Summary of the opening session of the fifty-fifth Annual Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), videoconference at United Nations Headquarters in New York from 9 to 11 September 2002. The United Nations Information Center of Washington, DC and the Conflict Prevention Project cosponsored the DC videoconference.

Addressing the Fifty-fifth Annual DPI/NGO Conference this morning on the theme “Rebuilding Societies Emerging from Conflict: A Shared Responsibility”, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette said the United Nations had reached out as never before to new partners, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) held a unique place in those endeavors. Post-conflict situations were a crucible for the United Nations, where its achievements and failures were most plain and where only the daily test of self-improvement enabled it to do its part in rebuilding nations, she said. From Afghanistan to East Timor, the United Nations and the NGO community had forged a wide range of indispensable partnerships, with that extraordinarily fruitful cooperation now closer than ever.

Opening the three-day Conference, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Shashi Tharoor said it had become the premier NGO event at Headquarters, reflecting the ever-deepening involvement of civil society in the work of the United Nations. The high attendance of NGOs from all regions of the world had underscored the relevance of the partnership between them and the United Nations.

Keynote statements were delivered by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan Lakhdar Brahimi and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson.

Addressing a United Nations gathering for the last time in her role as High Commissioner, Ms. Robinson talked about the indispensable role of NGOs in building modern, democratic and accountable government institutions. When she rejoins the human rights struggle in three days as a private citizen, she would bring her experience of the past five years to reinforcing that human rights was not rhetoric but a system of legally binding rules and help fill the gaps globally.

Through their hard work, effective advocacy and measurable results on the ground, NGOs and civil society generally had come to play a crucial role alongside governments and multilateral organizations, Mr. Brahimi said. In Afghanistan, that partnership dated back many years, with NGOs filling the void of governmental institutions. In such post-conflict situations, the respective roles of the United Nations and NGOs were complementary, but not identical; and those situations meant "changing the way we did business", he said.


SHASHI THAROOR, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information of the United Nations, opening the Conference, said the gathering had become the premier non-governmental organization (NGO) event at Headquarters, reflecting the ever-deepening involvement of civil society in the work of the United Nations. The high attendance, representing all regions of the world, underscored the relevance of the meetings, which focus on the various aspects of the NGO partnership with the Organization.

Last year, he said, the Conference coincided with the horrific terrorist attacks of 11 September. It was fitting that in the current Conference, leading up to the first anniversary of those tragic events, the subject would be how to move forward and help rebuild those societies around the world that have experienced the trauma of violent conflict.

Outlining the extensive partnership of NGOs and the United Nations, he said the associated NGOs reflected the growing and increasingly well-organized network of civil society organizations, which provided the Organization with needed support in its work towards the goals of the Millennium Declaration.

LOUISE FRÉCHETTE, Deputy Secretary-General, said the United Nations, governments and NGOs were becoming more deeply involved in helping countries to recover from their trauma and address the underlying reasons for their descent into violence. From Afghanistan to East Timor, the United Nations and the NGO community had forged a wide range of indispensable partnerships. The United Nations-NGO relationships figured prominently into the Secretary-General’s efforts to strengthen the United Nations. Post-conflict situations were one of the main crucibles for the Organization: proving grounds where its contact with people in need was closest and where its achievements or its failures were most plain. Only success in the daily test of self-improvement would enable the United Nations to do its part in rebuilding nations.

Noting that much had been achieved in terms of the United Nations better meeting the needs and aspirations of the world’s people, she said the bureaucracy had been streamlined, and opportunities offered by the Internet had been seized. A major overhaul in human resources management had also been undertaken, and the Organization had reached out as never before to new partners, including foundations, parliamentarians, the private sector and NGOs. Despite those gains, there was ample room to do more. In the weeks ahead, the Secretary-General would set out his vision for further strengthening the United Nations, deepening and building on what had already been accomplished. The new reform exercise sought to align the Organization’s work more closely with the priorities of the Millennium Declaration and other major conferences.

She said that NGOs occupied a unique place in the constellation. For many decades, those had been the United Nations’ partner on the ground –- delivering humanitarian assistance in places struck by conflict or natural disaster, and in quieter places, helping people build stable communities and effective institutions. Today, that extraordinarily fruitful cooperation was closer than ever, as the NGO involvement in intergovernmental process had intensified. Indeed, NGO contributions had enriched and influenced official proceedings. That relationship had been enormously rewarding for the United Nations, and hopefully, for the NGOs too. At the same time, that dramatic evolution had brought some real challenges to the fore.

One challenge stemmed from the sheer number of NGOs seeking to participate in the work of the United Nations, she continued. That had grown exponentially in the past decade. Simply put, there was only so much space in the building, in New York and elsewhere. Given those physical limits, it was not feasible for the United Nations to accommodate all of the NGOs that wanted to participate. The accreditation process had also become more complex, leading to NGOs encountering uneven standards and, at times, confusing procedures. Also, NGOs often ended up feeling that their involvement was not meaningful enough and that governments gave them only token roles.

HAN SEUNG-SOO, President of the General Assembly, hoped that the culture of conflict prevention would continue to gain ground over that of reaction. If effective ways of addressing post-conflict peace-building could be developed, a more effective synthesis of prevention and reaction could be created. From the perspective of the General Assembly, that effort required the support of many entities, of which NGOs were an important factor.

Sustainable societies were the ultimate goal, he said, and that required attention to a multitude of factors. The governments concerned had the ultimate responsibility for reaching that goal, but the United Nations and NGOs had a great role to play as well, and the two entities should cooperate closely through exchange of information and analysis. Lessons needed to be learned from both United Nations efforts and NGO efforts.

In addition to such information sharing, the United Nations and non-governmental organizations should also, he said, work together to mobilize the political will of the international community to work seriously towards effective conflict prevention and rebuilding of societies emerging from conflict.

MARY ROBINSON, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the theme of the session -– rebuilding societies emerging from conflict -- could not be more relevant. Emphasis was placed on partnership and, in particular, on the role of civil society. Building modern, democratic and accountable institutions of government could not be done without its full participation. While that seemed obvious, it created a major challenge for many societies emerging from conflict. During conflict, countries were often drained of their brainpower. After it ended, societies often remained divided along ethnic and political lines; moreover, countries that underwent protracted conflicts frequently lacked the tradition of ensuring the participation of all members of society in decision-making.

She said that, in those societies, human rights NGOs had played an indispensable role in the following areas: identifying the most vulnerable persons and groups; monitoring the human rights situation; pinpointing the weakness in the previous system of government; showing how those weaknesses could be overcome; and supporting, encouraging and nourishing local human rights initiatives. She had been privileged to see how vital women’s groups had been in peace-building, including in Somalia and Rwanda when she was President of Ireland. Humanitarian and development NGOs also played a crucial role in the return of refugees and income generation. Effective partnership between the United Nations human rights programme and the NGO community had occurred in Sierra Leone, where NGOs had taken a courageous lead in 1998 in monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation there.

It would be far better to learn how to prevent large-scale deadly conflict rather than pick up the pieces afterwards, she acknowledged. The Secretary-General had pledged to move the United Nations from a culture of reaction to a culture of prevention. It was estimated that at least half of ongoing conflicts today were relapsed old conflicts. That sobering figure emphasized the direct link between building peace and preventing future conflict. Given the often casual link between conflicts and rights abuses, effective rebuilding of societies must pay serious attention to the establishment of strong systems for national human rights protection. Also necessary was confronting the injustices of the past in order to provide a basis for a future built on justice and reconciliation.

Elaborating on the issue of protection, she said that could mean the presence of an international security force. Such a presence could deter violence, especially as warring factions became increasingly keen to establish their legitimacy after the conflicts ended. But, international forces were not present in many post-conflict situations. Often, the humanitarian and development agencies were the only international presence. In Afghanistan, human security remained the most pressing issue today. The presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) provided relative security in Kabul; the rest of the country, however, remained unsafe. She welcomed indications that the Force might now be extended beyond Kabul and urged that. Protection also meant enhancing national capacity, she added.

The hunger for justice was another thorny issue in a post-conflict situation. Any society emerging from conflict must face the issue of how to address the human rights violations committed in the recent past. Ignoring those ran the risk of repetition as impunity continued to reign. Accountability for those abuses was not only a question of seeking justice for past events, but also a forward-looking strategy for the future. In that context, it was sad to see some current undermining of the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which had a central role to play. She believed that was a short-term problem, which would not impede the vital work of the first international institution to tackle impunity for gross violations of human rights.

Noting that in three days she would rejoin the human rights struggle as a private citizen, she said she would bring the experience gained in the past five years to two particular areas: reinforcing that human rights was not rhetoric but a system of legally binding rules; and help fill the gap in human rights at the international level. Not enough emphasis had been placed on helping developing countries build their own national protection systems for human rights. That required resources, both financial and intellectual. Also, the building of a national protection system must be country-led, requiring both the political will of the government and the involvement of civil society. Working in those two areas was likely to keep her busy for the foreseeable future, she said.

LAKHDAR BRAHIMI, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan, said policy-making in today’s world was a multi-faceted process, and through their hard work, effective advocacy and measurable results on the ground, NGOs and civil society generally had come to play a crucial role alongside governments and multilateral organizations in that process. In Afghanistan, that partnership dated back many years. During the worst, when the country was virtually forgotten by the international community at large, NGOs -– both Afghan and international -– and the United Nations, had worked together to keep at least a trickle of humanitarian assistance coming to the Afghan people.

In the absence of governmental institutions, he said, NGOs in Afghanistan filled the void as well as they could, providing services that a government would normally provide. It was not surprising, therefore, that several prominent Afghan NGO members had now been appointed to ministerial posts. Two points should be borne in mind in post-conflict situations: first, the respective roles of the United Nations and NGOs were complementary, not identical. While they frequently shared the same objectives, they generally had different mandates, rules and procedures; and second, the international community’s role was often dramatically transformed in the post-conflict stage, and that required changing the way it “did business”.

In Afghanistan, for instance, a government was now in place, and the international community no longer needed to fill that void. Its role now should be to assist and support the Government, not seek to govern in its place, or impose upon it its own goals and aspirations.

In the recovery and reconstruction context, for example, the Government had set out a National Development Framework, and he was working hard to ensure that all of the United Nations activities and those of its NGO implementing partners were consistent with the Government’s strategic direction. Tied to that was a simple philosophy that had become a defining principle of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA): the goal of a “light expatriate footprint”.

In every sector in which the United Nations or NGOs got involved, hard questions needed to be asked, he said. First, it must be ensured that an activity was really needed and that the country could not do it on its own. Second, it must be certain that particular NGOs had a comparative advantage over other institutions or organizations, especially ones in the region, which might offer linguistic, cost or other advantages. Indeed, providing effective assistance required not only an understanding of the local needs and context, but also a recognition of one’s own limitations. Assuming that all of those conditions had been met, then the international community should strive from day one to do everything possible to enable nationals to take over.

He said his impression was that neither the United Nations nor NGOs had a light footprint thus far in Afghanistan. Whether or not they would succeed in implementing those principles remained to be seen, but he was optimistic. One lesson learned from years of experience in peacekeeping and peace-building was that a peace and reconstruction process stood a far better chance of success when that was nationally owned rather than led by external factors.

Clearly, in that country emerging from a bitter and protracted conflict, the United Nations and NGOs still had a critical role to play and would for some time, he said. The issue was not whether they had a role but the importance of defining and implementing it with care. If the United Nations and NGOs exercised their responsibility wisely, then their partnership could bring untold benefits to the people of Afghanistan and help them back on the road to a peaceful, stable and prosperous future.

More information on the summary and conference is available at

For more information, contact: Anita Sharma, Deputy Director, Conflict Prevention Project