Fr. Société civile

Esp. Sociedad civil

→ Association, charity, foundation, international nongovernmental organisation, PVO, third sector, voluntary associations

A key concept of contemporary political thought, “civil society” (CS) is commonly considered as contributing to the democratizing of the international community. Whether this term refers to new phenomena or to underlying strata of Western history, it has come to include many social forms inspired by the pursuit of liberal values such as individual freedom, social pluralism, and democratic citizenship. Its contemporary meaning underlies conventional oppositions between state and non-state, public and private, religious and secular, for-profit and non-profit, even though these distinctions are no longer sufficient to define its contents.

 A polysemous term

A working definition is given by the Centre for Civil Society of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE, which closed in September 2010): “Civil society refers to the set of institutions, organisations and behaviour situated between the state, the business world, and the family. Specifically, this includes voluntary and non-profit organisations of many different kinds, philanthropic institutions, social and political movements, other forms of social participation and engagement and the values and cultural patterns associated with them.” Another definition is given by the Civil Society Glossary of the Mihan Foundation, as “an association or other nonprofit organization formed voluntarily by members of the general public to represent the interests of specific groups or the public at large”, adding that, like other associations, it can be informal or officially registered.

A broader definition is to see CS as the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interests, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice the boundaries between state, CS, family and market are complex, blurred or negotiated. The term embraces a diversity of times and spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. It covers organisations such as registered charities, development nongovernmental organisations, community groups, women's organisations, faith-based organisations, professional associations, trades unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups.

Specific criteria of a functional definition include the economic aspect, the legal status and the purposes of the organization, to which can be added its cultural features. Its economic aspect refers to its financial resources (member fees, state subsidies, private donations) and organizational structure, its legal form, statutes or constitution (association, foundation, cooperative, international NGO). The Civil Society Index established by CIVICUS assesses four dimensions of civil society: structure, space/environment, values and impact. In a similar way, a neo-Gramscian view is given by Victor Pérez-Diaz (1998, 220): “ … an ideal type referring to a set of political and social institutions, characterized by limited, responsible government subject to the rule of law, free and open markets, a plurality of voluntary associations and a sphere of free public debate. The European situation only partly corresponds to the ideal type; but sufficiently so in order for its application to be of some value.”

More recently, a distinction has been made within civil society between social movements (based upon informal alliances), and (more formally established) NGOs. This is a difficult distinction to sustain because social movements also include NGOs and trade unions, and because the definition of NGO themselves is very fluid. It is perhaps more useful to identify that part of civil society, which has begun to structure itself and to work in alliances, federations or networks. This “organised civil society’” is a new departure and is fast becoming an important aspect of the national, regional and global scene. Often making alliances with political groups, officials, trade unions and other actors, organised civil society has become an effective and influential component of the political landscape. As a matter of fact, institutionalism is an essential element, a basic feature of any civilized societal formation, even though it is noteworthy that the some societies lack the institutionalism that is based on liberal contract relation under the law, such as traditional forms of associational life (Bratton 1989).

Obviously, the blame should not be put on such and such definitions, concepts or terms, but on the non-recognition of the fuzzy, loose and changing relationships between observed or perceived data and available descriptive patterns in various periods and contexts. The boundaries between categories of actors (states, market, CSOs) are moving, insofar as most CS entities depend on subsidies, subventions, grants, low-interest loans and services provided by the state (Mosher 2002, 219); democracies cannot survive without a healthy CS; an excessive deregulation of the market economy leads to a retreat of the state, societal fragmentation, social conflicts and a declining sense of social/communal belonging; changing territories identified with moving political units; some ethnic groups have risen to statehood, while states of the past may have been absorbed into wider units. Additionally, the territorial criterion depends on geopolitical units (states) as well as non-territorial depictions (religions and secular ideologies).

Alternative forms of civil society?

Researchers have looked for equivalent social forms in non-Western ethical traditions, which may agree or disagree on how to define civil society's interpretations, how to evaluate its cultural or universal background, and how these traditions respond to ethical pluralism within societies (Chambers and Kymlicka 2011). An essential component of civil society in Western societies, regardless of how it is understood, is the idea and principle of secular politics taken as distinct from the state. Church and state have gradually evolved as separate entities after the end of the Middle Ages, when European princes dictated the religious beliefs of his subjects. The sectarian conflicts following the Reformation led to more than a century of bloody warfare until the Westphalian treaties realized the separation between religious and political authorities. This means that modern secular politics did not spring automatically from Christian culture, but rather was something that had to be learned through painful historical experience. Even in the midst of the Spanish conquest of America, which was inspired as much by religious zealotry as greed for space and gold, Las Casas’s laudable efforts to make room for the native Americans in a broader notion of humanity should be understood as a process of restoring a focus on human potential and its diverse expressions, rather than as a covert attempt to impose a particular standard on foreigners as a price of their participation in the community.

A later dimension of human freedom is rooted in the achievements of early modern liberalism, which succeeded in persuading people to exclude the final ends addressed by religion from the realm of politics. This autonomy was certainly not complete, as the demise of civil society was declared by Hegel (1837), who considered that his philosophical idealism placed his elevated spiritual subjectivity into a universal goal or telos for all humankind, realizing the final accomplishment of the State in the spirit, here understood as “the perfect and absolute religion, in which is revealed what spirit is, what God is. That is the Christian religion”. For early modern thinkers, there was no distinction between civil society and the state. Civil society was a type of state characterized by a social contract, a society governed by laws, based on the principle of equality before the law, in which everyone (including the ruler, at least in the Lockean conception) was subject to the law; in other words, a social contract agreed among the individual members of society. It was not until the nineteenth century that civil society became understood as something distinct from the state, when Hegel defined civil society as the intermediate realm between the family and the state, where the individual becomes a public person and, through membership in various institutions, is able to reconcile the particular and the universal. For Hegel, civil society was “the achievement of the modern world – the territory of mediation where there is free play for every idiosyncrasy, every talent, every accident of birth and fortune and where waves of passion gust forth, regulated only by reason glinting through them”. His definition of a CS including the economy was to be taken up by Marx and Engels, who saw civil society as the “theatre of history”.

If we take such a common defining feature as secularism, it appears that secular politics is not limited to Western civilisation. Without going back to the Indian lokayata or carvaka system of philosophy (a method of worldly or empirical investigation), Amartya Sen recalls that Akbar, the Mogul emperor of India (1556-1605), was well aware of the coexistence of many religious denominations (Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Jews, and others), and laid the foundations of secularism in multicultural India. This policy was understood as the religious neutrality of the state, which he insisted must ensure that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him.’ Sen also remarks that Akbar’s thesis was ‘the pursuit of reason’ rather than ‘reliance on tradition’. This tradition can be traced back to the structure of the ancient Indian society, where the Brahmin varna (caste) had no monopoly of the religious function or religious power, in contrast with Christian priests (Angot 2013). Brahmins’statute does not allow them to access political or economic powers. In this regard, they differed from the mandarins, who administered the Chinese empire. The priests, however, had no autonomous, coporate power and were entirely subservient to the state, i.e. the emperor. In a way, this is equivalent to the caesaropapist system familiar to orthodox societies in Eastern Europe. In India, the Brahmins were a separate varna which had moral authority but was independent of political rule. Kings were dependent of law made by the political power, contrary to the Chinese imperial makers of law. From this regard, India is more similar to Europ than China, as there was “a germ of something that could be called the rule of law that would limit the power of secular oilitical authority” (Fukuyama 2011, 152). Interestingly, the same comparison can be made between India and Europe in that both areas were seldom ruled by a united imperial power, but rather constituted into “warring states” whose competition undemined any attempt to sustainable unity (Baeschler 2002, 2012). However, the two continents may have been diverging recently with regard to tolerance and secularism. Although the right to freedom of speech and expression is a fundamental right under the Indian Constitution, the 1947 partition has been followed by recurrences of religious violence and the inclusion of restrictive provisions in law, which criminalize obscenity and religious offenses. Worse still, India was the first country in 1988 to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, under a government led by the professedly secular Congress. Three decades later, Rushdie voiced concern about the “real grave danger” to discuss ideas freely in India under Modi’s leadership (Seervai 2016). This a far cry from ancient India, which recognized a clear separation between the realms of religion (dharma) and politics (artha), as in Kautilya's Arthashastra in particular, one of the major treatises of the ancient world on the art of government. This work is close to the thinking of Machiavelli and Hobbes, shot through with cold realism and devoid of moralizing considerations. Even more significant is the concept of anviksiki, the discipline of critical inquiry, of which samkhya, yoga and lokayata are listed as the principal divisions. Kautilya rejects explicitly the claim of Manu and others that the study of critical reasoning is tied exclusively to a religious study of the self and its liberation (atmavidya), and understands that critical inquiry is an autonomous discipline (1.2.11). "Investigating by means of reasons, good and evil in the Vedic religion, profit and loss in the field of trade and agriculture, and prudent and imprudent policy in political administration, as well as their relative strengths and weaknesses, the study of critical inquiry (anviksiki) confers benefit on people, keeps their minds steady in adversity and in prosperity, and produces adeptness of understanding, speech and action." (Ganieri 2001, 8) 

To take another cultural area, it is striking to hear Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a founder and director of the first civil society centre in the Arab word, saying in 2002 that “I believe that the members of this honourable Court who are over forty-five will remember that fifteen years ago they never heard the phrase ‘civil society’. This was not an expression used in spoken Egyptian or the Arabic language before the establishment of Ibn Khaldoun Centre”. As a CS activist, Dr. Ibrahim was sentenced and taken away to jail under the State Emergency Law. He had been accused, among other allegations, to have received foreign funding without permission of the authorities and to disseminate false information that damages Egypt's national interest. At least eight other staff members of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre were also arrested and the files were confiscated.

A further extension into the religious dimension of the Arab world would be even more problematic, considering that faith-based organisations are usually included into CS: many of them are not based on voluntary or revocable memberships (leaving the Islamic religion is forbidden), and perform the same functions as states in more secular societies: satisfying the need for sociality, transmitting moral values and the accepted behaviour in society, solving problems of collective action and acting as vehicles for specific aspirations. Because this separation has never been considered as a fundamental principle in Islam, all the talk about an emerging civil society in Iran, for example, does not mean it is beyond the supreme power of religion, in a country considered as the most Islamic state of all Muslim countries. In Arab countries, mujtama' madani (from Arabic madinah, “city”) commonly refers to the CS concept. Muslim-majority societies avoid the term mujtama' 'ilmani (“secular society”), due to its atheist connnotation. Muslims usually understand secularism as a rejection of religion-based laws, because laws would then be conceived by humans and not by a reference to religion or God’s will. Mujtama' 'ilmani would be understood as opposed to mujtama' dini (“religious society”). Arab Christian communities will preferably use the term mujtama' madani, so as not to annoy Muslim religious people (Abu Salieh 2006). Up to now, speakers hesitate between the two terms, mujtama' 'ilmani or mujtama' madani. From a theological and legal standpoint, sharia law covers only Muslims unless incorporated into national law, assuming people are born into their parents’ religion. It finds the ex-Muslims atheists of being guilty of apostasy, a crime against God, like adultery and drinking alcohol, which eight states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Sudan, punish with the death penalty. The Economist (2012) cites a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Centre, an American think-tank, which found that 84% of Muslims in Egypt and 86% in Jordan backed the death penalty for apostates, compared with 51% in Nigeria and 30% in Indonesia. It seems hard to deny that these figures reflect an unpleasant side of civil society feelings, which are not limited to the domestic sphere as they gain a strong international support from the 1990 Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam adopted by the then 45 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which disagrees with the fundamental principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although its significance was interpreted on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2007, by the Ambassador of Pakistan addressing the Human Rights Council on behalf of the OIC “not as an alternative, competing worldview on human rights”, but as a declaration that “…complements the Universal Declaration as it addresses religious and cultural specificity of the Muslim countries” (UN A/HRC/7/NGO/96, 2008), its ideological content clearly contradicts the universal character of the UN Declaration. Among the many clauses that limit universal rights, articles 24 and 25 of the Cairo Declaration are particularly clear: “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah”, and: “The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration”. As to article 19, it needs no comment: "... there are no other crimes or punishments than those mentioned in the sharia, which include corporal punishment (whipping, amputation) and capital punishment by stoning or decapitation. The right to hold public office can only be exercised in accordance with the sharia."

Of particular significance is the opinion of the Council of Europe about Islam calls for Sharia Law to supersede Civil Laws. On July 2001, the European Court of Human Rights determined that “the institution of Sharia law and a theocratic regime were incompatible with the requirements of a democratic society.” In February 2003 (judgment on applications 41340/98, 41342/98, 41343/98 and 41344/98), the Court ruled that Islamic Sharia law is “incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy.” The Court said that a legal system based on Sharia law “would diverge from the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly with regard to the rules on the status of women, and its intervention in all spheres of private and public life in accordance with religious precepts”. Since then, the Court has consistently ruled that sharia law is not compatible with the fundamental principles of democracy, as set forth in the Convention.

A loose notion

Theorising civil society consequently as the realm of free associational life, free thinking and cultural pluralism is not as easy as it appears at first glance, and Mary Kaldor's optimistic view (2011) that “Just as the East European intellectuals gave new meaning to the term civil society, so the protestors in Egypt are showing that civil society can bring together Islamists and secularists and that no culture has a monopoly on human values” does not take into account the varying and unequal resources that different societies can draw from their respective political traditions. The same goes for a hypothetical Iranian CS, which the outside world thought could be equated with the "Prague Spring" when it unsuccessfully defied its repressive clerical leaders in 1997. The Iranian revolution, it should be remembered, was warmly supported by a popular movement which violently suppressed any emerging secularism (Nasr 2016, 211-226). 

If we except the peculiar meaning of “civil state” understood as the body of citizens not included under the military or religious authorities, the etymology of CS, if not its concrete social and political expressions, can be traced back to ancient Greece, but its contemporary implications, in a broad sense, did not emerged until the 18th-century Enlightenment thought, and took new turns in the 19th and 20th centuries. The concept has altered with Roman, Liberal, Hegelian, Marxist, Gramscian and postmodern interpretations. It was resurrected, first by the so-called “new social movements” that developed after 1968 to fight for non-partisan causes related to peace, women, human rights, the environment and North-South relations, then in 1989 and the 1990s with the fall of the inflated state sectors in central and Eastern Europe, and finally with the tragic “Arab Spring” that spread across the Middle East in early 2011, before brutal regimes were either replaced by even more brutal regimes, or gave way to political chaos, with the notable exception of Tunisia.

The Arab uprisings had been preceded by the Iranian Revolution against the Pahlavi dynasty under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. It was triggered in October 1977 by a civil resistance led by both secular and religious elements, leftist and Islamist organizations, worker and student movements, which spread across the country in 1978 with strikes and demonstrations that paralyzed the economic and political life. Howeber, its secular and socialist components were quickly overwhelmed by the Islamic, anti-western movement so that, of the states that emerged from the twentieth century’s three great revolutions – Russia in 1917, China in 1949, and Iran in 1979 – the latter is the only regressive development. The Persian monarchy was eventually replaced with a Shia theocracy named “Islamic Republic” under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. This version of CS is characterized by a strongly dominant religious stratum superimposed on the state and political institutions and was led by Khomeini as a follower of the Shi'a Imam Husayn ibn Ali, and the Shah as Husayn's foe, the tyrant Yazid I. Clerics determine the existing order under the final say of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei since Khomeini’s death in 1989. The election of Hassan Rohani in 2017 does not introduce significant changes, as this country is a signatory of the 1990 Cairo declaration and the new president is hierachically subordinated to the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who said in 2005 that the call to murder (fatwa) issued to kill the British novelist Salman Rushdie, along with "anyone involved with its [novel's] publication" (publishers, translators, etc.) still stands. In 2016, fourty state-run Iranian media outlets had jointly offered a new $600,000 bounty for the death of Rushdie, according to the official Fars News agency, closely affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The fatwa has never officially been lifted (The Independent, 21 Feb. 2016).

These developments, which combine political, national, communitarian, religious or social ingredients, are often associated by social and political scientists with a political myth in so far as, rather than corresponding to a concept or an idea, CS refers to a set of positive values. These are identified as individual autonomy, social responsibility, group solidarity, ideological activism, religious proselitism or emancipation from gender stereotypes, while obviously CS can as well be permeated by socially conservative and politically authoritarian values. All of these criteria may redefine the pairing of the CS dimension and state powers according to CS’s own internal logic, its own economic, cultural, political, ideological or cognitive dynamics and the interests at stake. In addition, and above all today, they have gradually acquired an international, actually a transnational dimension that has contributed to the idea of an international civil society (Ghils 1992), or even of a “global civil society”, a neologism that appeared in the 1990s (Keane 2003) and obviously would exclude huge parts of CS where its basic values are not shared.

The international sphere

Kant was the last major philosopher to advocate a universal human community within a cosmopolitical order that would be realized through a confederation of states. Later, Hegel returned to nationalist particularities, contending that the end of History would arrive when humans had achieved the kind of civilisation that satisfied their fundamental longings. Not only did he think that the end-point was the constitutional state, but also that Christianity, as a religion developed from the path of Greco-Roman civilization, was the highest form of religion the world would ever produce. In his studies of the history of philosophy and religion, Hegel rejected as underdeveloped or primitive (or “Indian”) the notion of a pre-conceptual being or a background that cannot be rendered accessible and transparent to reason or rational subjectivity (Hegel 1885, chap. I, Halbfass 1988, 84-99).

One recent development of the idea of CS is that it has migrated from the familiar sphere of local players into the international sphere. As in the local sphere, it intends to reshape the multi-dimensional interaction with states and interstate organizations through formal institutions or unofficial movements, or even to proclaim the end of the Westphalian system. Its polysemous usage however makes CS an inconvenient tool for a scientific analysis in IR if it does not adopt a cross-disciplinary approach to the complex variety of its normative, analytical and empirical dimensions. CS organisations can be international as opposed to transnational, oriented or not to trade activities. Amnesty International is a nonprofit making body, but so is the European Association of Car Makers even though its members are profit making companies. Urban authorities are official bodies, but the International Union of Local Authorities (IULA) is an NGO, just like the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), which is a collection of parliaments. Similar examples can be taken from other sectors: private sector firms appear under a nonprofit disguise when they are represented by business federations, industry lobbies, trades-related organizations or chambers of commerce. Families are conventionally not included into civil society, but family associations are genuine CS organizations. A well-known segment of CS is sports NGOs, among which FIFA has earned a disastrous reputation through genuinely transnational channels. Within the context of what has been called "power transnation and diffusion" (Jerabek 2017), FIFA has strengthed a real hegemony in the dispute between transnational and national law in sports,  actually through the overruling of national law in favour of transnational law, and by questionable bidding processes to host the games in Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). Additionally, FIFA's behaviour is a clear illustration of porous links between two categories of international actors – states and INGOs – , and 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.

As to religious organizations, some of them refuse to be listed as international NGOs even though they are perfect examples of transnational bodies, with the apparent exception of the Holy See, which is both a state and the headquarters of a global religious body, i.e. an INGO. An extreme example is that of mafia networks and terrorist groups, which in a way are even more CS organizations in a primitive sense since they openly defy the states and other legally established bodies.

A tricky question raised by social scientists is related to Tönnies’s well-known distinction between Gemeinschaft and Geselschaft: are indigenous and ethnic communities actual associations or potential states? Before him, Locke had argued that indigenous peoples had no legitimate title to their land because they had no individual rights. Today, they have been granted an NGO consultative status with the UN, defending their claim to statehood at the same time. Other communities, like Roma/Romani, do not fit into territorial criteria and have always been transnational. Religious communities are even further away from territories, especially when they claim to be universal. Such contradictions are not unrelated to the Hobbesian idea of civil society, still accepted by the end of the 19th century, which distinguished between civilized and uncivilized peoples, as indigenous rights are often denied by another Hobbesian idea, that of territorial sovereignty.

True, some contemporary thinkers have conceived of a kind of a deterritorialized sovereignty defined in opposition of a state world order, in the same way as NGOs were defined in the UN Charter in opposition to UN member states. Significantly, the Council of Europe used to consider national minorities under the authority of particular states, and was unable to conceive of them as transnational communities.

As an extension of both official and unofficial networks across national borders, the latest understanding of the CS concept appeared with the idea of a “global civil society”, which has become popular in academic, policy and practitioner circles in recent decades, as a far echo of Kant’s evocation of a possible universal civil society in the early 19th century. Today, the term is understood as a non-state, non-market sphere destined to play a key role in another innovative framework known as “global governance”, a kind of “global associational revolution … under way around the world, a massive upsurge of organized private, voluntary activity in virtually every corner of the globe” (Salamon and Sokolowski 2004, 3). Critics would answer that, even though this project is a legitimate attempt from above, or from the the grassroots, to enforce a pluralist undertanding of the public sphere on a market-oriented, standardized globalization, these organisations are often unrepresentative and unaccountable non-state actors (Chandler 2004), and that the concept is devoid of theoretical and legal content due to the absence of any supranational polity with which it could be confronted. By contrast, a recent institutional development in the European context is illustrated by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which represents the “organized civil society”, whose consultation by the Commission or the Council is mandatory in certain cases, optional in others.

In the UN terminology, CS refers to the associations of citizens (outside their families, friends and businesses) entered into voluntarily to advance their interests, ideas and ideologies. The term does not include profit-making activity (the private sector) or governing (the public sector). Of particular relevance are mass organizations (peasants, women or retired people), trade unions, professional associations, social movements, indigenous peoples, religious and spiritual organizations, academe and public benefit non-governmental organizations. An increasing number of these are accredited with the UN and have regular meetings and events focused on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, 4,277 representatives of 864 NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC were accredited to the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), 9.5% more than in 2015. The number of accredited NGO representatives increased by 50% in the 2013-2017 period.

Generally, the term “civil society” mostly refers to a set of organizations, groupings and associations that are non-profit and non-governmental, whether formal or unformal, but it is sometimes applied also to political (parliamentarian associations, political parties) and private sector organizations (employers organizations, industrial associations, etc.), so much so that there is a danger of blurring the concept. This is why the Director-General of UNESCO emphasized the importance of the criteria ‘nongovernmental and non-profit’ in distinguishing civil society organizations from other actors, while NGOs in consultative status with the UN include the overlapping sectors of nonprofit, forprofit, political and ideological members of (I)NGOs. This difficulty is the unavoidable consequence of a methodology based on a single set of measuring criteria and the feeling that a clear-cut mapping of actors refers to a common, predefined “structure” of state/non-state relations under the all-embracing concept of “civil society”. Anthropologists, social scientists, historians and internationalists have amply demonstrated that this concept is not equally applicable to all cultures, states or histories, is open to alternative interpretations and needs to be redefined according to specific settings .

Another challenge to the idea of a “global village” is about values. First, some cultures and philosophies (hinduist, Buddhist, animist and others) are based on values that are not explicit or even implicitely found in the tenets of universal declarations on democracy, human rights or international cooperation. Second, values are somehow idealistically taken as necessarily positive, whereas the inclusive concept of CS more often than not implies violent action or totalitarian ideologies, whether based on secular or religious, political or communitarian aims. In other respects, the role played by civil society is sometimes questioned from within these organisations, whether in terms of effectiveness, official status or links wth states or for-profit non-state actors. In a way, the positive impacts of national/local CSOs are rightly emphasized if we contrast them with those of “global” CS which, despite the huge momentum brought by the spread of democracy in the 90s, has often been criticized for being increasingly alienated from grassroot concerns and citizen initiatives.

For a while, it seemed that doubts about the relevance of professional and business associations as a component of CS was compensated for by the recent notion of "corporate social responsibility", to be integrated in multinational firms strategies. Usually grounded on Universal Declarations and especially on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948, those strategies presuppose - rightly or wrongly - that this declaration promotes universal values.

 International/transnational initiatives

Finally, mixed actors have gained significant importance in recent years, particularly multistakeholder initiatives (MSIs) such as certification schemes (International Standardization Oorganization), the UN Global Compact (encouraging companies to stick to nine principles derived from international labour, environmental and human rights law), the Global Reporting Initiative (to improve management, monitoring and reporting systems, as well as learning through stakeholder engagement) or Global and framework agreements between TNCs and international trade union organizations. Many MSIs assume the organizational form of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and have been somewhat successful in addressing weaknesses associated with corporate self-regulation with positive implications in terms of democratic global governance, although questions arise regarding the accountability, legitimacy and credibility of some MSIs and the NGOs with a dominant position and their close association with the corporations they seek to regulate. These dichotomies illustrate the conventional opposition between state and non-state bodies, governments and non-governments, community and society, secular and religious, free modern associations and ascribed, traditional associational structures.

On a global and especially European level, public opinion has emerged as the latest side of CS, as a powerful force generating a public space where the association of citizens can express common or antagonistic concerns that may influence the course of contemporary political affairs through dialogue or confrontation.

The Cotonou Agreement between African Caribbean and Pacific countries and the European Union Agreement was one of the first international treaties that refer to CS. The document divides non-state actors into three categories: the private sector, the economic and social partners, including trade unions, and civil society organisations in all its forms (Title 1, Article 6). This definition regroups a wide range of organisations with different constituencies and interests, and includes NGOs engaged in humanitarian and development assistance, social service provision, to voluntary organisations of citizens, bringing together, for example, indigenous communities, women, workers, or farmers. The EU’s Economic and Social Committee attempted to draw a distinction between those associations who provide services and those who are involved in lobbying and advocacy work, but this did not receive much favour as most organisations consider lobbying and advocacy and the provision of practical resources to be two sides of the same coin.

One of the safeguards of CS is the presence of a legal framework, clear and precise enough to allow its institutions to exist, to function properly, efficiently and independently and to allow the outside world to know, identify and understand them. In a contribution to the Festschrift Cremona, Frits Hondius examined to what extent CS is a legally well-defined category. Examples are taken from the Western confines of Europe, the Republic of Ireland, whose 1938 Constitution refers to CS as a value and a standard, which Ireland owes to its founding father Eamon de Valera. The 1938 constellation was the political situation of Europe with the Spanish Civil War raging and World War II looming. De Valera cautioned his fellow citizens to steer clear of any extremism, whether left or right, religious, political or other, and to exercise their rights in harmony with the CS. It would be half a century before the notion of CS was again addressed as a basic constitutional principle in Eastern Europe, with the leaders of Solidarnosc in Poland.

A further extension of the recognition of CS was planned in the draft constitutional treaty of the European Union, a unique feature among European constitutions in including an article on participatory democracy, one in which the role of organised CS interests is central. While the structural problems identified in relation with the input legitimacy seemed unsurmountable and the constitution was actually rejected, the extent to which the EU sought to achieve it was impressive.

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