Can the UN be true to its democratic principles without reforming the NGO Committee?

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Broad participation and representation, including vibrant civil society participation, are essential prerequisites for democratic development. However, as the United Nations (UN) marks the International Day of Democracy today, it is clear that the UN system faces severe internal challenges on this front.

Importance of ECOSOC NGO Committee

The access a number of NGOs have to the UN has been continuously blocked by the The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) Committee on NGOs through arbitrary deferrals and denial of ECOSOC consultative status.

Consultative status enables NGOs to access the key UN human rights platforms, for example to deliver statements and organise side-events to bring issues of concern to the attention of member nations arenas such as the UN General Assembly in New York and the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The ECOSOC Committee on NGOs is the intergovernmental committee that recommends NGOs for consultative status. As such, the committee is highly influential in determining the access permitted to civil society organisations to engage in the UN system.

The committee’s attempts to bar a number of NGOs from participating threatens democracy in the UN system by undermining key values such as accountability, transparency and inclusiveness. It also undermines the acknowledgement given by UN Member States to the important work carried out by NGOs and human rights defenders, as evidenced by the Human Rights Council Resolution on Civil Society Space and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders 1998.

What it means to CSW

This issue has struck close to home for CSW. As an international advocacy organisation promoting freedom of religion or belief in more than 25 countries, the UN provides a key platform for CSW’s advocacy work. However, our work with the UN has been undermined by the arbitrary deferrals of our consultative status application by the NGO Committee since 2009. CSW has answered more than 70 questions from the NGO committee about our work and attended several NGO Committee sessions in New York – without success. Our case is not unique. Many other NGOs experience similar challenges when applying for ECOSOC consultative status, particularly if they work on issues that are perceived to be “controversial”, for example minority rights and sexual and reproductive rights.

Increased silencing of NGOs

These actions by the NGO Committee, which comprises 19 countries, are indicative of the increasing silencing of NGOs and human rights defenders worldwide. According to the civil society alliance Civicus, core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were seriously violated in at least 109 countries in 2015. The report also states that incidents of harassment and physical violence against civil society and journalists increased.

“In light of these global trends, the silencing of NGOs by the very entity that has been tasked to ensure participation of NGOs in the UN processes is deeply concerning.”  

In light of these global trends, the silencing of NGOs by the very entity that has been tasked to ensure participation of NGOs in the UN processes is deeply concerning.  The 1996 UN resolution on the consultative relationship between the UN and NGOs states that the NGO Committee “should ensure, to the extent possible, participation of non-governmental organisations from all regions, and particularly from developing countries, in order to help to achieve a just, balanced, effective and genuine involvement of non-governmental organisations from all regions and areas of the world [sic].” The persistent exclusion NGOs highlights the gap between the committee’s stated aim and its current practices.

Calls for reform

Recent years have seen increased questioning on the work of the NGO Committee and calls for a reform, both within the UN and in the media. In June 2016, more than 230 NGOs from around 50 countries published a joint statement defending freedom of association at the UN and calling for the review and reform of the UN Committee of NGOs.

The outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has also raised concerns about declining freedom for civil society and the NGO Committee’s work. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, Mr Maina Kiai, has reported the continuous deferrals and questioning of some NGOs by the NGO Committee members on several occasions and noted that “Member States and the UN have a legal obligation to strengthen civil society participation in the UN, including by ensuring that people can exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in multilateral arenas.”

“Member States and the UN have a legal obligation to strengthen civil society participation in the UN, including by ensuring that people can exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in multilateral arenas.” – Mr Maina Kai, UN Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association.

CSW welcomes the active engagement of several Member States with the NGO Committee who have raised their voices in support of individual NGO consultative status applications and provided recommendations to ensure increased accountability and transparency of the Committee’s work.

Room for improvement

In 2015, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay recommended the webcasting of the NGO Committee sessions, in order to increase the accountability and transparency of the NGO Committee. Further safeguards should be developed to ensure that the Committee does not abuse its procedures in a discriminatory or politicised manner and that its own processes are fully aligned with international human rights standards and relevant resolutions and declarations.

“Further safeguards should be developed to ensure that the Committee does not abuse its procedures in a discriminatory or politicised manner and that its own processes are fully aligned with international human rights standards and relevant resolutions and declarations.”

Only by reforming the work of the NGO Committee and ensuring the access of human rights NGOs to the UN, in a fair and non-discriminatory manner will the UN system fully realise its democratic potential and efficiency in protecting and promoting human rights.  

By Sini-Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader

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