Global Policy Forum

ECOSOC Concludes NGO Review

NGLS Roundup
November 1996



On 25 July, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) adopted by consensus the results of a three-year review of arrangements for consultation with NGOs. The results of the ECOSOC review include:

  • requesting the General Assembly to examine at its current 51st session the question of the participation of NGOs in all areas of the work of the UN;

  • making national, regional and sub-regional NGOs eligible for consultative status;

  • making the national affiliates of international NGOs eligible for consultative status;

  • changing the nomenclature concerning categories of consultative status from Category I and II to General and Special consultative status;

  • agreeing a standard procedure for NGO accreditation to and participation in international conferences convened by the UN; and

  • expanding the role of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs while streamlining its procedures.

"The review of the relationship between the United Nations and non-governmental organizations has been an exercise of vital importance," stated Ambassador Ahmad Kamal (Pakistan), Chair of the working group that carried out the review. "Over the last five decades, various actors of civil society have emerged as ardent champions of the multilateralism embodied in the United Nations."



Since 1968, rules and procedures concerning NGO consultative status with ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies have been governed by the provisions of ECOSOC Resolution 1296 (XLIV). These established which kinds of NGOs could obtain which kind of consultative status, the rights and obligations of NGOs in consultative status, procedures for the withdrawal or suspension of consultative status, the role and functions of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, and the responsibilities of the UN Secretariat in supporting the consultative relationship.

The task that ECOSOC set itself and entrusted to an open-ended, ad hoc working group was to bring the legislative provisions concerning consultative status more into line with the recent changes in the relationship between the United Nations and NGOs and in the participation of NGOs in the work of the UN. These changes have been visible in the series of UN conferences held during the 1990s, in ECOSOC subsidiary bodies such as the Commissions on Sustainable Development, Human Rights, and the Status of Women, and elsewhere across the UN system. NGOs have become more present, active and influential at the international level, and more directly engaged in intergovernmental policy setting processes.

"NGOs, and, more generally, organizations of civil society no longer simply have a 'consumer' relationship with the United Nations," Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai told the working group at its organizational session in February 1994. "They have increasingly assumed the role of promoters of new ideas, they have alerted the international community to emerging issues and have developed expertise and talent, which, in a number of areas, have become vital to the work of the United Nations, both at the policy and operational levels."

National NGOs' emergence at the international level has enriched and added depth to the work of NGOs at the UN, while the emergence of NGOs based in developing countries, and their active participation in international meetings and conferences, has made the NGO presence as a whole more representative of civil societies worldwide.

Governments have acknowledged repeatedly this visibility and influence and in some UN fora and events practices have evolved for NGOs to participate more fully in a variety of ways such as taking part in hearings, panels and regular briefings and dialogues with governments. In addition, now NGOs are admitted as observers to some of the informal sessions in which governments develop and negotiate their positions.

In light of these and other developments, ECOSOC decision 1993/214 of February 1993, which established the parameters and mandate for the review, calls for "a general review of current arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations, as determined by the Economic and Social Council in resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 23 May 1968, with a view to updating them, if necessary, in particular in the light of recent experience, including that gained during the process of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development."

In addition, the decision authorized the review to seek ways and means of improving practical arrangements for the work of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, which oversees consultative status, and the NGO Unit of the Secretariat that services the committee, and to establish coherence in the rules governing NGO participation in UN conferences.


The Review Process

The review process, which took place from February 1993 until July 1996, was both protracted and difficult. In addition to difficulties associated with reconciling the, at times, widely different perspectives and positions of member states, the review process was plagued with last-minute scheduling changes, sometimes ill-prepared participants, competition from more prominent meetings, a change of chairperson, and uneven NGO attendance. Dealing, as it was, with the formal, legislative dimension of UN-NGO relations, the review only partly reflected the enormous change in spirit and attitudes towards NGO participation that has occurred in the UN in recent years. However, the review did witness intense interaction between delegates and NGOs, transparent and extensive access for NGOs to the negotiating process, strong encouragement from the chairs for direct NGO input, sustained engagement and active lobbying at the UN and in national capitals by a small number of highly committed NGOs, excellent chairing and facilitation and dedicated efforts of a small number of governments.

Member states particularly active in the review included, from the developing countries, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, India, Iran, Kenya, Philippines, Syria and others. From the developed countries, Australia, Canada, the European Union and the United States took the lead. The Russian Federation participated in the review process. To the surprise of many participants and observers, the Nordic countries did not.

One of the most valuable consequences of the review was its educational impact on participating governments, NGOs, and UN officials. Government delegates underwent an intensive hands-on NGO experience, and familiarized themselves with both the rules and practices for NGOs at the UN. They learned, among other things, about the growing use of e-mail among NGOs in their international advocacy work, about different forms of NGO affiliation and cooperation with one another, and about mechanisms and processes for funding NGOs from developing countries to attend UN conferences and other events.

NGOs also learned from the process. One NGO representative from the Philippines said, "We gained a better understanding of the situation of Southern governments especially in relation to their capacities and bargaining leverages in negotiations. We feel that the lobbying that we had to do created better working relations between us Southern NGOs and our governments. We were made aware of the unevenness in the negotiating capacities of governments between the North and South and we felt obliged to provide support to our governments even if at times this was not to our interest as NGOs."


The New Arrangements

National and Regional NGOs Now Eligible

One of the most significant accomplishments of the review is that it firmly establishes the eligibility of national, subregional and regional NGOs, including the national affiliates of international NGOs, to accede to consultative status. Paragraph 5 of Resolution 1996/31 states "Consultative relationships may be established with international, regional, subregional and national organizations, in conformity with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles and criteria established under the present resolution."

This move stems in part from the experience of the recent UN conferences, where many NGOs, though national, demonstrated an international perspective and programme of work. Their direct experience of conditions within their country or region gave depth and reality to discussions on global issues. In addition, many of the national and regional NGOs most active in the conference processes were based in, and directly represented, constituencies in developing countries. Their perspectives added a new and much-needed dimension to the UN/NGO relationship and to relationships among NGOs.

This is recognized in the preamble to the new resolution, which confirms the need to take into account the full diversity of NGOs at national, regional and international levels and acknowledges "the breadth of expertise" of NGOs and their capacity to support the work of the UN. It also takes into account "changes in the NGO sector, including the emergence of large numbers of national and regional organizations."

Gaining access for national NGOs was a key goal for many, but not all, NGOs that contributed to the review. A few international NGOs suggested that national and regional NGOs limit themselves to participation in UN conferences and regional commissions. The principle of the eligibility of national NGOs was also widely accepted by governments. Ambassador Jamsheed Marker (Pakistan), who initially chaired the working group, noted in his summary of the first substantive session the importance of "securing balanced NGO participation between global, regional and national levels."

It took longer to reach agreement on the eligibility of national affiliates of international NGOs. Supporters argued that there are different forms of affiliation, many of which do not vest the right of formulating and representing positions in the "parent" body. They said where the relationship is such that the international body speaks on behalf of the national member organizations in international fora, it is up to the NGO itself to decide whether it wishes to make use of this new provision.


Balance Without Quotas

An important consideration in making national, subregional and regional NGOs eligible for consultative status was the need to achieve a better balance, within the grouping of NGOs in consultative status, between NGOs more representative of constituencies in Northern countries and those rooted in countries of the South. The concept of "balance" in representation of NGOs from Northern and Southern countries raised some concerns among developed countries. They warned against an implied "quota," which they said could discriminate against admission of additional national NGOs from "overrepresented" industrialized countries. Paragraph 5 of resolution 1996/31 calls on the NGO committee to "ensure, to the extent possible, participation of non-governmental organizations from all regions, and particularly from developing countries, in order to help achieve a just, balanced, effective and genuine involvement of non-governmental organizations from all regions and areas of the world."


Eligibility, Categories and Rights of Categories

To be eligible for consultative status, an NGO must have an established headquarters, a democratically adopted constitution, authority to speak for its members, a representative structure, appropriate mechanisms of accountability and democratic and transparent decision-making processes. Organizations established by governments or intergovernmental agreements will not be considered NGOs. The basic resources of the organization shall be derived in the main part from contributions of the national affiliates or other components or from individual members.

The new arrangements retain categories of consultative status, which distinguish between different types of NGOs. They can apply for two types of consultative status. "General" status is reserved for large, international NGOs whose area of work covers most of the issues on the agenda of ECOSOC. NGOs that have competence in only a few of the fields of activity of ECOSOC are eligible for "Special" consultative status. These replace Category I and Category II respectively, of the original resolution 1296. NGOs that do not qualify for consultative status with ECOSOC, or that have consultative status with a UN specialized agency, can be included on the ECOSOC roster. The roster lists NGOs that ECOSOC or the Secretary-General considers can make "occasional and useful contributions to the work of the Council or its subsidiary bodies."

There is a fundamental distinction between NGOs in consultative status and those on the ECOSOC roster. NGOs in consultative status have a political relationship with ECOSOC and therefore have rights and obligations, while NGOs on the roster can contribute only upon invitation. NGOs in general and special consultative status have the right, among other things, to designate authorized representatives to be present at public meetings, submit written statements, and make oral presentations.

In addition, NGOs with general status have the right to propose items for the agenda of ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies. These NGOs also have the right to address ECOSOC; NGOs in special consultative status can only address ECOSOC in the absence of a subsidiary body dealing with the same topic. No provision is made for NGOs on the roster to address ECOSOC.

The actual rights of NGOs in the different categories differ from the rights established by the original resolution 1296 in one important respect: participation arrangements in both ECOSOC and its commissions and other subsidiary organs "may be supplemented to include other modalities of participation." While not as explicit as some had hoped for, this principle does provide flexibility for the UN to continue building upon innovative practices such as government-NGO panels, dialogues, briefings and hearings.


Human Rights NGOs

A paragraph on human rights NGOs proved to be one of the most difficult issues on which to agree. The original resolution 1296 stipulates that human rights NGOs' work should not be "restricted to the interests of a particular group of persons, a single nationality or the situation in a single State or restricted group of States." NGOs and some developed countries wanted to delete the phrase, since they said singling out human rights groups for more stringent criteria constituted a form of discrimination. The G-77/China said it wanted to retain the language.

A compromise was finally reached close to the end of the three-year review process: paragraph 17 states that NGOs working in the area of human rights should "pursue the goals of promotion and protection of human rights in accordance with the spirit of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action."


NGOs and UN Conferences

The review process also addressed arrangements for NGO accreditation to, and participation in, UN conferences. Formerly these were determined separately for each conference. The generic framework agreed by the review is based largely on rules developed for the series of UN conferences held over the 1990s, in particular the International Conference on Population and Development (Cairo, 1994). NGOs already in consultative status or on the roster will "as a rule" be accredited for participation on request while other NGOs have to apply and submit information on the competence of the organization and the relevance of its activities to the work of the conference.

On the basis of this information the conference secretariat, in cooperation with the Non-Governmental Organizations Unit of the UN Secretariat, will make recommendations to the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) of the conference. Should an NGO not be recommended for accreditation the Secretariat will make known to the PrepCom and the NGO its reasons for not doing so. The NGO will have an opportunity to respond to the objections and provide additional information.

With the consent of the body concerned, and at the discretion of the chairperson, NGOs may address briefly the preparatory committee and the conference in plenary meetings and subsidiary bodies. Accredited NGOs may also make written presentations during the preparatory process. However, "In recognition of the intergovernmental nature of the conference and its preparatory process, active participation of non-governmental organizations therein, while welcome, does not entail a negotiating role."

NGOs accredited to a conference that subsequently seek consultative status have to apply for the latter through normal procedures. However, in view of the importance of NGO participation in conference follow-up, the Committee on NGOs will draw upon documents already submitted in application for conference accreditation and any further information provided in support. While the application for consultative status is under consideration, ECOSOC will decide on the participation of accredited NGOs in the follow-up work of the relevant functional commission of ECOSOC.

The new resolution also calls for greater participation of NGOs from developing countries in international conferences convened by the UN as well as greater involvement of NGOs from countries with economies in transition.


Suspension and Withdrawal of Consultative Status

ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 identifies three reasons for suspending or withdrawing consultative status:

  • if an organization "abuses its status by engaging in a pattern of acts contrary to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations including unsubstantiated or politically motivated acts against Member States;"

  • if "there exists substantiated evidence of influence from proceeds resulting from international recognized criminal activities such as the illicit drugs trade, money laundering or the illegal arms trade;" and

  • if within the preceding three years, an organization has not made a positive or effective contribution to the work of the UN, in particular ECOSOC and its subsidiary bodies.

Unlike the original resolution 1296, if the Committee on NGOs decides to recommend to ECOSOC the suspension or withdrawal of consultative status, the organization concerned will now be given written reasons and will have the opportunity to respond to the committee. An organization whose consultative status has been withdrawn may reapply no sooner than three years after the effective date of the decision.


ECOSOC Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations

As a result of the review, the Committee on NGOs will be expanded to 24 members. Its primary function is to consider applications for consultative status and review the "quadrennial reports" submitted by NGOs in general and special consultative status on their UN-related activities.

Resolution 1996/31 has expanded the functions of the committee. As in resolution 1296, the committee can consult with NGOs in general and special status on ECOSOC agenda items. It can also recommend which NGOs can address ECOSOC, consult with general and special status NGOs on issues that are not on the agenda of ECOSOC, and report to ECOSOC on these consultations. The committee will now also be responsible for "regular monitoring of the evolving relationship between non-governmental organizations and the United Nations" and will hold consultations with NGOs about their relationship with the United Nations. The committee will transmit reports on these consultations to ECOSOC for its action.

Finally, the committee is requested to undertake a thorough review of its own working methods in order to improve and streamline its work. This review is currently underway.


Regional Commissions and Other UN Organizations

Resolution 1996/31 applies to ECOSOC s five regional commissions and their subsidiary bodies. These are: the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) in Bangkok, Thailand; the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) in Amman, Jordan; the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in Santiago, Chile; and the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) in Geneva, Switzerland. The resolution also calls upon "the governing bodies of the relevant organizations, bodies and specialized agencies of the United Nations system to examine the principles and practices relating to their consultations with non-governmental organizations and to take action, as appropriate, to promote coherence in the light of the provisions of the present resolution."


Secretariat Support

In addition to administering consultative status and servicing the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, responsibilities that are carried out by the NGO Unit of the UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD), the UN Secretariat as a whole also has responsibilities towards NGOs:

  • NGOs in consultative status can consult with staff officers "on matters in which there is mutual interest or mutual concern" and arrange informal discussions on matters of special interest to groups or organizations;

  • NGOs can have access to the UN libraries and press documentation services; and

  • the Secretariat is also requested to provide prompt and efficient distribution of appropriate ECOSOC documents, meeting space for NGO conferences or meetings on the work of ECOSOC, seating arrangements, and help with obtaining documents on economic, social and related matters during public meetings of the General Assembly.

In addition, the Secretary-General is requested "to make every effort to enhance and streamline as appropriate Secretariat support arrangements, and to improve practical arrangements on such matters as greater use of modern information and communication technology, the establishment of an integrated database of non-governmental organizations, wide and timely dissemination of information on meetings, distribution of documentation, provision of access and transparent, simple and streamlined procedures for the attendance of non-governmental organizations in United Nations meetings, and to facilitate their broad-based participation."

The outcome of the review is contained in ECOSOC resolution 1996/31, which revises the previous arrangements for consultation contained in ECOSOC resolution 1296 (XLIV) of 1968, and in ECOSOC decision 1996/297. The decision recommends "that the General Assembly examine, at its fifty-first session, the question of the participation of NGOs in all areas of the work of the UN."

Beyond ECOSOC?

One of the main controversies of the ECOSOC review process was whether ECOSOC could recommend that the General Assembly consider extending the UN-NGO relationship to issues and fora other than those encompassed by ECOSOC.

The expansion of NGO access to all areas and bodies of the wider UN system was a major priority for the G-77/China, which had originally proposed the following language:

"The whole United Nations system, including the United Nations bodies and conferences, dealing not only with the economic, social and sustained economic growth and sustainable development issues but also disarmament, finance, trade, law and humanitarian issues should be open to participation by non-governmental organizations." (E/1995/83/Add.1, Compilation of proposals, paragraph 1.1, June 1995)

The G-77/China position also made the point that the developed countries tend to strenuously promote democracy and transparency when discussing governance in developing countries, but they do not fight with the same passion for the exercise of these principles at the international level.

From the start, some developed countries strongly resisted even considering such a recommendation; they argued that the working group had no mandate to address any questions outside the scope of the economic, social and related areas covered by ECOSOC. They said that it would be preferable to concentrate first on establishing the relationship with ECOSOC before considering NGO involvement in any other bodies.

NGOs were very clear and virtually unanimous in their positions on this question: "Participation rights should not be restricted to ECOSOC," said a joint position paper of the Brazilian NGO IBASE and the World Economic, Environment and Development Organization (WEED) of Germany. "NGOs are also very active in the areas of peace, disarmament and finance," said the paper. "The ECOSOC should therefore recommend to the General Assembly to consider in a second phase, means to extend the participation rights to the General Assembly, its Main Committees and subsidiary bodies."

Finally compromise was reached to recommend that the General Assembly examine at its 51st session the question of NGOs' participation "in all areas of the work of the United Nations." This was supplemented by an interpretive statement read into the record by Ambassador Jean-Marie Gervais (Cote d'Ivoire), the President of ECOSOC, who said the recommendation falls within the competence of the General Assembly under Article 10 of the UN Charter. Article 10 defines the functions and powers of the General Assembly and stipulates that "The General Assembly may discuss any questions or any matters within the scope of the present Charter or relating to the powers and functions of any organs provided for in the present Charter, and, except as provided in Article 12, may make recommendations to the Members of the United Nations or to the Security Council or both on any such questions or matters." Article 12 says that the General Assembly is not to make any recommendations on a dispute or situation while the Security Council is considering it, unless the Security Council requests it to.


NGOS in the UN Reform Process

In parallel to the ECOSOC review, the 50th UN General Assembly in 1995 initiated an extensive process of revitalization and reform of the United Nations through five open-ended working groups. One of these, the Open-Ended High-Level Working Group on the Strengthening of the United Nations System, addressed the question of the future role of NGOs in the UN.

The report of the working group contains language on the question of NGOs that has been introduced, but not so far discussed, in the working group. It says, "The question of giving practical effect to links between civil society and the General Assembly needs further discussion, including the establishment and manner of administration of a voluntary Trust Fund to facilitate participation by NGOs from developing countries so as to enable a more balanced NGO participation." Further paragraphs refer to innovative mechanisms of participation and the possibility of convening a civil society forum.


Next Steps

ECOSOC's recommendation to the General Assembly to consider NGO participation in all areas of the UN's work will be taken up at the current 51st session, which opened on 17 September under the Presidency of Ambassador Razali Ismail (Malaysia).

ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 came into effect immediately upon adoption by ECOSOC. Its first application was in the resumed session of the Committee on NGOs (26-30 August 1996), which is currently chaired by Fidel Coloma (Chile).

The process of applying for consultative status has been streamlined as the Committee on NGOs, which reviews applications, now meets at least once a year, generally in the first three months of the year. The list of NGOs recommended for accreditation by the committee is forwarded to the substantive session of ECOSOC, which meets in July, for final approval.

ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 and decision 1996/297 are available on the UN home page on the World Wide Web,, and are posted in apc conference . NGOs unable to access the information electronically, or needing to obtain it in a language other than English, can contact NGLS.

NGOs interested in applying for consultative status with ECOSOC should contact the NGO Unit of the UN Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development (DPCSD), Room DC1-1076, United Nations, New York NY 10017, USA, fax +1-212/963 4968.



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