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NGOs face uphill battle to gain access to the UN

The Human Rights Council meets in Geneva
Getting accreditation is the only way for NGOs to have direct access and work effectively at the UN. Their contribution is invaluable at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (as shown in photo). Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

For many NGOs, the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council, which began its spring session on Monday, is the ultimate platform for advocacy efforts. But an obscure New York-based body often makes gaining access to the council a complicated task.

Meetings of the Human Rights Council in Geneva – the UN’s top human rights body – are a crucial opportunity for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to advocate for the causes they support on the international stage. But to be able to attend the council’s sessions in person and make statements to its members, civil society groups must first get an accreditation (called ECOSOC consultative status) from a little-know New York-based body – the UN Committee on NGOs.

On paper, its job is to ensure that a wide range of NGOs that can contribute their expertise to the UN’s work are allowed to participate in the organisation’s processes. But many critics, including civil society organisations, independent experts, some diplomats, and even UN officials argue that some of its members are, in fact, doing the opposite.

“The UN is supposed to open its doors for human rights organisations, not close them,” says Meena Varma, the executive director of the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). The IDSN is a small NGO from Copenhagen that works to eliminate caste-based discrimination against Dalits. It holds the unfortunate record of having had to wait 15 years before getting its accreditation.

Unfair tactics

“Unfortunately, most member states that seek election to the Committee on NGOs act as gatekeepers looking to block certain civil society groups rather than facilitate their participation in the UN,” says Maithili Pai, who advocates for civil society access to the UN at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), an NGO with offices in New York and Geneva.

The Committee on NGOs is made up of 19 member states, elected for four-year periods and possibly successive terms. It meets to review the applications of NGOs over two sessions a year. But many of its members are not fond of the work of civil society groups. According to the non-profit group CIVICUSExternal link, the domestic civic space of 11 of the committee’s members is either “closed” (e.g., China, Cuba, and Eritrea) or “repressed” (e.g., India, Pakistan, and Turkey).

The method committee members use to block NGO applications is deceptively straightforward. “The tactic is to just raise a question. If the NGO is not present in New York to answer it, then its application automatically gets deferred to the next session. A total of 105 questions and 15 years later, that was the tactic used,” says Varma. Only well-funded groups can afford to send representatives to New York.

There are, of course, good reasons to vet NGOs before granting them accreditation. A so-called civil society group could, for example, turn out to be controlled by a government or a militia. It could also want to promote causes that violate the UN Charter or human rights. But the issue, critics argue, is that some countries take advantage of the committee’s loose rules to silence legitimate NGOs to shield themselves and their allies from criticism. According to them, any committee member can block an NGO by asking virtually any question without accountability.

Pai of the ISHR says the committee’s “unfair tactics” include asking repetitive questions, or requiring, for example, that an NGO that has sent a staff member to UN headquarters to answer the committee’s questions in person also submits a written response, deferring its application until the committee’s next session, months later. Another tactic is inquiring about future plans, a question that can be repeated indefinitely.

At the end of its latest session in February, the Committee on NGOs approved the accreditation requests of 214 groups and deferred those of another 296. It closed 49 applications of NGOs that failed to respond to the committee’s questions over two consecutive sessions. More than half of the applications it considered (321) had been previously deferred.

Some NGOs may give up after a while. Others may simply not have the resources to lobby for their accreditation and to meet the committee’s repeated requests. “I was fully prepared for our accreditation to be deferred for another 15 years,” says Varma. “I’m sure that they [committee members] were hoping that at some point we would just give up,” she adds.

Workarounds

Getting accreditation is the only way for NGOs to have direct access and work effectively at the UN. At the Human Rights Council, their contribution is invaluable. Without them, issues such as discrimination, new technologies, and the environment would not be as high on the council’s agenda. Civil society groups often work on the ground, where they collect precious information that member states cannot bring. They also play a crucial role in following up on council decisions.

A workaround exists for NGOs that cannot get accreditation. They must connect with an NGO that has access and is willing to share speaking slots with them. But this is not a silver bullet. It means that only well-connected NGOs can access these fora. Grassroot NGOs are left behind, as are those that may not have sufficient resources.

Despite having had its application rejected twice, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) – a Munich-based NGO that advocates for the rights of China’s Uyghur Muslim minority – has been able, thanks to its connections to other organisations, to access UN meetings. According to its president Dolkun Isa, the WUC cannot get accreditation due to China’s influence at the UN. Beijing considers the WUC a “terrorist” and “separatist” group; Isa rejects these claims.

Still, Isa faced more difficulties. “The problem is that sometimes the NGOs that provide us with an accreditation are threatened to have theirs removed,” he says. In 2018, China requested the withdrawal of the accreditation of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), a German NGO through which the WUC accessed the UN. The STP was able to keep its access, but the incident shows how far countries are willing to go to block groups they disapprove of.

According to the ISHR, some NGOs seeking accreditation do not advocate against the committee’s unfair practices due to serious fears of reprisals at home and at the UN.

Way out

In recent years, the US and the UK have championed a new way of assisting groups that they feel are unfairly blocked by the Committee on NGOs.

In December 2022, the US promptedExternal link a successful vote at the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) – the parent body of the NGO committee, in which 54 countries sit – to accredit nine civil society groups, including the IDSN, despite the committee’s disapproval.

This approach angered some committee members. But according to Pai, given that some 300 NGOs are currently deferred, this cannot be an effective solution. “It’s going to take an eternity if this is the only method we rely on,” she says.

For the ISHR, a better solution would be for the Committee on NGOs to adopt reforms, which likely rely on a membership that includes more countries that welcome civil society participation. The ISHR has advocated for more such countries to seek election. During elections, seats are divided in geographical regions, but these often put forward so-called non-competitive slates, meaning the elections are uncontested.

Isa of the WUC is not optimistic that a better membership or votes at the ECOSOC will help his organisation get an accreditation given Beijing’s clout. “China uses economic and diplomatic power to pressure African, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. Democracies are a minority at the UN. Most member states are authoritarian governments.”

Edited by Virginie Mangin

>>> Watch our video explainer about how the UN Human Rights Council works:

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