Global Policy Forum

UN Hosts Historic Session with Civil Society


By Mithre J. Sandrasagra

Inter Press Service
June 22, 2005

For the first time ever, civil society has been invited to participate in interactive sessions of the U.N. General Assembly, but the guest list has irked some leading activists who wonder why they were not asked to attend. The event will draw thousands of representatives of civil society, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the private sector to New York on Thursday and Friday to present proposals on development, security and human rights.

"While governments have traditionally been known as the engine for development, it has increasingly become imperative for them to partner with civil society," said Jean Ping of Gabon, president of the General Assembly. The informal hearings are a clear demonstration that "member states of the U.N. are prepared not only to work with civil society but also to give serious consideration to proposals and ideas presented at these discussions," Ping said. "These hearings are taking place at a crucial time," as negotiations are being held on the outcome document for the 2005 World Summit in September to review progress made on commitments made during the 2000 Millennium Summit, said Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

U.N. officials say that Ping has invited over 200 participants representing a "broad and balanced cross-section of civil society, NGOs and the private sector, both high-level leadership and grassroots membership," to present their views. But many NGOs disagree. "We do not know how they selected speakers," Esmeralda Brown of the Southern Caucus of NGOs for Sustainable Development told IPS. Though Brown was the vice president and chairperson of the NGO Millennium Forum, held during the lead-up to the Millennium Summit of world leaders here in 2000, she has not been chosen to speak at the interactive hearings. Of the 1,350 NGOs that Brown brought to the U.N. in 2000, many have not been invited back this year, she says. "These are the groups that have been working on the on the basis of our outcome document for five years, how can we have a follow-up without them?" The Southern Caucus has been a voice of NGOs at the world body and instrumental in U.N. processes since before the Earth Summit +5 review in 1997.

The United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), a small inter-agency programme with offices in Geneva and New York and a combined staff of 10, selected nine Northern NGOs to advise Ping on the modalities of the hearings and the selection of participants, Brown says. No speakers have been included from the nuclear and general disarmament and international law fields, according to John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy. Burroughs points to an International Herald Tribune op-ed on May 30 in which Annan challenged world leaders meeting in September to "break the deadlock on the most pressing challenges in the field of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament." "Why is there no speaker who will address nonproliferation and the related issue of suspected WMD proliferation?" he asked.

At the heart of the hearings will be a push by civil society to strengthen the United Nations and hold governments accountable for their commitment to work toward a more peaceful, prosperous and just world. World leaders agreed at the Millennium Summit to meet eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which included decreasing by half the number of people living in poverty and hunger by 2015, ensuring primary schooling for all children, and reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other major diseases. Since 2000, however, many governments have not acted on their promises, and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The basis of the hearings will be four informal interactive sessions that will focus on the four main themes of the secretary-general's report, titled "In Larger Freedom": freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom to live in dignity, and strengthening the U.N. Five rapporteurs will be appointed by civil society participants to prepare a summary of their respective sessions, which they will present at the closing segment.

Asked weather the member states will incorporate the views expressed at the civil society meetings into their outcome document for the September summit, Ping said that "many things will be considered in the preparation of the outcome document." "Civil society plays an important role, they are not marginalised," Ping stressed. "NGOs today are a player that we can not ignore." Nevertheless, rumours are circulating at the U.N. that even Southern governments are failing to have much influence on the draft of the World Summit outcome document.

Gemma Adaba, representative of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions to the U.N. (ICFTU), thinks the process is fair. "We are a broad constituency of NGOs," she told reporters Wednesday. ICFTU was selected by NGLS to advise Ping. "We are optimistic people and hope that governments will take our viewpoints into consideration," Adaba said.

More Information on NGOs
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