Global Policy Forum

NGOs and the Security Council



by James Paul

Executive Director, Global Policy Forum

Report on NGO Initiatives Nov-Dec 1996


A debate is raging at the United Nations about the role of the Security Council - how to make it more effective, just and accountable. Most member states want to reform the council and democratize it, but the five Permanent Members - the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China - want to keep the privileges they gave themselves more than fifty years ago.

Though the Security Council is the UN's most powerful body, it works mostly behind closed doors and with little accountability to the organization's general membership or to the larger public. When its private "consultations" adjourn, other ambassadors sometimes wait outside to solicit information on the council's secrets from their departing colleagues. Amb. Paolo Fulci, council president in December, likened the council to the secret conclave of cardinals in Rome, electing a Pope - "except that there is no beautiful ceiling by Michelangelo to inspire us," he quipped. Amb. Michael Powles of New Zealand calls the council's procedures "simply outrageous."

NGOs are kept even more completely in the dark than member states. But NGOs are increasingly entering the debate and claiming a role. In the past three years, NGOs have recognized the council's growing importance to their work -- in such fields as humanitarian relief, human rights, development and disarmament.

The NGO Working Group on the Security Council was founded in early 1995 as a focus of NGO work on council issues. Since then, the Working Group has held a number of public meetings as well as private consultations. In January 1996, the president of the General Assembly spoke to us about council reform and, in April 1996, Amb. Juan Somavia of Chile, then president of the council, spoke to us personally about his views on "The Security Council and Civil Society."

In late November, the Working Group set off a buzz at UN headquarters by holding a successful meeting between governments and NGO leaders to discuss ways to increase council openness and accountability. Global Policy Forum - founder of the Working Group - set up the meeting jointly with the World Federalist Movement. The gathering took place on the day before an important debate in the General Assembly on the council's annual report to the GA - an opportunity for member states to discuss the work of the council and push it to change its ways.

A year or two ago, such a meeting would have been highly unlikely. Governments would have hesitated to engage NGOs in a dialogue on this highly sensitive political question - concerned that it would raise the hackles of the powerful Permanent Members. But times are changing. NGOs have insisted on their right to be informed and consulted across the whole range of UN activities - including even the sacrosanct deliberations on peace and security. And many member states now see the value of government-NGO partnerships.

The meeting came at a critical moment, with the Security Council facing harsh criticism on many fronts. On October 28, UNICEF head Carol Bellamy held a news conference about the thousands of children who are dying because of the council's unnecessarily harsh embargo against Iraq. On November 11, Human Rights Watch criticized the council for keeping secret an important report on the uncontrolled Rwanda arms trade that has fueled conflict in the region. And on November 12, a group of humanitarian NGOs expressed their public dismay at the lack of adequate response from the Security Council to the humanitarian emergency in Africa's Great Lakes Region. At the same time, member states were furious over the US veto in the Security Council of a second term for Secretary General Boutros Ghali. The defects of the council - and its permanent members -- stood uniquely visible, while NGO critics spoke out more forcefully and effectively than ever.

At the November meeting, a number of well-respected and influential diplomats took their places around the conference table - Ambassadors Juan Somavia of Chile, Prakash Shah of India, Wilhelm Breitenstein of Finland and Michael Powles of New Zealand, along with eight other delegates from countries including the United Kingdom, Sweden, Russia, Germany, Malaysia and the Philippines. NGO leaders attended from Medecins sans Frontií¨res, Oxfam, Amnesty International, the International Peace Bureau, the International Women's Tribune Center, Parliamentarians for Global Action and others - twenty in all. World Federalist Executive Director Bill Pace and I facilitated the discussion.

The meeting got off to a lively start as Catherine Dumait-Harper of Medecins sans Frontií¨res and Peter Davies of Oxfam spoke of how their worldwide organizations provide direct relief in emergencies on the council's agenda - yet are denied even a minimal opportunity of dialogue with the council. "Why does Oxfam have to learn what the Security Council is doing from CNN?" asked Davies. Dr. Stephen Marks of the International Service for Human Rights stressed that NGOs have tremendous experience "on the ground" and could offer the council very helpful advice. "We need greater access," he insisted.

Amb. Breitenstein of Finland, leader of the General Assembly Working Group on the Security Council, set the tone for many of the government comments, saying "We have here a very important, but practical issue - how to establish relations between NGOs and the council." Amb. Powles took a more critical stance. Continuing the feisty tradition of New Zealand at the UN, he said his delegation considers the council's working methods hopelessly outmoded -- "antediluvian," as he put it. The Philippines delegate pointed out that there is a natural alliance between many UN members and NGOs, in their mutual quest for more Council openness and accountability.

Amb. Somavia of Chile, an eloquent supporter of NGOs on the council, argued that the Security Council needs the input of civil society organizations - particularly humanitarian and human rights NGOs - to improve the quality of its decisions. He pointed out that NGOs often know more about what is happening in complex emergencies than council members. But he warned that NGOs must proceed with care, lest they become entangled in - and tarnished by - council politics.

Some NGOs said they want more than a channel to provide "information" to the council. They also want to convey their suggestions about broader policy options and to access the information and arguments the council is considering. They insisted that NGO-council relations become a two-way street.

Amb. Shah, who is head of the General Assembly's Reform Working Group on the UN System, called for better reporting by the Security Council to the General Assembly and supported the idea of "linkages" between NGOs and the council. Shazia Rafi, Director-General of Parliamentarians for Global Action, and Cora Weiss, Vice-President of the International Peace Bureau, emphasized that the council must listen to concerns of NGOs working on political and disarmament questions as well.

Several delegates and NGOs proposed a "briefing" by the president of the council - a channel now used by the council for its dialogue with the general UN membership. Even the British delegate, normally cautious on Security Council procedures, spoke with enthusiasm about the idea.

The meeting flowed smoothly, in spite of its highly-charged political content. Governments and NGOs spoke informally to each other, avoiding the long-winded speechifying that often mars UN gatherings. There was a spirit of good humor, cooperation and mutual respect that bodes well for the future. Many present agreed that the Working Group should hold another consultation soon.

As a follow-up, I wrote on behalf of the Working Group to council president Paolo Fulci of Italy, proposing several approaches to NGO briefings. Shortly afterwards, he invited us to meet with him in the office of the President adjacent to the council chamber - an interesting precedent, since never before had NGOs been invited there on such a mission.

The President greeted Bill and me affably and assured us of his personal support for NGOs. He told us that the council had discussed our proposal for presidential briefings. Some members were favorable to the idea, he said, but there had been an objection. However, he added, some progress had been made. Though the council did not agree to NGO briefings by the president, other council members could now brief us in their capacity as permanent representatives, a step that was previously taboo. In this informal way, we could begin a regular dialogue via delegations that want to act as "friends of NGOs."

We were disappointed not to get presidential briefings. But as we look ahead, we are pleased about how far we have come and optimistic about the future . Our effort ventures into new territory as we aim to make the Security Council more open, effective and accountable - far more in tune with the reality of our time.



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