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.
Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”
“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph
This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.
LONG READ: “NGOs in Partnership with International Parliamentarians” is the speech delivered by CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth’s (FCO) Conference, ‘Preventing violent extremism by building inclusive and plural societies: How freedom of religion or belief can help’, 19 -20 October 2016.
As we’ve already heard today, the fundamental human right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), embedded in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is one that at first can appear daunting and difficult to raise. Professor Heiner Bielefeldt, UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB has said that “it is the most challenging of all human rights, it is the spice in the soup of human rights.” However, although daunting it is extremely important to intensify our joint efforts to promote it.
The latest information from the Pew Research Center stated that in 2014, 74% or roughly ¾ of the world’s population, live in countries with either high or very high restrictions on religious freedom. That means that over 5.1 billion people in this world are not able to fully recognise their inalienable human right to practice or change the religion or belief system of their choice.
Furthermore, FoRB is part and parcel of peace and stability; a cornerstone of democratic societies, and it can provide an important antidote to rising violent extremism. High-levels of discrimination based on religion or belief and FoRB restrictions can undermine peaceful development and in fact increase the grounds for the rise of extremism.
It is clear that some of the most significant foreign affairs challenges the international community are currently grappling with, involve violent extremism, and many of the challenges are deeply rooted in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief.
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.
When leaders of the G20 nations arrive in Zhejiang Province, China, next week for the G20 summit, they will be greeted by a different skyline than they might have seen five years ago.
The sky scrapers and shopping malls that have become the hallmark of China’s phenomenal economic growth will still be there, but the bright red Christian crosses which were once just as much a feature of Zhejiang have been taken down.
Removal of crosses in Zhejiang Province
Hundreds of crosses have been removed by the authorities since early 2014, as part of a campaign allegedly introduced to rid the province of structures which violate building regulations. Under draft regulations, crosses now have to be flat against outer walls, and their size and colour are restricted. The authorities have sometimes employed violent tactics in the face of protests by church members. Christian leaders who have opposed the cross removals through letters or peaceful gatherings have been arrested and accused of economic crimes.
It may be no coincidence that the site of the cross removal campaign is the same province selected to host the G20.