Issues Undermining NGO Access and Participation at the United Nations

Blog by Marina Pohrib, legal intern at UNITED SIKHS NYC office.

As a new intern with UNITED SIKHS I recently attended a panel discussion on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) access at the United Nations (UN) organized by the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights.  The discussion was held on June 13, 2011 at the UN Church Center’s Hardin Room.

NGOs, also known as civil society organizations, are autonomous non-profit and non-party/politically-unaffiliated organizations that advance a particular cause or set of causes in the public interest.  For example, a NGO typically engages in disseminating information, raising awareness, and policy advocacy, as well as providing technical expertise and research on the particular causes the organization advances.  In 1945 when the UN was created, NGO participation was included in the UN Charter under Article 71 of Chapter 10, which articulates the principles and procedures for NGO’s to have a consultative relationship with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).  This consultative status bestowed on NGO’s is an important mechanism of involvement because it grants NGOs physical access at the UN and a possibility to meaningfully participate in the international political system.  Increased involvement by NGOs at the UN is important because it can further the goals of both NGO’s and the UN.

NGOs can also access the UN from through the Department of Public Information (DPI), which was established in 1946 by General Assembly resolution 13 (1).  DPI is the public voice of the UN.  Its function is to promote global awareness and greater understanding of the work of the United Nations.  Over 1,500 NGOs are associated with DPI, which supports their efforts to interact effectively with the United Nations in their areas of expertise.  UNITED SIKHS has become the first Sikh advocacy, humanitarian relief and human development NGO to be associated with the United Nations, through its DPI.  For more information click here.

Monday’s meeting focused on informing NGOs, and civil society in general, of the various barriers that NGOs face in accessing and meaningfully participating at UN meetings. The meeting discussion also included a presentation of some recommendations of the Working Group on UN Access for productive change.  I was impressed with the various issues that NGOs faced.  While physical access to the building was significantly impaired by the implementation of the Capital Master Plan (a security measure), the lack of access to basic information regarding scheduling of events and meetings seems to baffle NGOs since technology is supposed to make the sharing of information easier, not impossible.  The invitation of NGOs to participate at UN meetings was seen, by a member of the audience, as a grand superficial gesture of inclusion, because NGOs have no idea as to when and where they can participate.

This lack of communication between NGOs and the UN is a serious concern.  The freedom of the internet and an increase in information sharing should empower the civil society to participate at important decision making meetings.  The Working Group has been consulting with various Under Secretary-Generals and UN agencies, departments, and offices, in order to improve NGO access. I believe that all NGOs should be lobbying to be granted greater access. This view was also endorsed by the panelists, who recommended a meeting between a representative group of the NGO community and the incoming President-Elect of the General Assembly to try to get a guarantee that civil society will be invited to offer their expertise at UN meetings.

There is a present challenge for all NGOs to develop modalities of representation at UN meetings that are fair, genuine, and consistent.  To the extent that NGOs can develop their partnership with UN entities, NGOs can strengthen their role at the UN.  As an NGO, whose work encompasses International human rights, UNITED SIKHS is committed to help bridge the gap on the issue of civil society access to the UN.  We recognize the importance of engaging UN entities to advocate on behalf of the Sikh community and will continue to increase our involvement to promote greater awareness of Sikh issues.

UNITED SIKHS is a UN-affiliated, international non-profit, non-governmental, humanitarian relief, human development and advocacy organization, aimed at empowering those in need, especially disadvantaged and minority communities across the world.  Click here to learn more about us.  As such, UNITED SIKHS works to actively engage with UN entities, to advocate for Sikh Civil & Human Rights across the globe.  In doing so, UNITED SIKHS is a member of both the NGO Committee on Human Rights and the Committee on Freedom of Religion and Belief and frequently makes presentations to increase awareness about Sikh issues.  Recently, UNITED SIKHS legal team presented on the issue of immigration and freedom of movement as it relates to the Sikh community at the United Nations NGO Committee on Human Rights Meeting on Immigration.  Watch presentations from Ilana Ofgang, Legal Fellow, and Hansdeep Singh, Senior Staff Attorney here.  Additionally, UNITED SIKHS held a press conference at the UN Church Center surrounding the release of the 3rd Annual Global Sikh Civil & Human Rights Report in order to raise awareness about the challenges Sikhs face across the world.  For more information on this event, click here.  To view presentations from this event click here, here, and here.

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