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EU-UNU Tokyo Global Forum

Bridging the Gap

Involving Citizens' Movements and NGOs in the Democratic Process


Socio-economic change and the growth in political awareness have seen the role that the non-profit sector plays in democratic societies increase over the past two decades. Citizens' movements and NGOs are seeking better representation in the political process and governments have begun to encourage more actively participation by citizenry in the decision-making process at the local, national and supranational levels.

The UN's Global Compact brings together UN agencies, civil society, workers and private companies in the areas of human rights, labour and the environment. The EU works closely with NGOs across a range of issues, from policy dialogue and service delivery, to project and programme management.

In Japan, the Kobe earthquake in 1995 and the reform of the NPO law in 1998 helped nurture organised citizen participation in government policy-making. However, Japanese NGOs still have to overcome significant obstacles to develop and attract support and are smaller and understaffed in comparison with their European counterparts.

At the beginning of the 2005 EU-Japan Year of People-to-People Exchanges, this conference looks at how the EU and Japan can exchange views on how to optimise the role that civil society plays in supporting the democratic system of government. The fifth in a series of forums organised by the Delegation of the European Commission and the United Nations University, the conference will look at ways to define "organised civil society", to ensure that NGOs act responsibly and to create best practices that can be applied to NGOs the world over.

Session 1: NGOs and Human Rights

The EU and Japan are extremely conscious of their common attachment to freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has repeatedly pledged to uphold fundamental freedoms, clearly stating, "As long as I am Secretary General, the United Nations as an institution will always place human beings at the centre of everything we do."

All the Member States of the European Union are party to the European Convention of Human Rights which gives a legally binding expression to the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These values have a central place in EU law and policies, in particular in developing cooperation.

NGOs have been very involved in human rights activities and, since they operate at a grassroots level, can contribute to the protection of victims of human rights violations. Japanese NGOs are particularly active within the domestic borders, especially in issues such as the protection of foreign workers' rights and, in general, assisting minority groups. Issues such as women's and children's rights are also highly relevant in this context.

Session 2: NGOs and Humanitarian Assistance and Development

As the number of NGOs keeps growing, national governments and the EU entrust specific NGOs with providing relief and assistance in the context of their aid policy to developing countries. The European Commission allocates more than 1 billion a year to NGO projects, mainly in the field of development.

The role of NGOs in conflict operations and in post-conflict situations has gained momentum. The tragedy of civil war makes this role even more important. Peace building and democracy are better addressed through changes within society. NGOs, working directly with the population involved in the conflict, can often be more effective agents of transformation than states or governments. At the same time NGOs are themselves often targeted by armed combatants. Moreover, the provision of humanitarian assistance has in many ways become a part of the politics of the conflict.

Session 3: NGOs and the Environment

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 marked a watershed for environmental NGOs. Since the Rio Summit, the influence of environmental NGOs has steadily increased.

As with many aspects of civil society, environmental NGOs have consistently served to raise awareness of issues that otherwise would have escaped the public's attention. Environmental groups in the EU, Japan and the rest of the world have helped to put deforestation, global climate change, air pollution, waste, and recently, genetically engineered products on the agenda.

Environmental groups vary enormously in their goals and practices. Many citizens' groups serve only to act locally rather than acting to address global environmental concerns. Environmental NGOs need to work with national governments to promote effective international sustainable development as well as getting involved in the environmental policy formulation and implementation at a local and national level. Working with companies - both national and multinational - is also important in this respect.

Concluding Session: Creating a Civil Dialogue

NGOs and government, both national and supranational, need to better define the basic framework for their partnership. We see the growing rise of so-called "compacts" between the voluntary sector and policy makers. The EU's White Paper on Governance attempted to better delineate the responsibilities of NGOs and governments, while continuing to find ways to better involve civil society in the democratic process.

While Japan continues to increase the scope of partnerships with NGOs, especially in the field of international cooperation activities, the environment for Japanese NGOs needs to be improved in order to encourage relatively inexperienced organisations to develop their expertise. This conference and other such occasions during the EU-Japan Year of People-to-People Exchanges will hopefully provide opportunities for dialogue and collaboration between European and Japanese NGOs as well as EU, Japanese and UN officials.


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