It’s easy to assume that the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) would support civil society groups and their work.
So imagine my shock when, as a journalist covering the UN in 2016, I saw the rough way the NGO Committee treated the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a highly regarded New York-based media freedom group applying for UN accreditation.
Astonishingly, most NGO Committee member countries were openly hostile to civil society applicants. Ultimately, the NGO Committee rejected CPJ’s application, a four-year process that CPJ head Joel Simon described as “Kafkaesque.”
The NGO Committee’s antipathy towards independent rights groups is hardly a surprise. Many of the 19 committee members are a rogues gallery of human rights violators: Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Greece, Guinea, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, the US, Uruguay and Venezuela.
As governments worldwide shrink the space for civil society, it’s vital that the UN remain a forum where nongovernmental organizations can advocate for human rights and dignity, which the UN was created to protect. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said civil society is "a key element in solving global problems.”
A few months after the NGO Committee rejected CPJ, the US brought its case to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to which the NGO Committee reports. ECOSOC voted to overturn the decision.
CPJ’s story is not unique. In the coming months the US will bring two more applications to ECOSOC, one a group focusing on human rights in Iran and another on North Korea. The NGO Committee has repeatedly deferred them, in one case since 2011. Canada and Australia have also appealed rejections to ECOSOC.
Human Rights Watch has documented China’s use of its membership in ECOSOC and the NGO Committee to prevent groups critical of China from getting UN accreditation.
ECOSOC should ensure swift decisions on nongovernmental organization applications and impose term limits for committee members. CBC news reported that Russia has been on the NGO Committee since 1946, while China, Cuba and Sudan have been on it for over 20 years.
Elections for the NGO Committee are set for April. Governments that value the role of nongovernmental organizations in promoting respect for human rights should seek seats. It’s essential that the committee become a body that works with, not against, civil society.