‘This is your home’ – he said to NGOs

The former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has said in 1994, regarding NGOs participation in UN venues:

<< I want you to consider this [the UN] your home. Until recently these words might have caused astonishment. The United Nations was considered a forum of sovereign states alone. Within the space of a few short years, this attitude has changed. Non-governmental organizations are now considered full participants in international life.>>

(Raustiala and Bridgeman, 2007:2. UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s 1994)

This is explicative of NSAs presence in international negotiations. In fact, non-state actors have been – and continue to be – largely present in the international scenes, especially when it comes to ‘low politics’. To be more precise, NSAs are active in environmental and human rights issues. When it comes to the environmental field, both at the EU and UN level, NSAs have acquired a position as consultative organisms. This means that they do not have the same powers as states, yet these stakeholders are consulted regarding agenda setting and political framework, in light of their work of expertise and knowledge dissemination.

Environmental diplomacy has started to be central in the international agenda in the 1970s, especially since the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. Important steps forward have been made in the 1990s, for example with the Kyoto Protocol (and following Kyoto II). Non-state actors have played a huge role in the agenda setting, policy evaluation, experts consultation and information spreading. In particular, in the UN 1972’s venue, NGOs have written alongside states, the preparatory documents (Clark and al., 1998; Betsill and Corell, 2008). 250 NGOs were present as promoters of sustainable development! The Agenda 21 of the Rio Environmental Summit is ‘the first UN document to recognize the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders groups’ (Hocking, 2011: 233).

Non-state actors have a few sources to gain authority from, in global venues: ‘symbolic (legitimacy/ability to invoke moral claims), cognitive (knowledge, expertise), social (access to networks), leverage (access to key agents and decision-making processes), and material (access to resources and position in the global economy) powers’ (Nasiritousi et al., 2014: 113). Obviously, different actors have different strengths and possibilities, yet it is evident that they exert an actual influence in diplomatic affairs. Their strength lies in their organization and connections: connections with the public, with other NSAs and with states. What makes them different is their neutral characteristic: they do not represent a state, rather a view – but most importantly – an outcome. NSAs bound together the private and the public, making clearer and faster answers possible. NSAs significance is the fact that the public is actually involved in the state’s business. On the other side of the spectrum, states themselves are more aware of the public opinion and objectives.

The World Wildlife Fund gives one recent example of non-state actors’ work of representation. Staying neutral to the political groups, WWF, in the aftermath of the official beginning of Brexit negotiations, has called for Theresa May’s attention on environmental issues, praying the UK government not to forget the environment, putting in place an online platform where to write a letter to the Prime Minister (link here, for whoever wished to participate https://bsd.wwf.org.uk/page/speakout/brexit ).


Important NSAs, like Greenpeace for example, seem to have a direct connection and valuable position with other non-state actors.  Following the sanctions imposed to JBS – the largest meat processing company in the world, accused of buying cattle from illegally deforested areas in the Amazon – by the Brazilian government this March, Greenpeace has stopped negotiations with the company ‘until it can prove that the meat is free of deforestation, slave labour and conflicts with indigenous lands or protected areas’ (Greenpeace editors, 2017). To me, only the fact that a company of such influence and economic resources was negotiating with a non-state actor, is illustrative of the NSAs importance.

Overall, it seems clear to me that NSAs have a position in environmental negotiations, as well as influential powers. Their spot in international and national negotiations comes from their valuable skills in information gathering and dissemination, expertise and network of connections. NSAs are embodied in diplomacy; therefore, it would be impossible not to consider them as influential actors.


Betsill, M. Michele & E. Corell (2008). ‘Introduction to NGO diplomacy’, in Betsill, M. Michele & E. Corell (Ed.), NGO Diplomacy: The Influence of Nongovernmental Organizations in International Environmental Negotiations, the MIT Press, Cambridge, pp. 1-18

Clark, A.M., Friedman, Elisabeth J., Hochstetler, K. (1998). ‘The Sovereign Limits of Global Civil Society: A Comparison of NGO Participation in UN World Conferences on the Environment, Human Rights, and Women’ World Politics, 51(1), pp. 1-35.

Greenpeace editor (2017). ‘Greenpeace Brazil suspends negotiations with cattle giant JBS’,  Greenpeace.org, available at http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/press/releases/2017/Greenpeace-Brazil-suspends-negotiations-with-cattle-giant-JBS/

Nasiritousi N., Hjerpe, M., Linner, B. (2014). ‘The roles of non-state actors in climate change governance: understanding agency through governance profiles’, International Environmental Agreements: Politics, Law and Economics, 16(1), 109-126

Raustiala, K., Bridgeman L. Natalie (2007). ‘Non-state actors in the Global Climate Regime’, UCLA School of Law Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series, 07(29), pp. 1-35


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