The UN's Green Promoters

The UN's Green Promoters

October 31, 1998

A giant Tyrannosaurus Rex constructed of junk metal towers over a conference hall in a mid-sized Japanese city. Thousands of environmentalists have traveled from points all over Europe and North America to be here. Inside, a small group is fanning out across the building to cover every empty table, door, and corridor with propaganda leaflets. Four masked men, disguised as world leaders, play a game of soccer with a large inflatable balloon of the planet. The game is being recorded by several video cameras. Out front, reporters are photographing another group of grim-faced individuals who stand solemnly around three ice carvings of penguins. They are begging the little creatures to forgive mankind for permitting the "global warming" that is now causing them to melt.

Is this is a theater of the absurd? No. It is a United Nations conference in Kyoto, Japan, where a very serious treaty to stop global warming is nearing completion. Lawyers and lobbyists employed by well-funded environmental organizations are huddling in a side room with diplomats and dignitaries, crafting a legal document to curtail energy use in industrialized countries. It is a familiar scene for Green activists, who are accredited by the UN to attend the conference as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Welcome to the brave new world of the NGO, where full-time activists attend international treaty-making proceedings as UN-accredited representatives of the public. The UN describes its conferences as sites for "democratic" international governance. But none of the thousands of individuals who participate in these events, save a handful of speech-makers, is elected to public office or authorized to represent UN member governments. Yet by virtue of UN accreditation, members of NGOs are privileged to scold, advise, and mingle with the leaders of the world.

Besides participating in UN-sponsored treaty negotiations, NGOs are involved in a wide range of activities. They design and propose texts for international treaties, conventions, and other international law instruments. They monitor governments and private businesses to determine whether they are in compliance with national and international rules. Their attorneys file suit in U.S. and foreign courts against public and private bodies they consider out of compliance with law. NGOs sponsor consumer boycotts and launch media campaigns against policies, companies and governments they oppose. Indeed, the most enterprising NGOs help governments enforce environmental legislation that their own lobbyists have helped write in response to public protests their own activists organized!

NGOs assert proudly that they are independent of governments and private industry. They claim to act in the "public interest," free of outside pressure and influence, and they purport to offer viewpoints that are more objective than the views of private industry. The news media often treats NGOs as unbiased observers.

Yet NGOs have a political ideology. Most believe that the private sector cannot solve environmental problems and that governments must control economic decision-making to protect the environment. This belief may be quite sincere, but it is also rooted in self-interest. Many NGOs depend on governments for jobs, money and power. They seek out grants and contracts from national governments and international agencies. They also bask in the recognition they receive from public agencies, which adds authority to their pronouncements and brings their leaders prestige.

Nearly 1,500 organizations are registered with the United Nations Department of Public Information. The Department says it "helps those NGOs gain access to and disseminate information concerning the spectrum of United Nations priority issues, to enable the public better to understand the aims and objectives of the world Organization." Such bland language masks the extraordinary political activism NGOs can take on the UN’s behalf. According to UN guidelines, accredited NGOs are expected to use their information programs to promote public awareness of UN principles and activities.

This credentialling in reverse is clearly demonstrated in the help NGOs give the UN in organizing international summits and conferences. In Rio de Janeiro, NGOs galvanized support for a new global policy of "sustainable development;" in Cairo they clamored for worldwide controls over population growth. NGOs publicize these and other activities, boost citizen participation in them, and promote favorable reviews of their outcomes. In order to be eligible for formal association with the UN, NGOs must:

• "Share the ideals of the UN" • "Operate solely on a not-for-profit basis;" • "Have a demonstrated interest in United Nations issues and proven ability to reach large or specialized          audiences, such as educators, media representatives, policy makers and the business community;" • "Have the commitment and means to conduct effective information programs about United Nations          activities through publication of newsletters, bulletins, backgrounders and pamphlets; organization of          conferences, seminars and round tables; and enlisting the cooperation of print and broadcast media."

In practice, this means that NGOs engage in intensive lobbying of governments to support UN environmental policies, while fiercely attacking UN critics. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has called NGO participation in the international organization "a guarantee of the latter’s political legitimacy."

James M. Sheehan ( is CEI’s director of international environmental policy. This article is excerpted from his recent book, Global Greens: Inside the International Environmental Establishment, published by the Capital Research Center.