27 February marks World NGO Day – a day to celebrate the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) around the world. As a key part of civil society, NGOs help to drive positive change, protecting and promoting fundamental human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
CSW networks and collaborates with hundreds of NGOs around the world, empowering communities whose concerns may often be overlooked, amplifying these issues in international advocacy arenas, and whenever possible, providing a platform for them to address policy makers directly.
Even as the world celebrates the invaluable work of civil society, there are many countries, including several on which CSW focuses, where the work of NGOs is not celebrated, but is instead stifled or shut down by state or non-state actors.
India: Civil society suffocated
Perhaps one of the most restrictive environments for NGOs to operate in is in India. In recent years, the country’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu nationalist groups have increasingly attempted to label dissent as damaging to India’s national interests, arguing that those who speak up about human rights are ‘anti-nationals.’
Member States of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)
Re: CSW’s application for UN ECOSOC Consultative Status
We are writing to you requesting that you vote in favour of Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s (CSW’s) appeal for UN ECOSOC consultative status in April 2017.
CSW is a human rights advocacy organisation with almost 40 years’ experience of promoting the right to Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in over 20 countries worldwide. Its advocacy work is firmly rooted in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
CSW engages regularly with United Nations mechanisms providing evidence-based analysis. It applied in 2009 for consultative status in order to broaden the scope of its work with key human rights advocacy platforms, including the Human Rights Council and General Assembly.
On 3 February 2017, the UN Committee on NGOs voted to reject CSW’s application after repeated deferrals. Since 2009, CSW has provided timely and comprehensive answers to over 80 questions from the Committee, to no avail.
We, the undersigned, are disappointed at the Committee’s decision and deeply concerned about the wider message that the rejection of CSW’s application sends regarding the Committee’s commitment to facilitating NGO access to UN mechanisms.
CSW’s situation is not unique. In May 2016, over 230 NGOs raised concerns about the Committee’s repeated deferral and denial of NGO applications for consultative status, which effectively blocks a number of NGOs from participating fully in UN processes.
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.
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.