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The Helsinki Process: will it achieve change?

Time (GMT +01) 12:00 13:00


Nitin Desai - Centre for Global Governance, LSE

Simon Burall - Executive Director, One World Trust


Tony Colman MP - United Nations Association

1. The sixth meeting was entitled 'The Helsinki Process: will it achieve change?' The meeting was chaired by Tony Colman MP. The speakers were Nitin Desai, until 2003 Under Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs at the UN, now with LSE, and Simon Burrall, Executive Director of the One World Trust.

2. Nitin Desai spoke first. He described the origins of the Helsinki Process as lying in concern about the lack of democratic participation in global rule-making, and in the level of contention which characterised debates about globalisation and global democracy. The process had been established by the Governments of Tanzania and Finland, and was led by the Foreign Ministers of those two countries. The model, in so far as there was one, was the first Helsinki Process, launched in 1973, during the Cold War. This had provided a neutral space in which various stakeholders could debate. It had produced the Helsinki Charter, which had played an important role in empowering human rights groups in Eastern Europe, thereby aiding transition.

3. The current Helsinki Process was led by a core group composed of representatives of governments, the international system and civil society. There were three separate tracks, dealing respectively with new approaches to global problem-solving (essentially concerned with institutions), finance and trade, and human security. The working groups for these tracks consisted of experts in the field. Nitin Desai himself was chairing the track on new approaches to global problem-solving.

4. The main focus of the track would be on issues of global democracy. There might or might not be a Helsinki Charter to this effect. One model for democratisation was formal representative democracy in the global system, but this might be hard to achieve in the short-term. Other models were available: the open society model championed by George Soros, with its emphasis on incremental improvement; a focus on reform of the governance of the Bretton Woods Institutions and the WTO, championed, among others, by Jo Stiglitz, and supported by many NGOs who thought that this was the key strategic issue, and proposals made by the Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, concerned with reducing violent confrontation and trying to find ways of bringing protestors "back into the room".

5. To be specific, there were four main areas in which the working group was taking an interest:

i. A focus on the finance and trade institutions, particularly voting power;

ii. An expansion of the G8 to include large developing countries, but also other forms of leadership meetings. The G20 might provide a model in this respect, and the point was not just democratisation but also effectiveness - after all, a high proportion of world financial reserves was held by big developing countries not in the G8, and if global financial stability was an issue, they needed to be present.

iii. A global ministerial meeting of Finance Ministers;

iv. A set of accountability issues, particularly around representation. Proposals on the table included an economic Security Council, greater parliamentary involvement (for example, development of the World Bank Parliamentary Network) and greater engagement with global civil society.

6. Nitin Desai emphasised particularly the issue of involving global civil society. He talked about the desirability of finding new forms of multi-sector governance, citing management of the global internet as an example of a global institution with very little government involvement.

7. The Helsinki Process itself represented a new approach to global governance, distinguished by its multi-stakeholder process.

8. Simon Burrall spoke to a PowerPoint presentation. He discussed four points.

9. First, and noting the large number of other initiatives underway (many of them discussed in previous meetings), it was important to ask what was the "unique selling point" of the Helsinki Process. Simon Burrall took this to be that it was policy oriented, based on a multi-stakeholder framework, and with strong North-South collaboration. He noted that these were important process strengths, especially at the level of values.

10. Secondly, Simon Burrall addressed the question of collective action, drawing on the framework presented earlier in the series. Referring back to Simon Maxwell's presentation in the first meeting of the series, Simon Burrall emphasised that there was no lack of vision, no lack of ideas and no lack of specific proposals for reform of global governance. What was lacking was a strategy. He reviewed the conditions for collective action. He emphasised that an important contribution of the Helsinki Process was to build trust between North and South.

11. He then turned to the example of the European Coal and Steel Community, to see what lessons could be learned from the early history of the European Union for the contemporary problem of global governance. The Coal and Steel Community had started as a small group "narrow enough to secure consent, but deep enough to open the way". It had a high level authority, but also a council of member states and a parliamentary assembly. These essential elements had paved the way to the Treaty of Rome, signed seven years later. There were some important lessons, he thought: start small; identify an issue all members agree is important; make the arrangements expandable; and perhaps, most important, 'plant the virus of good governance' from the beginning.

12. This led Simon Burrall to discuss ideas for the Helsinki Process. He identified a number where he thought the core conditions would be met, where the price of failure would be high for all members, where multiple stakeholders would participate, and where the virus of good governance could be planted. His ideas included:

i. Action at regional rather than global level, in order to build consensus on a small scale initially. Examples could include the African Union, governance of water, regional peace-keeping, and further strengthening of the G20.

ii. Action on the environment, especially carbon trading as a way to tackle global warming. The idea here would be to develop a system that the US would eventually want to join.

iii. Reorganising the UN budget, giving greater consideration to Simon Maxwell's idea that there should be a single budgetary process for the UN.

13. Finally, there should be a set of simple, but far-reaching reforms in all global institutions, which again would plant the virus of good governance. These could include greater transparency, better evaluation, and more participation, and better procedures for complaint and redress.

14. A number of points were made in the discussion:

·         There was an extended conversation on the importance of parliamentary involvement in order to secure greater accountability. The Inter-Parliamentary Union was the obvious forum, and had a history going back to the 19th century. However, the US had pulled out of the IPU three years ago. There were other possibilities, including the World Bank Parliamentary Network.

·         Nitin Desai was asked about the successes and failures of recent UN reform processes, especially on the economic and social agenda. He identified the major success at being to help the UN diversify away from an organisation entirely owned by Foreign Ministries into one which involved all parts of national governments. He also emphasised the increase in the level of parliamentary input, and, perhaps surprisingly, the level of judicial engagement (an example here was the meeting of Chief Justices from 50 countries, convened at the time of the Johannesburg Summit, which examined the interpretation of environmental law). On the negative side, he said that big international conferences were always managed as some kind of "deal", in which the price of agreement was engagement and financial commitment by developed countries. However, the UN had not been able to develop a mechanism by which compliance could be enforced.

·         A question was asked about the likely success of the Helsinki Process. It was suggested that the likelihood of success was increased because Finland and Tanzania were both relatively small players with no particular vested interest to defend.

·         There was also a question about the role that the European Union might play in reforming the UN. One option was that the EU should develop a more European perspective, rather than one characterised as a collectivity of European states. This might mean that the representation in the EU in terms of numbers. It was also important that the EU gave a lead, by reforming the CAP and committing to carbon trading.

Simon Maxwell

10 June 2004


This event, the sixth in the UN reform: Why? What? How? series, hosted Nitin Desai, who described the Helsinki process. He went on to discuss what this process, distinguished by it's multi-stakeholder methods, could inform us about new approaches to global governance. Simon Burall then offered his reflections on the Helsinki Process.

Committee Room 10