A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Clout Without a Country: The Power of International Lobbies

The Washington Post

June 18, 1998

By Charles Trueheart

At 27, shambling and Kennedyesque, Marco Cappato navigates the diplomatic world with all the confidence and authority of a nation's ambassador.

His nation is only an office, a cell phone and a global network of like-minded human rights activists. But Cappato and the young organization he represents at the United Nations, No Peace Without Justice, have had more of a role than many countries in shaping the debate here on creating a permanent world court to try war criminals for genocide.

Cappato's group has done high-impact work -- lobbying to set a firm date for the Rome conference now under way here, collecting signatures of legislators, writing newspaper broadsides, securing the Dalai Lama's blessing, educating diplomats and jurists, working the media, monitoring the negotiation and even placing a few of its own people on national delegations to the conference.

"The influence of France on African countries has been effective," Cappato said. "Why shouldn't we be just as effective?"

Delegates of several major powers acknowledge that No Peace Without Justice and 200 other nongovernmental international lobbies are agenda-setting players in the late-century world of global summits on such big issues as genocide, women's rights, population and the Earth.

"Let me tell you, they are very, very, very, very important here," said one Western ambassador with grudging admiration.

Collectively called NGOs, for nongovernmental organizations, these international pressure groups have coalesced to steer the way the world's nations set policies for international law and conduct in the 1990s. The NGOs' potency was most striking in the drive they led to secure an international land mine ban last year, an effort that ran counter to the initial judgment of most powers.

But they have left their mark elsewhere as well. In regional crises, such as the 1994 genocide in Rwanda or last year's war in the Congo, international relief agencies -- not national governments -- have played the central role in aiding victims. That pattern is being repeated today in northern Albania, where international aid organizations are leading efforts to assist refugees fleeing the fighting in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

Opening the five-week conference here, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan paid tribute to the way the work of diplomats and statesmen is being opened up to a broader and more contentious public through NGOs.

"In my judgment, this is a new diplomacy," he told reporters. "We at the U.N. travel the world encouraging participatory democracy; I think we should apply a bit of it to ourselves."

The most important organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, might as well be major countries, measured by the clout they have in laying the intellectual and political groundwork for the kind of permanent court they want -- making what they term "bilateral" calls on foreign ministers around the world, briefing lawyers and jurists and politicians, producing reams of legal documents and deploying teams of experts. They are supplying, free of charge, the demand of smaller, poorer countries who want a negotiating voice here but do not have the resources to support their participation.

Mona Rishmawi of the International Commission of Jurists said that NGOs and the media work hand in hand to open up the process. "Politicians prefer to do their work behind closed doors so the electorate doesn't know what's going on and can't point out the contradictions," she said. "But these are major policy questions that the public should know about, and we and [the media] make it simple for them."

Interest in establishing a permanent war crimes court was quickened four years ago when U.N. criminal tribunals were established to investigate war crimes in Rwanda and among the warring Yugoslavs. A loose coalition of academics, jurists and human rights organizations persuaded the United Nations to put the issue on its agenda.

Activists for an international criminal court described regional conferences they organized over the past three years, often working closely with local NGOs and state governments. Lawyers and diplomats, including many of the people who eventually would constitute a major bloc of votes at this conference of more than 150 nations, were invited, often with all expenses paid, to seminars on the proposed International Criminal Court.

No Peace Without Justice went even further. It has provided more than a score of countries -- Cappato named only Senegal -- with the delegates themselves, skilled people from another country serving national delegations as legal advisers, with their expenses paid by the NGO.

In effect, the NGOs are providing their expertise to needy governments. "Privatizing ideas can be good, especially for the weaker nations who don't have the means to be informed," said Cappato, whose group is an offshoot of Italy's Transnational Radical Party.

For major powers, aggressive and well-financed NGOs can often be a "nuisance," Rishmawi said. But they are also an influential resource. Even wealthy countries are seeing their diplomatic ranks reduced and have begun to rely on NGOs for guidance and background.

"We've thought through the issues," said Richard Dicker, Human Rights Watch's man at the Rome conference. "We have developed substantial position papers and circulated them to capitals, and we have an understanding of the strategic issues: Who is meeting with whom in which capitals and what are they saying to each other?"

NGOs have been around a long time -- the Red Cross got its start in 1863 -- but they came into their own as a modern political juggernaut in 1992 at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, they have brought their agendas to bear on a dozen major conferences, their greatest triumph being the the land mine ban. The achievement won the NGO coalition that lobbied for the ban and its American leader, Jody Williams, the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Rome, 225 nongovernmental groups have set aside their differences and special interests -- women's rights, children, environment, nuclear arms -- to agree on major points about what they will fight for in any treaty. These, generally speaking, are a stronger court and a more independent prosecutor than most major nations are prepared to accept.

"We agree on so much we shouldn't concentrate on what we don't agree on," said William R. Pace of the World Federalist Movement.

By coordinating their criminal court activity, the NGOs have become a potent political force, Dicker noted, saying: "I think governments, friendly and unfriendly, recognize the strength in numbers that we represent."

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