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UN: World NGOs Seek A Voice In Millennium Summit

Members of close to 1,200 non-governmental organizations have gathered at UN headquarters in New York this week to discuss issues ranging from human rights to the environment. The goal is to come up with a working document to be considered at the summit of world leaders at the United Nations in September. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 23 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs, are generally supportive of the United Nations, but sometimes they express frustration at what they see as slow or limited responses to important issues.

This week, they are getting a chance to play a role in shaping the UN's approach to the future. At week's end, the NGOs are hoping to agree on documents that will channel their views to one of the world's biggest gatherings of world leaders -- the UN millennium summit in September.

Organizers say that close to 1,200 NGOs from more than 140 countries are attending the forum this week. They include human rights activists, environmentalists, disarmament groups, and advocates for the poor.

Speakers at Monday's crowded opening session noted that the United Nations has already set in motion initiatives aimed at issues such as eliminating nuclear weapons, preserving the environment, or protecting women's rights. But they said it often falls to NGOs to make sure that treaties and conventions are carried out. Some said UN members need to be more observant of the UN charter.

One of the speakers was Maj-Britt Theorin, who is president of the Geneva-based International Peace Bureau, which supports disarmament initiatives. She said the prohibition of the use of force is fundamental in the UN Charter.

Theorin later told reporters she is especially concerned about Russia's use of force against Chechens during the past year. She said a stronger United Nations is needed to press for observance of the charter.

"I would like to strengthen the United Nations, but the United Nations can't be stronger than the nations itself make it and build it. And it can't be stronger than the civil society allows it to be. So this meeting, I hope, will end up with some clear, good support for the United Nations but also positive criticism."

Non-governmental organizations hope that by holding their consultations more than three months ahead of the summit, the civil society they represent will be able to present its views more coherently to world leaders when they gather in September.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is encouraging the involvement of NGOs in discussing the issues he outlined in his millennium report earlier this year. In particular, Annan is hoping to bridge the widening gap between rich and poor in the world and to use communications technology to help.

Annan said in his address to Monday's opening session that globalization has stirred deep anxieties, as manifested in the violent demonstrations of a wide range of groups at the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle last autumn. But the secretary-general said it is important for globalization to be harnessed as a positive force, meaning more than bigger markets.

"I also believe that whatever cause you champion, the cure does not lie in protesting against globalization itself. I believe the poor are poor not because of too much globalization but because of too little -- because they are not part of it, because they are excluded."

Some NGOs disagree. Martin Khor of the Third World Network said that globalization so far has meant that a few rich companies get bigger at the expense of many people in developing nations. He said local communities must be empowered to take control of their own economies.

The co-chairman of the NGO forum, Techeste Ahderom told the gathering that he totally supports the actions outlined in the secretary-general's millennium report. But he said some of the goals don't go far enough. Instead of halving poverty by the year 2015, as Annan aims to do, Ahderom says the goal should be to eradicate extreme poverty by the year 2020.

Ahderom also endorsed calls for changes in the peacekeeping department that would allow swifter action, including in times of humanitarian crises.

"The current setup is ineffective and inadequate. The threshold for action to be taken by the Security Council to stop carnage or war is very high. Hundreds of thousands have to die or thousands of women have to be raped before it is ready to act."

Many speakers on Monday also welcomed the declaration at the weekend by the five major nuclear powers committing them to "unequivocally" eliminate all nuclear weapons. But the NGOs pledge to push for further disarmament efforts.