European Affairs

“Civil Society” Will Play a Key Role in Creating a Better World     Print Email
Trân Van Thinh Paul

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the strength the change those I can, and
the wisdom to know the difference.

Marcus Aurelius

The terrorist attack of September 11 shone a cruel spotlight on the unacceptable defects of globalization, at a time when a new worldwide movement aimed at remedying those defects is rapidly gaining ground.

The phenomenon of globalization is irreversible, with multiplying effects that are both good and bad. It is, however, possible to fight against its evil effects, which know no borders.

That is one of the main aims of transnational “civil society” - a loose coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), specialist lobbying groups and anti-globalization protestors - which is weaving networks of action and information around the world to remedy the failures of governments.

These networks are developing from an open society, paving the way from global capitalism to global democracy. Their emergence is a major political event at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. They are becoming partners that cannot be ignored in the conduct of public affairs at all levels – regional, national and international.

Following the events of September 11, these networks will try to persuade governments around the world to find solutions to the explosive problems that globalization has brought with it, such as suffering and inequality. What we will undoubtedly see is the return of the State – not the Welfare State, but the best kind of State.

(NGOs should clarify where they stand)

The time has come for civil society, and particularly the NGOs, to clarify where it stands on globalization, to say which aspects it supports and which it opposes. It should do so if only to correct any possible connection, however unwitting, between the anti-globalization movement and the attack on the World Trade Center, the symbol of economic globalization.

Indeed, leaders of civil society are trying hard to distance themselves from the terrorists. “We reject any commonality of ideas between our fight against globalization and the recent tragic events. We oppose all the methods that the terrorists use – dirty money, tax havens and stock market manipulation,” said Bernard Cassen, President of Attac, a leading French anti-globalization group campaigning for a worldwide tax on capital transactions.

“We are fighting free trade and economic neo-liberalism, not the American people,” said José Bové, spokesman for the French Confederation Paysanne, a rural protest group. “Multilateral institutions should be given more independence and real power to sanction offenders.

“Today, the only international institution with the power of sanction is the World Trade Organization. We are demanding a Criminal Trade Court, modeled on the International Criminal Court, to which WTO rulings could be appealed,” Mr. Bové said.

Other groups are scaling back their activities. Greenpeace cancelled celebrations due to take place on September 15 to mark its 30th anniversary, and has muffled its campaign against the anti-missile shield.

(The movement is marking time)

The Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council have no intention of re-thinking their environmental concerns, which are now more justified than ever. But, in order not to weaken U.S. national unity, these organizations are silencing their criticism of the unilateralist environmental policies initiated by the novice Bush Administration.

The anti-globalization struggle is thus marking time after the terrorist attack. In fact, for some time now, the tone of its message has matured: It is not a fight against globalization per se, but against certain forms of globalization, indeed any form of violence.

When the Swiss authorities used an armored car to stop a demonstration during the Davos World Economic Forum in February 2001 and, in doing so, stifled freedom of expression, is that not a form of violence? It is like using an elephant’s foot to chase away a swarm of mosquitoes.

The same applies to other forms of violence, such as the mass dismissals that often follow mega-mergers of transnational companies - to say nothing of the one death and the many wounded at this year’s summits in Sweden and Italy.

The origins of the movement, in Seattle at the end of 1999, were pacifist and picturesque. Then the protests became increasingly marked by acts of undesirable vandalism. Now the overall movement is slowly maturing in a promising direction. The message that is beginning to emerge is one of pacifism and the rejection of all exercise of power.

(There are many different groups)

The web spun by these organizations of civil society at all levels is of an extreme richness and complexity. It is essential to identify the differences between them. On the one hand, there are autonomous groups of volunteers working on a contractual basis with their own funds, generally supported by foundations and universities.

On the other, there are organizations financed by government grants or special and professional interests. The former have no claim to be genuinely representative and their legitimacy is a function of their ability to make themselves heard. The latter work at lobbying.

As for NGOs that operate within the domain of globalization, their actions are extremely varied. It would require a deep and wide-ranging study to deal with them all.  I shall merely present a rough outline of three different categories.

The first is the active core of the movement, exemplified in Europe by the Attac network, in North America by Public Citizen and the Canadian Council, in Asia by Third World Network, and in Latin America by the coalition of Porto Alegre. It is among these groups that serious and responsible reflection takes place, information is exchanged, links are established and actions and rallies are prepared, organized and carried out.

The second category includes specialist networks, which aim to exert an influence over globalization. There are a significant number of specialized NGOs that protest the interference of the WTO and of trade policy in environmental policy. These groups work with impressive expertise to anticipate conflicts in the WTO’s dispute settlement system.

Then, in other areas, there is the network on medications that was established at Genoa to carry forward the work of Act Up (fight against Aids) without forgetting Medecins du Monde, the Social Forum, and Friends of the Earth, who are progessively drawing closer to Via Campessina.

The last category includes all kinds of small opposition groups. Their domain is the street. They operate primarily during demonstrations and include vandals. The media coverage of their clashes with the forces of law and order send shock waves through public opinion and increase awareness of the problems of globalization.

Far from being banished to obscurity by terrorism, civil society is quietly continuing to work on its legitimate concerns, which have been dramatized by the suffering caused by terrorist barbarity. The dynamism of the movement is far from being slowed.

(A voluntary global strategy will emerge)

The underlying causes of evil and terrorism are in fact the very problems that civil society is fighting, albeit in some disorder. International fanaticism is nourished by misery, poverty, disease, frustration, the debt burden of poor countries, money-laundering, tax havens, corruption – in fact the very problems that civil society has been harping on for years.

We have passed through the period of the politically correct Davos thesis, followed by the antithesis tumultuously initiated at Porto Alegre and developed at the Global Forum on Food Sovereignty in Havana. This process will continue relentlessly. The pieces of the puzzle are slowly falling into place.

Next will come the time of synthesis, the emergence of  a voluntary global strategy, to take up the challenge of the century, which is defining the final shape of globalization. There is no doubt that civil society will play a decisive role in this process.

Trân Van Thinh Paul was Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the European Union to the GATT from 1979 to 1994. He negotiated the GATT Uruguay Round agreements on behalf of the European Union and its member states. A historic figure involved in the founding of the GATT, he was called to testify at the trial of José Bové, leader of the anti-globalization farmers’ union in France.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number II, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2001.