NGOs Political Outcasts at High-Level U.N. Meetings

Thalif Deen

HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 12 (IPS) — A former U.N. secretary-general was once quoted as having described non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as the world’s “third superpower”.

But come September, the thousands of NGOs armed with U.N. credentials will be barred from the United Nations, specifically when world leaders arrive to address the General Assembly sessions.

The annual ritual where civil society is treated as political and social outcasts has always triggered strong protests. The United Nations justifies the restriction primarily for “security reasons”.

The 10-day ban on NGOs will begin Sep. 20, the day before U.S. President Barack Obama’s address to the General Assembly, which will be followed by speeches from more than 100 world leaders.

This year, however, the ban has generated more protests because most NGOs have been shut out of three key “high-level meetings” scheduled for next week – on desertification and poverty eradication; on racism and xenophobia; and on the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases – plus a nuclear security summit.

As a compromise, the United Nations has selectively picked some NGOs which will be permitted into the U.N. building only with special “access cards”, besides their regular NGO passes.

John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS, “It is counterproductive to U.N. purposes for it to be difficult or impossible for civil society representatives to attend events during the General Assembly debate.”

He pointed out that the U.N.’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the Department of Public Information (DPI), and other U.N. bodies rightly emphasize the importance of non-governmental participation and monitoring, in part simply to help get information out to the concerned public about what is happening inside the United Nations.

“The September ban or near-ban on NGOs is in glaring contradiction with this policy,” Burroughs said.

Stressing the role of NGOs in raising global awareness of climate change, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro told delegates back in 2007 that the United Nations relies on its partnership with the NGO community “in virtually everything the world body does”.

“Whether it is peace-building in sub-Saharan Africa or human rights in Latin America, disaster assistance in the Caribbean or de-mining efforts in the Middle East, the United Nations depends upon the advocacy skills, creative resources and grassroots reach of civil society organizations in all our work,” she said, paying a glowing tribute to the work done by NGOs.

But there continues to be a yawning gap between rhetoric and policy.

Ray Acheson, project director for Reaching Critical Will at the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), told IPS that NGO representatives will be able to attend certain meetings during the high-level segment of the General Assembly as long as they already have a permanent U.N. grounds pass.

But they will also need secondary passes to the specific events, she said, pointing out that both ECOSOC and DPI will not be issuing grounds passes between Sep. 9 and Oct. 3.

So the only way to attend these meetings is to already have a grounds pass through this period, and then to apply for a secondary event pass to, for example, the high-level meeting on nuclear safety and security, Acheson added.

More than 3,000 NGOs currently hold “consultative status” with ECOSOC. Another 2,000 NGOs are recognized and accredited to the world body by DPI.

Last week, the United Nations produced a list of 88 NGOs from some 33 countries who would be eligible to participate in the high-level meeting on racism.

The list includes Amnesty International, Open Society Institute, B’nai B’rith, Pan African Movement, Simon Wiesenthal Center, the American Civil Liberties Union to Heavenly Shower of Peace Church of God (Nigeria), School Sisters of Notre Dame (Italy) and the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Studies (Japan).

Dr. Jem Bendell, who did an exhaustive U.N. study of NGOs in 2006, told IPS the restrictions on NGOs to participate in important meetings on diverse matters such as desertification, racism, non-communicable diseases and nuclear security suggest the U.N. system, and the General Assembly in particular, needs greater clarity on what NGOs bring to deliberations.

They should also know how to distinguish between NGOs that represent affected stakeholders and those that represent vested interests or veiled national interests, he said.

“We need a new workable definition of civil society organizations that the U.N. and other intergovernmental organizations can operationalize in planning, consultations and regulating access,” said Bendell, an associate professor at the Griffith Business School in Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

In an official communication to NGOs, the United Nations says that because of “enhanced security measures” during the general debate of the 66th session of the General Assembly, from Sep. 20 to 30, and in view of the limited capacity of Conference Rooms 2 and 4, approved members of non-governmental organizations will be permitted access to the overflow room only, Conference Room 5.

“Their access will be honored on the basis of the availability of seats in the overflow room and upon verification of valid United Nations passes and appropriate access cards issued for the high-level meeting,” the statement said.