Global Policy Forum

NGOs Win ODS Access

Global Policy Forum
January 26, 2004

On December 23, 2003, the United Nations finally cleared the way for open public access to the organization's digital document database, known as the Official Documents System (ODS). NGOs had been campaigning for open ODS access for nearly seven years. "It has been a long effort, and we are delighted to have succeeded at last," said Global Policy Forum Executive Director Jim Paul.

UN action came when the General Assembly approved a new budget with funds for necessary computer hardware to operate the system online. Two years earlier, the Assembly's Budget Committee had axed the $1.5 million appropriation at the last minute, so the outcome remained in doubt throughout the fall 2003 negotiations.

The ODS database contains all UN official documents since 1993, in all six official languages. The UN has been adding key documents to the database going back to the organization's founding in 1945, including all resolutions of the General Assembly and the Security Council. The UN website has been offering UN documents online since the mid-1990s, but it posts only a fraction of all official texts and it does not offer the powerful search facilities offered by the ODS system. ODS will now be available free to users worldwide through a web portal, greatly helping the work of NGOs, scholars, media reporters and citizens interested in the UN's work.

Concerned NGOs began to press for free access to the ODS in February, 1997. An NGO memorandum, drafted by Global Policy Forum and sent to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on April 25, 1999, set forth at length the arguments for access. Twelve leading NGOs signed the memo, including Amnesty International, Global Policy Forum, Human Rights Watch, Médecins sans Frontií¨res, Oxfam, and the World Federalist Movement.

Over the years, NGOs pressed their case with the Secretary General and with UN member states, but they got little action. The budget cut in December 2001 was the last in a long series of disappointments. Beginning in early 2003, a number of NGOs coordinated efforts for a new push. Global Policy Forum published a new statement summarizing the case. The NGO advocates wrote statements and letters, held meetings with delegates, contacted governments, lobbied with the Secretariat and mobilized the wider world NGO community. The World Federalist Movement took an active role in this effort, alongside GPF. A high-level panel appointed by the Secretary General on "UN-Civil Society Relations" offered an additional target for NGO advocacy and its head, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, personally took up the case.

During the fall of 2003 there were many moments of uncertainty. Early on, Germany announced reservations about the cost of the ODS, blocking consensus in the European Union. Delegates from poor countries also expressed doubts about spending money on what they saw as a high-tech information system. But NGOs in such low-tech countries as Mongolia called unambiguously for ODS access. And in Germany, after NGO lobbying, the government eventually changed its posture. Many factors combined to carry the day – a recommendation by the Secretary General, support from friendly delegations and intense NGO lobbying and scrutiny.

As the new budget comes into force, the UN will purchase new computer servers and prepare the system for worldwide use. Necessary software was already in place. Technology sources at the UN say that the system should be fully operational in the second half of 2004.

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