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setting the agenda for global peace



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The content of Anna Snyder’s very useful study is somewhat narrower than the title of her book. She studies in detail the peace-agenda setting of NGOs preparing for the 1995 4th UN World Conference on Women (FWCW) held in Beijing, China. The first World Conference was in Mexico City as a highlight of the 1975 UN-sponsored International Year of the Women. As one year was hardly enough to bring about the goals of the year – equality, development and peace – the UN General Assembly transformed the Year into a 1975-1985 Decade on Women. There was a mid-term conference to evaluate progress in 1980 in Copenhagen, followed by an end of Decade conference in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985.

Then in the 1990s, there was a series of large UN conferences to try to set a world agenda of issues in the post-Cold War period. Conferences were organised on the environment, human rights, racism, food, population, and women in the hope that the end of the Cold War would facilitate progress on those issues which had often been blocked by the Cold War divisions. In practice, however, other divisions, often considered North/South, were evident at these conferences.

UN conferences nearly all follow the same pattern. There is a two-to-three year preliminary phase during which regional conferences on the subject are held, and a Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) open to all States who wish to participate is created. The function of the PrepCom is to draft a declaration of principles followed by a plan of action which, hopefully, will be accepted by consensus without a vote.

At the conference itself, the declaration of principles and the plan of action are nearly impossible to change. Powerful countries or well-structured blocs can have a paragraph dropped but very rarely can a new idea be introduced.

Thus, it is at the regional meetings and especially at the PrepCom sessions that all the drafting of texts must be done. When, as with the women’s meeting, there have been earlier conferences, much of the language for the declaration and the plan of action is taken from the earlier declarations and plans of action. If the representatives of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) wish to influence the wording of the governmental documents, it must be done during the PrepCom phase usually by suggesting the wording of paragraphs to government representatives they know or to the representatives of countries friendly to the propositions the NGO is pushing. Once the PrepCom is over, NGOs will have little possibility to influence the final draft.

Thus for NGOs to have an impact on the drafting, they must have representatives in Geneva and New York where the PrepComs usually meet. The NGO representatives must know well some of the government delegates who can inform them of how the drafting is going since some drafting is done in informal or regional groups closed to NGO representatives. The NGOs must also be able to write in UNese, a language of its own with a high level of generalisation, but no more esoteric than resolutions voted in national parliaments.

Thus, NGOs who have permanent representatives in New York and Geneva are able to function better than those who only come to the PrepComs or who usually approach only the governmental delegates of their own country. There are, however, NGOs who do not know how the system works and who send representatives only to the final conference where they expect to be able to introduce ideas into the final text. These representatives often feel cheated and bitter.

The UN conferences have become ‘the best show in town’, and many NGOs wish to participate. Only NGOs in consultative status with the UN are allowed into the governmental conference, so parallel NGO conferences are held at the same time or a few days earlier. These NGO conferences resemble the governmental ones with much time spent on drafting declarations and plans of action, everyone wanting to see his own issue reflected in the final text. Such NGO texts have no impact on the governmental draft, which, at this stage, is already written. However, the NGO parallel conferences are useful for networking and coalition building since the problems addressed will not be solved by the UN conference and will require long and local efforts.

Anna Snyder was a participant-observer in the peace-oriented efforts leading up to the 1995 conference in which she also participated. Her participation and thus her analysis largely concerns the efforts of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), whose headquarters are in Geneva. They also have a UN office in New York. A WILPF representative, Gertrude Baer was the first NGO representative to follow the League of Nations and later followed arms control efforts when the UN returned to Geneva. Thus WILPF has much experience in UN work. The WILPF representatives had done much to have ‘peace’ be one of the aims of the 1975 conference on women, at a time when many governments thought that they were making enough of an effort elsewhere, and that ‘peace’ was not really a women’s issue. Strong from this first effort, WILPF has coordinated the peace aspect at the subsequent meeting – setting up a ‘peace tent’ at which people could present their views and a ‘peace train’ which went from Helsinki to Beijing for the 1995 World Conference.

As among governments, so among NGOs, there are tensions, personality conflicts, difficulties in ‘hearing’ what is being said – or not being said. Anna Snyder describes with care and sympathy how such conflicts are being discussed, how NGO agendas are set and declarations written. She deals in more detail with the difficulty of reaching consensus in an organisation that does not want to take positions by voting.

She also describes the efforts of an independent group helped by WILPF to be active in the peace efforts – the Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace (SWVP). The SWVP was formed in 1994 mostly by women in exile or refugees in Nairobi. The effort is helped by the Swedish Protestant research centre Life and Peace which has a Horn of African project. There have been a number of peace initiatives to bring the Sudanese civil war, whose current phase began in 1982, to an end. Talks have usually been held in Nairobi so that it is useful to have an independent peace group working there.

As UN conference declarations do not mention specific countries, the SWVP’s efforts in Beijing were for networking and support-building. There were also opportunities to meet with northern Sudanese women, though these were linked to the government and accompanied by male civil servants who did most of the talking. Snyder’s analysis of the SWVP is a good example of how a small group linked to an issue few people care about can try to use a large international meeting to highlight a specific situation and build contacts for the future. ‘It is not what you say that is important but whom you meet’ is often a justification for NGOs attending these parallel conferences, but it is often a valid justification. Without such UN meetings, face-to-face contact would not be created, and such personal contacts are necessary to build up confidence in others – a function which will not be replaced by the internet.

Anna Snyder’s writing is lively and the persons she describes standout as real personalities. There is a good bibliography of books dealing with NGOs in the UN system and works on conflict resolution through dialogue – a book worth reading for those involved in international and intercultural peace efforts.
René Wadlow

Setting the Agenda for Global Peace: Conflict and Consensus building. Anna C Snyder. 2003.






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