Commentary

Civil society interests are deserted by democratic states at UN

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Protesters display a large banner during a rally to support press freedom in Hong Kong on March 2, 2014. The rally was staged following the attack of a former editor of local liberal newspaper which comes at a time of growing unease over freedom of the press in the southern Chinese city, with mounting concerns that Beijing is seeking to tighten control over the semi-autonomous region.

Credit:

PHILIPPE LOPEZ

NEW YORK — The governments of Azerbaijan, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Iran and Venezuela have a lot in common. Each imposes an ever-tightening noose around domestic civil society. And now, each plans to run for election to a United Nations agency that regulates civil society matters.

A seat on the Committee on Non-governmental Organizations is highly desirable. The committee controls which civil society groups secure the coveted standing known as “consultative status.” This status bestows special UN rights and privileges to organizations that obtain it. Elections to the 19-member Committee take place April 23-25.

On its face, the committee’s function is primarily administrative; it evaluates about 400-500 applications of non-governmental organizations (NGO) annually. In reality, the job is highly political because committee members can block NGOs whose views they oppose.

Not surprisingly, members of the committee, who see themselves as gatekeepers, disproportionally target human rights defenders. Since 2012, 48 organizations have been denied accreditation; 46 work on human rights. Their missions include women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, LGBT rights and minorities.

Human rights defenders are experiencing excessive restrictions and attacks in many of the states seeking a seat on the committee. According to the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, China detained under criminal charges more than 220 human rights defenders in 2013, almost triple the amount from 2012.

Human Rights Watch reported that, in 2012, the Russian government “unleashed the worst political crackdown” since the post-Soviet era. The governments of Azerbaijan, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan and Venezuela are also well known for inhibiting and intimidating civil society.

These countries draw from a toolbox of intimidation techniques to hinder the work of human rights groups at home, and use similar measures at the UN.

Anti-civil society states can filibuster an application for years with repetitive questions that go far beyond the scope of information required for granting status. Eventually some NGOs, after spending years of effort and resources on the protracted process, give up.

For those able to obtain status, the harassment does not stop. A number face the specter of expulsion from the UN for "politically motivated acts against the Member States” – an undefined notion that typically refers to an NGO's criticism of the human rights record of a country.

The 19-member committee is small relative to the 193 member states in the UN. But since its inception in 1946, it has been a magnet for repressive regimes. Russia/USSR has held a seat on the committee since the committee was establlshed. Except for six years, so has Cuba. China has served 16 of the last 20 years.

The clamoring of authoritarian regimes for a spot on the committee begs the question of why democratic states aren't also seeking seats. Only the United States and the United Kingdom have invested comparable resources in being represented over the past seven decades.

This year, the presence of strong, pro civil society candidates on the elections roster is dismal and limited to Greece, Israel, the US and Uruguay. Unless additional democratic states throw their hat in the ring, the committee's membership will lean more heavily against civil society interests during the next term.

The International Service for Human Rights, along with other leading human rights organizations, has called on moderate, open and accountable democratic governments in all regions to seek election. So far, only Uruguay has heeded the call. It is deeply troubling that others, such as Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Chile, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Maldives, Mexico, Japan, Republic of Korea and Poland are unwilling to share the burden of ensuring that civil society can have open access at the UN.

Consultative status enables human rights defenders to attend and speak on the record publicly at UN meetings and organize side events. Human rights defenders have the right to tell their stories, to give voice to victims of violations and to ensure that policies made at the UN are informed by these realities.

Those that silence human rights defenders at home must not be given free rein to do the same at the UN. By acquiescing to such a scenario, democratic states are, in effect, leaving the foxes to guard the henhouse.

Michelle Evans is program manager and New York advocacy coordinator for International Service for Human Rights, an international non-governmental organization that supports human rights defenders and seeks to strengthen human rights systems.