Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 September 2005

New process for global change?

The Helsinki Conference 2005 held last week marked another step in an initiative to bridge the North-South divide and to tackle the problems of globalization and democracy.  Malaysia offered to take the lead in facilitating follow-up activities on “effective global governance.” 


In the 1970s, the “Helsinki Process” initiated by the Finland government organized a series of dialogues between citizens and politicians of Eastern and Western Europe at the height of the Cold War.

It has been credited for sowing the seeds for the movements that eventually led to the end of that Cold War.

Finland has since then gained a reputation for bringing together protagonists conflicts in a search for solutions. 

Only last month, a peace accord was signed by the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement.  Talks between the parties were facilitated by the Crisis Management Institute led by the former Finland president, Martti Ahtisaari.

A new “Helsinki Process” on Globalisation and Democracy was launched two years ago, in an attempt to bridge the North-South divide.  It was a led by the Finland and Tanzanian governments, with their foreign ministers co-chairing the process.

The Helsinki Group, comprising 24 individuals, came out with its Declaration and Proposals recently.   The Group had tackled the questions: how to regulate globalization in a way that benefits humanity, and how to promote democracy at national and global levels.

The report covered the issues of poverty and development, human rights, the environment, peace and security, and governance.

In substance, it wasn’t an outstanding document.  What was interesting was the process, involving non-governmental organizations, scholars, the business sector, and co-chaired by political leaders.

The Helsinki Process is characterized by the bringing together of people from diverse backgrounds and opposing views, in an attempt to get them to understand one another, even if consensus is not attained.

Last week, the Helsinki Conference 2005, with the theme Mobilising Political Will, was held, bringing together over 500 people.

At the opening, the Finland President, Tarja Halomen, stressed the importance of making globalization to be more in line with the welfare of man and nature.  On democracy, she said it was hard to attain this at global level and thus “we must try harder and advances in this must be achieved.”

Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa, said this was the first generation that could end poverty.  “We have the cash, but do we have the will to make poverty history?” he asked.

“When poverty becomes a domestic political issue, only then will it be taken seriously.  At global summits, photos of leaders are taken, but nothing changes.

“Commitments made there will be implemented only when citizens in rich and poor countries make their governments accountable.  The Helsinki challenge is to make it a political issue domestically.  Then we can mobilize people into global partnership.”

This theme was taken up by United Nations Under-Secretary Jose Antonio Ocampo, who said what’s important is the implementation of the UN development agenda, drawn up from the many world summits (on environment, social development, finance and development) held in the past decade.

The challenge is to make member states accountable to the commitments they made.  The heart of the Helsinki process is the belief that globalisation can be moulded be people.  This is needed since inequalities are growing, globalization limits the policy space of developing countries to manage tensions caused by global trends.  

Finland’s Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said there were similarities between the first Helsinki process and this one.  In 1970s the world was divided into East and West.  Today’s world is also divided, into North and South.    

The Helsinki process aims at addressing the lack of governance and direction in globalization.  The agenda exists for policy change, arising from the UN conferences.  The Helsinki process can add value by helping to get these policies implemented.

Amnesty International secretary general, Irene Khan, said we live in an unsafe, endangered and unfair world.  The gap is in implementation and political will. 

The world faces some “litmus tests” in the months ahead, she added.  Would the increased concern for security by governments continue to shrink human rights and public space? 

Will the UN summit next week uphold the Millennium Development Goals, which are under threat (by the United States attempt to delete references to these)?  Will there be UN reform, which strengthens the human rights machinery?

Follow up activities have bee planned, so that the Helsinki  Process does not end with the conference.

A group of 14 countries called “Friends of the Helsinki Process” has been set up and they met twice during the conference.  They agreed to undertake follow-up activities (known as “Road Maps”), such as organizing meetings on selected themes.

Malaysia is one of the Friends.  Others include Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Egypt, South Africa, United Kingdom, Spain and Canada.

Malaysia offered to take the lead in perhaps the most difficult and important theme – effective global governance.

At a breakfast meeting of the Friends group, Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar said Malaysia offered to facilitate this topic as all countries, big or small, poor or rich, can contribute to changes in the global governance system.

It is undeniable that the global governance system, embodied in the UN, IMF, World Bank and the WTO, needs to be changed, he said.  The asymmetries of power should be corrected and the lack of democratic practices at international level should be rectified.

“Despite the creation of the UN 60 years ago, the international system is still characterized by inequality and injustice, where power rules over principle,” Hamid added. “As a result there is widespread frustration with the way the world is governed.”

He said the Friends must work together to strengthen multilateralism, and contribute to the global search for solutions to the problem of global governance.

Other themes and Road Maps to be taken up by the Friends include anti corruption (facilitated by Finland), gender equality and human trafficking (Thailand), migration (Mexico), information technology (Egypt), small arms (UK).

Besides the “road map”activities by governments in the Friends group, there will also be Roundtable meetings on various themes, to carry the discussions forward.  The activities will be coordinated by a Consultative Group as well as a Steering Group.

Thus the Helsinki Process will not close with last week’s Conference, and Malaysia is well poised to play an active role, especially on the key governance issue.

It is still too optimistic to think that this second Helsinki Process can bridge the North-South divide, or to effectively address the problems of globalization and democracy.  But a start has been made.