Posted by: Katharine Brown | February 24, 2015

The Committee on NGOs

A couple of weeks ago, I was given the opportunity to attend the Regular Session of the Committee on NGOs, held at the UN headquarters. The session runs for a week and the vast majority of its time is spent considering the applications of NGOs that have applied for consultative status.

Consultative status is a form of accreditation with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Once an NGO has status, it has greater access to ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies. For example, it can submit reports, attend and present at meetings and organise side-events at the UN. In this way, consultative status allows NGOs to participate in the human rights activities of the UN and  express their views on the issues they work on. It also provides ECOSOC with expert information and updates from NGOs, which may serve a shadow function to reports from governments.

CCR initially applied for consultative status in 2013, but its application has been deferred a number of times since then, due to questions posed by China and Israel.

The Committee on NGOs is in session twice a year to consider applications from NGOs. Each application is considered in turn throughout the session, and member states have the opportunity to ask questions. If a representative of the NGO is present, they theoretically have an opportunity to respond to the questions in person in a question and answer session that runs between 5-6 PM each day the committee is in session. If no questions are posed, or the questions are answered to the satisfaction of the Committee, the application is ‘recommended’ to ECOSOC, which adopts the vast majority of recommendations at its session in May.

Attending the session for a week, it became apparent that the process isn’t as simple as it first appears. Although NGOs theoretically have the opportunity to respond to questions, in practice representatives from a large number of NGOs attend, and only an average of 3-4 representatives can take the stand for question and answer each day. And there are no transparent rules to determine which NGOs are given this opportunity. The situation is further exacerbated by the fact the question and answer time, at least at this most recent session, was frequently taken up by member states debating their basic rules of procedure.

Even when NGOs are given the opportunity to speak, there is no guarantee of success. On one of the last days of the session, Maria LaHood from CCR came to speak on CCR’s behalf. She spoke brilliantly and answered all of the questions posed to CCR in a logical and expert manner, drawing on her own experiences with CCR’s work. However, member states continued to pose more and more questions, and CCR’s time limit was reached, meaning that our application was again deferred.

Many other NGOs at the session had similar experiences. Some NGOs have even had their application deferred for periods as long as ten years.

The Committee on NGOs is a standing committee of ECOSOC, and while it only sits for a relatively short period of time, its functions are quite powerful. The Committee effectively acts as a gatekeeper of civil society participation, via NGOs, in UN human rights activities. Member states wielding their power on the Committee to block NGO applications therefore silence the views of people who are often not represented by their governments.

Watching the sessions every day, it quickly became apparent that member states don’t make any secret of the politicised nature of the process. The questions asked by member states are reported here. A brief look at the reports makes it clear that states frequently pose questions based on their political grievances with the NGOs’ work.

Of course, there are often valid reasons for member states to ask questions. During the session, questions were asked to clarify points that were unclear or incomplete in applications, and there are legitimate concerns to exclude GONGOS, for example.

However, the politicised nature of the process is undeniable, and the Committee has received much criticism for this. The Service for Human Rights, for example, has been monitoring its work, and has released a number of reports detailing the political and opaque nature of the application process. The Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association was also highly critical of the Committee in a 2014 report. The Rapporteur criticised members for asking ‘irrelevant and repetitive questions’, noting in particular that ‘as of April 2014, out of the 48 organisations which have had their accreditations repeatedly deferred, 46 work on human rights issues.’

The inappropriate political nature of the Committee received renewed attention during this most recent session, due to complains from China about regarding the transparency of the Committee’s work.

During one of the hearings, the delegate for China complained that the Department of Public Information (DPI) was publishing the names of member states posing questions (as in link above). The delegate suggested that the DPI should publish the questions as being posed by the committee as a whole. This request, if followed, would obviously exacerbate the politicised process by further diminishing accountability. For this reason, the US opposed it in strong terms, noting that it would diminish freedom of the press. The request received quite a bit of media attention,  the New York Times ran an article about the issue, and Samantha Power tweeted about it. Following the media exposure, China eventually withdrew the request.

Looking toward the next session, it is hoped that the Committee on NGOs might reform its processes, and member states might desist from asking questions that are directed at having an NGO’s application deferred for political reasons. As it currently operates, the Committee and a number of its member states are seriously undermining civil society participation in UN human rights activities.

On a personal note – attending the session was an incredible learning experience. I loved watching the delegates interact, and seeing how everyone in the whole building seamlessly switches between languages. Seeing the UN in practice was definitely an experience I won’t forget!


* These are my personal views and not the views of the Center for Constitutional Rights or the Castan Centre.

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