Global Policy Forum

UN: NGOs Seek Louder Voice in


By Haider Rizvi

Inter Press Service
July 29, 2005

When UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed establishing a new Human Rights Council in March, many civil society groups immediately voiced support, hoping it would enable the world body to protect human rights worldwide in a more effective and meaningful way. But more than three months later, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not only losing enthusiasm, but appear to be increasingly concerned about their role in future deliberations leading to the formation of the proposed Council and its work.

The president of the UN General Assembly released a draft document last week suggesting that arrangements for consultations with NGOs under the current system would continue to apply to the Human Rights Council. But NGOs closely working with the world body on human rights protection expressed reservations about the language used in the document, which defines the role of civil society in the creation and functioning of the proposed Council. To ensure the credibility and values of the continued reform process, it is imperative that civil society actors be granted the opportunity to participate throughout the process," said the Vienna-based International Federation for Human Rights in a statement soon after the release of the document.

Aaron Rhodes, chairman of the NGO Committee on Human Rights, an umbrella organisation representing an array of national and international human right groups, expressed similar views. A broad range of national and international NGOs harbour particular concern over the opportunities to be given to civil society groups to participate in the work of the proposed Human Rights Council," he said in an open letter to the special representatives to the UN

The 35-page outcome document will be presented to the General Assembly meeting in mid-September for its consideration of the idea of a new Human Rights Council. The meeting, which will assess progress on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), is to be attended by heads of state from all over the world. The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; and the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, all by 2015.

The document envisages the new Council as a subsidiary body of the General Assembly to be based in Geneva, which would replace the 53-member Commission on Human Rights. If a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly approves the idea, the Council will comprise between 30-50 members, each serving for a period of three years. Annan proposed the establishment of Human Rights Council as a result of growing criticism of the Human Rights Commission, which was established in 1946 as a subsidiary body of the 54-member Economic and Social Council. The upgrading of the Commission would raise human rights to the priority accorded to it in the Charter," said the secretary-general in an explanatory note on his proposal in April. "The Commission has been undermined by the politicisation of its sessions and the selectivity of its work."

Hoping that a new Council would help overcome the problems of "perception" associated with the current Commission in addressing human right concerns, Annan said those elected to the Council "should undertake to abide by the highest human right standards." His emphasis on "higher standards" has been perceived by many as an indirect endorsement of criticisms by the U.S. and some human rights groups of nations that served on the Commission despite having poor human rights records at home, such as Libya, Sudan, Zimbabwe and others. But critics note that seen from another perspective, the U.S. could also fail to qualify for the Council membership because of its record in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba.

Though in agreement with Annan on the need for reforms, some NGOs say his failure to provide details about his vision on the modalities, functions, procedures, and working methods make it difficult to determine how to address the "credibility deficit" of the Commission. "Kicking the Commission on Human Rights upstairs is easier than establishing a credible and effective Human Rights Council," observed Suhas Chakma, director of the New Delhi-based Asian Centre for Human Rights, in a policy paper titled "Illusions, Realities and Kofi Annan's Search for Legacy." "The devil is in the details but the secretary-general has provided only sketchy ideas about the proposed Council," he noted.

Since Annan has left the details of the Council for member nations to decide after the September meeting, NGOs are concerned that they may be left out of the deliberations. James Paul, executive director of the Global Policy Forum, who closely monitors the internal workings of the UN, suggests that not all NGOs involved in the UN work on human rights should be worrying. "I think the bigger NGOs will continue to play their role in consultations. It's the smaller one who will face difficulties," he said.

Last month, when Jean Ping, president of the General Assembly, invited over 200 NGOs to present their view on UN reforms, many NGOs from the South complained about the selection process. "There are the groups that have been working on the basis of our document for five years -- they are not here," Esmeralda Brown of the Southern Caucus of NGOs for sustainable Development recently told IPS. She said in the lead-up to the Millennium Summit of the world leaders in 2000, she had brought more than 1,300 NGOs from the developing world, but many of them were not invited this year. "How can we have a follow-up without them?" Sharing NGOs' concerns, Chakma says the UN "can proudly claim that the General Assembly has consulted the NGOs prior to its session in September. But in reality the president of the Assembly had already finalised the draft document on Jun. 3 and circulated it for negotiations by the member states."

More Information on UN Reform
More Information on the Human Rights Council
More Information on Secretary General Kofi Annan's Reform Agenda
More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGO Access at the UN


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