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Seminar on UN Reform and Civil Society, Stockholm, Sweden

15 January 2005

Presentation by Peter Weiderud, Director, CCIA, 15 January, 2005


Dear Friends,

Every year, according to the report of the High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges
and Change, six million children die from hunger.

This means that every year we add about 25 million people to the list of people
that have missed one of their closest and most loved ones - a son or a daughter,
a sister or a brother - due to lack of bread. This is probably one of the most painful
experiences a human being can have.

What this large group of people has in common is the lack of ability to be heard.
There are very few politicians among these 25 million. No business leaders, authors,
journalists, TV producers, university teachers or others that form public opinion.
This group of professional creators of public opinion is actually smaller than the
group with the family experience of losing a child because of hunger.

Let us, as a thought-provoking experiment, suppose that every author, every TV
producer, every business leader, every professional politician, every university
teacher, would have the common experience to have lost a loved one, due to lack
of bread. Would that in any way influence what we read in the paper or the content
in the public debate. Would research, trade and political decisions be the
same?

One way to answer the question is to look at myself. Would I be different and act
differently if I had lost a child or a sister due to starvation?

The answer is obvious and I believe we have seen some of this answer also in the
reactions in this as in many other wealthy countries, after the Tsunami. The pain
experienced in missing or dead loved ones or people close to us has helped many
people to identify with victims and released a unique expression of solidarity and
compassion.

This answer is also relevant when discussing civil society's relationship to the UN
system. The main objective of civil society should be to bring the voice that is not
necessarily heard through the normal political UN channels to the attention of
those that have the power to change - in member states and in the UN system.

The question is - how can this be best organized? How do we identify the most
relevant alternative voices, the most legitimate and representative ones when it
comes to constituency? How can we bring the perspectives we so desperately need
to improve the capacity of the UN system, to find the moral direction of where
to go?

I represent one of the longest and most well-established NGOs at the UN. The
WCC/CCIA was given consultative status to ECOSOC in 1946. The network
comprises 343 churches in 120 countries, representing 400-500 million people.

We have a strong history. We influenced the wording in the preamble of the UN
Charter and took part in drafting the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

We were the pioneers in bringing victims of human rights violations in front of
the UN Commission on Human Rights.

In 1946 there where about 40 NGOs that had consultative status. Today there
are more than 2,200. The Human Rights Commission is flooded with all kind
of groups and structures claiming to be NGOs, and there is so much noise that
the voice of the voiceless - even if it is also there - is not heard any more.

Representing an organization with a strong formal case of legitimacy and representivity,
it would be tempting to argue for stricter and more traditional criteria.

I believe that would be terribly wrong. In a complex, dynamic and fast-changing
globalized world it is very difficult to know who is best able to be the relevant
voice of the normally voiceless. A structure that a few years ago was the most
relevant can suddenly become obsolete.

I therefore strongly support the ambition of the Cardoso report to open up and
bring in new actors, also from the business sector. The voice of the voiceless in
today's world cannot not be found by narrowing down and limiting it. Having
worked with Sami (indigenous) issues in Sweden in the last few years I have, for
example, reached the conclusion that the big forest companies have been faster
to understand human rights than local municipalities with a clear left majority.

For the legitimacy and future of the UN itself, I believe this is critical. The trust,
the belief, the concern for the future of the UN can at the moment primarily be
found among the constituency we have in this room - social democrats or democratic
centre left in the North.

The conservatives and the business representatives are far too absent in the discussions.
Representatives from the South do participate, but are often rather frustrated
and impatient and with a more narrow and immediate agenda.

The way forward is to open up and encourage new forms of contacts, more informal
contacts, different ways of interacting. The UN staff and also country representatives
need to be encouraged and stimulated to have more informal contacts
with civil society. More and different structures for interactions are needed.

It is, in today's world, very difficult to find criteria for who is best giving voice
to the voiceless, and which groups in civil society are most legitimate and most
representative. However, when there is a critical mass of exchange of ideas, the
chances increase so that the voice is heard.

In a more integrated world, joined by markets, e-mails and "CNNification", the
challenge of doing international affairs work and UN advocacy for civil society
and NGOs is different. An informed public opinion can today be extremely powerful,
and change governments' public agendas.

Look at the land mines campaign. Or look at the Geneva initiative on the Arab-
Israeli conflict. Two groups, without formal power, by doing their homework
well, using networks and interacting with friendly governments, were able to
influence and change the agendas of Israel, the EU, the US, Russia, and the Security
Council.

For civil society this is good news, if we can change accordingly. Politics today
give much more room for values, principles and public voice, compared to ten or
fifteen years ago. But we, as civil society and NGOs, need to be more visible, in
the media and also in direct contact and dialogue with ministers. We need to be
known and relevant. We need to make use of our unique role, act with quality,
and focus our work in areas where we are able to make a difference.

And remember. Our role is not to make politics, but to make politics possible -
by being concerned about fundamental values and principles - by giving voice
to perspectives that are not normally heard.