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UN: Costa Rica, UK to push for long-overdue reform of NGO approvals

The Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, a little-known but powerful body that approves NGOs’ accreditation to the UN, is mired in politics and nearly dysfunctional. One organization, for example, promoting the rights of Dalits globally, took 15 years to get its acceptance. Here, Dalit women taking part in a campaign preventing violence against them, December 2023. Image source: All India Nahila Akhikar Manch/X

The Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, a little-known but powerful United Nations body, is crippled by politics and failing to carry out its mandate of enabling NGO participation in the work of the UN. Two current members of the committee, Costa Rica and the United Kingdom, have proposed reforming the committee so that it can better do its work approving NGOs for UN accreditation and thus improve their engagement in the institution.

The committee is notorious for lengthy delays in granting approvals, and several UN member states on the committee have been accused of silencing NGOs they disagree with. That includes groups that might be critical of a country’s records on human rights.

Now, countries may soon have an opportunity to reform the committee and safeguard civil society’s access to the UN.

Calls for reform of the Committee on NGOs, which is a subsidiary body of the UN Economic and Social Council (Ecosoc), date back at least a decade. Critics have pushed to end obstructionist tactics of the committee, among them allowing only in-person participation of applicants, thereby blocking NGOs that do not have the resources to attend sessions at the UN’s headquarters in New York City. Some countries on the committee bombard applicants with requests in the process, repeatedly asking for information that delays approvals for legitimate NGOs.

It took 15 years for the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN), a nonprofit that works to combat discrimination against members of the Dalit caste, and which first applied in 2007, before it finally received approval in December 2022 after a vote in Ecosoc. The Dalit network responded to hundreds of written questions the committee posed over that period.

Over 500 applications are pending, almost 300 from previous years

Now there is a long backlog of pending applications, with hundreds of NGOs in limbo. Of the 508 requests examined this year, only 214 were new, according to the committee’s own figures. The remaining 294 were deferred from previous years. Dozens of organizations have been waiting for years — some for over a decade.

The UN’s dysfunctional NGO Committee is a sub-body of the Economic and Social Council, Ecosoc. Image: Ecosoc chamber at UN headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The committee is made up of 19 member states, based on equitable geographic distribution, and meets twice a year to process NGO applications for consultative status. This status offers benefits such as badges to enter UN premises and the ability to formally participate in UN meetings, such as regular sessions of Ecosoc, which is tasked with other UN entities to carry out the Sustainable Development Goals. The badges also enable NGOs to take part in meetings of UN commissions and other subsidiary bodies in New York City, as well as Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva.

The current makeup of the committee, for the 2023-26 term, consists of: Algeria, Armenia, Bahrain, Cameroon, Chile, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Eritrea, Georgia, India, Israel, Liberia, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Türkiye, the United Kingdom, United States and Zimbabwe.

UN special rapporteurs and other independent experts who work in the UN arena have criticized the committee for many years for failing to fulfill its mandate. Numerous secretaries-general, including António Guterres, have documented the committee’s practices of rejecting human rights NGOs in their annual report on reprisals.

Costa Rica and the UK intend to propose reforms

At its latest session in January 2024, the body approved only 26 percent of applications for consultative status, a significant drop from the already low accreditation rates of 38 percent and 33 percent at its last two sessions, in 2023.

Though blocked by the committee, the Dalit network was eventually granted accreditation through a US-led vote at the Ecosoc plenary. Over the years, a handful of NGOs have relied on member states who support civil society participation at the UN to take their cases to Ecosoc to help avoid the roadblocks put up by other committee members.

At the most recent session, in January, Costa Rica and the UK announced they would introduce a proposal subject to a vote in Ecosoc to reform the committee’s methods to ensure it can better fulfill its mandate. This reform includes timely processing of applications; virtual participation of NGOs in the interactive segments of the committee to ensure the participation of NGOs from developing countries; and conducting consultations with civil society as mandated by Ecosoc Resolution 1996/31. That established the committee’s mandate of governing relations between NGOs and the UN.

Opposition of authoritarian governments

The announcement by Costa Rica and the UK was met with opposition from certain members, including Algeria, Eritrea, Cuba, China, India, Türkiye and Zimbabwe. These countries often defer making a decision on applications by posing endless questions: collectively, they asked applicants over 200 questions at the January session alone. Most of the questions were directed at human rights NGOs, including groups like IFEX, Salam for Democracy and Human Rights and Mwatana for Human Rights.

The long-overdue reform would create a fairer process for NGOs seeking more engagement with the UN on a variety of issues, from environmental policies to human rights protection. Members of the NGO Committee and Ecosoc are urged to support this reform initiative in the Ecosoc management meeting in May and June. Civil society is hopeful that such a reform will be successful.

Yet this vote should be viewed as only the first of many urgent steps. Beyond political obstacles, the committee also faces financial and logistical difficulties. At its last session, the chief of the UN Secretariat’s NGO Branch, Wook-Jin Chang, said his unit was vastly under-resourced and unable to support the growing number of NGO accreditation applications. He called for more financial backing to enable the committee to function effectively.

Every legitimate accreditation application that gets denied indefinitely for political reasons or because of an ineffectual UN body represents a genuine loss in many ways. Without the inputs of civil society organizations from all regions of the world, major UN initiatives with far-reaching global impacts are deprived of the knowledge and experiences that these groups offer.

At Ecosoc’s management meeting in May and June, members can seize the chance to ensure that the NGO Committee delivers on its purpose: enabling civil society and grassroots organizations from around the world, and particularly from underrepresented regions in the global South, to have fair, safe and unhindered access to the UN.

This piece was orginally published by Passblue. It is republished here with kind permission. The copyright remains with the original publisher and/or the authors.

Maithili Pai
Maithili Pai leads the International Service for Human Rights' work promoting NGO participation at the UN, based in New York City.
Francisco Pérez
Francisco Pérez is the communications and media manager for the International Service for Human Rights