Ten thousand peace activists, Nobel peace prize winners, and celebrities met for four days last May at a conference center at the Hague, Holland, with virtually no US – and skimpy international – coverage. A few blocks away, the boys with the big cameras clustered outside the gates of the International Court of Justice, where Yugoslavia was charging NATO with violations of international law.
After all, there was a war going on.
Every day, young people trooped down with banners, urging the media to provide some coverage. No luck. As a Hague Appeal staffer later explained, "Unless the story has action and can be explained in two seconds, they don’t want to cover it."
The conference was spurred by a revolutionary idea: abolishing war in the 21st century. Hopelessly idealistic? As Cora Weiss, president of the Hague Appeal, put it, this end-of-the-century conference was convened "because we want peace to have the last word in this most war filled, most violent century." That concern also spurred my own participation. I was tired of hearing the millennium being boiled down to an acronym – Y2K. Perhaps, the perception of a new start might spark hope in these cynical times.
And it wasn’t a bad story, complete with history (the conference occurred 100 years after the first Hague conference of 1899), hope for the future, revolutionary fervor, youth, and even some celebrities (Kofi Annan, Bishop Tutu, and Queen Noor, among others). Perhaps the best story was how this "peace conference" dedicated to abolishing war, and talking peace in the midst of one, could avoid taking a stand on Kosovo. Virtually every participant had to answer that question upon returning home.
What was the conference’s stand on Kosovo? Officially, it didn’t have one. And that may well have been a factor in the press’s indifference to both the process and the 21st-century agenda that emerged.
But now, after the mobilization against globalization in Seattle, the Hague conference reveals a larger story: the potential role of "civil society" in the new millennium. It’s been growing for a while; politely at the Hague, not so politely in Seattle. The people are at the gates, asserting that their interests as human beings are being ignored or manipulated by governments, international financial institutions, and corporations.
"What are these NGOs ‘swarming’ about?" The Economist asked in a December article. "Are citizens’ groups, as many of their supporters claim, the first steps towards an ‘international civil society’ (whatever that may be)? Or do they represent a dangerous shift of power to un-elected and unaccountable special-interest groups?" The way the magazine framed the question suggests that something pretty ominous is happening.
In fact, the number of international Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) has increased fourfold since 1990, up from 6000 in 1990 to 26,000 today.
But the key question is whether civil society can move from knocking on the door of international institutions to taking over the hall and creating a people’s parliament. It’s not as utopian as it sounds. Remember when the US shifted from electing its senators through state legislatures to letting the people decide?
A Millennium NGO Forum will be held at the UN from May 22-26, 2000. Its agenda – to build support for a more effective UN – is moderate, but it will also provide an opening for civil society to push the envelope on global governance. As TF’s editor wrote recently (TF, Dec 99), "We need to move beyond fear of government and work for democracy at the world level."
The Hague Appeal for Peace can be reached at www.haguepeace.org or firstname.lastname@example.org. The Millennium People’s Assembly Network is at www.ourvoices.org. TF will continue to track developments on its website.
Robin Lloyd is the publisher of TF.