NGOs and voices within the United Nations are calling for the reform of the committee tasked with accrediting non-governmental organizations, saying it has become a political tool to block rather than bolster their participation.
The UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations was established in 1946 and falls under the Economic and Social Council, one of six principal entities of the UN. Its primary task is to grant so-called consultative status to NGOs that want to have a voice at the UN.
"This is the gateway for NGOs into the United Nations," said Eleanor Openshaw of the U.S.-based International Service for Human Rights. "So, if you're a state with a mind to block NGOs, this membership is perfect. This is where you can sit and control who comes in."
According to archival documents, the first big debate of the NGO committee, which at that time had only five members, was about whether to exclude Spanish NGOs for fear their policies were "determined and controlled" by the government of Spain's military dictator, Francisco Franco.
Over time, the number of countries on the committee has grown to 19, and the number of NGOs accredited has gone from 41 to more than 4,500.
Accreditation allows NGOs to speak at UN meetings and international conferences, organize side events and lobby decision-makers. UN credentials also give them access to the top human rights policy-making body: the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
"It's about voice and representation," said Sarah Hedges-Chou of the Canadian NGO Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights. "We are the ones who know what works and what doesn't and how different policies affect different groups of people."
She says UN credentials give her group direct access to policy makers and enable it to challenge governments in an open forum.
"It's much easier to hold governments accountable when you can speak to them face-to-face," she said.
She says UN accreditation also adds to the legitimacy and name recognition of her organization, which in turn leads to greater influence, more effective advocacy and funding.
Years of delays and deferrals
Last year, out of more than 900 applications reviewed (half of which were deferred from previous sessions), the committee deferred 42 per per cent for further consultation and recommended 51 per cent for consultative status. The remaining seven per cent were closed or withdrawn.
But some organizations complain they are having to wait years for their accreditation because of arcane, procedural deferrals and delays. A few have been able to count on the good will of member states to intervene on their behalf while others remain in limbo — in one case for more than a decade.
Openshaw says the committee's primary delay tactic is to pose questions during its review sessions, which take place twice a year. Any time a question is posed, it triggers a deferral of the application.
"There is no restriction to the type of question they can ask, and there is nothing to stop them asking the same question over and over again," Openshaw said.
According to Openshaw, the reason some groups are being stonewalled is because they champion causes that certain members of the committee oppose. These include women's rights, reproductive rights, minority rights, freedom of expression and association as well sensitive country-specific issues.
"The committee is dominated by states that have very regressive policies in regard to fundamental freedoms," Openshaw said.
Membership can be renewed in perpetuity
But members of the committee insist all applications are given fair consideration.
After the United Kingdom accused the committee of "repeated and arbitrary deferrals" at a UN meeting, Pakistan — a recurring member of the NGO committee — objected to the assessment and accused the U.K. of making assumptions about the intentions behind members' questions.
The delegate from Pakistan said just because an NGO's application has been under review for a long time doesn't mean it's more worthy of consideration.
"The length of an application does not grant it additional merit,'' the delegate said.
Members of the committee are elected by the Economic and Social Council on the basis of regional representation to four-year terms that can be renewed in perpetuity. China, Sudan, India and Cuba, for example, have had a seat on the committee for more than 20 years. Russia has been a member since the committee's inception.
There are also a number of states that return regularly, including Turkey, Pakistan, Burundi and Nicaragua.
Openshaw says longtime members are often fiercely protective of their seats, and other countries are reluctant to challenge them for fear of losing their support in other forums.
Committee elections for the next four-year period will be held in April 2018, and Openshaw's group and others are actively lobbying states that are more amenable to the work of NGOs to put themselves forward.
Getting around the gatekeepers
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which promotes press freedom worldwide, gained its consultative status in 2016 after a direct intervention by the United States.
CPJ was deferred seven times over a four-year period until the U.S. ambassador to the UN forced a vote on its application.
"It is increasingly clear that the NGO committee acts more and more like an anti-NGO committee," Samantha Power said at the time.
Once its application was denied, Power was able to take it to the 54 members of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which overrode the committee in a vote.
The Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, which advocates for abortion rights and educates young people about contraception, family planning and gender identity, also had to get outside help after its application was deferred for more than six years and ultimately rejected.
Canada asked its ally Australia to put forward a motion in ECOSOC to overturn the committee's decision, and following a vote, the Canadian NGO was granted consultative status the same day as CPJ.
Hedges-Chou said her group was forced to answer "repetitive and often ridiculous" questions during its application review process. They included why the group was focused on the sexual rights of young people "and not of human beings as a whole"; whether the group agreed that its abbreviated name provoked confusion; and whether its mandate included protecting children from pedophiles.
'Wrong and unfair'
"It's a closed shop that picks and chooses who it wants and blocks those it doesn't," said Meena Varma with the International Dalit Solidarity Network.
Her group works to eliminate caste-based discrimination in Southeast Asian countries against Dalits, also known as "untouchables."
"Discrimination on the basis of caste affects 250 to 260 million people globally," said Varma.
Varma's group has the dubious distinction of having the longest-pending application before the NGO committee. It has been deferred for 10 years. In that time, the organization has answered 82 questions, all of them from one country on the committee: India. A situation the former UN special rapporteur on the right of assembly and association has described as "clearly unacceptable, wrong and unfair."
"That sort of behaviour undermines the legitimacy of the NGO committee and, frankly, undermines the UN as a whole,'' said assistant secretary-general for human rights Andrew Gilmour.
He says, to date, his office has had little success addressing the problem of states "prone to blocking accreditation."
''We've tried to point out how this is a 'bad thing.' However, they continue,'' said Gilmour, who leads efforts within the UN system to address reprisals against groups and individuals advocating for human rights..
"In some instances, governments have been known to punish NGOs who have co-operated with the UN – and prevented them from getting accreditation to the NGO committee."
Meetings to be webcast
Another criticism of the committee has been that all but one of its deliberations have been held behind closed doors.
Last April, the Economic and Social Council approved a resolution to begin webcasting the meetings despite objections from some states.
The ECOSOC delegate from South Africa called the move a dangerous precedent and said it "seems to imply that the committee is not sufficiently competent to conduct its work." The delegate from China called it a "surprise attack."
The resolution to livestream the committee's deliberations was put forward by Uruguay, Chile and Mexico and co-sponsored by 48 states, including Canada.
''We see this as a simple and practical step to increase transparency and improve accountability,'' said the representative for Norway.
The committee's next session to consider new and deferred applications will be broadcast live from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7