“Without the participation of non-governmental organisations and civil society groups, no initiative, however visionary, can be fully achieved” – Former UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon
Civil society participation at the United Nations (UN) is not an ‘add-on’. Rather, inclusive and genuine NGO engagement increases accountability and strengthens the work of the UN, making it more effective and better-informed. This has been flagged numerous times by many of the key human rights experts within the UN.
The importance of the contribution of civil society actors to the capacity, efficiency and impact of the UN Special Procedures and other human rights mechanisms was stressed in the latest report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr Ahmed Shaheed. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, meanwhile, has pointed out the significant obligation international human rights law places on Member States to respect the freedoms which enable civil society to develop and operate.
Given the role civil society has to play in the protection and promotion of human rights, the recent decision by the UN NGO Committee to deny Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s access to the UN – after arbitrary deferral of its application since 2009 – sends a controversial and troubling message to civil society. Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.
“Far from being just an administrative hurdle or minor oversight, the decision is effectively an attempt to silence the voice of an NGO promoting FoRB– thus undermining the protection of FoRB within the UN system.”
Committee’s work affects a wide range of NGOs
The challenges faced by CSW are indicative of the wider issues posed by the NGO Committee. In May 2016, the Committee voted to deny consultative status to the Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (Youth Coalition) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Their applications had been deferred since 2010 and 2012 respectively. The Committee’s decisions were overturned by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – the 54 membered body whose mandate includes governing the work of the NGO Committee – in July 2016, granting UN accreditation to both organisations.
In addition to denying NGO ECOSOC applications, the NGO Committee is also known for its practice of deferring applications by asking numerous, often repetitive questions. For instance, between 2009 and 2017 CSW’s application was deferred by the NGO Committee by asking over 80 questions, many relating to CSW’s partners, finances, or our work on several countries who are members of the NGO Committee. The high level of deferrals by the NGO Committee was further highlighted following the outcome of the Committee’s meeting in May 2016 when 235 ECOSOC consultative status applications out of the total of 464 under its review were deferred. This means that around 50 % of the applications were deferred to the next meeting. Human rights NGOs are the most likely to face repeated deferrals and a thorough cross-examination by the NGO Committee. According to the International Service for Human Rights’ (ISHR’s) New York Office Director, Eleanor Openshaw, at the last session of the Committee (January-February 2017) only 30% of human rights organisations were granted consultative status. The average approval rate for all NGOs was 55%. One of the longest deferrals an NGO has experienced is the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). IDSN has been seeking the UN accreditation since 2007 in order to address caste-based discrimination.
Support is necessary to overcome obstacles
For NGOs like CSW, working on sensitive human rights issues while facing continuous deferrals, often the only way to get UN accreditation is through active support from NGO-friendly UN Member States.
During the NGO Committee meeting in February CSW received significant support, particularly from the UK Mission to the UN and the Greek Permanent Mission in New York. The UK Ambassador Martin Shearman described the NGO Committee’s refusal to grant CSW’s consultative status as “counter-productive and indefensible.” Meanwhile, CSW’s appeal to ECOSOC in April will be spearheaded by the UK Mission.
A favourable outcome before the ECOSOC would be a significant victory, not only for CSW but for the wider civil society community, indicating that the challenges to democracy and accountability posed by the NGO Committee’s practices can still be addressed within the UN system.
Strategies for Reform
Nevertheless, the case for reform of the NGO Committee’s procedures is clear. Active support of NGOs and vigilant monitoring of the NGO Committee’s procedures should be a major priority for all permanent missions and other UN stakeholders.
Furthermore, the criteria for becoming a NGO Committee member seems relatively unclear and the current membership of the Committee includes many Member States where domestic civil society space is restricted and who actively oppose the work of human rights defenders at the UN. Member States with a great track record of protecting HRDs and promoting space for civil society both within the UN and domestically should be encouraged to apply for membership of the Committee.
Other concrete steps to enhance the work of the NGO Committee include a proposal put forward by Mexico, Uruguay and Chile in 2015 to broadcast Committee sessions. This would increase transparency, accountability and enable all NGOs to monitor the work of the Committee (not just those based in the US or those with adequate funds and time to attend the NGO Committee meetings in New York).
I hope that the ECOSOC Committee in its upcoming meeting in April grants CSW the long-awaited UN accreditation and sends a wider message to civil society and Member States alike that UN is still committed giving a voice to civil society – in a fair, transparency and non-discriminatory manner.
By Sini Maria Heikkila, CSW’s Public Affairs Team Leader