UNITED NATIONS, Nov 8 2021 (IPS) - The United Nations has come under heavy fire for continuing a 20-month-long ban on non-governmental organizations (NGOs)– even though the Secretariat is expected to return to near-normal by September 15 after a pandemic lockdown going back to March 2020.
Louis Charbonneau, UN Director of Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “The Secretary-General has repeatedly spoken of the vital importance of civil society to the proper functioning of the UN. Now he needs to prove he means it by re-admitting accredited NGOs – the only category of UN passholders still barred from entering UN headquarters.”
“We know certain countries are overjoyed that critical civil society voices on human rights and humanitarian issues are currently locked out of UN HQ. They probably want the ban to go on forever,” he said.
If the Secretary-General truly considers civil society essential in ensuring the UN is accountable to the people of the world, he should end the ban on NGOs immediately as more than 60 UN member states have called for (at a meeting last week), said Charbonneau.
The staffers who were mostly tele-working from their homes are expected to back in the building next week. While diplomats were never barred from the UN during the lockdown– and while some “essential” staffers were permitted access to the building– all NGOs were banned from the premises. The UN has also refused to renew their passes to enter the headquarters building.
The mounting protests against the continued ban have come from several NGOs, most of whom have been partnering with the UN providing humanitarian assistance in conflict-ridden countries, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Ethiopia.
Sherine Tadros, Deputy Director of Advocacy, Amnesty International, told IPS: “It’s wonderful that Secretary-General Guterres often speaks of how much he values civil society, it’s great that he re-iterated recently that we are an integral part of the UN ecosystem”.
“But that only makes it more difficult to understand why he continues to allow a situation where we are banned from entering the UN building in New York. We urge him to address this as a matter of urgency, so that we can do our work protecting human rights,” said Tadros.
During an event marking the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter last year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said civil society groups were a vital voice at the San Francisco Conference (where the UN was inaugurated). “You have been with us across the decades, in refugee camps, in conference rooms, and in mobilizing communities in streets and town squares across the world.”
“You are with us today as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. You are our allies in upholding human rights and battling racism. You are indispensable partners in forging peace, pushing for climate action, advancing gender equality, delivering life-saving humanitarian aid and controlling the spread of deadly weapons. And the world’s framework for shared progress, the Sustainable Development Goals, is unthinkable without you’, he declared.
In an interview with IPS, James Paul, former Executive Director at the New York-based Global Policy Forum (GPF) said for many years, the UN has placed increasingly onerous restrictions on NGOs, especially with respect to NGO access to the UN headquarters in New York.
Hinting at the UN’s political hypocrisy, he said that in spite of regular statements by the Secretary General that NGOs are “indispensable partners” of the organization, the UN has tightened the rules and steadily restricted the possibility for effective NGO action.
So, it comes as no surprise that the recent relaxation of Covid restrictions on delegations, staff journalists and other favored interlocutors has not been extended to NGOs, said Paul, author of “Of Foxes and Chickens”, a critical analysis of Oligarchy and Global Power in the UN Security Council.
He said the opening of the General Assembly in late September 2021 saw many journalists, large national delegations and a growing staff presence, but the UN kept the door firmly shut to NGOs.
Now, more than a month later, the portcullis is still down and there have been no encouraging statements from UN leaders that might suggest a lifting of the ban any time soon – or any plausible reasons given for this situation, he noted.
“Protests from the leaders of major human rights organizations have been to no avail. Is this, then, the beginning of the end of NGO active presence at the UN?” he asked.
Currently, there are thousands of NGOs worldwide who are either affiliated with the UN’s Department of Global Communications or provided consultative status by the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
The UN says NGOs have been partners of the Department of Global Communications (DGC) since its establishment in 1947. Official relationships between DGC and NGOs date back to 1968.
The Economic and Social Council in its resolution 1297 called on DGC to associate NGOs with effective information programs in place and thus disseminate information about issues on the UN’s agenda and the work of the Organization. Through associated NGOs, DGC seeks to reach people around the world and help them better understand the work and aims of the United Nations.
Andreas Bummel, Executive Director, Democracy Without Borders told IPS civil society representatives need to be given access to the UN building and meetings on an equal basis compared to other stakeholders.
“I cannot remember any time when they were barred for so long while others had access. There is a growing suspicion that concerns related to Covid-19 safety are used as a pretext for restricting civic space. For too long, the UN Secretary-General has let this happen. It is overdue for him to intervene,” said Bummel.
Michael Bröning, Executive Director of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) New York, told IPS: “Keeping the UN in New York Covid-free by making it a civil-society-free environment puts a whole new meaning to the notion of diplomatic immunity – and begs the question of protection at what price.”
Paul said some Western media outlets have sought to give the restrictions a false political spin, by claiming that the restrictions are due to the fact that the head of the UN department responsible for NGO accreditation is a Chinese national! This is pure propaganda.
The Western powers – in particular the United States and the United Kingdom – have been quietly pushing for more NGO restrictions and less funding for NGO-supportive UN “focal points” for more than two decades, even while they have been giving lip service to the cause of NGO access, he pointed out.
“This policy has come from dislike of NGO disarmament initiatives, disapproval of NGO social, economic and environmental campaigns, fury at NGO opposition to the Iraq conflict, and much more.”
As early as 1999, he said, the Chef de Cabinet of the Secretary General issued draconian guidelines excluding NGOs from open access to the all-important second floor of the headquarters complex. More restrictions were to follow, often pushed by US police and security services as a response to “terrorist threats.”
UN leaders started to talk about the “dangerous wave of NGOs,” even though there was no measurable increase in NGO numbers, said Paul.
“The UN membership more generally has not stood up for NGOs against the pressure of the big powers. These smaller states are today less supportive or even less tolerant of NGOs than they used to be, seeing NGOs as a source of embarrassment or annoying opposition on one topic or another.”
At a time of increasingly right-wing governments, getting rid of opponents is a natural step for the new breed of diplomats. Even among friendlier governments, few are ready to use political capital to defend the creative and essential democratic role of these organizations, Paul added.
Meanwhile, he argued, they have applauded the UN’s open door for business representatives, foundation bigwigs and other smooth-talking proponents of the international status quo, especially those with cash to spread around.
“An argument can be made that the exclusion of NGOs has gone so far and become so blatant that it has become a violation by the UN of its own Charter, which in Article 71 calls for the Economic and Social Council to establish “suitable arrangements for consultation” with NGOs.”
The UN leadership now says its “electronic platforms” are suitable, at least for the foreseeable future. But if this is so, why are others able to come and go while even the most respected NGO representatives are turned away?
“This may be the time to bring the UN to legal accountability. Could a case be brought in an appropriate legal body (perhaps the World Court) to test the matter?” asked Paul.
Meanwhile, Dr Agnes Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International and Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a strong letter of protest to Guterres last week.
Responding to the letter, Maria Luiza Ribeiro Viotti, UN’s Chef de Cabinet, said: “I wish to assure you of the utmost importance we attach to civil society engagement in the work of the United Nations at all levels and its active participation throughout the year, including during high-level events”.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been balancing the safety and security of personnel, representatives of Member States and other stakeholders with the need to ensure that the work of the Organization continues. In March 2020, the premises in New York were closed and the majority of our personnel worked remotely to ensure continuity of critical functions, including inter-governmental meetings, which had to be conducted virtually.”
The letter also says: “As the situation in New York has gradually improved, the United Nations has been able to follow a gradual and phased approach to its reopening in order to protect the health and safety of all individuals concerned. Based on medical guidance, we are currently in Phase 2 of our reopening plan with most personnel working remotely for up to four days a week.
This phased approach continues to require limiting the number of persons that can be physically present on the premises and in meetings to ensure compliance with the physical distancing recommendations of our health experts and the guidance issued by the host country authorities.
Preparations are under way to move towards Phase 3, known as our Next Normal phase, which would allow us to increase our overall footprint in the building and to reopen more fully, she said.