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Fr. Association

actor, civil society, commons, nongovernmental, public sphere

A common feature of democratic societies, as noted by Beigbeder (1992), “NGOs can be created and operate independently of public authorities only in liberal and pluralistic societies,[...] that is in Western countries since the 19th century…. which implies a number of preconditions: independence from the state and respect by the state of such basic human rights as freedom of association, meeting, thinking conscience and religion.” Associations arise “because people tend to associate with others who share their values, identity and beliefs, associational life is the social expression of ethical pluralism” (Chambers and Kymlicka, 2002, 2). This entails a political pluralism associated with civil society portrayed as as a buffer against the state.

Thomas Hobbes had argued in The Leviathan (1651) that no other institution should stand between the isolated individual and the absolute state, a vision that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social contract (1762) carried forward, recognizing only two entities: the isolated individual, and the absolute state, which left no place for such a thing as “society” composed of intermediate bodies. Each citizen would be completely independent of his fellow men, and absolutely dependent upon the state. Alexis de Tocqueville argued that, on the contrary, autonomous intermediate associations provide the ultimate guarantee that the state will be unable to arrogate to itself any more power than an active citizenry is willing to grant. In Democracy in America (1966, 175), he defined voluntary associations as “the public and formal support of specific doctrines by a certain number of individuals who have undertaken to cooperate in a stated way in order to make these doctrines prevail», which in turn allowed for the checking and balancing power of civic associations and were the best dike to hold back tyranny” (177). These are an innumerable multitude, he said, among which “Political and industrial associations strike us forceably; but the others elude our observation, or if we discover them we understand them imperfectly because we have hardly ever seen anything of the kind.” He consequently considered that, in democratic countries, the science of association is the mother science, and that the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.

However relevant, these views are quite restrictive and ignre both prehistoric and non-Western societies. Not only can ethical and charitable activities be traced to the medieval brotherhoods and corporations, but also to ancient commons and even prehistoric leisure activities. In his studies of the Middel ages, Leo Moulin (1980) described extensively what he called the transnational Cistercian networks of monasteries across Europe, also depicted as the forebears of representative democracy. Patterns of ritualized friendship among ancient Greeks have been related to patronage and philanthropy, organized into networks of ritualized friendship among the elite of ancient Greek cities. Anthropological and historial records show that the emergence of Athens as the premier city state is characterized by its aristocracy sponsoring culture (paideia) through the construction and operation of vast numbers of temples, comic, tragic and choral theatres, public hospitals, oracles at Delphi, sporting events and games at Olympia, and other community activities. They were equivalent to our tax-supported events or facilities, but were rather supported by the liturgical system of patronage (Lohman1992).

Out of Western history, Lohman also refers to cultures or political traditions defining what is equivalent to associations and philanthropy, whether secular or religious, in Chinese, Indian, Greek, Roman, Islamic (reference is to “Law, Muhammadan”) or Jewish. In ancient India, Emperor Asoka patronized the institutional base of Buddhism, just as Constantine endowed networks of Christian monasteries, monuments and temples across the Roman Empire. In Africa, the associational life has been fully analysed by Bratton and others.

From local to global

In the international sphere, public law conventionally emphasizes the prominent position of states as the main subjects of international law and the main actors in international relations. As such, those entities are the addressees of international legal rules or norms and the bearers of international obligations and rights.However, a modern development among actors is that voluntary, nonprofit entities have migrated from the familiar sphere of local associations, groups and charities into the international sphere, under the terms “international association” or, in UN vocabulary, “international nongovernmental organis(z)ation” (INGO). As a central component of civil society, international or transnational associations are usually perceived as grassroots projects of reshaping or altering social, political, cultural, scientific and other structures through formal agreements or unofficial movements, to promote democratic participation in interaction with states and interstate organizations, to challenge states and international organizations or alternatively to proclaim the end of the Westphalian system.

A second consequence of these developments is that the term “association” has become more and more polysemous (even if we exclude such phrases as “associations of states”, obviously exluded from this note), with sometimes a loose usage not only in popular parlance but also in the academic discourse. Its ideological connotations have often focused on the non-state status aims and policies, so much so that “nongovernmental organization” was formed as an alternative term within the UN Charter vocabulary to emphasize this particular feature. The term has been added to associated terms like charities, third sector, or more recently “civil society organizations” within the EU institutions. It is conventionally qualified as autonomous even if not independent of states, self-reflexive as opposed to spontaneous social movements, self-organized as opposed to state-sponsored.

The variety of references has brought increasing fuzziness and polysemy on various levels. Associations can be international as opposed to transnational, oriented or not to business activities, represent employers or employees. Amnesty International is a nonprofit making body, but so are the European Automobile Manufacturers Association, business federations, industry lobbies, trades-related organizations or chambers of commerce, which appear under a nonprofit disguise even though their members are profit making companies Another paradoxical usage is the terms’s content, when urban authorities or regional administrations, which are official bodies, gather into the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA), which is an association or, as is today customary, an NGO. Similarly, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) is the official voice of local and regional government within the Europe Union under the Maastricht Treaty, whereas the Assembly of European Regions (AER) is an NGO. In this regard, it is interesting to note the existence of mixed bodies, such as the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), whose 350 members are drawn from both economic and social interest groups in Europe and represent employers, workers, and various interests groups (consumers, environmentalists, etc.).

Such overlapping has brought another ambiguity in the economic field, when nonprofit bodies intends to be more “professional”, adopting methods and leadership borrowed from the forprofit, private sector. By doing so, nonprofit management may be characterized ironically as "entrepreneurship”, running the risk of conveying a negative image of entities that cannot be properly managed if they do not follow the predominant forprofit type of management. In a more positive way, overlapping between forprofit and non profit criteria has led to the creation of mixed actors, particularly multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) which have gained significant importance in recent years. These include certification schemes (ISO14001, SA8000…), anti-sweatshop initiatives, global reporting initiative to improve certain aspects of management, monitoring and reporting systems, as well as learning through stakeholder engagement, global and framework agreements between TNCs and international trade union organizations, and particularly those actors supporting the UN Global Compact established to encourage companies to stick to nine principles derived from international labour, environmental and human rights law.

The limitations of company codes of conduct and corporate self-regulation have been addressed, involving standard setting and the promotion of dialogue, reporting, monitoring, auditing, and certification. Many MSIs assume the organizational form of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), although industry, trade union and multilateral organizations have also taken the lead in some cases. MSIs have been somewhat successful in addressing certain weaknesses associated with corporate self-regulation, especially in their attempts to impose a degree of coherency on the confusing proliferation of company codes, and the attention they have directed to issues of labour rights, independent monitoring, the responsibilities of suppliers in TNC value chains, and international labour, environmental and human rights law. By their very nature, MSIs bring into decision-making processes a broader range of actors and can therefore have positive implications in terms of democratic global governance, but they do not avoid major differences in the extent to which they integrate trade unions, local-level monitoring and verification organizations in developing countries, and Southern actors more generally.

Community and society

One sociological ambiguity is illustrated in current perceptions of associational life is related to Tönnies’s well-known distinction between Gemeinschaft and Geselschaft, the communal nature of associational structures in traditional societies as opposed to the formal or informal status of bodies allowed under the freedom of association. A traditional communal practice usually comes under the concept of “commons” mentioned before, quite distinct from the modern concept and practice of freedom of/to association. In the past, John Locke had argued that indigenous peoples had no legitimate title to their land because they belonged to communities and had no individual rights. By the end of the 19th century, these ideas came to characterize a Hobbesian idea of civil society, which distinguished between civilized and uncivilized peoples. If indigenous communities are part of civil society, the question is whether civil society should be defined in opposition to a state world order, in the same way as NGOs were defined in the UN Charter in opposition to UN member states. For many years, the tendency in the Council of Europe was to consider minorities as “national”, and was unable to conceive of them as “transnational” communities.

In both cases, the difficulty for IR has been to think of either free associations or communities as non-territorial, i.e. truly transnational entities. Formally, ethnic or cultural communities usually come under the authority of particular states, but international associations of indigenous peoples are NGOs, sometimes with consultative status with the UN or Unesco. The significance of this particular opposition has been made even more relevant since the principle of self-determination of peoples, long regarded as contributing to the defense of collective rights, has gradually enhanced the possible clash with individual rights. Worse still, it has become “the opening for a new form of tribalism and is encouraging some of the most reactionary tendencies in contemporary world society” (Archibugi 2003).    

A third case is made up of ideological and religious organisations, probably the most powerful representatives of the associational complex. It is commonly assumed that (inter/transnational associations are equivalent to voluntary associations/NGOs. So, the Commission on Global Governance (1995, 32) includes under these terms international (and sometimes local) voluntary associations/NGOs, trade unions, chambers of commerce, cooperatives and other civil society oeganizations, but also religion-based organizations. However, in many cases there is no direct link between religious organizations and free associations. Lenore T. Ealy (2004) highlights the classic case of American churches, which were mostly state supported two centuries ago – the argument for state-sponsored religion being that a religious person was thought to be a better citizen – before the Constitution was amended so that political authorities kept within constitutional limits in this regard. …. The “privatization » » of religion (Olds 1994) has never been implemented in Islam, which is the official religion of what is righly called “Muslim” countries insofar as Arab/Muslim constitutions take muslim law as one source, if not the only source of law. The Arab and Islamic Countries issued several declarations concerning human rights, to conform with Islamic law. The few attempts to reform the Islamic law are usually unsuccessful, as shown by Professor Abu-Zayd from Cairo University, who tried a liberal interpretation of the Quran. A fundamentalist group successfully instituted a suit for apostasy against him. This matter went before the Egyptian Court of Cassation, which confirmed his condemnation August 5th, 1996, and required the separation of Abu-Zayd from his wife. The couple left Egypt and asked for asylum in the Netherlands, for fear of being killed (Aldeeb 2003). It is notable that under Shari’ah law in many countries apostasy (an expression of freedom of association and thinking) and any actions or statements considered blasphemous are harshly punished, in some States by death. The institutional context confirms the supremacy of religious law over civil law, first illustrated by the decision of Saudi Arabia not to sign the UN declaration of Human Rights in 1948, arguing that it violated Islamic law, and more generally by the 1990 Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted at the Nineteenth Conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation by its 45 member states (among which Turkey, whose constitution was said to be secular) and published by the UN as one of the regional instrument in 1997. It says that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah” (Art. 24), and “The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration” (Art. 25). This declaration questions the very concept of the universality of human rights or, in other words, affirms an alternative view of universality based on religious principles. Its signatories are in effect reneging on the obligations they freely entered into in signing the UDHR and the two covenants.

An extreme case is that of mafia associations and terrorist groups, whose non-state nature is obviously “illegitimate”, but may borrow perfectly legal forms. Criminal organizations are a type of organized crime syndicates whose primary activities (racketeering, arbitration of disputes between criminals, organizing and oversight of illegal agreements and transactions, otherwise referred to as yakuza (Japanese Mafia), bratva (Russian Mafia), etc. Individual mafia groups may nevertheless be “fully developed organizations” with ruling bodies to enforce their normative order (Paoli 2003).

The latter features question the positive values conventionally associated with associations as the most important component of civil society and reveal its “dark side”. They also make the term an inconvenient tool for a scientific analysis of the concepts and contexts it is supposed to refer to, as its complex normative, analytical and empirical dimensions call for a cross-disciplinary, contextualized approach.

UN relations

The UN Charter, both in the preamble and article 71, provides for a relationship with international associations, NGOs (INGOs), more commonly called « civil society » today, even though they are only part of it. In 1948, the first NGOs were granted consultative status by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and rules were adopted in 1950 by the ECOSOC in resolution 288 B(X) (reviewed by the General Assembly in 1968 in resolution 1296, then in 1993 to update and accommodate changes, review concluded by ECOSOC resolution 1996/31. In 1998, the Secretary-General elaborated arrangements and practices for NGOs in his report A/53/170, and reflected the views of Member States, members of the specialized agencies, observers, intergovernmental organizations and NGOs from all regions in another report (A/54/329) in 1999. The Millennium Declaration later gave a new mandate to enhance this partnership.

In the recent decades, non-state entities have been granted, whether legally or de facto, the status of actors in the international system. A special case is the Catholic Church, whose statehood entity, the Holy Sea, was granted the status of subject of international law. Most of the other INGOs have played a role stemming from the Charter of the UN (article 71), which recognises their relevance through a consultative status. It shold however be noted that “consultative” dos not mean that they must be consulted, but that they just may be. This specification contrasts with the European Economic [...] and Social Committee (EESC) created by the Rome Treaties in 1957, an assembly not linked to political parties which must be consulted by all three institutions (Council, Commission and Prliament) in all cases provided for in the treaties and when the institutions deem it desirable. It may also deliver an opinion (15% of its opinions are on their own initiative) or write information reports. Nowadays, the Committee delivers almost 150 opinions a year on a variety of issues. This means that the European project is led not only by the European institutions and politicians, but also by active citizens involved in the economic, social and cultural life.

In addition to their active role in many international fields, NGOs have actively contributed to the development of international law in the field of human rights, scientific research, environmental matters and many more. More generally, they are fully involved in norm formation and political decision-making through formal or informal processes. These developments have led to the concept of an international law conceived as cosmopolitical, i.e. based on interpretations granting equal status to all parties involved, decentred from any particular vision. One implication has been to increase the complexity of theoretical and empirical perspectives, between integration and fragmentation, with a strong focus on the sociological point of view. Marcel Merle (1987) or Nye had already pointed to the complex features of the international system. In his Sociology of International Relations, the former recognizes the ever-changing transnational forces and actors underpinning this field of studies. Applying the system analysis through a rigorous method and a demanding epistemology, he showed how political, but also legal, technological, social, economic, demographic and psychological factors combine in complex patterns, including the emergence of a global public opinion.

A second category of non-state entities is multinational companies (MNCs), which have also been proclaimed as new actors on the international scene as new agents of economic development, this time quite formally with the setting up of the UN-sponsored Global Compact, a loose UN policy of rapprochement with the business community. Their action is now so significant that they are commonly seen as the most active agents of globalisation, and that the Global Compact has been entrusted with controlling their influence, some NGOs arguing “that corporate influence at the UN is already too great, and that new partnerships are leading down a slippery slope toward the partial privatisation and commercialization of the UN system itself” (TRAC, 2000).

This introduces to a dimension of civil society that is not readily recognized, that is, its collusion with state interests, its ignorance of democratic liberlism, or even an “uncivil attitude” to society as a whole. Even if one accepts that civil society is uniquely bound up with the historical process of liberal democratization, the latter idea may be as relevant as the idea that civil society necessarly acts for the common good, or is symbolically a « conscience of the world ». The objective analysis of actual civil societies results in an empirically tricky exercise through different types of social organization, from nonprofit to for-profit Efforts to decide which of them are truly 'civil' are doomed to fail if we give them as opposed to those which may be dismissed as 'pre-civil', 'uncivil' or 'anti-civil'. The FIFA case is a clear illustration of porous links between the two categories of interantional actors – states and INGOs – , but also of the fuzzy boundary between them, as shown by the investigations into corruption at FIFA by the FBI and Swiss prosecutors, which also include the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

The diversification of global actors does not end with these two non-state categories, if we consider the variety of liberation and other national movements, social, ethnic and cultural communities, let alone more extreme cases, such as maffia and terrorist networks, which usually arise from social, non-state movements and initiatives and have often adopted legal associational forms. One issue posed by the heterogeneous nature of international actors is the persistent threat to state sovereignty, whether caused by civil or “uncivil” society organisations. This concern emerged in 1989, when it appeared that the political systems of three centuries came to an end in Europe: the balance of power and the imperial urge. That year marked not just the end of the Cold War, but also, and more significantly, the end of a state system which dated from the Thirty Years War. However, the resurgence of ethnic tensions, the creation of new nations-states, a revival of transnational terrorism and the appeal to a coordinated response to climate change have notably eased a return of/to the state, if not to forgotten empires (Russia, China).