Civil society gets a look in; NGOs and human rights at the United Nations

UNWe are delighted to welcome this post from Ruth Houghton on NGOs at the UN. Ruth is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and Ph.D. candidate at Durham Law School. On 7th February 2014, the latest report of the United Nations Committee on Non-governmental Organisations was published. A subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Committee comprises 19 Member States that gather together to recommend NGOs for consultative status. This consultative status is an important mechanism in fostering participation at the UN as it allows NGOs to access the ECOSOC and the UN human rights mechanisms such as the UN Human Rights Council, as well as other subsidiary groups. This January, of the 439 applications from NGOs, 225 were recommended for consultative status, 192 were deferred and 22 were rejected.[1] Reading this report alongside the meeting coverage that documents some of the questions asked by states, illuminates the problems with this recommendation procedure. Without a reliable process, the participation of NGOs could undermine human rights at the UN.

The role of NGOs at the UN has increased dramatically, from the 41 NGOs that were granted consultative status in 1946, there were over 3,700 NGOs in September 2013. The benefit of this enhanced presence of NGOs at the international level is contested. Whilst on the one hand, NGOs can increase individual participation, on the other hand, NGOs can be critiqued for being too elitist. According to ECOSOC, NGOs have a dual function, they provide expert information and advice to the international organisation and they also allow representation of ‘important elements of public opinion’.[2] At the Human Rights Council, NGOs have played an important role in human rights promotion and protection. In particular, they raised the human rights abuses of the states standing for election in November, they have brought to the attention of the Council abuses that are not on the agenda, and they have highlighted human rights abuses when states gloss over these in their Universal Periodic Review reports.

Despite the crucial role NGOs play in human rights protection, a number of limitations are placed on their participation. Whilst the introduction of NGOs might be increasing, the limitations on the extent to which an NGO can participate remain the same as those outlined in the ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 on ‘Consultative Relationship between United Nations and Non-governmental organisations’. Despite the recognised importance of an NGOs expertise, there is a negative correlation between the knowledge of the organisation and the scope on its participation. Whereas general observation status applies to those organisations that are more broadly representative, special status invokes a special competence.[3] The number and length of written submissions is then limited depending on the nature of the status granted; General status allows 2,000 word submissions and Special status allows only 500 words for submissions to the ECOSOC, and 1,500 words to other subsidiary bodies.[4]

The extent to which an NGO can participate is then dictated by the particular international organisation or body, for example at the UN Human Rights Council, NGOs can attend and observe proceedings at the Council, submit written statements and make oral interventions, and organise events alongside Council Sessions.[5] More importantly for the purposes of facilitating democracy at the UN and for the purpose of ensuring the robust protection of human rights, NGOs can participate in debates, interactive dialogues, panel discussions and informal meetings. However, paragraph 18 of Resolution 1996/31 refers to Article 71 of the UN Charter and confirms that the nature of participation of organisations is more limited than the participation of states. Such limitations can severely restrict the work of NGOs in the protection of human rights.

However, NGOs have been criticised for being undemocratic, lacking accountability and not being transparent. Critics comment on the lack of a public participation in the work of NGOs, and it is the case that NGOs can represent causes that are at times imposed on people. There are also concerns about the election procedures, if there are any, within an NGO and the accountability of the organisation’s leaders. The participation of NGOs at the UN has been criticised for the bias towards the types of NGOs that participate, both in terms of expertise and in country location. For example, the better-funded NGOs are better represented at the international level. This then undermines the representative function that NGOs are to provide at the UN. Concerns are also raised about the way in which NGOs influence states or decision-making, as it can be non-transparent and behind closed doors.

Resolution 1996/31 outlined criteria that attempts to address concerns about the undemocratic nature of NGOs. When the Committee on NGOs is selecting, there are a number of principles which should guide them. The principles prioritise representation from developing countries and those countries that have transitional economies.[6] NGOs should have a representative structure, possess accountability mechanisms, and they should exercise voting or other appropriate democratic and transparent decision-making processes.[7] On paper then, the provisions that allow for the participation of NGOs are mindful of the criticisms of elitism and the undemocratic nature of these organisations. In practice, the recommendation of NGOs for consultative status does not reflect these principles.

The Committee meeting that took place between 21st and 30th January raises a number of concerns about the process of selecting NGOs for consultative status. The process has been criticised previously; prominent Human Rights monitoring group, International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), noted that at the May 2013 Committee meeting it was the first time since 2008 a positive decision was made for an Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual (LGBT) NGO. At the January session, many human rights organisations were refused consultative status. Human rights NGOs from the International Partnership for Human Rights, to those supporting reproductive rights and health, protection of journalists, and those working against caste discrimination were blocked by states. The trend to block sexual orientation and gender identity organisations (SOGI) continued.

Although the terms of reference for the NGO Committee in Resolution 1996/31 provides criteria that should be taken into account when selecting NGOs, the reports from the Committee show that states are obstructing the selection of organisations by persistent, and irrelevant questioning. Resolution 1996/31 refers to the democratic status of the NGOs and their accountability mechanisms,[8] and some of the questioning from states refer to the transparency of the organisations and their funding. The question posed by China to Collectif des Familles de Disparu(e) en Algerie (Coalition of Families of the Disappeared in Algeria) on why 60 per cent of the organization’s expenditures were for administrative purposes, is by no means rare. Many states ask organisations to provide information about their finances.

Yet the questions permitted by states at the Committee reflect states’ concerns with the ‘interests’ NGOs represent, rather than their internal governance structures.  China repeatedly asks NGOs to state their position on Tibet or Taiwan. States often ask about the scope of an NGOs work, showing a particular interest in the states that NGOs will work in. The questioning of NGO, the Islamic African Relief Agency (IARA) (Sudan), shows the politicisation of the process as the US, Pakistan and Israel debate the relevance of the questions being asked. At an international committee such as this, it is impossible to protect against state interests, but the problem with these types of dialogues at the UN Committee on NGOs is that they weaken the credibility of the procedure for recommendation, as NGOs are not thoroughly challenged on their democratic nature.

The questions posed by states are rarely aimed at assessing the democratic, accountable or transparent nature of the NGOs. Without a strong application of these principles in relation to the representative nature of the organisations, there is no way of ensuring a strong connection between the individuals and the NGO. Without this connection, the NGO cannot properly represent the views of individuals, and the purpose of including NGOs is undermined.

Given the questionable democratic nature of NGOs it is crucial that the recommendation of organisations thoroughly considers the representative, transparent nature and accountability mechanisms of an NGO. Although the principles that should guide the recommendation of NGOs emphasise the importance of the democratic nature of the organisation, in practice the interests of states dominate discussions. Ensuring a democratic, transparent and accountable organisation is paramount if the NGO is to play a role in human rights promotion and protection at the UN.

[1] ECOSOC, ‘Report of the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations on its 2014 regular session’ 7 February 2014, UN Doc. E/C.2/2014/L.1/Rev.1

[2] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, ‘Resolution on the Consultative Relationship between United Nations and Non-governmental organisations’ 26 July 1996, UN Doc. E/1996/96 para 20

[3] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, para 22 and 23

[4] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, para 31(d) and (e) and 37(e)

[5] UNGA Res. 60/251, ‘Human Rights Council’, 15 March 2006, UN Doc. A/RES/60/251, para 11

[6] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, para 6

[7] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, para 12

[8] ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31, para 12

Civil society gets a look in; NGOs and human rights at the United Nations

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