A Victory for Transparency at the UN

On April 19, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) approved a resolution to webcast all public meetings of its subsidiary body, the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations. The vote was a major victory for civil society. Last May, Freedom Now joined 230 NGOs in calling for ECOSOC to implement several reforms to the NGO Committee, including webcasting. We hope this is a first step to improving civil society interaction with the UN and enhanced transparency.

Of the 54 ECOSOC members, 37 countries voted in favor of a resolution proposed by Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay and co-sponsored by Albania, Andorra, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. There was no opposition to the resolution as the remaining 16 countries present abstained from voting.

The NGO Committee, comprised of 19 member states, is tasked with approving applications from NGOs for consultative status with the UN. This process is especially politicized and in recent years has become mostly dysfunctional. States openly antagonistic to civil society and fearful of having their dismal human rights records at home exposed have used Committee membership as yet another weapon to silence independent voices and legitimate organizations. Committee members, including China, Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Sudan, Pakistan, and South Africa, have increasingly used a number of procedural tactics to endlessly delay the application process for certain organizations. One such tactic involves repetitive questioning, which can prolong an application for years. It took Freedom Now five years to obtain consultative status, which was conferred by a vote in ECOSOC following a rejection by the Committee. Because the sessions were not webcast, we were forced to travel to New York to monitor the process of our application.

Stefanie Amadeo, the U.S.’s Deputy Representative to ECOSOC, explained before the vote that “The NGO Committee is currently the only open ECOSOC subsidiary body that is not webcast. Given the importance of NGOs and the contributions they bring as essential stakeholders in addressing the challenges we face, their diverse voices are needed both to contribute to our ECOSOC discussions…. Webcasting will bring much needed transparency to the NGO Committee process for NGOs around the world, especially those who are unable to make it to New York to watch the proceedings, who want accreditation. This transparency will help NGOs to support the UN and in turn its Member States as we deliver real results for our citizens.”

We wish to thank the members of ECOSOC — and especially Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay as well as the co-sponsoring states — for bringing much needed transparency to the proceedings of the NGO Committee. Ambassador Sven Jurgenson, Permanent Representative of Estonia to the UN, read a statement on behalf of all members of the European Union, in which he pointed out that “It is all the more important that a body charged with deliberating over the presence of civil society in the UN is itself seen to be open and transparent. As we have emphasized on previous occasions, webcasting would also ensure that organizations from developing countries who aspire to a greater role in the UN are empowered to witness the deliberations that determine their fate.”

Ambassador Gillian Bird, Australia’s Permanent Representative to the UN, read a statement shortly before the vote in which she said, “Civil society brings valuable expertise and insight to UN discussions. And they have consistently demonstrated that their participation improves the effectiveness, accountability, and transparency of the United Nations. Engagement by civil society in UN process is the key to connecting the reality on the ground to the work we do here, greatly improving the legitimately of the UN.”

Webcasting is an important first step, but additional reforms are badly needed. In particular, ECOSOC should ensure that the practice and procedures of the Committee are uniformly applied, apolitical, fair, transparent, non-discriminatory, consistent, and expeditious.

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