Time for the UN to take action on strengthening civil society involvement

Activists, CSOs and faith-based leaders pondered how to get a seat at the UN table when they couldn't even get access to the UN building. Image: IPS

How do you get a seat at the table when you can’t even access the building? This question loomed as activists, faith-based leaders, and NGO representatives gathered at the NY Ford Foundation. They discussed how to amplify the voice of civil society organizations at the UN Headquarters across the street.

“How to UNMute” was hosted on July 20, 2023, as a side event during the ongoing 2023 High-Level Political Forum (HLPF). The event kicked off the creation of a manual to break down barriers to civil society engagement as the first step towards turning ideas into action.

Maithili Pai, the UN advocate for the International Service for Human Rights, illustrated the divide between the UN’s verbal commitments and its actual practices. Sometimes, Pai said, civil society representatives could not enter UN meeting rooms or waited years for UN accreditation. According to Pai, some representatives even faced retaliation for trying to interact with UN bodies.

There is a divide between verbal commitments and actual practices

“We understand very well that civil society is under attack and that there are people pushing you back,” Costa Rica’s Ambassador to the UN, Maritza Chan, told the audience.

Chan stressed that meeting the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) required empowering civil society organizations that provide critical insight.

“We need a civil society in the room at all times, providing advice, supporting states, and also calling us when we are not doing things right,” Chan said.

Photo: © International Service for Human Rights. With kind permission.

Recommendations for the manual on ‘unmuting’ civil society were developed at a recent workshop. They include better-resourced UN NGO support offices, increased financing for participation in UN events, and more supportive visa processes, especially for delegates from the global south who have been historically excluded. Advocates also called for more systematic flows of information, methods of participation, and pathways into the UN.

Arelys Bellorini, the senior UN representative from World Vision, said she has to go to friendly missions to facilitate children under the age of 18 access to the UN.

Nelya Rakhimova, a sustainable development specialist, said she and other civil society organizations were asked to pay $1,500 for using basic equipment in conference rooms when organizing offline side events.

Carmen Capriles, an environmental policy expert at the United Nations Environment Program, said she could not attend meetings on climate change because they were closed.

The Ambassador to the UN from Denmark, Martin Bille Hermann, pushed these advocates to present specific action items. “You’re not giving me easy avenues to deliver,” Hermann said. “Develop a toolbox that would allow us to continue to live in an old house.”

“We cannot expect different results by doing the same things,” Chan added.

This is not the first time these issues have been raised.

In 2021, proposals were presented to the UN Secretary-General

On the 75th anniversary of the UN in 2020, the General Assembly committed to making the UN more inclusive to respond to common challenges. The following year, a set of steps to strengthen the meaningful participation of stakeholders across the UN was presented to the secretary general by a group of civil society organizations and the permanent missions of Denmark and Costa Rica. The recommendations were endorsed by 52 member states and 327 civil society organizations.

The 2021 letter focused on the use of technology to make UN meetings more accessible. It cited an evaluation survey that found 50 percent of participants during the virtual 2020 HLPF joined for the first time. Most of these new participants represented civil societies in developing countries.

One suggestion for bridging digital divides and incorporating a more diverse range of participants was to host hybrid events and offer internet connection at UN country-based offices. However, Rakhimova pointed out that some events still do not have hybrid options.

The 2021 letter also called for a civil society envoy to the UN and an official civil society day. Neither recommendation has been formally implemented yet.

Mandeep Tiwana, chief officer of CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations with a strong presence in the global south, addressed inequalities in who influences international decision-making. Tiwana expressed concern that wealthy members of the private sector can “come in through the backdoor.” Meanwhile, activists already facing restrictions on their work wait outside.

“The time to open the doors to the UN virtually, online, and in person has come,” Chan said.

This IPS UN Bureau Report titled ‘It’s Time UN Turned Ideas to ‘UNMute’ Civil Society into Action’ is republished here with kind permission. The copyright remains with the original publisher and/or author.

Abigail Van Neely
Abigail Van Neely is writing for the IPS UN Bureau and is a Master's student at Stanford University