Last year in May, dozens of NGOs, including Human Rights Without Frontiers, signed a letter expressing concern about the practice of the ECOSOC NGO Committee that accredits NGOs to the UN
- Press release
- Details of the vote
- Open Letter to ECOSOC regarding the Committee on NGOs
International Service for Human Rights (19.04.2017) – http://bit.ly/2plJ4X3 – In a positive development, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) today passed a resolution to webcast open sessions of the NGO Committee, unopposed. This victory for civil society participation at the UN was offset however, by an ECOSOC decision to close the door on a handful of NGOs from Turkey, or until recently based there. ECOSOC’s failure to reject Committee recommendations in these cases – which flouted established procedures – may have been unlawful.
After years of calls for improvements in the practice of the NGO Committee, ECOSOC took a significant step in the right direction today by deciding to institute webcasting of all NGO Committee open sessions. The practice of the NGO Committee – that makes recommendations regarding NGO accreditation with the UN – has been much criticised, including for its lack of transparency. The resolution on webcasting, introduced by Chile, on behalf of Mexico and Uruguay, was adopted by ECOSOC without opposition.
‘This is a great outcome,’ said ISHR’s Eleanor Openshaw. ‘Instituting webcasting is an important advance in efforts to improve the workings of the Committee and a significant pushback against restrictions to civil society participation at the UN.’
‘We are hugely appreciative of the leadership Chile, Mexico and Uruguay have consistently shown on the issue of reforming the NGO Committee and for their work in securing this decision on webcasting; and thank every State that voted in favour,’ she added.
During the debate, several States highlighted the benefits of webcasting. These benefits include the fact that NGOs the world over can now follow consideration of their cases directly; and that webcasting will allow applicants to understand the UN system better, provide the UN with accurate information when applying for accreditation, and be encouraged to participate including in the implementation of Agenda 2030.
Opposition to the resolution had been expected. At the NGO Committee, attempts to limit coverage of meetings have been made. Initiatives to discuss webcasting in the Committee have not prospered. During the ECOSOC session, several States – including China, Pakistan, South Africa and Venezuela – noted that ECOSOC should not interfere in the work of the NGO Committee. However, these concerns ultimately held no sway. China called for a vote but then abstained. The resolution passed with 37 in favour, 16 abstentions and one absention.
‘When it came to it, no State wanted to be seen to vote against an initiative presented by the sponsors as increasing accessibility for NGOs from the global south,’ said Eleanor Openshaw.
ECOSOC took action on a second resolution granting accreditation to the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) which works to promote freedom of religion and belief worldwide. In January the NGO Committee had voted to recommend denying CSW accreditation. CSW’s application has been considered by the Committee 14 times, and they had received 80 questions. ECOSOC rejected the Committee’s recommendation and accredited CSW by 28 votes to 9, with 12 abstentions.
Prior to that vote, the UK noted that ‘the NGO Committee should enable not frustrate the work of the NGOs.’ Estonia (for the EU) said that the NGO Committee ‘must honour and be seen to honour the vital role of civil society’.
Finally, hopes were dashed that ECOSOC would reject recommendations made to deny a group of Turkish NGOs (and NGOs until recently based in Turkey) information about the rejection or withdrawal of their accreditation, or an opportunity to challenge these decisions. Several States, including the US, EU and Norway, criticised the Committee for setting aside established procedures in these cases, but no further statements were made or action taken when ECOSOC considered the Committee decisions one by one.
‘ECOSOC’s confirmation of NGO Committee recommendations in these cases is deeply troubling. The UN has effectively closed the door on these NGOs,’ said Eleanor Openshaw. ‘In line with legal opinion we have received, we consider these decisions by ECOSOC may be unlawful.’
Details of the vote
See the full vote count on webcasting the NGO Committee open sessions hereafter :
Yes: Afghanistan, Algeria, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Benin, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Czechia, Estonia, France, Germany, Ghana, Guyana, Honduras, India, Iraq, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Republic of Korea, Republic of Moldova, Spain, Swaziland, Sweden, Trinidad Tobago, Turkey, UK, US
Abstention: Azerbaijan, Cameroon, Chad, China, Mauritania, Nigeria, Russia, Rwanda, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, South Africa, Tajikistan, Uganda, UAE, Venezuela, Vietnam, Zimbabwe
Open Letter to ECOSOC regarding the Committee on NGOs
List of the signatories:
To: Member States of ECOSOC
Cc: Chair of the Committee on NGOs, President of the General Assembly, President of the Human Rights Council, Member States of the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary General.
We write to you regarding the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs (the Committee), which recommends approval of consultative status for non-governmental organisations, enabling access to and participation in a range of UN bodies and processes. ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31—which provides the mandate for the work of the Committee— acknowledges ‘the breadth of non-governmental organisations’ expertise and the capacity of non-governmental organisations to support the work of the United Nations.’
We are concerned about recent actions taken by the Committee suggesting it functions in a politicised manner, particularly in regard to its consideration of applications for consultative status from human rights organisations. We therefore call on UN Member States to ensure that the Committee upholds and respects the rights to freedom of expression and association and accords due process to all applicants for consultative status.
Several States have criticised the practice of the Committee in ECOSOC meetings. In 2015, Chile, Mexico and Uruguay, as well as the European Union, expressed strong concerns about the recent politicisation of the work of the Committee, in which some Committee members use procedural tactics to block certain organisations from being granted consultative status. The European Union noted that withdrawal of consultative status might be used as a form of reprisal for the activities of NGOs. Chile, Mexico and Uruguay called for greater transparency in the work of the Committee, recommending webcasting of Committee sessions.
In his 2014 report to the General Assembly (A/69/365), UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Mr. Maina Kiai criticised the multiple deferrals and perpetual questioning of some applications by Committee members. He noted that ‘(m)ember States and the UN have a legal obligation to strengthen civil society participation in the UN, including by ensuring that people can exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in multilateral arenas.’
At its most recent session in January 2016, the Committee voted to close an NGO’s application on the basis that its work was contrary to the UN Charter, and then voted to deny the organisation the right to engage in dialogue with the Committee and address the allegations. This was condemned in ECOSOC by US Ambassador Mendelson who said that Committee members were using the body ‘to subvert the purpose of the Committee by further restricting civic space at the UN and blocking or deferring NGO applications on non-substantive grounds’.
As the parent body, ECOSOC must ensure that the practice and procedures of the Committee are in keeping with the principles, spirit and purpose of ECOSOC resolution 1996/31, and in strict compliance with international human rights standards.
The practice and procedures of the Committee should thus be uniformly applied, apolitical, fair, transparent, non-discriminatory, consistent and expeditious. The practice and procedures should not be used to block accreditation through repeated questioning and persistent deferrals. ECOSOC must not allow its Committee’s procedures and powers to be abused by imposing de facto restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression or freedom of association in violation of international human rights standards.
ECOSOC, and its NGO Committee, should demand that States fully respect the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, GA res 53/144 (1998), which affirms “the right, individually and in association with others, to unhindered access and communication with international bodies.” Instead, far too many of the Committee’s actions appear themselves to pose an unacceptable hindrance to such access, whether by design or in their impact.
ECOSOC should explicitly affirm the need for the NGO Committee to make sure that its own processes fully respect international human rights standards, including by ensuring full respect for the right of NGOs at risk of adverse decisions to be heard by the Committee, by excluding any decision motivated by discrimination of any kind, and by committing itself to upholding the right of everyone to unhindered access to international human rights bodies.
Specifically, ECOSOC should take into account the recommendations set forth by Chile, Mexico and Uruguay and institute webcasting sessions of the Committee to encourage transparency in its operations and enable NGOs whose applications are being considered by the Committee to follow proceedings.
Furthermore, when putting themselves forward for membership of the Committee, Member States must fulfill their responsibility to comply with international human rights standards, including obligations to uphold the rights to freedom of association and expression.
Unfortunately, the practice of the Committee is reflective of growing restrictions on civil society globally at the very time restrictions at the national level make access to the UN all the more crucial. The members of ECOSOC should take into account the recommendations above in order to promote a safe, transparent and enabling environment for civil society at the UN. By fostering such an environment, the UN can take full advantage of the particular expertise and insights provided by NGOs while protecting the legitimacy and credibility of its work.