SPECIAL JOINT WORKING GROUP OF THE PERMANENT COUNCIL AND OF THE INTER-AMERICAN COUNCIL FOR INTEGRAL DEVELOPMENT ON THE STRENGTHENING AND MODERNIZATION OF THE OAS

OEA/Ser.T/VII
GETC/FORMOEA-80/99
3 March 1999
Original: English

DISCUSSION PAPER
THE OAS AND CIVIL SOCIETY

I) INTRODUCTION:

Civil society has demonstrated that it can make a valuable and constructive contribution to multilateral and intergovernmental discussions in every sector, particularly in such areas as sustainable development, human rights, democratization, poverty eradication, gender equality and childrens’ rights. In many international bodies, civil society organizations have demonstrated that discussions can be facilitated or accelerated if their views are taken into account, especially where there are mechanisms to contribute to policy development. Throughout the hemisphere, civil society has a legitimate and significant role as part of a pluralist approach to social, economic and political development.

II) PURPOSE:

To implement the operative paragraphs of OAS General Assembly Resolution 1539 (Caracas, 1998), which state:

THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY RESOLVES

III) BACKGROUND:

Both the General Assembly of the OAS and the Summit of the Americas have recognized the importance of civil society participation as the hemisphere evolves towards greater integration.

A) THE ORGANIZATION OF AMERICAN STATES

In 1971, the General Assembly of the OAS approved standards defining two categories of relations between the OAS and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). These two categories were defined as general and special. In 1972, the General Assembly further clarified these standards as they related to OAS Specialized Conferences. In 1994, the Commission on Juridical and Political Affairs (CAJP) of the OAS convened a working group on Participation of Civil Society. This Working Group consulted for approximately two and a half years, with a mandate to clarify on what basis the OAS should establish relations with NGOs. The Working Group fulfilled its mandate in 1997, with the Permanent Council (in CP/RES. 704) instructing the General Secretariat

  1. to prepare draft practical guidelines to ensure consistency and enhancement of relations between the OAS Secretariat and NGO’s, including the definition of selection criteria with regard to NGO participation in programmes, projects and activities, financing and document dissemination;
  2. to present to the PC and CEPCIDI a report on ways to improve relations between the OAS Secretariat and NGOs;
  3. to prepare and periodically update a register of NGOs with which the OAS has relations and report to the PC and CEPCIDI on compliance.

In Caracas in 1998, the General Assembly passed two resolutions relating to civil society involvement. The operative paragraphs of AG/RES 1539 (The OAS and Civil Society) are cited above in Section I. The resolution emphasized that "representatives of civil society may be asked for their views on the matter." In AG/RES 1599 (Parliamentary Network of the Americas) the General Assembly resolved to instruct the secretariat to facilitate parliamentary dialogue, and encouraged parliamentarians to support the process of regional integration at all levels.

B) THE SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS

The Miami Summit of the Americas recognized that a strong civil society strengthened democracy, committed to a number of key principles, including to review their national regulatory framework for non-governmental actors to facilitate their growth, to improve the participation of marginalized groups in social activities, to exchange progress reports on activities in the civil society and to consider the development of a new Civil Society Program, by the IDB to encourage responsible and accountable philanthropy and civic engagement in public policy issues.

The Inter-American Strategy for Public Participation (ISP), which came out of the Bolivia Summit in 1996, is funded through the OAS with support from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), UNESCO and other donors. While limited to attracting public participation in areas related to sustainable development, the example of the ISP is a good one for the broader OAS. To ensure that the ISP itself was open to input from civil society, a unique advisory structure was created. The Project Advisory Committee (PAC) consists of government representatives and civil society members representing various civil society sectors, and government representatives serve as national focal points to disseminate information within the country. Information is also disseminated through a network of civil society actors. The ISP was also cited as a potential model to promote increased participation of civil society in public issues by the Santiago Summit in 1998.

In March of 1998 in San Jos´┐Ż, Costa Rica, Hemispheric Trade Ministers incorporated civil society into the negotiations of the FTAA (originally mandated by the Miami Summit) by reaffirming their commitment to the principle of transparency of the negotiation process, recognizing the interests and concerns that different sectors of society have expressed in relation to the FTAA and welcoming active participation by business and other sectors of production, labor, environmental and academic groups. The Ministers encouraged these and other sectors of civil society to present their views on trade matters in a constructive manner; establishing as a vehicle a committee of government representatives to receive these inputs, analyze them and present the range of views for the consideration of Ministers.

In Santiago, Leaders committed to stimulate the formation of responsible and transparent, non-profit and other civil society organizations and encourage public sector-civil society dialogue and partnerships in the areas that are considered pertinent in this Plan of Action. In this context, leaders recognized that the OAS may serve as a forum for the exchange of experiences and information. Leaders also entrusted the OAS to encourage support among Governments and civil society organizations, and to promote appropriate programs to carry out the civil society initiatives of the Summit.

 

IV) CURRENT STATUS:

On November 17, 1998, Permanent Missions exchanged views in the Joint Working Group of the Permanent Council and CEPCIDI on the Strengthening and Modernization of the OAS (GETC). Participating delegations stressed the importance of making progress on the issue in order to implement the GA mandate while raising several important issues such as the question of a definition, scope and nature of participation, and accreditation procedures which should be discussed. As part of this process, the Permanent Mission of Brazil circulated a document (GETC/FROMOEA-65/98) on the issue.

In accordance with CP/RES 704 (1997), the Office of External Relations at the OAS has started to compile a detailed list of NGOs that have a relationship to the OAS. This list will be available shortly, although there are no human resources specifically dedicated to this task. Recommendations from the OAS for practical guidelines to ensure consistency and enhancement of relations between the OAS Secretariat and NGO’s, including the definition of selection criteria with regard to NGO participation in programmes, projects and activities, financing and document dissemination and recommendations on ways to improve relations between the OAS Secretariat and NGOs are still pending from the OAS General Secretariat.

V) ISSUES FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION:

Although there is a strong consensus on the need to address the issue of the relationship between the OAS and civil society and, in particular, on the needs to implement General Assembly and Summit of the Americas mandates, it is recognized that further discussion among member States on the following issues is required:

A. DEFINITION

There is a tendency to equate the term "civil society" with non-governmental organizations," although the first is a broader concept which encompasses NGOs but is not limited to them.

What definition should the OAS use for civil society? <1>

B. PARTICIPATION AND REPRESENTATION:

Defined broadly as the process through which people with a legitimate interest (stakeholders) influence and share control over initiatives and the decisions and resources which affect them, the Working Group on Strengthening and Modernization of the OAS will have to decide on the question of participation.

How can we ensure equitable representation from all regions of the hemisphere?

Also under this topic, the scope of participation should be discussed; that is the distinction between civil society’s involvement in programme implementation (ie: SEDI) and participation in the work in all aspects of the OAS and the Summit of the Americas agendas.

How do we ensure access across all sectors?

C. INTEREST

The Department of External Relations of the OAS is compiling a list of organizations with which the Secretariat has a relationship.

Is their significant interest by civil society actors in participating in the work of the OAS?

D. ACCREDITATION

If an accreditation mechanism is deemed necessary, it should be transparent (with established and documented rules of procedure and accreditation criteria approved by the General Assembly, open to all member states, representative (of all member states), and credible (authority to make decisions).

What type of accreditation procedure is desirable for the OAS?

E. RESOURCE IMPLICATIONS

It will be important to define the resource implications be on the OAS of consulting civil society regularly, in terms of document distribution, personnel, logistical arrangements for expanded space for observers at meetings, and the like.

How will greater civil society participation be funded?

F. CONSULTATION AND ENGAGEMENT

Consultation and engagement with civil society actors already occurs at the OAS in a somewhat haphazard manner. Nevertheless, several options have been suggested at earlier discussions on this issue to expand further and regularize relations with civil society as per CP/RES 704 (1997) and other Summit and General Assembly commitments. Some of these suggestions include opening all meetings to accredited organizations, joint, open consultation meetings of the PC and CEPCIDI convened regularly around certain connected themes, semi-annual conferences convened around specific themes (around the hemisphere), with open attendance encouraged or virtual meetings using internet and electronic access.

How can the OAS increase the degree to which appropriate NGOs and civil society organizations may become more closely involved in and contribute to the work of the organization and develop ways to implement the tasks entrusted to the OAS in the Santiago Plan of Action?

VI) CONCLUSIONS:

The OAS Secretariat and Permanent Council have a shared responsibility and authority (as per Permanent Council, General Assembly and Summit of the Americas mandates) to consult and engage Civil Society across the gamut of OAS issues. The Permanent Council should identify and implement measures that allow closer civil society participation in OAS activities (CARACAS); that enable the Organization to serve as a forum for the exchange of experiences and information on the formation of civil society organizations (SANTIAGO); and that enable the OAS to encourage support for programmes geared toward strengthening civil society and public participation mechanisms (SANTIAGO).

In this regard, it would be useful to take into account United Nations procedures as they relate to consultative status in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

Finally, the Secretariat should be strongly urged to comply at the earliest possible time with pending requests regarding proposals on civil society participation in programmes, projects and activities and the presentation of recommendations on ways to improve relations between the OAS Secretariat and civil society.

<1> In the Miami Plan of Action, the following reference appears "A strong and diverse civil society, organized in various ways and sectors, including individuals, the private sector, labour, political parties, academics and other non-governmental actors and organizations, gives depth and durability to democracy." The IDB, in its Resource Book on Participation, defines Civil Society in the following manner: Civil Society organizations include, but are not limited to: community based and other grassroots organizations, foundations, micro-enterprises, informal economic producers and sellers.

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