In historic move, UN grants International Chamber of Commerce observer status

John Danilovich, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce. Photo by: Martens Centre / CC BY

Completing a process that began about five years ago, the International Chamber of Commerce became the first business organization to receive observer status at the United Nations last month, a decision that signals increasing private sector engagement at the institution.        

“It’s about time business is part of that discussion and problem-solving mechanism,” said John Danilovich, the secretary general of the ICC.

While the decision is historic, it comes as a result of a growing recognition that the private sector needs to be part of solving global challenges, as evidenced by the influence companies had on the Paris climate agreement and in shaping the 2030 agenda. The ICC — and the tens of thousands of companies and associations it represents — now has a formal avenue to present and move forward ideas they believe will have an economic, political and social benefit. It’s an achievement that didn’t come without its challenges.

Danilovich described the process as tough: The ICC was first recommended by the French mission about five years ago, but previous attempts to get observer status fell flat. This year was different but the effort also required a lot of conversations, assuaging concerns and a campaign to get people to understand just what the ICC is and what it does.

The controversy about the move, and part of the reason it was a multi-year process, requires a bit of a history lesson. Back in 1990 the International Committee of the Red Cross received special treatment and was granted observer status as a “function of the unique situation of the ICRC and should not constitute a precedent for the granting of observer status to any other entity of a non-governmental character.”

That exception and subsequent requests for observer status stirred concern among some member states that the decision would open the door to too many nongovernmental organizations being admitted. In a 1994 letter to the U.N. Secretary-General Madeleine Albright — then the U.S. permanent representative to the U.N — raised those concerns and called for a review of the criteria for admission to the U.N. as an observer.

“There is a substantial risk that if the General Assembly continues to depart from the established criteria, there will be no basis for distinguishing between those organizations entitled to General Assembly observer status and those not,” she wrote in the letter.

The result of that review was a rule adopted by the U.N. general assembly in 1994 that only “states and intergovernmental organizations whose activities cover matters of interest to the Assembly” could be granted observer status. The ICC, which represents tens of thousands of companies and business associations in 120 countries, does not meet that strict definition.

"There was a real concern to set a new legal precedent in the UNGA,” said a diplomat at the French mission to the U.N. who was closely involved in the process, but could not be named as his position may be changing. “But three key things changed [in 2016]. One, the awareness that with the 2030 agenda and the Paris agreement, 2016 is the year we need to implement those programs and here you are in need of people who can participate and give impetus to that. Two, outreach was more important this year, the ICC and the French delegation were able to build a network of relationships to help people understand better the organization and its history. And three, we came to understand concerns far better and could better address them."

In order to convince members of the Sixth Committee, which governs U.N. legal affairs and recommends new observers, the ICC and the French mission to the U.N. had to lay out clearly why an exception should be made. They had a few examples that helped them: the 1990 decision to admit ICRC that led to the stricter rules and the 2009 admission of the International Olympic Committee.

The argument centered around ICC being an exception, partly due to its long history; the organization was founded in 1919, was accredited at the League of Nations and was given general consultative status with the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 1946. The other key argument, was that while not an intergovernmental organization, ICC is a “representative body that speaks with authority on behalf of enterprises from all sectors in every region of the world” and focuses on rules setting, policy advocacy and arbitration, according to the letter François Delattre, the permanent representative of France to the U.N., sent to the secretary-general regarding ICC’s observer status.

That ability to set rules about business conduct — though the rules are voluntary — was important, especially for civil society organizations, which don’t get a vote, but have urged companies to better uphold human rights standards even as they’ve acknowledged the role of the private sector in the post-2015 agenda.

“We recognise the crucial role played by the private sector,” Savio Carvalho, Amnesty International’s senior advisor for campaigning on development and human rights, wrote Devex in an email. “Through its engagement, the Chamber of Commerce needs to ensure it[s] member[s] respect human rights and can be held to account for any violations.”                

The ICC is looking forward to using the platform to engage and share insights and solutions,. While the ICC is pleased with the recognition for the organization, the observer status goes beyond an individual achievement, Danilovich said.

“This is also an important step for all of world business,” he said. “It really is something we on behalf of all business are happy to use as a vehicle to help get the position of business across in agenda 2030.”

That injection of new ideas that can be useful to the U.N., and that clear acknowledgment that business is needed to solve the world’s greatest challenges, is a big part of the reason the French government supported their bid for observer status, the French mission official said.

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About the author

  • Saldiner adva

    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.