Interview with Bernard Loing: ‘NGOs are the cornerstone of civil society.’
in SHSviews 21
A true global forum collecting opinions and suggestions from NGOs on the priorities of action by the United Nations, the annual NGO conference will be held at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris from 3 to 5 September 2008. On the eve of this important meeting, the President of the International Conference of the 310 NGOs accredited to UNESCO invites us to review human rights in terms of universality and globalization. Bernard Loing considers NGOs as “the cornerstone of civil society” and asserts that they must play a larger role in world governance.
In September 2008, UNESCO will host the 61st Annual Conference of NGOs, partners of United Nations. What are the issues on the agenda?
First, it is important to underline the fact that it is the first time in 60 years that this important annual conference, bringing together more than 1,700 NGOs accredited to the United Nations, will be held elsewhere than at the UN Headquarters in New York.
In this year of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the choice of UNESCO Headquarters in Paris is obviously not insignificant, given the role played by the Organization in the development of this Declaration in defending human rights.
At the initiative of the UN's Department of Public Information, the commemoration will be the theme of this entire conference. During these 3 days, approximately 2 000 participants from more than 70 countries will debate on conventions on the application of human rights, human rights violations in situations of insecurity, violence and conflicts, human rights education and freedom of expression, etc.
The issue of human rights will also be reviewed in terms of universality and globalization. Since the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Paris, in 1948, the world has indeed changed greatly. While at that time, there were 48 countries (out of 56) who signed, today, there are 192 member countries of the UN in a world numbering 6.5 billion inhabitants.
Faced with these developments, one of the questions that all of us would like to know is if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be complemented or not in the context of today’s world and new challenges, such as education for all, environmental protection, access to essential resources or even sustainable development.
All these challenges will be discussed in the various workshops and round tables held during the conference.
What are the areas of intervention of NGOs? Do they form a homogenous world?
Usually when we talk about NGOs, the general public has a tendency to think only of organizations with humanitarian vocations; in reality it is much more complex. For example, the 310 Non-Governmental Organizations accredited to UNESCO represent an extremely diverse world and intervene in many different domains. Gathered at the International NGO-UNESCO Conference, they are often professionally established, in major fields like education, science, culture, art, communication, and in all sectors of society.
As president of this International Conference, my role is to create synergy, a general dynamic which will promote joint work. This is difficult to accomplish because the organizations have their own headquarters in many different countries and only a minority of them has representatives in Paris. Fortunately, most of them are devoted, active people who are true activists of civil society.
The major line of our action is based on the belief that NGOs are the cornerstone of civil society, itself an “instrument to global democracy in progress” as stressed in the resolution adopted at the last International NGO-UNESCO Conference in December 2007. It is in this perspective that we organize our work and our relationship with UNESCO and its Member States.
Claiming to be the direct representatives of civil society and to act directly in the field, don’t NGOs risk being accused of wanting to substitute States themselves?
Absolutely not. There is obviously no question of us substituting States, but to work with them by making the voices of the “citizens of the world” be heard loud and clear.
Thus, to resume with the example which I know best, UNESCO and NGOs have developed for a long time, precisely since 1995, joint working mechanisms that have helped establish a true partnership. As far as we are concerned, we have set up 7 programmatic mixed commissions and 3 working groups, each comprising a wide range of NGOs whose representatives are very active. These bodies meet every 6 or 8 weeks and, with the help of experts, debate on diverse domains: human rights, sustainable development, science and ethics, poverty, youth, communication, universal access to education, etc.
Their work programmes are established on the basis of the resolutions voted during the International NGO-UNESCO Conference which is held every two years in conjunction with the main programme sectors of UNESCO and of course, with the Committee for NGOs of the Executive Board which is, along with the Sector of External Relations, our direct contact within the Organization. Thus, we are not confronted by one state or another.
What type of partnership do you wish to see developed between States and NGOs?
A true partnership has already begun and is progressively being reinforced. For the past century, States have been organizing themselves within the large international institutions. Today, civil society starts to do likewise, by taking part in world governance, notably through NGOs. Thus, we are empowered with a particular responsibility in the organization of civil society, allowing its expression and developing its action, within the framework of current globalization.
It is not a question of establishing a revolutionary organization to oppose the powers of States, but to have a voice, to be influential and pro-active? Having neither power, money, oil nor weapons, we represent the voices of the world. It is incumbent upon us to coordinate them, to give to them the strongest expression, to help them be heard. We cannot go beyond that point.
We, who are accredited by an agency of the United Nations system, are conscious of the fact that we evolve within the framework of an intergovernmental organization, and that consequently the relationship of NGOs with Member States can only be a mutually beneficial partnership, although this does not exclude the possibility of a frank and critical expression.
What is your view of UNESCO’s work towards NGOs?
During the first years which had followed its creation in 1947, UNESCO relied heavily on the larger NGOs, who themselves were often led by renowned intellectuals who themselves defended major causes like peacekeeping, the fight against racism and the preparation of decolonization. While relations have sometimes decreased in intensity, everything leads us to think that the international community has now regained awareness that it cannot do without dialogue with NGOs.
It is equally important for NGOs to be accredited to UNESCO because this recognition reinforces their international legitimacy and provides a forum for dialogue and exchange with States.
We are indeed delighted that UNESCO is one of the first major international organizations to have been able to organize this dialogue, and is increasingly opening up to listening, voicing its opinions and intervening in civil society. This dialogue between NGOs and UNESCO Member States takes place notably during the biennial meetings of the Executive Board. Moreover, it is within this framework that after the meeting in September, we hope to participate in a debate workshop on human rights and education, which will be organized next October. One month later, in November 2008, the International NGO Day will be held, which will address the role of civil society and NGOs in defending human rights.
Interview by Nfaly « Vieux » Savané
Born in 1932 in Laval (France), Bernard Loing was, until 1981, professor of English language and literature at the Universities of Caen and Tours. Director of the Cabinet of the French Ministry of Postal Services and Telecommunications from 1981 to 1986, Rector of the National Distance Learning Centre (CNED) from 1990 to 1993, he later founded and presided Channel EF, a satellite-controlled, digital radio educational channel, for the African continent as a consultant for the Agence de la Francophonie.