Evian civil society retreat, 8-10 November 2023

At the UN: Civil society in a state of exception – how to free ourselves from the Stockholm syndrome

To unpack the issue of civil society exclusion from the core of UN multilateralism from the perspective of collective and individual experiences and learnings in various UN fora, the Geneva Global Health Hub, in close collaboration with the Geneva office of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, invited a group of civil society practitioners and experts to a three-day retreat in Evian. At the retreat, and in its preparatory process, participants mapped and discussed alternative modalities of policy action that are complementary to those currently utilized, borrowing from direct experiences and learnings. This was done in view of starting a process of in-depth consultation and new constitution of civil society capacity to make an impact on the formulation of policies in the common interest at the United Nations.

Civil society in a state of exception

The United Nations, most of its specialized agencies, and some member states, have explicitly recognized the critical role civil society organizations play in formulating, monitoring, and evaluating policy at all levels of governance, including the intergovernmental.

Rhetorical recognition of CSO value notwithstanding, some UN agencies – the World Health Organization (WHO) is a case in point – are increasingly depriving CSOs working at the intersection of global public health, trade, hunger, and the climate crisis of voice, or instead manipulating them to get their engagement as “implementing partners” of global policy programmes, often set outside of UN spaces.

Most nominally democratic member states and CSOs have been slow to respond to these existential threats at the national and multilateral levels of governance. CSOs that are independent of corporate funding are now progressively questioning how best to challenge the increasing encroachment of anti-democratic coalitions of member states and the organized private sector. Two options seem available: to continue petitioning member states to respect our right to participate or alternatively engage in strategic non-cooperation/ withdrawal from an increasingly illegitimate process.

Outline of the retreat

“As a starting point, we will refer to the trend, in UN institutions, to alienate even accredited CSOs, many of which appear to suffer from a form of Stockholm syndrome. This disorder drives them to revere their captors even as they are relegated to side-lines where they recite one-minute interventions – all that is permitted at the World Health Assembly – like a stunted Greek chorus.

Following discussions will focus on the politics and efficacy of CSO engagement in the multilateral sphere, across the different fields of engagement. Diverse invited constituencies will learn from one another’s specific experiences and dilemmas. Conversations will identify emerging constraints, alignments, divergences in the global development arena. Topics will include global health, food, environment, finance, trade and development, digitalization, disarmament.

Participants will share – experientially and theoretically – informed diagnoses of the status of CSO participation in UN agencies, through the concepts of agency, legitimacy, and representation. They will describe the impact of their work, and the lack thereof, in the various governance settings, including at the level of the global-national dynamic when possible. Presentations will set the scene for a broader discussion with affected populations to hammer out a framework for more effective strategies going forward. Retreat participants should be prepared to discuss and define the elements of bold tactics in the current context where silencing of political voice has become the norm.

The retreat shall explore a new course of constructive resistance to the emergency-inspired security narratives that now sit at the core of the state of exception. Retreat participants will consider the implications of the “right of resistance” to the hijacked state — and by extension the inter-governmental collections of states – a right philosopher Giorgio Agamben claims is operative within ‘a state of exception’. This must take the form of cohesive actions in the public sphere rather than pervasive cooptation of CSOs, or sullen silence in the face of UN agency marginalization.” (outline quoted from the announcement)

Discussions and outcomes

“The event contributed to establishing a new temporary community where trust was indeed fostered and kindled thanks also to the very valid facilitation work carried out during the three days. This climate of trust that developed in Evian positively enabled the sincere exchange of common failures, challenges but also a few successes encountered in relations with UN agencies, and in other struggles conducted domestically. There is a strong will and a compelling need to strategically structure ourselves and our respective work around common struggles. Although participants shared a common sense of exclusion, the retreat offered an inclusive space to compare notes and share challenges and frustrations. Civil society participation, advocacy and cooperation at the United Nations, including its specialized agencies, conferences and other forums – as well as in other international and regional institutions and processes – will only be legitimate and effective in achieving results to the extent that they– reflect the strength and coherence of common/shared voices and positions:

  • include and represent voices and views of national and local constituents and counterparts,
  • convey experience, knowledge and analysis along with credible responses and solutions,
  • represent or based on organized civil society formations, institutions, networks, and movements.

The Evian retreat is the first step in a journey that aims to build common strategies and bold tactics for CSOs to reinvest political and multilateral spaces. To build a constructive path for future collaboration towards transformative change it is necessary to consolidate and expand this community, clarify the perspectives and gather potential solutions/actions to reimagine collaborations with or without UN agencies. We can no longer feel trapped in between the nostalgia of the past – when a few struggles did make it to some success – and the frustrated sentiments for today, which can easily slide into cynicism.” (quoted from the meeting report)



Geneva Global Health Hub (G2H2)
Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (RLF Geneva)


Nicoletta Dentico, G2H2, ndentico@sidint.org
Veronica Forin, RLF, Veronica.Forin@rosalux.org