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October, 2003, Volume 11 Nr. 2, Issue 123
The 56th United Nations DPI/NGO Conference: Human Security and Dignity: Fulfilling the Promise of the United Nations 
A Veteran For Peace Participates and Reflects

Jozef Hand-Boniakowski

The Non Governmental Organization (NGO) section of the United Nations Department of Information (DPI) held its 56th annual conference in New York City on September 8 - 10, 2003.  I attended the conference with a seven-member delegation representing Veterans For Peace (VFP).  The VFP delegation was one of 687 NGOs being represented from over 93 countries.  2,664 delegates registered to attend the conference.  The United Nations defines an NGO as,

... any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizens' concerns to Governments, monitor policies and encourage political participation at the community level. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, the environment or health. Their relationship with offices and agencies of the United Nations System differs depending on their goals, their venue and their mandate.

The theme of the 56th U.N. DPI/NGO conference, Human Security and Dignity: Fulfilling the Promise of the United Nations, and its purpose was to 

...shift our attention back to the real sources of human security drawing on the policies and programmes that emphasize economic and social development, human rights and a healthy environment over military action to assure that all people live with dignity and security. The theme also ties into the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Clarity of Mission

A noble and worthwhile goal, the conference while well-intentioned left much lacking in  the clear vision required to achieve it.  Without question, this conference and its continuation is an important element in the United Nations attempts at creating a less violent world.  The United Nations is a flawed institution, as corrupt as its individuals members and as self-serving as the greed of the imperialist nations that are seated as permanent members of the Security Council.  That being recognized, the United Nations is the only world body through which international disputes have a chance of being resolved before they escalate to war.  

In the most recent war, a pre-emptive war on Iraq, the United Nations balked in its participation.  Rightly so, as the war is contrary to the organization's charter.  As recent events have shown, the supreme superpower of the planet has returned, after the fact, to the United Nations for aid in disentangling itself from an ever growing quagmire in Iraq.  While the superpower bullied a 3rd world country, it now has a bloody nose to contend with and the public is quickly recognizing the mistakes of an incompetent and corrupt administration.  The point being that the United Nations is an organization already in place that has, at least, in its charter, the directive and the will of its adherents, to make  attempts at attaining human security and dignity without recourse to violence.  

What NGO Delegation are You From?

Beyond the usual around-the-neck security tags and U.N. identification, the airport security-like screenings, the most striking feature of the conference was the lack of any visible delegate affiliation.  Besides the suits versus native clothing that differentiated  the participants, there was little to associate a delegate with an NGO.  Looking at a delegate, it was impossible to tell whether they represented the International Academy For Human Values (Germany) or the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary (Italy). 

Perhaps, the best networking opportunities we missed by not attending the reception,  which before the event, had earned a rumored reputation for not being worth the price of admission.  Somehow, I think the opportunities limited.  After all, if the Secretary General, Kofi Annan, could simply not show up at the opening session as scheduled with nary an explanation, what point was there tying to schmooze with "eminent persons" over wine and cheese -- a somewhat dubious activity.

The conferences and the time in-between them, scheduled throughout the day from 9 a.m. through 5 p.m. left little, if any, opportunity to identify, introduce, become acquainted with, nor exchange ideas and opinions.  The like-minded and non-so-like-minded delegations seldom mingled.  My impression of the NGO conference structure left with the impression that such mix-up of ideas and opinions were to be avoided.  It appeared that an understood underlying low-key operation, a no friction approach to diplomacy was being foisted upon the delegates in order to maintain the cohesion of a smoothly running event.  Smoothly run it was.  But, what of the exchange of ideas?  Especially, between disparate points of view.  If not at the United Nations, then where?

A Delegation Stands Out

The one stand-out delegation was Veterans For Peace, some of whom wore visible expressions of their representation, either their hats, clothing, or buttons.  Depending upon how diligent the U.N. security personnel interpreted the regulations, buttons were asked to be removed.  Buttons are by U.N. regulation definition, demonstrations, and demonstrations on U.N. premises are not allowed.  

What better place to let the world know that veterans stand for peace.  That former military people, who for the most part were directly or economically conscripted to do their government's bidding and killing, now actively pursue human security and dignity in a less violent world.  While the representationally non-descript delegates blended into a sea of humanity unnoticed by sympathetic and empathetic others, the VFP folk could hardly go unnoticed.  And yet, there was very little attempt by  non-VFP delegates to offer a hand of introduction.  I wondered whether I was outside the United Nations building trudging through a tide of the Big Apples' introspective and self-absorbed  humanity rather than inside the halls of International institution of good will.  The oddity of the sensation was compounded by the fact that more people of diversity would say hello outside the U.N. building, in the streets, than inside.  Perhaps, next year, the VFP delegation can make it a point to outreach more to fellow brothers and sisters from around the world.

The opening session of the 56th NGO Conference took place at the General Assembly Hall.  It was disappointing that Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, did not address the throng as scheduled.  There is a sense of awe in the possibility of the United Nations when sitting in the General Assembly Hall.  There is that uplifting urgency that is testament to positive potential of the collective and collected human, albeit nationalist, presence.  Internationalism is one thing.  Nationalism quite the opposite.  Perhaps, there is a naiveté that clouds clear thinking covering up the suggestion that nations are the biggest proponents of self-serving interests.  Often, we would rather be an ideal protecting an illusion of what we want to be, but are not, rather than succumb to the impossibility of attaining it.  Some might call that, hope.  The naiveté is somewhat tempered, or at least pardoned, by the recognition that no other Institution exists today anywhere that attempts reconciliation, international interdependent  co-operation, and a reduction in violent conflict resolution on a planetary.  There simply exists no other option  than the United Nations..

Civil Society

In the opening session, Fernando Henrique Cordoso, Chair, High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on United Nations Civil Society Relations, spoke on the theme of the conference.  Cordoso, whose title spins the mind, is the former two-term president of Brazil.  There is a strong case to be made for "civil society" participation in the United Nations, which until recently, has been the only inter-governmental organization to enshrine NGO-relations in its founding charter.  The role and power of NGOs today has advanced to the point where conservative United States organizations have reacted in attempts at limiting their power.  The website run as a collaboration between the American Enterprise Institute and The Federalist Society, keeps tabs on NGOs worrying about their "quasi-governmental role" stating,

While it is true that many NGOs remain true to grassroots authenticity conjured up in images of protest and sacrifice, it is also true that non-governmental organizations are now serious business.

The argument is that NGOs have too much power in influencing policy.  One view of such reaction is that it gauges NGO effectiveness.  The NGOs must be doing something right when "corporate citizens" attack them for being effective.

It is the construct of "civil society" which has gained prominence within the United Nations as being influential in making policy decisions.  Cordoso sees this as an irreversible trend.  Right wingers see it as a loss off control.  Cordoso puts it,

The influence of civil society in the management of global change, in turn, could never have reached their present breadth and scope without the concomitant rise of citizen action. The growth of private action for the public good is a recent, massive, almost universal phenomenon.

There is some concern, that just like everywhere else where the rich ruling elite rule, that this "civil society" will be co-opted by the same trans-national corporations that corrupt national governments.  The trend toward multilateralism is anathema to most megacorps and threatening to the neo-liberal status quo.  Cordoso's statement, that "There is no alternative to dialogue and deliberation in order to produce generally-accepted rules and norms" flies in the face of the recent pre-emptive war for the redistribution of the Middle East's petroleum resources.  The mere fact that civil society turned out in the millions, 11-million on February 15, 2003, to oppose a war before it began, is evidence of its power.  It has been suggested that the world's second superpower is the mass of people in opposition to pre-emptive war a la neo-colonialism.  The participation of civil society in the streets worldwide, as witnessed on February 15, 2003 worldwide, could do no less than to steer the United Nations in a similar direction.  Almost a million people came out to say, "Not in our name;< in New York City alone.  This is why, today, the unilateralists are back at the United Nations trying to negotiate a civil society reprieve from the quagmire they created.  They are seeking an imprimatur on attaining control and stability which they could not achieve through misguided violent means.  Civil society has succeeded in its missions in this example, but failed to prevent unnecessary violence, death and destruction.  

There are contradictions within the definition of civil society.  The United Nations inclusive definition of civil society encompasses, 

a wide variety of non-state actors, including parliamentarians and the private sector. The ways through which civil society interacts with the UN and influences global governance are also diversified, ranging from advocacy and public protest to consultation and partnership with different agencies and programs.

There are many NGOs and individuals who believe that the private sector should not be considered part of civil society.  Given the proclivity of private corporations in taking over governments, controlling the press and other media, the privatization of prison system, etc., as in the Mussolini definition of fascism, I lean toward excluding them.   I do, after all, live in a country that gives the rights of personhood to non-living corporations and where money is viewed as free speech.  The more money you have the more free speech you get.

Cordoso made reference to the "dark side" of "uncivil society" ascribing to them elements which include "global terrorism and the drug trade".  Perhaps, that definition requires revision to include the neo-liberal forces and institutions of greed globalization  that would accept so-called pre-emptive military action as the price to pay for cheap natural resources and human labor.  As Congressman Frank Pallone put it, "All blockades are illegal", yet we continue the embargo against Cuba even though the vast majority of United States citizens have long ago come to their senses and want it ended.  Millions of Iraqi children died as a result of U.N. sanctions.  Just who is the "uncivil society" in cases such as this.  No one is pure when it comes to issues of human suffering, it seems.

The Conferences

Each member of the VFP delegation attended at least two conferences daily, a morning session and a mid-day session.  Conferences were often filled to capacity with room numbers changing at the last moment.  Conference topics included "Psychological Aspects of Human Dignity and Security", Educating For A Secure Future", "From Oppression to Empowerment", "Sustainable Development in the Context of Globalization", "A Conversation with Eminent Persons on Global Trends and Strategies", "Best Practices for Protecting Victims of Child Trafficking: Coordinated Response in Three New York City Ethnic Communities", "Blockades: Threats to Human Security and Dignity", "Faith-Based Education Programs to Prevent HIV/AIDS", "Migration, Discrimination and Social Justice: Lifespan Psychological Perspectives", "Human Rights Education for Community and Self-Empowerment", "Achieving Human Dignity through Multicultural Training: An Interactive Workshop", "Women's Stories of Inclusion and Exclusion from the Abrahamic Traditions' Sacred Texts: Their Application to Contemporary Issues", "Economic Security and Human Rights: A Crucial Relationship for Children, Families and Older People", "Immigrants and Refugees in Today's World", etc.  This is a partial list.  There were at least twice as many more conferences in the program literature.

Two conferences in particular, require comment which, if anything, reflect some shortcomings.  The "Blockades: Threats to Human Security and Dignity Conference" which featured Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., (D-NJ), Dr. Aram Chibanian, dean and provost, Boston University Medical Center, Prof. Steven Remy, Yale University/Author, and Dr. Anie Kalayjian, International Society for Traumatic Stress.  Far from being a workshop as proclaimed in the flyer, this event was more a special interest session than anything else.  Herein, according to some previous VFP attendees of the NGO conferences, lies a deterioration of mission, if not intent of the NGO conference workshops..  

The "Blockades" conference (lecture would be a more appropriate term) was organized by the Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern), the International Society for Traumatic Stress, and Mercy International Association, the entire one-and-a-half hours was spent on the Turkish blockade of Armenia.  Not a word was spoken about any other blockade in the world.   The 40-year old United States blockade of Cuba did not even come up until at the very end when a few minutes for questions opened the door for asking about it.  I had a few moments, after the "conference" to ask Congressman Frank Pallone about the Cuban blockade.  Pallone stated that all blockades were illegal, but that the 109th U.S. Congress was highly unlikely to lift the blockade of Cuba.  I could not help but suggest, that it would be difficult to export the idea of lifting the blockade of Armenia by Turkey, when he cannot lift our own 40-year old admittedly illegal blockade of Cuba.  But, that is not what this gathering was all about.  As I was soon to learn in attending the next one, the conferences, at least the ones that I attended, had special interests in mind when they were scheduled in the first place.  Perhaps, civil society has yet much to learn.

A Workshop of Our Own

Given the scope and quality of the conferences, it became clear that if any NGO has a claim to projecting a vision and message, and a course of action that could influence the direction of nations toward human security and dignity, it is Veterans For Peace.  In its statement of purpose, Veterans For Peace, states,

We, having dutifully served our nation, do hereby affirm our greater responsibility to serve the cause of world peace. To this end we will work, with others

(a) Toward increasing public awareness of the costs of war
(b) To restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations (c) To end the arms race and to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons
(d) To seek justice for veterans and victims of war
(e) To abolish war as an instrument of national policy.

Veterans of all countries can, I believe, in clear conscience subscribe to such a statement of purpose.  Veterans, committed to the cause of world peace and justice, have a respectability different than that of non-veterans. Veterans have been there, often in places and situations unimaginable.  Veterans have a unique perspective which when combined with non-violent action may prove influential in attaining the four goals in the statement of purpose above.  To that end, I suggest that Veterans For Peace, a U.S. NGO, consider presenting a conference or panel discussion at the 57th United Nations NGO Conference next year (2004) on who they are and on the possibilities of a worldwide veterans for peace movement.  Veterans and their potential contribution to settling international disputes through peaceful means is a noble and potentially effective approach.  We as Veterans For Peace do make a difference. 

The NGO Statement on Iraq and the U.N.

Representatives of civil society from around the world, participating in the 56th UN DPI/NGO Annual Conference, hereby approve and sign the following statement on Iraq to convey our deep concerns about Iraq and the future of the United Nations.

Expressing our deep sympathy for the recent tragedy arising from the bombing of the UN office in Iraq,

Recalling that article 2(3) of the Charter of the United Nations requires all member states to "settle their international disputes by peaceful means,"

Recalling that article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations requires all member states to "refrain in the international relations from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,"

Convinced that the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq is posing grave threats to the human security and welfare of the Iraqi people as well as to the international peace and security of the world community as a whole,

Recognizing Iraqi people's right to basic human rights and self-determination, to form a new government of their choice, and to regain their sovereignty and independence as soon as possible,

Deeply concerned with the declining world confidence in the UN System due to both the failure of the UN to speak out against the unilateral US-led war of aggression against Iraq and the increasing perception of the UN as an instrument of US policy,

1. Condemn the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq as a clear act of aggression in violation of the Charter of the United Nations and of international law,

2. Call upon the US-led occupation forces to withdraw from Iraq, and call upon their governments to fund the current needs of the Iraqi people as well as to make full reparation for war damages,

3. Call upon the Security Council to reject any attempt to pass a new resolution which provides a UN cover for the US-led occupation forces in Iraq,

4. Call upon the Security Council to authorize a new UN Mission to Iraq to serve as the Interim Authority in Iraq, replacing the "Coalition Provisional Authority," until a new government is established by the Iraqi people through a UN-supervised election,

5. Call upon the Security Council to deploy UN Peace-keeping Force to Iraq to replace the current occupation forces, to restore order and security in Iraq, and to provide security for the UN Mission and international humanitarian organizations in Iraq,

6. Call upon the General Assembly, if the Security Council does not approve the above measures, to pass a resolution incorporating measures #1,#2, #4 and #5 above, under the Uniting for Peace procedure A/Res/377, 1950,

7. Call upon the General Assembly to seek an emergency advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the question of whether any pre-emptive/preventive war, such as the March 2003 invasion of Iraq by the US-led forces, would be in violation of the Charter of the United Nations or of international law,

8. Urge UN officials, bodies, and member States, and civil society to speak out and oppose any further threats of unilateral, pre-emptive/preventive military attacks by any nation against another nation,

9. Urge UN officials, bodies and member States to increase the integrity, independence and neutrality of the UN offices and officials by denouncing and disciplining any UN employees who "seek or receive instructions from any government" as prohibited by article 100 of the Charter,

10. Endorse the forwarding of a copy of this statement to the UN Secretary-General, President of the Security Council, President of the General Assembly, all missions to the UN, and the media.

Dated: 8 September, 2003

New York, New York

© 2003 Jozef Hand-Boniakowski, PhD  (except NGO Statement on Iraq and the U.N.).  The opinions, ideas and statements made in this article reflect those of the author and are not the opinions of any organization, group or individual other than the author.

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