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

UNHCR #do1thing: The Rights of Refugees in Ireland

Today, is the final day of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Do 1 Thing campaign. UNHCR Ireland’s campaign site can be viewed here. In previous posts I have :

Needless to say, there are many other issues in relation to asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland, such as the direct provision system and issues surrounding deportation of unsuccessful asylum seekers. However, for my final contribution to UNHCR’s #do1thing campaign, I will outline the rights of those recognised as refugees in Ireland. (It should be noted however, that Ireland has the lowest refugee recognition rate in the whole of the European Union at first instance). Section 3 of the Refugee Act 1996 provides refugees with rights to Continue reading “UNHCR #do1thing: The Rights of Refugees in Ireland”

UNHCR #do1thing: The Rights of Refugees in Ireland

UNHCR #do1thing: Sexuality and Refugee Status

The definition of refugee includes those who are members of a particular social group. Section 1 of the Refugee Act 1996 defines this ground as including (amongst others) those persecuted for reasons of their sexual orientation. In a recent United Kingdom Supreme Court decision, HJ (Iran) and HT (Cameroon) v Secretary of State for the Home Department the question that arose was whether a person had to be ‘discrete’ in relation to their sexuality so as to avoid persecution by the state. The High Court and Court of Appeal for England and Wales response to this question was ‘yes’. The UK Supreme Court, however, rejected this approach. Lord Roger (at para. 76) inverted the question posed in this case, questioning whether:

a straight man or woman could find it reasonably tolerable to conceal his or her sexual identity indefinitely to avoid suffering persecution.

Fiona de Londras noted in a previous post, how Irish decision makers were finding against the credibility of refugee applicants for not knowing or being involved in the gay rights movement or arguing that they could be ‘discrete’ if returned to their countries of origin. This is a wholly incorrect approach Continue reading “UNHCR #do1thing: Sexuality and Refugee Status”

UNHCR #do1thing: Sexuality and Refugee Status

UNHCR #do1thing: Decisions of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal

The Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT) do not make their decisions publically available. In 2006, two barristers resigned resigned amid allegations of secrecy of the RAT and allegations of inconsistency in decision-making. The Supreme Court decided in 2006 that previous relevant decisions had to made available to legal representatives of those appearing before the RAT. Unlike similar refugee status determination bodies in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, decisions of the RAT are not available to the public at large. To ensure public confidence in the refugee status determination system, such decisions should be made publicly available, with identifying features of the refugee applicant redacted. As was stated by McDonagh in 2005, this would lead to more confidence in the refugee appeals system in Ireland. With the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill (see here) to come before the Irish Parliament in the near future, this is the ideal opportunity to have a general rule, subject to limited exceptions, that decisions of any reformed refugee appeals system are published. In the mean-time, RAT should make its decisions publicly available, which is the norm in most other developed countries.

UNHCR #do1thing: Decisions of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal

UNHCR #do1thing: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Who is a refugee?

A refugee is somebody who is outside her country citizenship, or the country where she formerly lived, and is unable or unwilling to return to this country as she fears persecution on the basis of her race, nationality, religion, membership or a particular social group or political opinion. This is the definition set down in the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees. In Ireland, this definition is set down in Section 2 of the Refugee Act 1996. If an asylum seeker is recognised by Ireland as a refugee, she has a right to reside in Ireland, the right to work, the right to claim social assistance, the right to enter further education and the right to bring certain family members to Ireland.

Who is an asylum seeker?

“Let us remember that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal; and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one.”- Kofi Annan

An asylum seeker is a person who claims to be in need of refugee protection but whose claim for refugee status has yet to be determined. In Ireland, an asylum seeker’s claim for refugee status is determined by the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner (ORAC). If ORAC does not recognise a person as a refugee, she can then appeal to the Refugee Appeals Tribunal (RAT). Legal advice and legal representation is provided to asylum seekers by the Refugee Legal Service, which is a specialised office in the Legal Aid Board.

While awaiting her claim to be processed and decided, an asylum seeker is prohibited from working. She is accommodated in the direct provision system, where she receives bed and board, along with a payment of €19.60 per week (and €9.60 per week per child). An asylum seeker is not entitled to any other form of social assistance payment while in Ireland. Asylum seekers are entitled to free health care, and child asylum seekers or child dependents of asylum seekers are entitled to the same right to education as Irish children. Asylum seekers are not illegal immigrants and are entitled to remain in the state until such time as their refugee claim has been granted or rejected. The recognition rate of asylum seekers as refugees in Ireland is just under 2%, the lowest recognition rate in the European Union.

UNHCR #do1thing: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

UNHCR #do1thing Campaign

From October 10th to October 24th, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) Do 1 Thing campaign will be running. UNHCR Ireland, along with all other UNHCR agencies, are urging people to Do 1 Thing to show support for refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland and abroad. UNHCR estimates that in 2010, there were 43.75 million people worldwide who were displaced due to conflict and persecution. The developing world hosts 80% of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Ireland received 1, 939 individual applications for recognition of refugee status from asylum seekers in 2010. UNHCR is asking people to show their support in a number of ways:

  1. By learning a fact about refugees, meeting a refugee , watching a movie or read a book, get to know another culture, find out more about the history of refugees in Ireland and/or by donating to UNHCR.
  2. By writing a blog post, tweeting, posting a comment on Facebook or Google +. On Twitter use the hashtag #do1thing and on Facebook tag UNHCR Ireland.
  3. Letting friends know about UNHCR Ireland’s campaign and adding a twibbon on Twitter.
  4. Keeping up to date with UNHCR Ireland’s work on Facebook and Twitter.

Over the next two weeks, Human Rights in Ireland will be posting regularly on refugee and asylum issues as part of the #do1thing campaign. These short posts will highlight some key issues in relation to the refugees and asylum seekers in Ireland and internationally. It should also be noted that while these posts seek to contribute to the Do 1 Thing campaign, the opinions contained therein, do not necessarily represent the views of UNHCR or UNHCR Ireland.

UNHCR #do1thing Campaign