An organizational session of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. Photo by: Norwegian U.N. mission in New York / CC BY-NC-ND

UNITED NATIONS — Gaining consultative status to the United Nations is an important touch point for many NGOs. But competing political agendas at the U.N. are placing that goal out of reach for some human rights and LGBTQ organizations that struggle to navigate the complicated system.

“It should be the most boring committee in the world. And yet ... you see states battle each other over civil society participation.”

— Eleanor Openshaw, New York director, International Service for Human Rights

Fewer than half of the 632 NGOs that applied last month for consultative status — which secures them physical access to U.N. meetings and special events — with the U.N. Economic and Social Council received accreditation, according to the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, a subset of ECOSOC. The committee, led by 19 member states including Russia, China, Israel, India, and the U.S., is set to defer 339 applicants following its first 2020 session, which ends Friday.

“All of the states in the committee are playing the game. They have an interest. Some, however, are much, much more obviously operating through political interest to keep independent organizations out,” said Eleanor Openshaw, New York director of the International Service for Human Rights, which monitors the accreditation process.

“It’s a microcosm of U.N. politics. It should be the most boring committee in the world. And yet it is a place where you go and you see states battle each other over civil society participation. It is a very, very complicated and unhelpful space for many organizations,” Openshaw continued.

The NGO committee uses its biannual meetings to question and review NGOs seeking accreditation at the U.N. before referring proposals to ECOSOC to formally approve or deny.

More than 5,100 NGOs were accredited at the U.N. as of September 2018. The mark of accreditation can also be a useful credential for NGOs that might never even travel to New York but see the access as a symbol of their legitimacy. But the pathway to the U.N. is harder for some than others — a non-human-rights organization has about “double the chance of being accredited on any given day” than a human rights organization, according to Openshaw.

Trends over the last 15 years show that while the number of deferred NGOs is not increasing, there also is not a rise in acceptance rates, Openshaw said. By June 2019, there was a record high of 860 new applications for consultative status.

In some cases, organizations with politically sensitive agendas — such as those related to Ukraine or Tibet — receive repeated questions from Russia, China, or other member states about correct U.N. “terminology.” The questioning can defer applications until the following session, either in January and July. Independence from funders and future plans are other common questions.

“If you look at the last session, Russia is continuing to systematically block all LGBTI [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex] organizations and all organizations or activities related to Ukraine. Pakistan regularly blocks Indian NGOs. India blocks their own NGOs and Pakistani NGOs,” said a European official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the politically sensitive nature of the discussions.

“It is so easy to block — you just take to the floor and you say, ‘Thank you for this, we want to know what are your priorities for 2020?’ NGOs have the right to be at the U.N. It is totally unfair,” the official continued.

The Copenhagen-based International Dalit Solidarity Network, which advocates for an end to caste discrimination, has had its application deferred for the past 13 years, according to Maria Brink Schleimann, the organization’s head of communications. IDSN received three questions from India in January, bringing the total of questions it has received since the early 2000s up to 96. The questions are often repetitive and easy to answer, Schleimann said, but answers have not led to progress on the network’s open application.

“We are a very transparent organization and all of this information is available on our website, which we have also often referred to when answering questions. We have answered all questions in full and on time,” Schleimann said in an email to Devex.

IDSN works through intermediaries not focused on caste issues to take up the group’s policy agenda and offer Dalit people a chance to speak at the U.N. Other Dalit and caste organizations from India have also had their applications deferred.

“It is imperative that Dalits can speak and participate at the U.N. on their own,” Schleimann said.

The Italian nonprofit No Peace Without Justice anticipates that it will receive its fourth deferment when the committee announces its outcomes this month. The nonprofit has received questions on how it maintains independence with government funding and on its work in the Western Hemisphere, even though it does not operate in the region, according to Gianluca Eramo, director of NPWJ’s Middle East and North Africa democracy program.

“The process is very murky. There are a lot of technical questions,” Eramo told Devex, noting that, unlike many other applicants, “we have the capacity for this.”

He said the absence of any limit on the number or parameters of questions that member states can pose makes the process especially complicated for the average, small NGO.

“An African NGO requesting ECOSOC recognition may not have a person in New York. They don’t have contacts with their mission and, out of the blue, they receive questions, but you don’t know exactly from which country, for which purpose, or why,” Eramo said.

Some European member states are considering asking ECOSOC to move at least one of its NGO committee biannual meetings to Geneva.

“The meeting could take place in Geneva, where NGOs are more active, have more rights, and the pressure on the NGO committee would be greater,” the European official told Devex. “NGOs have the right to participate in the U.N.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.