Global Policy Forum

Enlarging the Contribution of NGOs to


NGO Committee on Disarmament

October, 1996


The current discussions concerning the reform of the U.N. and enhancing its effectiveness encompass proposals and suggestions for enlarging the role of NGOs and of what is now called "civil society" in all areas of the work of the U.N.

Article 71 of the U.N. Charter authorizes ECOSOC to "make suitable arrangements for consultations with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence." Over the years, ECOSOC has established a system of consultative arrangements with NGOs which has expanded from attendance at meetings to include the submission of written statements circulated to members of ECOSOC, and/or to its commissions and other subsidiary bodies, as well as the presentation on appropriate occasions of oral statements. Similar participation of NGOs was extended to international conferences convened by the G.A. and their preparatory committees.

After three years of discussion, ECOSOC adopted resolution 1996/31 updating and codifying the rules of participation of NGOs in the work of ECOSOC. Although other areas of the work of the U.N. have benefited from NGO contributions, the rules concerning NGO participation are unclear or, as in the case of the General Assembly and its committees, are absent or silent. Practice tends to vary from organ to organ.

As a result, ECOSOC also adopted in July 1996 its decision 1996/297 which

Decides to recommend to the General Assembly to examine, at its 51st session, the question of the participation of non-governmental organizations in all areas of the work of the United Nations, in the light of the experience gained through the arrangements for consultation between non-governmental organizations and the Economic and Social Council.

Support for Enlarging the Contribution of NGOs

Over the years, there has been a growing movement to enlarge the participation of the NGOs in the work of the U.N.

Successive Secretaries-General have strongly urged an increasing role for NGOS. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, addressing the 49th annual DPI/NGO Conference on 10 September 1996, said,

Increasingly, the world is coming to realize that NGOs have an important role to play on the world stage... I am personally committed to finding new ways of deepening and widening our partnership... NGOs have a vital and visible role to play at U.N. conferences. And input, advice and comment from NGOs form an important part of the United Nations decision-making process.

The Group of 77 had, during the ECOSOC discussions, expressed a strong interest in expanding NGO roles in areas of work beyond ECOSOC's sphere, such as disarmament, finance, security, etc. This support led to the adoption of the recommendation to the General Assembly by ECOSOC in its decision 1996/297.

In his concluding statement at the end of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference on 13 May 1995, President Jayantha Dhanapala said,

Over the past 25 years non-governmental organizations have performed valuable services for the non-proliferation Treaty - in encouragement, ideas, public support and advocacy of further progress towards the goals of the Treaty. I should like to pay them a sincere tribute for their dedication.

The expertise and resources of non-governmental organizations are being increasingly integrated into various facets of human endeavors within and among States, including in the context of the United Nations. Arrangements for communication between non-governmental organizations and NPT parties should therefore be improved. For that purpose, consideration might be given to the possibility of having a presentation of one to two days to delegates by non-governmental organizations, in written and oral format, which would encourage maximum exchange of ideas between non-governmental organizations and delegates during the Preparatory Committee meetings and at Review Conferences. The Centre for Disarmament Affairs could take on the organization of these improved contacts.

Ambassador L. Erdenechuluun, Chairman of the First Committee of the 50th session of the G.A., stated in his opening address on 16 October 1995,

I should like to commend very highly the increasing contribution of the Non-Governmental Organizations in recent years to the work of the United Nations. The NGOs with sincerity and dedication, and with a sense of morality and justice, serve an indispensable role in drawing our attention to acute issues that deserve timely consideration and resolute action. I wish to thank them for their active interest in our work and to encourage them to expand their efforts in the field of disarmament and international security.

The President of the 51st session of the G.A., Ambassador Razali Ismail, stated in his opening address on 17 September 1996,

During the fifty-first General Assembly, I look forward to facilitating a greater involvement of the members of the civil society in our work, building upon the success of the Economic and Social Council. The non-governmental organizations are agents for multilateralism at the grass roots where often forces of change take root. We must benefit from their wisdom and contribution. Their involvement will not erode the intergovernmental process. On the contrary, it will strengthen it.

The Foreign Minister of Canada, Lloyd Axworthy, in his address to the G.A. on 28 September 1996, in referring to seven multilateral tasks relating to the U.N.'s work, specifically mentioned the participation of NGOs in each of these tasks.

Contributions by NGOs to the U.N.'s Disarmament Work

The contribution of the NGOs in the field of disarmament have been less than in the economic and social fields, as regards both policy making and implementation, but they have nevertheless played an important role. A few noteworthy examples deserve mention.

In the 1950s and 1960s individual scientists, experts, research institutes and various NGOs were very active as regards stopping radioactive fallout from nuclear testing and for preventing nuclear proliferation (at that time commonly called the "Nth country problem"). By disseminating accurate information and warnings about the dangers resulting from nuclear testing and the spread of nuclear weapons they stimulated public interest and pressures that helped to generate the necessary political will of governments to ban testing in the atmosphere in 1963, and to agree on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

In more recent times NGOs helped to initiate and promote the efforts to amend the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and to convene the Test Ban Amendment Conference in 1991, which revived the efforts for a comprehensive test ban and restored that item to a top place on the international agenda. They also played an active role in promoting the achievement of the Chemical Weapons Convention and its verification systems.

Similarly, it was a group of NGOs that initiated and promoted the "World Court Project" that led to the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons in July 1996.

NGOs also played a significant role as regards the work of the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, as was officially recognized by the President of that Conference.

It was also at that Conference that several hundred NGOs came together and organized the "Abolition 2000" caucus to promote the early abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons.

Two NGOs having consultative status with ECOSOC were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to promote a nuclear-weapon-free world -- the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in 1985 and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs in 1995.

The NGO Committee on Disarmament, which now comprises several hundred NGOs, began the publication of Disarmament Times in 1978 during the first U.N. Special Session on Disarmament. Several issues a week were published during the entire six weeks of SSOD I. These issues were in great demand by U.N. delegations, the Secretariat, NGOs, journalists and the public as Disarmament Times was the sole newspaper that provided almost daily detailed, accurate reports on the progress of the work. It was so successful that the NGO Committee decided to continue its publication indefinitely. Six issues a year are now published with numerous special issues for conferences and other special events, so that all the ongoing work and developments in the field of disarmament are fully covered.

The NGO Committee on Disarmament has also undertaken a program of public forums for the last decade. These forums are held two or three times a year, usually in cooperation with the U.N. Secretariat. They bring together ambassadors, negotiators, technical experts, U.N. and government officials, scholars, journalists and members of the public for close examination and discussion of timely disarmament issues. Transcripts of the proceedings, published with the cooperation of the U.N., are widely disseminated and serve as an indispensable source of information on current disarmament issues for a broad audience. During the last two years the NGO Committee on Disarmament has also undertaken regular coverage of disarmament on the Internet, which reaches a wide international audience whose size can only be guessed.

By their very nature, NGOs tend to reflect the views of civil society at the grass roots, and in turn, by providing accurate and timely information to their members, help to shape those views and generate support for the U.N. and its work.

Thus, while the NGOs have played a very useful role in the field of disarmament, the current limitations on their participation have prevented their contributions from being as effective as they could and should have been.

Current NGO Participation in the Work of Disarmament

Although NGOs follow disarmament in the U.N. as closely as they can, their actual participation is very limited. In the First Committee and the Disarmament Commission, they are allowed to attend public sessions, but are not permitted to attend informal or closed sessions or meetings of sub-committees or working groups. They are allowed access to the floor of the meeting room and to delegations only before or after the actual meetings. They cannot make oral or written presentations but are permitted to leave printed material on tables outside the meeting rooms.

At the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, NGOs may attend meetings where they sit in the public section. They may send communications to the Conference which are listed in a document that is circulated periodically to the Committee and are made available to delegations upon request, which is a very rare occurrence.

At special conferences and meetings, such as the International Conference on Disarmament and Development in 1987 and SSOD III in 1988, one day was set aside by the main committee of the whole for some selected NGOs to make oral presentations. These necessarily had to be very short.

It has also become established practice for individual NGOs to work in private with individual U.N. delegations to promote consideration and action on specific disarmament issues. It was close contact and relations of this nature that made it possible for the NGOs to make the contributions mentioned in the preceding section.

There is now a growing feeling among delegations, the U.N. Secretariat and the NGOs that the contributions of the NGOs could be greatly increased and be more effective, including participation of NGOs from developing countries, if current practices were placed on an official, formal , open basis similar to current ECOSOC practice.

Proposals for Increasing NGO Participation

The NGO Committee on Disarmament would like to propose to the Members of the U.N., in order to enhance NGO contribution to the disarmament work of the U.N., that NGO participation be expanded in the following ways:

1. That in the First Committee they be given:
  a) some official status that would allow them to attend all open and closed meetings of the First      Committee and of any sub-committees and working groups established by it;
  b) the right to submit written proposals that would be circulated as documents of the First      Committee;
  c) the right for a selected number of NGOs to make oral presentations on appropriate  occasions       to the Committee and to its subsidiary bodies;
  d) the right to receive all documents of the First Committee when they are issued.

2.That the same privileges should be provided to NGOs with respect to other Committees of the G.A. and to international conferences and special sessions that deal with disarmament affairs. It is hoped that the granting of these privileges would also be carried over to the Conference on Disarmament and to review conferences and other conferences held pursuant to any international treaty and preparatory committees therefor.

The NGOs understand, of course, that there will be restrictions and limitations imposed on the extent of their participation as required for the smooth and efficient functioning of the organs concerned. They are convinced, however, that practice and experience will lead to the most beneficial arrangements possible for the most effective functioning of the U.N. and thus help to promote the achievement of its goals to a greater extent than in the past.


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