They have also realized that every local battle has a global dimension and that decision making is increasingly global, undermining national democracy. The campaigns against the OECD-initiated Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the ‘New Round’ campaign at the WTO were therefore as much a fight for democracy as one against economic rules that threaten society and the environment.

CSOs have found the Internet to be vital. By using it, a few Northern and Southern groups galvanized a major public campaign against the MAI in a mere six months. Similarly, in less than a year leading up to the Seattle conference, they alerted many others to the dangers posed by the proposed new round of negotiations.

Southern governments were vocal at Seattle, and are increasingly becoming so in many other United Nations and regional fora. They are concerned that globalization is benefiting only some people and deepening inequities both within nations and worldwide. Sustainable development goals are being undermined by the continuing debt burden, threats to food security, mounting environmental problems that require global cooperation, the inability of governments and peoples to control their own natural resources, and new trade rules – such as those pressing for liberalization of trade and investment and demanding intellectual property rights that negate or expropriate traditional knowledge.
Civil society can have a central role in shaping the future environment and development agenda

Meanwhile the analyses of many CSOs, especially those bringing perspectives from the South, provided a significant intellectual contribution to their street actions and messages to governments, corporations and global institutions. The mainstream media may have focused on the protests over labour issues, and over conserving turtles and dolphins, but there were many workshops and demonstrations on Third World debt, genetically engineered organisms and foods, intellectual property rights, food security and the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities.

Civil society also helped bring about the recently concluded Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. A group of CSOs and independent scientists worked closely with a strong coalition of officials from Southern governments and European environment ministries. During the negotiations – helped by public awareness and the exposure both of the potential hazards and of the tactics of some companies – they defeated a handful of major corporations, backed by a few powerful governments. The Protocol may have its shortcomings, but it is nevertheless the first international legal agreement to regulate a powerful global industry.

Increasing transparency
CSOs must continue to monitor developments in global institutions, and in the key OECD countries which usually determine the global agenda. Greater transparency (itself a result of CSO pressure) is making more information available, as are alliances with people in national governments, the United Nations and the Bretton Woods bodies. Groups and individual people are becoming increasingly good at analysing information, proposals and the agendas of key corporations and governments so as to work out their implications for society: they can then present their suggestions, positions and demands. The involvement of more Southern groups, providing analyses and proposals from the realities of their own societies, has enriched the global debate and helped many developing country governments in international negotiations. More of this is needed.

CSOs, of course, differ over issues of substance, message and approach: there is, for example, an argument over whether governments should use unilateral trade measures to protect endangered species and the environment. There needs to be more dialogue, especially between Northern and Southern groups, to share knowledge and viewpoints, reach better understanding and formulate mutually supportive positions. The capacity of Southern CSOs to obtain and assess information, to take part in international events and campaigns, and to lobby their governments must be increased.

Universal ownership
Many CSOs, especially from the South, believe that reforming the WTO and the Bretton Woods system is paramount. Instead of further empowering the WTO, the United Nations system must be strengthened, and the MEAs given their due place and authority. The more democratic, transparent – though sometimes slower – United Nationsprocesses would forge agreements and programmes that are of universal ownership.

If it builds on the developments over the last few years, civil society can have a central role in shaping the future environment and development agenda, in a spirit of renewed North-South solidarity

Chee Yoke Ling is the legal advisor of Third World Network.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Time to act | A climate of change | Melding heart and head | Looking through green glasses | Multi-local business | World Environment Day 2000 |
At a glance | Competition | The greening of Goliath | Unfair trade | No sleeping after Seattle | Disproportionate effects | Liberal rations | New millennium, new regulation | Secretary-General’s Report | Pachamama: Our Earth, Our Future


Complementary articles in other issues:
Tewolde Berhan G. Egziabher: Safety denied (Looking Forward) 1999
Cedric Schuster: Tradition matters (Oceans) 1998
Rizali Ismail: Litmus test (The Way Ahead) 1997
Susan Hazen: Environmental democracy (Chemicals) 1997
Alicia Barcena: Global environmental citizenship (UNEP 25) 1997
Üner Kirdar: Doorstepping the millennium (Human Settlements) 1996