How Free Is The World?

06. January, 2004


Jan-Gustav Strandenaes

Foto: G.Dieziņš

Is the world better off now than 60 years ago? Has the UN contributed to a greater sense of well-being and freedom, or are freedom and justice elusive and utopian ideals?

On the 6th of January, 1941, a little more than 60 years ago, representatives from 46 nations from what was then known as the “free world” were gathered in the White House in Washington DC in the United States. The Second World War had entered a dramatic phase, and the dark forces fighting against freedom, peace and justice seemed to be winning.

At this dark hour, the American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the free nations of the world. He spoke about a time when the world and its peoples again would be free. In that world, he said, “we shall have created freedom, democracy, peace and justice for all. We shall live in a world where we shall enjoy:

  • Freedom of expression
  • Freedom to worship
  • Freedom from fear
  • Freedom from want.”
  • History has come to recognise these as the four freedoms.

    A Vision For Mankind

    Roosevelt had the strength to believe in a better world, and he had the vision to see a world where freedom and justice were the dominant factors of life. The four freedoms that Roosevelt expressed became a guiding light in the struggle for a better tomorrow. In many ways, these four freedoms later became elements in the foundation of the United Nations as well.

    Unfortunately, since then, history has been enveloped in a shroud of serious conflicts that have disrupted and derailed so many efforts to build progress and develop freedom. But despite setbacks, the international community has tried to join the forces of all peoples in a common struggle to improve the situation for mankind in general and to build welfare and security for people in particular by utilizing our collective knowledge on how to improve this world. Still, after almost 60 years of trying to free the peoples of the world, many question the progress made so far.

    Human Rights – Still Not Enough

    We have come a long way since Roosevelt spoke in 1941. What was almost unthinkable then, or even when the UN was founded in 1945, at least in practical life, has become not only thinkable, but doable. On the 10th of December this year, only a few days ago, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a Muslim female lawyer in recognition of her work for human rights. Undoubtedly, this is a sign of progress in the collective effort to free mankind.

    We have also come a long way in the work of international human rights since the Universal Declaration for Human Rights was adopted on December 10th, 1948. Since then, 6 major conventions have been adopted and ratified: One on civil and political rights; one on economic, social and cultural rights; one against torture; one on racial discrimination; one on women; and, not least of all, one on the rights of children.

    Still, the UN uses only about 1,5% of its current budget for working on human rights issues globally.

    Today, several countries guarantee international human rights for their people through their constitutions and through budget decisions made by their parliaments. The ideas and values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have been included as the basic values at the centre of the foreign policies of many countries. These values are about freedom and justice, peace and security, democracy and human rights, combating poverty and safeguarding sustainable development.

    Good Governance – Against Poverty

    The Norwegian Minster of Development, Ms. Hilde Frafjord Jonson, recently said,
    “Functioning democratic institutions contribute to the promotion of human rights and to the fact that they are respected. This respect for human rights contributes to the strengthening of democracy. Having political influence can contribute to development and a more just distribution of goods in society. Social and economic development is an important prerequisite in the development of democracy, securing peace and in the prevention of conflicts of a violent nature.”

    The Secretary General of the UN, Mr. Koffi Annan, has said that perhaps the most important factor in our struggle to eradicate poverty and promote development is good governance. The Millennium Declaration unanimously adopted by the world leaders at the UN at the turn of the millennium is one of our time’s most visible and strong expressions for democracy, freedom and good governance. International capacity building is another important ingredient in the fight against poverty and to develop good governance, democracy, understand peace, promote human rights and work for justice.

    Freedom Is Elusive

    Freedom becomes an elusive word, when we learn that more than half of the world’s population lives a life of poverty. The Millennium Declaration is a serious global effort to fulfil the promise of the four freedoms. By 2015, poverty should be reduced by 50% according to the plans found in the Millennium Declaration. Fighting poverty is a daunting task

    A few sobering facts may tell us about the challenges ahead of us:

    “ One dollar a day” is an indicator frequently used by the UN as the standard to describe those living below it as relegated to a life of absolute poverty. By not interpreting this standard too literally, but allowing it to designate the value of a set of fundamental goods needed to maintain life, as well as adjusting it for price variations between countries, we find that an estimated 1,2 billion people live in this condition – absolute poverty. The UN is often inclined to use “existing on 2 dollars a day” as a standard for poverty. According to that indicator, a total of 2, 8 billion people in the world live a life of poverty.

    In the early 90s, the UNDP Human Development Report could show that the distribution of income in the world was perhaps more skewed globally, than what was commonly thought at the time.
    Whereas the richest 20 percent of the world’s population had access to almost 80 percent of that income, the poorest 60 percent had access to less than 6 percent. Unfortunately, the situation has not improved.

    And It Can Be Worse:

    Development assistance for Africa dropped from 32 US dollars per capita in 1990 to 18 USD at the end of that decade; investment in tropical agriculture has suffered a dramatic decline over the past 20 years, and of all investments going to the developing world, only 5 percent reach Sub-Saharan Africa.

    Sometimes there seems to be no end to the injustice. Even the distribution of the poor is skewed.

    The majority of poor people are women. Their access to economic goods and factor inputs is often restricted by cultural, legal and economic structures. Twice as many women as men are illiterate; child mortality is 28 percent higher among girls than among boys.

    We also know that of all the people living in absolute poverty, 43% live in Asia; but, the proportion of a continent’s population living in absolute poverty is highest in Africa, where close to 48 percent share dismal living conditions.

    Progress in Perspective

    Do these facts point to a freer world? Perhaps not, if we look at them in isolation.
    Perhaps yes, if we see look at them in a perspective.

    A wise person once said, “It is only when we look back, that we may see progress.”

    And progress has been made over these 50 years.

    Let’s spend a few minutes on a few historical perspectives.

    Close to 50 years ago, Dag Hammarskjold, the second Secretary General of the UN, was asked at a press conference how the UN could attain paradise on earth. His answer came quickly, “The purpose of the UN is not to create paradise on this earth, but to prevent it from becoming a living hell.” With hindsight, we might feel tempted to criticise Hammarskjold for being passive, for having an almost defeatist approach to realpolitik, for regarding the UN without vision or perspective. Most people seem to think that Hammarskjold’s answer reflected international politics in an insightful way.

    50 years ago, development co-operation was a word and a concept largely unknown to most people. Today, it has become a household word used by an entire international body, known as the international aid society. Today, we have a deeper understanding of the complexities of the world, we have more tools at our disposal and, despite grave national differences, we have a common understanding of a number of goals that, when fulfilled, may in some small way help bring the world closer to a better tomorrow. Albeit, the world we then will create may not be a paradise either.

    50 Years Ago The World Was Different In Many Ways

    The global aid community was virtually non-existent at that time. The UN had yet to realize poverty as a major obstacle to peace and security. The global issue of poverty had its historical debut as a political force during the debate in the UN General Assembly in the fall of 1959, which lead the UN to declare the 1960s as the first Development Decade. The nations of the world conceded to the demands of an increasing number of members from Asia and Africa, and through the joint efforts of many nations the UNDP was established in the first half of the 1960s. It would take another 10 years before the global community started to develop a faint comprehension of what poverty eradication entailed. In 1974, the strategy on basic needs was formulated. Unless man was provided with enough food, had access to water, had employment, had shelter, had education and was healthy, development would be non-existent, the UN stated in 1975. When UNICEF published the report “Change with a Human Face” and the UN formulated the strategy of “reaching the poorest of the poor” in 1987, development assistance had entered a new phase.

    But it was not until the end of the 1990s that the world had reached a holistic understanding of what development was all about. A rights-based approach to development, a sustainable development with three pillars- just social development, economic development and environmental protection, a human rights perspective, an ethics perspective, a gender perspective and a health perspective. These and many more where incorporated into the Millennium Development Goals, enacted by the world community at the UN Millennium Conference at the turn of the century. Maybe the basis for a freer world was being created?

    Freedom From Want

    One of most pivotal changes that has occurred in modern times has direct relevance to the discussion on progress and freedom. History can show that famine and hunger has always accompanied humanity like a plague. Mankind was not able to produce enough food to feed the world until the 1950s. From then on, global food production has outpaced the increase in the world’s population. For the first time in the history of humanity, we have it within our powers to eradicate all hunger. According to UN estimates, with current global food production, we have enough food to feed approximately 12 billion people on a decent nutritional standard.

    Juxtapose this fact with what we know about the global population situation.

    Whereas estimates at the beginning of the 1970s feared that global population might reach well above 15 billion people towards the end of this century, the UN estimates today say we will probably not exceed 10 billion. In fact, the best-case scenario talks about a global population of around 8 billion people towards the end of this century.

    A simple conclusion discerned from these two facts may be that we have enough food to feed everybody in the world, both today and for future generations. Our challenge is to find ways of distributing this food and to keep producing it in sustainable ways. Another conclusion reached through these staggering facts is, of course, that hunger and starvation are unnecessary. It follows that when it still occurs, it is no less than a disgrace. The German poet Bertold Brecht wrote in 1935, “Hunger does not exist by itself. It has been organized by the grain-traders.” If we have organised our society in a bad way, we can change this organisation. We have it within our power today to eradicate the most disgraceful and undignified situation a person can be put in – unmitigated hunger, the worst kind of poverty. So there is progress in our continual fight against poverty and perhaps this might point to a future world where people can feel freedom from want.

    A People Centered Paradigm For Freedom

    The world has changed, in some ways dramatically; but, more often than not, in small ways.

    This change has not come by itself and cannot be attributed to one factor only.

    The sum total of all these changes has resulted in the beginning of a new development paradigm. It is this paradigm that may point to a freer world based on a higher degree of equality.

    Based on the above observations, it is a fair assessment to say that the right path to development for all was started during the last century. With 50 years of experience and the right track forward, we may be at the very beginning of a new era of development co-operation. Finding ways to co-operate in this context would be a prerequisite for creating a freer world. An essential ingredient in this future co-operation is the people and individuals themselves. If the last century was the century of the big powers, maybe this century could be the century of people-oriented organizations?

    The prominence of civil society as a political player or actor on a national, regional or global level is a phenomenon of the last half of the 20th century. In fact, there is ample evidence to corroborate a statement asserting that they came into political prominence at the very end of the last decade of the last century, with the UN Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 serving as a turning point.

    We first heard of NGOs as a potential international lobbying unit at the first Hague conference on Peace in 1899. They re-emerged later at the second Hague Conference on Peace and disarmament in 1907, when NGOs had obviously become better organized. They were all peace organizations or anti-war or anti-armament organizations. Still, there is little evidence that NGOs actually performed important political roles on the international scene until after the Second World War. There are exceptions of course, with the Red Cross perhaps the best documented one.

    Civil Society Makes A Difference

    Tracing the presence of civil society in the UN provides us with a clue to its role as a player in recent times. Historically, the UN refers to NGOs and not to civil society. The term “civil society” became widely used in the 1990s. The UN allows NGOs a formal position within its organizational structure, something that is not given to civil society entities. NGOs are recognized formally through an accreditation system at the UN. Originally they would be given this status by ECOSOC, the UN Economic and Social Council, through a rather cumbersome process devised to maintain structural and organizational quality. When the UN was founded back in 1945, only a handful of NGOs were accredited. The 1970s saw both an easing up and a proliferation of accreditation systems, which started with the UN Conference on the Environment in Stockholm in 1972.

    Still, by the beginning of the 1992 UN Summit in Rio, the number of formally accredited international NGOs stood at some 500. By the end of the 1990s, this had increased to more than 2000 and the number of ad hoc accredited NGOs had grown to several thousand. There were obviously a number of reasons behind this growth. Most observers seem to agree on the fact that when these NGOs were accredited, they were given status and a form of legitimacy often above and beyond the legitimacy they had at home. This legitimacy also gave them some protection from the oppressive regimes under which they had to work.

    Still – A Less Free World?

    Does civil society, including NGOs, matter internationally and nationally? Examining what happened at the last UN Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 will give you an inclination of what was and is possible.

    A number of observers have analysed the political situation at the turn of the millennium, the turmoil and unrest that followed in the wake of political activism at all levels the world over. They tend to downplay the importance of the 9-11 syndrome that would later have a devastating effect on global politics, but upgrade the importance of the budding global opposition to what is know as the sinister forces of globalisation. Organisations all over the world had demonstrated their opposition to the control of world trade and financial power in the hands of a handful of nations and even fewer institutions. A number of countries have expressed sympathy with these sentiments. Work among civil society has also created tangible results. International networks of NGOs claim ownership on the defeat of the MAI – the Multilateral Agreement on Investments. These international NGO networks took considerable effort to participate and influence international negotiation processes. As has just been pointed out, the decade between the two UN Summits on Sustainable Development, between Rio and Johannesburg, witnessed a soaring growth of international NGOs. The NGOs became more professional, both in terms of negotiating skills as well as research and fact finding, report writing and information dissemination. The NGOs successfully participated in a number of the COPs (Conference of Parties) belonging to the system working with and developing the Conventions on Climate, on Biodiversity and on Desertification. NGOs were a force to be reckoned with on human rights issues. Two single-issue NGOs, the international action to ban land mines and Medecin Sans Frointiers, were even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A few multilateral conventions were even initiated by NGOs, such as the 1973 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands and the 2001 Arhus Convention, which guarantees participation, information and legal justice for all in environmental matters. A large group of NGOs followed and participated in the negotiations leading up to the Johannesburg Summit. A few of them formed loose-knit alliances to become more influential in negotiating the Johannesburg Plan of Action. The WTO had come to symbolise the centralisation of power, to these representatives of civil society. Every delegate in Johannesburg was aware of the demonstrations in Seattle, in Prague, in Gothenburg, and in Genoa. Every participant in Johannesburg seemed to be fully conversant with the outcome of the Doha negotiations and the efforts of a few nations lead by the US to subject environmental, health and safety standards to trade regulations. Civil society was intent on influencing the final outcome of the Johannesburg Summit. To some extent, they were successful. At least freedom of expression has been obtained to a large degree.

    Guaranteeing A Freer World?

    Civil society and its organisations are a phenomenon and a force to be reckoned with today, but are they a guarantor for creating a better world, a freer world?

    Hegel points to an inherent problem in the nature of civil society,

    “The problem was that the freedom gained in economic enterprise allowed individuals to be liberated from feudal relations, family yokes, serfdom and servitude, yet in tearing individuals away from those ties, the market place created an atomised individual, rootless and unmoored. Civil society – associations, clubs, networks, institutions – provided a second home. The danger was that civil society carried with it no guarantee of moral behaviour or service to the common good, guarantees only possible through the more ethical laws of the State.”

    Civil society is a problematic concept, and a problematic partner. As one critic warns, when discussing civil society,
    “Civil society is fundamentally a normative concept; to operationalise it empirically would either

    – make the mistake of optimistically misreading into events and structures that are not there, or

    – to impose our own ideas of what should be occurring in the Third World instead of acknowledging and encouraging events to unfold according to the logic of a given country’s own historical development.” (Rooy in Civil Society and the Aid Industry)

    Motors For A Freer World?

    Committed people often work through civil society. Their commitment is derived from strongly felt convictions. Thus, ethics and morals often play important roles in the ideological foundation of civil society.

    Bronislaw Geremek, a Polish historian, stated the following after having studied and worked on the resistance of the Polish people against the oppressive Russian system for many years,

    “Moral resistance, though seemingly hopeless against systems that are based on political and military force, functions like a grain of sand in the cogwheels of a vast but vulnerable machine. The idea of civil society, even one that avoids overtly political activities in favour of education, the exchange of information and opinion, or the protection of the basic interests of particular groups, has enormous anti-totalitarian potential (1997).”

    One problematic area we all face from time to time is the issue of who we represent, who are we accountable to, how can we claim real and relevant legitimacy?

    Traditionally, membership has been claimed as the most important factor giving credence to an organisation. However, with membership dwindling, at least in the developed world, many observers claim there are other credible and legitimate ways to show representativity:

    Knowledge in an area may allow groups to claim they represent an understanding of a complex area. This is certainly true of the scientific community, which over the past ten years has become a player both on the national and international field.

    Continuity is often referred to as an important factor when claiming the right to represent an issue. Staying with an issue and fighting for it over many years is certainly necessary. In the field of fighting poverty, we need that kind of continuity.

    The Canadian Researcher van Rooy makes this observation, while quoting the researcher Amalric,
    “Advocacy groups can claim to speak in the name of civil society only if it can be argued that civil society is misrepresented by existing political institutions. The legitimacy of civil society groups is therefore dependent on the existence of a deficit in democracy, a gap between actual democratic practices and some democratic ideal.”

    The implication for policy analysts is first to recognise the normative motors that drive the debate on civil society, nationally and internationally, both in the field and academia. These motors are important, but they are distinct from our observations of civil society itself. In short, although we need to know why we are interested in civil society, we also have to know what we are seeing. Some of these motors are obviously driving for greater freedom.

    Good Governance – A Must For Freedom

    The United Nations was established to safeguard the four freedoms, to save “We the people” from another onslaught of a gruesome war. The United Nations have come along way beyond the mere guarantee that Hammarskjold gave in the 50s that the UN would make sure the world would not become a living hell for all. Still, many people face a living hell trying to survive one day at a time. But the UN has provided the peoples of the world with an opportunity to act internationally through its system and influence politics in a way that is hitherto unknown. That opportunity has presented itself through the acceptance by the UN of NGOs as players.

    Do NGOs and civil society organisations really represent additional knowledge, which is of crucial importance in bringing forward the fight against poverty, against insecurity, for good governance to make this world a freer world in which to live? Almost all descriptions of civil society point to its function as an innovator and as having an alternative way of doing things, and as functioning as a critical corrigendum to official policy.

    To perform such a role requires a steady flow of knowledge and new information. Do NGOs really have these qualities?

    Good governance is a yardstick against which performance is and will be measured. Money talks and directs. Budget dependency does not really allow for an independent and free position.

    Good governance has three pillars –

  • Accountability;
  • Transparency;
  • Participation.
  • To what extent has civil society taken aboard these pillars, and to what extent does it understand them?

    To whom are NGOs accountable? Are there different accountabilities? There is obviously a set of accountability mechanisms. Who determines these? Are they subject to local, national or international standards? Who has access to, selects and understands these?

    How transparent are NGOs in their decision-making? Is transparency understood and appreciated?

    Do NGOs consult with their constituencies, encourage their participation, and does the constituency understand and take an interest in the operation of its organisation?

    Do civil society organisations have a code of ethics to guide them in their work at all these levels?

    Ethics and values have been given an important space in The Millennium Declaration where the Millennium Development Goals are found. Ethics and values no longer play an impractical or elusive role in international documents.

    Justice – A Prerequisite For Freedom

    The yearning for peace and freedom is as old as mankind. The systems we have put in place to establish, develop and safeguard them are still being developed, still being challenged, still being refined.

    Throughout the last century, peace and justice have often been dealt with in the same context. In fact, the discussion on these two aspects was initiated in a serious and international way at the First Hague Conference on Peace held in the Netherlands in 1899.

    Historically, the theme of justice has been identified with peace. Throughout the inter-war period, the concept of justice was developed to incorporate justice for peoples being subjugated to suppressions by the state. Then, during the 1930s, the concept of justice was brought directly into a relationship in which the accused in criminal proceedings should be protected against the arbitrary exercise of power by the state.

    Today, we talk of justice in many different international settings. How is the concept of justice understood in these settings?

    There have been many frameworks of ideas and institutions that have been developed around the concept of justice and peace. First, we saw the creation of the League of Nations in 1919 and then the United Nations was founded in 1945. Since then, the world and its many problems have become truly international. Laws are made to safeguard our freedom. Justice is perhaps most often connected to the law and to trials – not without reason. It is also connected to punishment, for if some have acted in an unjust way, we expect he or she to be punished, or given some kind of retribution.

    The war crimes trials held in Europe after the Second World War helped change the framework of ideas within which international affairs is viewed. These trials fell short of the high hopes of many, but gave at least two significant changes.

    First, the trials made retribution an active component of the mix of assumptions and ideas that swirled around the central concept of justice. This was not retribution like in a system of ”tit for tat.” This was retribution with an international face. It rested on the assumption that damage to one was damage to all and that in the name of that “all” – however defined – punishment must follow.

    And second, if retribution was to have any international meaning and if retributive justice was to be served internationally, then certain acts had to be defined in an appropriate manner. They had to be defined, not simply as crimes, but as international crimes. All this meant, in fact, that the idea of international criminal law gained a standing it had never had before.

    Granting Authority To The Rule Of Law

    The Chief prosecutor, Jackson, at the Nuremberg trials in 1945, in his opening address, said, “The real complaining party at your bar is civilisation.” He summed up in that one word the centuries-long effort to contain and control violence and to create a world where people – all people – could flourish in peace and justice.

    By this, it is fair to say, as many scholars of international law and justice have pointed out, that these war crimes trials helped establish the legality of the international system. It also helped to give the international system a kind of authority it had never had before.

    The International Court of Justice is today one of the 5 permanent bodies of the United Nations. The legal aspects of Justice have been further developed as well. Trials on “Crimes against Peace” and “Crimes against Humanity” have been and are being held as we speak. The jurors and the outcome of these trials have been given authority.

    The question of authority is at the heart of international disputes, as it is at the heart of relations between national states and an international body such as the UN.

    Is the progressive development of international law the gradual erosion of the emphasis on sovereignty and the rights of states? Will this diminish our freedom, as many nations today feel it might.

    Justice And Freedom

    The internationalisation of principles holds the possibility of also internationalising conflicts that earlier would have been seen as purely local. Moral connectedness, like economic connnectedness, poses problems beyond the capacity of existing concepts and institutions to handle.

    The understanding of justice has been expanded from its first and oldest link, which is between justice and peace, to the second link, which is between justice and rights.

    Today, we even talk of many kinds of justice:

  • Social justice
  • Gender justice.
  • Economic justice.
  • Racial justice.
  • Cultural justice.
  • The list could be longer without weakening the understanding and respect for Justice.

    Rights may be seen as a deserved matter of justice. Or the requirements of justice entail an emphasis on rights. The connection between the two is at this time in history exceptionally strong.

    For the past 30 years, there has been a movement away from a system of voluntary compliance with international rules towards a system in which those rules can be enforced.

    Still the challenges ahead of us are many, and may seem daunting at times.

    Dorothy Jones, a US historian who recently wrote in her book on Justice,

    “Later generations have at least a broader definition of justice on which to stand and more varied institutional tools with which to work than were available at the beginning of the twentieth century. Those later generations will need them all as they face the challenges of their times; in particular, the challenge of militants whose demands fall outside even expanded definitions of justice, and whose methods put intolerable pressure on linkages between justice and peace, justice and rights and justice and the law….

    Efforts towards a just world are as problematic at the beginning of the twenty-first century as they were at the beginning of the twentieth – as problematic, but also as promising.”

    A Free World With The Perfect Virtue

    We live in interesting times.

    We live in trying times.

    But we also live in hopeful times.

    We have today a greater understanding of the complexities of reality than any time before in our history. The UN has obviously contributed to this state of affairs. We have progressed from the statement made by Hammarskjold in the 50s, but we are far from establishing a paradise on earth. There are too many problems to be addressed and solved. Unless we understand reality, how can we find solutions to remedy what is wrong? The stark reality that needs to be understood and prioritised is the fight against that one element that prevents humanity to acquire freedom – world-wide poverty. We have established the institutions to enable us to do this and we also have the resources to do it. But we cannot fight poverty and establish a free and perfect world without establishing justice. This is no newly found truth. Even Aristotle said that Justice was the perfect virtue

    * Jan-Gustav Strandenaes is a Norwegian who has worked with and written about international affairs, particularly governance issues and the UN for more than 30 years. He has worked for many years in a number of international NGOs, as well as for the UN, and is presently working as an adviser to the Norwegian Embassy in Kampala, Uganda on “Democracy, Good Governance and Civil Society.” raksts

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