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Concerning NGOs, China Had a Point

IT is extremely unfashionable for a Westerner to sympathize with the People's Republic of China on any international controversy. Nevertheless, the concern about the lack of hospitality (and perhaps worse) extended to the UN World Conference on Women is not as simple a matter as most analysts of the subject assume. There is no need to defend the bureaucratic obstacles encountered by official delegates to the UN conference. Surely, the country hosting a United Nations meeting should not arbitrarily decide which delegates should be allowed to come to the sessions and which should not. That is the prerogative of the UN itself. But such questions were not at the heart of the problems that arose in connection with the meetings in China. That is so because, in recent years, the very notion of a United Nations conference has become rather complicated. As was the case of the UN-sponsored Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, most of the attendees were neither delegates to the conference nor media representatives nor other individuals who wished to witness the proceedings. The great bulk registered for a different meeting - a parallel private forum that started six days earlier than the official conference. The groups sponsoring this alternate forum were ''nongovernmental organizations,'' often referred to as NGOs. In UN parlance, the very designation NGO has an extremely specialized meaning. Just because an organization is not a governmental agency does not automatically mean that it can call itself an NGO. The UN bureaucracy has the power to designate which private groups are to be assigned this label and the specific privileges they can enjoy. It is inaccurate to contend that the group must be a radical, activist organization to qualify. Over the years, the UN has designated a fortunate few conservative organizations as NGOs. But it is correct to state that the typical NGO is a radical activist outfit. Over 36,000 people from the various NGOs registered to attend the alternate women's forum in China. Examples of the NGOs that experienced difficulty in obtaining visas include the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (a group whose members range from Australian aborigines to native Hawaiians) and Amnesty International. The latter wanted to use the occasion to promote the autobiography of Chinese-American Harry Wu, a man expelled by China on charges of espionage. It is difficult to imagine the contribution to the formulation of UN policy on women's rights (or any other topic) which could be made by a meeting of 36,000 disparate attendees whose interests range all over the map of human concerns. We can get a reasonable idea by recalling the experiences of the comparable NGO forum at Rio. Observers referred to the ''proceedings'' in such disparaging terms as ''spectacle '' and ''circus,'' and worse. Surely, the United Nations has the authority to sponsor a conference on the environment, population, women, or other issues. But it is hard to justify that already heavily burdened organization when it requires such an ambitious conference to share the global spotlight with tens of thousands of private activists with their own agendas. The international women's conference brought to light the extent to which many private pressure groups have been allowed to take on some of the influence and prestige traditionally reserved for the officially chosen delegates of member nations of the UN. The way to respond to this blurring of public power and private influence is for the United Nations to eliminate the process of designating ''nongovernmental organizations'' and avoid sponsoring their meetings. If private organizations - be they radical, liberal, conservative, or nonpartisan - wish to meet and lobby world opinion, that is their right. They should do so on their own.

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