Me with Bill Pace, head of the Coalition for an ICC
As I think more deeply about how non-profits can meaningful translate
their work into virtual environments, I am reminded of when I as a
young activist began using the internet and the web in the early 1990s.
I was working for the World Federalist Movement, a global peace
organization dedicated to the principle of “world peace through world
law.” Starting around 1992, we began trying to build support for the
concept of an International Criminal Court (ICC), a new kinds of United
Nations human rights tribunal that we hoped could bring to justice some
of the worst despots and genocidaires of our time.
Meanwhile, a small number of governments in 1994 has initiated a new round of discussions on the ICC within the UN General Assembly’s legal committee. Despite deep opposition from all five Security Council members, tiny governments like Trinidad and Tobago, New Zealand, and Columbia were interested in talking about this new court. WFM and a couple of other activist groups carefully monitored the discussions from the bleachers, then quietly lobbied governments during the coffee breaks,
Before the internet, the pressure groups that could meaningfully participate in UN-based lobbying efforts were the ones that could afford to staff offices in New York, Vienna, or Geneva — groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation of Human Rights. But as internet access started becoming more common, new groups that we had never been able to communicate with before started becoming involved in various lobbying efforts.
Using at first simple email, then text-based discussion boards, gopher servers (pre-cursors to the web), and later a simple website, we were able to spread news and information about the ICC talks much wider than was previously possible. I fondly recall handcoding that first ICC Coalition website (with <blink> tags!), carefully creating a logo in MacPaint, and bragging to my friends about how I was a “cybernaut.”
One practice that we innovated was taking draft UN documents and government position statements, scanning or recopying them, and putting them immediately online. Thus, human rights groups from around the world could follow along how the government negotiations were playing out by watching the draft texts evolve. This was in stark contrast to the usual “closed door” nature of UN negotiations, which typically only a small number of privileged pressure groups were able to witness first hand.
One trick that my boss Bill Pace invented was to get digital copies of UN documents from the translation services department of the UN, who were night-and-day busily creating Chinese, Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic and English versions of all UN documents. I would walk in with a floppy disk to my favorite translator and ask her for a copy of all of yesterday’s documents on the ICC in English, French and Spanish. A busy functionaire (with perhaps her own political motivations), she’d copy the files and hand the disk back to me in a few minutes without a word. A couple of hours later, the documents would be online.
As groups from around the world began accessing these UN negotiating texts, they also worked together to formulate their own positions, creating new caucuses and working groups on a range of issues, from women’s rights to victim’s reparations to African-focused concerns. These new internet-facilitated caucuses were able to draft texts amongst diverse groups, circulate them for “virtual signature” and get them back to their governments within a few days. All of this using basic email, computer conferences and gopher.
In turn, the International Criminal Court Coalition grew from a handful of mostly US-based groups in 1995 to hundreds of groups from all around the world in 1998, largely due to the communicative power of the internet. As a result of the work of the ICC Coalition, in cooperation with friendly governments, the International Criminal Court was created in August 1998 in Rome. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan himself mentioned the power of the internet in congratulating us on our work:
The NGO Coalition for an International Criminal Court brought together a network of hundreds of NGOs and international law experts to develop strategies and foster awareness. Their efforts paid off when we witnessed the signature of the ICC statute in Rome three weeks ago. Again, a key to their network was e-mail and the World Wide Web.
Those were heady and exciting times. I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more worthwhile before or since.
Now of course all these networking technologies are commonplace and well-established tools in the toolkit of non-profit groups everywhere. So are virtual worlds the next big leap for the non-profit sector? Perhaps.
I find it gratifying to hear that the International Criminal Court (now based in the Hague) is working on creating a virtual version of their headquarters, where avatarized visitors can immersively learn about how the court works, find out about current prosecutions and investigations, and meet with Court officials. Imagine being able to talk avatar-to-avatar with the prosecutor who brought Milosovic to justice! Or bringing law students into courts chambers to watch live video streams of trials in progress.
It’s strange to be already nostalgic for the days of usenet and gopher while my avatar strolls the pixelated halls of a new form of global justice.
Oh and, by the way, it’s Bill Pace’s birthday. He still heads up the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, which now numbers on the thousands of member organizations. Happy Birthday, Bill!