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

The Commonwealth and Sri Lanka: Perils of Joining Global Clubs

imagesThe recent Commonwealth Summit, held in Sri Lanka, attracted a tremendous amount of attention, far more than is normally paid to this organisation. Sri Lanka’s dismal human rights record during and since the final Governmental push against the Tamil Tigers in the north of the country has been well documented by the media, NGOs and the United Nations. While the human rights violations and war crimes committed in 2009 and the continuing humanitarian crisis remain unpunished the recent Heads of Government Summit meeting, chaired by Prince Charles, in the Queen’s absence, as head of the Commonwealth, offered an opportunity to the Commonwealth’s other members to reproach the Sri Lankan Government for its crimes and abuses. Three alternative approaches were taken. On one side India, alongside Canada and Mauritius boycotted the event in some form or altogether. Other states, most particularly the UK and Australia chose to attend but on the proviso that they would both visit the Tamil region and voice their concerns with the Sri Lankan Governments, while other states, perhaps the majority of members, chose to not bring the subject up at all. This raises the question of both membership of international organisations and the treatment of members by such organisations. Ought the organisation take a stand when its purported aims and purposes are clearly violated by a member or should it, like the United Nations, aim for universal membership in order to attain its full purpose.

The Commonwealth, as an international organisation, is in many ways unique. Unlike most other inter-governmental organisations it lacks legal personality and membership is based upon a very fluid idea of conforming with its aims of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as outlined in its Charter. It’s historical link to the British Empire no longer holds traction in its operation. This is reflected both in its name change from the British Commonwealth and the fact that some of its 53 members, for example Rwanda, are neither former colonies of the UK nor, upon membership, English speaking. While the Queen stands as its head, it also has a large number of Republics, for example India, among its members. While its most famous element is probably the Commonwealth Games, to be held next year in Glasgow, it does operate on a much broader platform which, as previously mentioned, aims to uphold democracy, human rights and the rule of law at its core, which might suggest that Sri Lanka may potentially have an issue with its membership. Historically, the Commonwealth has been active with regard to members meeting the these criteria, most particularly for violations of the Harare Declaration. Nigeria was suspended  following its execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa just prior to a Heads of Commonwealth Summit.  Pakistan has been suspended on several occasions, for example, following the military coup by Pervez Musharraf. Fiji have also been suspended several times. This appears to suggest that suspension for violations of the Harare Declaration, of both large and small members, for violations of democracy and human rights, even on the eve of summits, has a precedent for the organisation. It also suggests that holding a summit in the capital of a country that several members have cause to call for suspension from the organisation should raise serious questions for the organisation. Though, the present Director General of the organisation, Kamalesh Sharma appears not to regard it as such a serious issue, indeed it has been alleged that he did not pass legal advice that Sri Lanka had violated the Commonwealth Charter before the Summit;

In the time to come, I trust that people will see… that indeed very significant advances have been made in the interests of the people of Sri Lanka.

Of course the Commonwealth is not the first organisation to face such an issue. The United Nations, after an initial phase of Cold War politics on membership, delaying several states, including Ireland, from joining, has gone for universal membership. This is despite several member having been found to be in violation of the UN Charter under Chapter VII (Security Council binding resolutions) of the Charter. Articles 5 and 6 of the UN Charter allows for suspension or expulsion. There is no provision for leaving the UN in the Charter. Only one state Indonesia has sought to do so, but it sought to rejoin very quickly and was treated by the organisation as if it had not left. Several states have been excluded from UN activities, for example South Africa, under apartheid was excluded from General Assembly activities, while Serbia and Montenegro was prevented from acting as the successor state of Yugoslavia. The Council of Europe has never suspended a member although it has suspended Belarus from its guest status due to its undemocratic character. There is no provision for full suspension from the EU. Under Article 7 of the Treaty of the European Union there may be suspension of certain rights if a member persistently breaches the EU’s founding values (respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities).  This has never been used, though the 2000 election of the far right Freedom Party in Austria, came the closest. Within the African Union Egypt has been suspended since the coup of 2013, Madagascar since 2009, Guinea-Bissau since 2012 and Central African Republic since 2012. This makes the African Union the most active suspender of membership for violations of its Charter. This kind of activity by the African Union also precludes claims that such suspension is only a tool of Western States attempting to impose their standards on other countries.

The UK Government in explaining its rationale for attending the Summit, Prime Minister Cameron stated that:

I will be clear with Sri Lankan President Rajapaksa – it’s time the appalling & chilling events in his country are investigate

This was supplemented by Foreign Secretary William Hague’s argument that engagement is necessary to ensure that Sri Lanka permits an independent investigation (whether international or not appears to be unsettled) does hold some wait. Indeed it could be argued that like the United Nations it is better to have everyone present and debating than outside and not listening. Nonetheless, in an Organisation such as the Commonwealth, that has a history of suspension the lack of suspension in this case looks like a tacit agreement that what has happened does not reach the same standard of violation as committed by Nigeria, Pakistan or Fiji, yet arguably the Government in Sri Lanka’s continued actions are just as, if not more significant than these countries. The evidence produced by the United Nations is just one example of how clear the matter has now become. Further, in holding the summit in Colombo, it certainly seems to put clear water between it and those states previously suspended. This is a great pity as it places the Commonwealth’s recent position as a strong supporter of human rights into disrepute. While organisations can chose their courses of action when it comes to suspension, once a precedent is set, as it was here, to not take action has a much more serious consequence of enabling impunity to continue.

The Commonwealth and Sri Lanka: Perils of Joining Global Clubs

UN Special Rapporteur on Corrib Gas Protests

We are delighted to welcome this cross-post by Dr Shane Darcy from the Business and Human Rights in Ireland Blog.  The Business and Human Rights in Ireland Blog is dedicated to tracking and analysing developments relating to business and human rights in Ireland. It aims to address legal and policy issues, as well as highlighting human rights concerns raised by the activities of Irish companies or multinational corporations based in Ireland. The blog is run by Dr Shane Darcy who is a lecturer at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, National University of Ireland Galway.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders has raised concerns regarding the treatment of those opposing the onshore gas pipeline being built by Shell and Statoil in Erris, Co. Mayo. Margaret Sekaggya outlines her views in a report submitted this week to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The Special Rapporteur finds that there is credible evidence which indicates:

the existence of a pattern of intimidation, harassment, surveillance and criminalization of those peacefully opposing the Corrib Gas project.

The policing of protests seems to have been disproportionate in some instances, she reports, while “there have also been serious concerns about the lawfulness of certain actions by the private security firm employed by Shell”.

The Corrib Gas dispute has Continue reading “UN Special Rapporteur on Corrib Gas Protests”

UN Special Rapporteur on Corrib Gas Protests

The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor

Two events earlier this month have put global development at the forefront of the Government’s Irish Aid programme’s objectives for 2013. First, the Department of Foreign Affairs co-hosted, with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a forum on Women entrepreneurs in Developing Countries. This was followed by a forum on global poverty with the World Alliance of Cities against Poverty. Naturally, placing socio-economic rights at the forefront of aid and development discussions should be expected to be at the core of these events, however, far too often and increasingly of late, such debates and programmes have become overshadowed and, perhaps, even hijacked by liberal economic concerns. Such economics concerns increasingly appear to possess more weight and often better articulated than a rights based approach or development as a good in itself to be fulfilled. The focus on women and the urban poor is to be welcomed in both instances, yet the conscious effort to phrase these attempts to bring about substantive change in an economic rather than in a rights/dignity setting is a matter of increasing concern.

The first event, centred on access to education and reproductive health, both also Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) Continue reading “The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor”

The Rationales for Development for Women and the Urban Poor

Neglected Citizens? The situation of people with an intellectual disability in residential care

Human Rights in Ireland welcomes this guest post from Jim Winters, Advocacy and Rights Officer, Inclusion Ireland as part of Human Rights Week 2012.

Founded in 1961 Inclusion Ireland is the national organisation advocating for the rights of people with an intellectual disability. Our focus is on the realisation of the core principles and values expressed in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Everyone has the right, including people with an intellectual disability, to a life free from the fear of violence or abuse. We know that people in care are vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Last year almost 10,000 incidents of violence, harassment, aggression or abuse against patients were recorded in Irish hospitals and community healthcare facilities.

One way to protect and promote the rights of people with an intellectual disability in care is to provide for the regulation of residential services.  Regulations describe the essential standards of quality and safety that people in disability services should expect. Services are monitored on their compliance with the regulations.

Inclusion Ireland has been advocating for the introduction of statutory standards and mandatory inspections of residential services for over seventeen years. However, successive governments have failed to take action. Numerous enquires and investigations have highlighted the lack of protection afforded to adults and children with disability in state-funded care. They have not been acted on.

In 2007, the McCoy Report, which investigated past child abuse within the Holy Family School and Brothers of Charity Services in Galway, called for the introduction of standards and inspections of as matter of urgency. In 2009 the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse recommended the introduction of statutory standards and inspections of residential services for children with disabilities.

In 2010 the Irish Human Rights Commission undertook an enquiry into the situation of Continue reading “Neglected Citizens? The situation of people with an intellectual disability in residential care”

Neglected Citizens? The situation of people with an intellectual disability in residential care

The G8 comes to Ireland

The UK has announced that, next June, the G8 Summit will be held in Enniskillen, County Fermanagh. This will probably be the most powerful international meeting ever to be held on the island. Coming during a period that sees Ireland’s Presidency of the OSCE, Ireland holding the Presidency of the EU Council, the G8 Foreign Ministers meeting in April in London and the election of Ireland to the UN Human Rights Council during 2013-2015, it seems that the next 12-18 months appears to hold many opportunities for Ireland to not only present itself globally but also to positively influence some of the policy decisions made at the world’s most important regional and global organisations. Of these opportunities the G8 Summit probably offers some of the more interesting possibilities for Ireland to influence global policy at a body in which it, and most other states, rarely get seats. The last time Ireland held the Presidency of the Council of Europe, and thus attended a G8, was in 2004 when most commentary seemed to be based around Bertie Ahern’s choice of yellow trouser than anything more substantial.

The G8 remains one of the more nebulous quasi-organisations in the world. Its influence on organisations such as the IMF, World Bank or WTO can be profound. Continue reading “The G8 comes to Ireland”

The G8 comes to Ireland

Another year another General Assembly

This year’s annual General Assembly meeting passed off without much of the histrionics and theatre of other sessions. Previous years have been marked by a group of often usual suspects, using the platform to make their yearly decries against the West and most often the United States. The removal of Colonial Gaddafi coupled with the retirement of Fidel Castro has, with some exceptions, left President Ahmadinejad of Iran as one of the few rabble rousers and even he was rather more subdued than usual.  He started with references to Iran’s great past,

Coming from Iran, the land of glory and beauty, the land of knowledge, culture, wisdom and morality, the cradle of philosophy and mysticism, the land of compassion and light, the land of scientists, scholars, philosophers, masters of literature, and writers, the land of Avicenna, Ferdowsi, Hafiz, Maulana, Attar, Khayyam, and Shariar Continue reading “Another year another General Assembly”

Another year another General Assembly

Floundering attempts at peace in Syria

The Security Council’s mandate in Syria has come to an end and while a UN liaison office will remain in the country, all the peace observers have vacated their mission. Coupled with Kofi Annan’s decision to end his role as envoy of the UN and Arab League, this pull out  suggests that the international institutional and legal machinery has failed to either bring the violence to an end or to restrain both sides of the conflict from descending into ever-more vicious attacks, leaving the Syrian population to their own ends. The various blog posts on Syria chronicle the most violent iteration of the Arab Spring and presents a litany of failures both by the parties within Syria but also the various institutions and states who have been aiming to end the conflict or, at the very least, ameliorate the suffering of the Syrians.

Several rationales can be given for why international action in Syria failed while in Libya, it comparatively succeeded, and these explanations are not simply based upon Russian and Chinese intransigence at the Security Council. First, there was the relatively slow reaction of those outside Syria to the growing protests. Continue reading “Floundering attempts at peace in Syria”

Floundering attempts at peace in Syria

Historic Hearing in US Senate on UN Disability Treaty

We are delighted to welcome this guest post from Professor Gerard Quinn Director of the Centre for Disability Law & Policy at NUI Galway.

A historic hearing took place yesterday (Thursday, July 11th) in the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.  The issue before the Committee was US ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).  In the US system the Senate must gives its ‘advice and consent’ before the Federal Government can ratify a treaty.  A two thirds majority vote is needed from the full Senate before the Administration can proceed to ratification.  This is an exceedingly high bar but, especially after yesterday, it looks likely to be met.  It is now almost a foregone conclusion that the Committee – chaired by Senator John Kerry (D-Mass) – will commend a positive vote to the full Senate.

This really matters not just for the US but also for the rest of the world.  And it would certainly up the ante for Irish ratification.  The traditional bi-partisan approach of the US Congress was splendidly exemplified in opening remarks made to the Committee by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).  The symbolism of their joint appearance spoke volumes about the natural reflex of both parties in favour of the civil rights of persons with disabilities.  Indeed, both of them relayed the support of former President H W Bush as well as former Senator Bob Dole.  This immediately took the issue out of the cauldron of partisan politics and placed it where it should be – as matter of high principle. Continue reading “Historic Hearing in US Senate on UN Disability Treaty”

Historic Hearing in US Senate on UN Disability Treaty