A Project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society

Agendas All Their Own

National Review

January 26, 2004

By Kate O'Beirne

In September, Secretary of State Colin Powell's Open Forum played host to "philosopher, philanthropist, financier" George Soros. In his remarks at Foggy Bottom, Soros called on the global community to empower "civil society" when governments don't merit support. Two months later, Soros was giving the Washington Post a somewhat more pointed message: that he considered Powell's boss the global community's Enemy Number One. In fact, Soros explained, defeating George W. Bush "is the central focus of my life" and a "matter of life and death" -- because "America, under Bush, is a danger to the world."

Soros is a billionaire, and boasts about the estimated $25 million he has pledged to MoveOn.org and other left-wing groups. But documents recently leaked from one of the global pressure groups he supports -- his foundations spend almost $500 million a year around the world -- outline a more covert assault, one based on the conviction that it's representative democracy itself that threatens the international order.

Under the banner of a "civil society" that claims to represent citizens rather than governments, hundreds of groups are aggressively lobbying international organizations and U.N. member states under the misleadingly benign classification of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Many of them are funded by governments, and their private funding is not fully disclosed. Although largely unaccountable to the public, they define their agendas as the public's interest -- and seek to impose their policies through undemocratic means.

The Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR), one of the groups backed by Soros, has been revealed as an alarming example of the threat posed by NGOs. In early December, leaked copies of its internal strategy memos landed in the offices of Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which he founded to counter the assault of NGOs that advocate abortion and other liberal social policies. Ruse distinguishes between the hundreds of "service NGOs" that provide direct humanitarian assistance and the "advocacy NGOs" that prefer "swinging policy rather than swinging bags of rice."

Ruse says the CRR memos "substantiate that what we have always known about [the group's] intentions is true despite their persistent denials." One of the memos admits: "At the heart of [CRR's] international work is a commitment to building a global network for reproductive rights legal advocacy by building the capacity of NGOs to use international human rights laws and mechanisms to advance reproductive rights." Within hours of Ruse's disclosure of the memos' contents, CRR -- recognizing that its cover was blown -- threatened legal action, claiming "irreparable harm" and demanding that Ruse stop any further dissemination and identify those who had received the "proprietary information."

Within three days, the number of people privy to CRR's tactics and aims had grown exponentially. On December 8, Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican, submitted CRR's leaked documents to the Congressional Record. Smith noted the importance of the public's right to know -- and contrasted CRR's frank admission, in one of the memos, about how it prefers to operate. "There is a stealth quality to the work," the memo said. "We are achieving incremental recognition of values without a huge amount of scrutiny from the opposition. These lower-profile victories will gradually put us in a strong position to assert a broad consensus around our assertions."

This stealthiness is central to CRR's strategy. The group eschews democratic processes in favor of establishing "international legal norms" through accords and tribunals. "Our goal is to see governments worldwide guarantee women's reproductive rights out of recognition that they are bound to do so." CRR plans to use so-called "soft norms," such as the repetitious use of the phrase "reproductive health" in non-binding U.N. resolutions, to establish a customary international right to abortion. This approach "involves developing a jurisprudence that pushes the general understanding of existing, broadly accepted human rights laws to encompass reproductive rights." Recalcitrant countries are brought in line when enforcement committees reinterpret intentionally imprecise terms.

And this might have consequences even in the U.S. Ruse reminds us that when the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in the Lawrence case last year, it cited a decision of the European Court of Human Rights. Ruse believes that with the present Court's reliance on foreign laws and international opinion to interpret the Constitution, CRR's strategy memos "provide a highly specific blueprint to our Constitutional future." Chris Smith says we need a cadre of pro-life lawyers to mount an international counteroffensive -- to offer support to NGO-beleaguered foreign officials (like the justice minister from eastern Europe who recently told Smith his country is "under siege" by aggressive NGOs).

And CRR is just one of the stealth pressure groups. Advocacy NGOs, working in well-coordinated networks, monitor and advise international organizations and tribunals with the goal of establishing controlling international authority on issues ranging from family law to disarmament, the environment, and labor law. Some NGOs, including Human Rights Watch and the International Red Cross, are currently determined to undermine American wartime policy on the handling of enemy combatants.

In the past, the activities of these NGOs were naively dismissed as the work of international busybodies who were inexplicably willing to spend huge amounts of time in the company of windy international bureaucrats at seemingly pointless international conferences. But their power is growing too obvious to be ignored. The Federalist Society and the American Enterprise Institute are collaborating on a project called NGOWATCH.org to track the activities of advocacy NGOs that enjoy such power without appropriate transparency and accountability. At an AEI conference in June, Gary Johns of Australia's Institute of Public Affairs explained that many essentially illiberal advocacy NGOs operate like civil-society regulators, with negative consequences for representative democracy. He notes that their claims to represent public opinion are difficult to test and they don't face democracy's demand for trade-offs in establishing policy, yet they enjoy significant clout with the EU and at the U.N., where electorates have little control over them.

In its role as a conservative watchdog of the philanthropic community, the Capital Research Center of Washington, D.C., has detailed the clout of advocacy NGOs at international meetings. In 2002, the U.N. hosted its World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg to further the goals of a 1992 declaration that called for central economic planning and wealth transfers to the developing world. There were 2,300 delegates from 163 U.N. member states in attendance; their numbers were dwarfed by 8,096 representatives from 925 NGOs. At the U.N.'s 2001 "World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance," there were, again, 2,300 delegates from member states -- but a stadium-sized crowd of 17,000 representatives from 3,400 NGOs.

When it comes to U.N. policymaking, these organizations have a seat at the table -- and offer a concrete example of the "global governance" they seek. The Capital Research Center argues that with this power should come more transparency about who funds and directs the work of NGOs: There should be full disclosure of all government and private funding, and laws governing nonprofits ought to make clear distinctions between charitable and political activity.

Today, it's impossible to get a precise accounting of U.S. funding to advocacy NGOs. USAID provides over $3 billion a year to NGOs, including some that harshly criticize the Bush administration. Taxpayers, in essence, are funding the lobbying of their own government. Billions more in the foreign-aid budget are passed through to NGOs by foreign countries and international organizations. The Labor Department provides the International Labor Organization with over $300 million a year, which in turn funds the NGOs dedicated to changing American employment policies. In a recent speech, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao warned that "an increasing number of multilateral organizations are engaged in the business of globalized standard setting that affects democratic, developed nations." The recent workplace proposals being considered in international organizations include the recognition of stress as a major occupational hazard.

And when George Soros spoke at the State Department, his billing should have included "grantee": His Open Society Institute receives about $6 million a year from U.S. government agencies.

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