Movement for citizen action (20 June 1996)

 

Implicit in the concept of a global civil society is recognition of our allegiance to the entire human community.

 

Remarks by Maurice Strong at the North American Regional Meeting of Civicus, held at Toronto, Ontario, June 20, 1996

I am not merely being polite when I say I am especially pleased to be here. For the more I hear about CIVICUS, its mission and its program, the more I identify with it. And, of course, I have been working in the same vineyard with many if not most of you over the years. And I very much share your vision as to the importance of strengthening citizen action in civil society throughout the world and the need to create a new alliance, or set of alliances, for this purpose. Indeed, this is precisely what we have been striving to do through the Earth Council about which I will say a little more later.

But for first, let me join in welcoming you to Canada, and to Toronto, which is now my home base. It is, as you will know, one of the most multi-ethnic cities in the world. It is also the locus of a vast and diverse array of citizen groups and voluntary organizations which, as you will know, have long been an important and influential factor in Canadian life. I am pleased that you chose Toronto to hold the first North American regional meeting of CIVICUS and hope you will enjoy and make the best of your stay here.

Primary challenges

The three issues on which you will be focussing seem to me to encapsulate the primary challenges confronting those of us who are striving to advance the cause of civil society and strengthen the instruments with which it functions. The first issue is clearly a priori, which is undoubtedly why you put it first on your agenda. For increasing the understanding and visibility of civil society is essential if the issues of creating an appropriate regulatory framework for civil society organizations and enhancing the resource base of the voluntary sector are to be achieved.

'While the term "civil society" is receiving much greater currency these days, it is still not widely understood. Indeed, there is a good deal of variety, and even some confusion, amongst those who promulgate the term. I noticed even in your own literature that there is some ambiguity in that you use the terms "independent". "voluntary", "third" and "non-profit" in varying degrees to describe this sector. We cannot expect the public to be clear about what we mean unless we can ourselves develop a common terminology. I am not sure if the term "civil sector" fits the bill, but believe we must do some further work on the terminology, and what we mean by it, before we move too far along in disseminating <?ur message more broadly. Your own literature provides the ingredients for this; it is primarily a matter of crystallizing and clarifying what we mean by the various terms and focussing on the particular one to be used generically to denote the civil society movement as a whole.

As time is short, I believe I can best illustrate some of my own views by reference to our experience with the Earth Council. During preparations for the Earth Summit, the role of civil society organizations and business were a decisive factor in influencing the position of governments and development of Agenda 21. It was also clear that the agreements reached at Rio and its vision of a more secure, sustainable and equitable future for the human community could only be realized if it were rooted in the understanding, commitment and actions of people.

The Earth Council

The Earth Council was formed as one of the new breed of civil society organizations to act as a catalyst in facilitating and supporting this process. It has its legal basis as a non-profit organization in Canada and is headquartered in San Jose, Costa Rica, where it has been accorded special international status. It is supported in the US by an Earth Council Foundation and in Canada by the Earth Council Institute. But most of its work is carried with a broad network of other voluntary organizations and citizen groups throughout the world, most of them of a grass-roots nature. Members of the Council were elected through nominations solicited from some 10,000 organizations. Most of these are in developing countries and one of our functions is to help them forge links with each other and tohave a greater input into the governmental policy and decision making processes that affect them.

One of the most promising instruments for doing this is the emergence, as a result of the Earth Summit, of National Councils for Sustainable Development, or equivalent bodies, in some 100 countries. Many of these include representatives of both government and civil society and all have as an important dimension of their mission establishing more effective consultative and cooperative links between government and civil society actors. As you will know, in most developing countries, this is not easy. For governments and non-governmental actors view each other with mutual suspicion, even hostility. This was evidenced in the regional meetings in Latin America, Africa and Asia which the Earth Council convened with the National Councils for Sustainable Development in which, in some cases, government representatives were reluctant to be seated beside the non-governmental representatives of their own country. But because effective action for sustainable development requires cooperation and a new sense of partnership both between government and civil society and amongst the various civil society actors, it is providing new impetus to the processes of building bridges amongst these actors. And the National Councils for Sustainable Development are also proving to be a useful instrument for building bridges across national boundaries, both within the region and more globally.

New partnerships

Professional and sector organizations represent important civil society constituencies and the Earth Council has been working with a number of these in helping them to articulate their own commitment to sustainable development and develop the practical measures that will give effect to it. Some 15 million engineers, through their professional associations, have joined in a "World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development" to support implementation of Agenda 21. Architects have taken similar action.

The World Tourism and Travel Council and the World Tourist Organization recently launched, in cooperation with the Earth Council their Agenda 21 for the world's largest single industry. And just last month in Budapest, Hungary, we joined with the International Road Transport Union in producing their Charter, committing them to sustainable development and Agenda 21.

For the business community more generally, the Business Council for Sustainable Development, which made such an important input to the Earth Summit, has been reconstituted and merged with the World Industry Council for Environment to form the new World Business Council for Sustainable Development, including some 120 of the world's principal business leaders.

Strong focal points

Sustainable development is also proving to be a strong focal point for local and community organizations. In partnership with the Earth Council, the International Union of Local Authorities has formed the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives through which some 1600 cities and towns have established their own local Agenda 21 based on the global agenda.
Values, ethics and moral principles provide the basic underpinnings of our societies and the ultimate route from which our attitudes and behaviour spring.

The effective functioning of our global society with its wide diversity of cultures, religions, traditions and ideologies requires a commonly accepted set of principles and values. In the field of peace and security these are provided by the United Nations Charter and in the field of human rights by the UN Declaration of Human Rights. To these must now be added a set of principles that will guide our conduct towards the earth and each other in ensuring the sustainability of the environment, resources, and life-support systems on which our common survival and well-being depend. We sought to do this through agreement on an Earth Charter in Rio de Janeiro but had to settle for a "Declaration of Rio" which represented an important step forward but fell short of the Earth Charter to which we have aspired. Now the Earth Council in partnership with a host of other civil society organizations is seeking to complete this unfinished business by developing a "People's Earth Charter" for
presentation to, and hopefully action by, governments by the year 2000. The process must be broadly inclusive and participatory to lend the kind of credibility and authority to the Earth Charter that will ensure its acceptance.

We invite you to join us in this.

Next year, on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Earth Summit, the UN General Assembly has mandated a review of its results. In conjunction with this, civil society organizations will be gathering in Rio de Janeiro March 18-23, 1997, to review what has been done, and not done, since Rio and lend new impetus and vitality to the continuing process of implementing and building on its Agenda 21.

Movement for citizen action

Again, I invite your support of and participation in this process, which provides an important opportunity for progress towards meeting your mission. For I am convinced that there is no issue that has a greater potential for extending and mobilizing the movement for citizen action and the strengthening of civil society than sustainable development. And surely the linking of your international alliance with the global sustainable development network the Earth Council has been developing could only strengthen and reinforce our common efforts and purposes.

I am persuaded that the 21st century will be decisive for the human species. For all the evidences of environmental degradation, social tension and inter-communal conflict have occurred at levels of population and human activity that are a great deal less than they will be in the 21st century. Theoretically, one can make a case that these problems will be manageable. But in practice it will require a new set of commonly accepted principles and alliances for cooperative management on a scale beyond anything we have yet experienced. The proponents of a strengthened civil society need not and should not see themselves, or be seen, as in competition with or opposition to governments. There will be conflicts and tensions to be sure, but these must not be allowed to expand into the kind of broad confrontation that would be counter-productive for our societies as a whole.

Global citizenship

I am somewhat concerned about the tendency to use the term "global citizenship" as it tends to suggest to governments a possible dilution of their people's loyalty to their nation. Implicit in the concept of a global civil society is recognition of our allegiance to the entire human community. But this need not be incompatible with loyalty to our nation any more than our loyalty to family, tribe, or hometown compromises our loyalty to the nation. So we must be careful and sensitive in how we use the term "global citizenship".

I know that many of you are very much involved in the field of sustainable development and look forward to exploring further with you how we might join our common efforts to ensure that our own societies and the larger human community can avoid the risks and realize the immense potential for human betterment and fulfilment that confront us in the new millennium.

A new global partnership for security and sustainability would not require world government or the homogenization of cultures and behaviour. Rather it would require agreement on the fundamental boundary conditions which all nations and people must respect to ensure that our collective behaviour does not transgress the thresholds of safety required to ensure our common survival and well-being. It will require a major extension and strengthening of the system of partnerships that is now emerging within civil society and new impetus to strengthening the multi-lateral institutions through which governments cooperate.

A fragmented world community needs a shared vision of our common future which transcends our differences and rivalries, one premised on a value system which places at its centre the protection and nurturing of life in all its manifestations. This requires that we develop a common ethical framework which asserts both the paramount }mportance of protecting the earth's capacity to sustain life and of equity and justice in meeting the needs of the human family. These tenets converge in the concept of sustainable development. A process of enshrining them in a people's "Earth Charter" has now been launched to pickup on an important piece of unfinished business from Rio.