When the Third Committee of the General Assembly kicked off last week, an important stakeholder remained conspicuously absent in the body tasked with promoting and protecting human rights at the UN in New York. In spite of its indispensable contributions to the broad spectrum of the United Nations’ work, civil society including UN accredited NGOs continued to be denied in-person access to the UN headquarters while member states, UN staff as well as resident journalists participate in-person at this session of the Third Committee.
Today at the Third Committee, 61 members broke their silence in a joint statement led by Costa Rica and Denmark urging the Committee to lead by example on improving meaningful civil society participation and engagement at the UN. Member states expressed that while the UNGA75 declaration committed to make the UN more inclusive and engage with relevant stakeholders including civil society, they feared that ‘they did not walk the talk’ due to the practical impediments for civil society engagement at the UN including unequal access to meetings, limited information and opportunities to engage with stakeholders. The statement added that they could not claim to be providing ‘an open space for civil society’ in light of reprisals and intimidation in response to engagement with the UN as documented in the report of the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights.
The statement welcomes the Third Committee Chair’s decision to convene an informal meeting between Member States civil society as setting a benchmark for the future on transparency, accountability and partnerships between relevant stakeholders. The statement also outlines concrete recommendations to enhance meaningful civil society participation at the Committee including a clear recommendation to the Secretariat and the Bureau to use existing spaces and services for in-person participation of civil society in New York. It further proposes leveraging the potential of digital technology to improve access for civil society representatives outside New York by overcoming connectivity, linguistic and informational barriers to ensure ‘fully inclusive virtual meetings.’ Expressing serious concern about a worrying trend of restricting civil society access through measures adopted in response to the pandemic, it states ‘The legitimate need for public health measures should not be used as a pretext to hinder the access of civil society organisations to, and punish those who cooperate with the United Nations.’ The complete list of member states joining the statement can be found here.
Several member states have also expressed concerns this session about the absence of civil society at the Third Committee in national statements during the General Debate at the start of this Third Committee session. Luxembourg observed that in spite of the crucial contributions of civil society as a valuable source of expertise and ideas, in the development of inclusive and democratic societies, in holding governments accountable for their actions and in the effective functioning of the United Nations, civic space has continued to shrink since the start of the pandemic and regretted that civil society continued to be excluded from the meetings held at United Nations headquarters. Australia urged Member States and the United Nations to facilitate civil society participation amid shrinking civic space during the pandemic and the muting of civil society. It added that that re-opening of the UN must also mean re-opening of the UN for civil society. Signifying the indispensable role of civil society including its critical and constructive engagement, Germany stated that “Human rights protection would be virtually impossible without the alert eyes and ears and the wholehearted work of civil society organizations around the globe” and that transparency and exchange with civil society were key to making universal human rights for everyone a reality.
In his address to the Third Committee, the President of the General Assembly also stressed on the importance of hearing from voices outside UN halls. He stated that “civil society representatives in particular play an important role in tackling inequality and serve as potential drivers and amplifiers of actions in the UN.” He further acknowledged the impediments to the full and effective civil society participation resulting from COVID-19 restrictions and expressed his commitment to bringing back the voices of CSOs to the UN, commending the Committee Chair for ensuring a dialogue between member states and CSOs takes place.
In July this year, 15 NGOs engaging with the Third Committee wrote a letter to the Secretary General of the UN highlighting the impact of the prolonged denial of civil society access to the headquarters. The letter elucidated the limitations of digital access and participation resulting in tangible impediments on civil society’s ability to work with the Committee. ‘For civil society, convening the exchange this year between civil society is not only a welcome initiative but of heightened importance as this is the second year civil society has been unable to participate in-person, taking away valuable opportunities for exchange and contribution to the work of the Committee’ said Maithili Pai, ISHR’s Programme Officer on Civil Society Access and Participation. During the first ever informal exchange convened by then Chair Luxembourg in early 2020, civil society representatives from a range of NGOs engaged with member States of the Third Committee in a fruitful exchange on successes from the Committee session, as well as concrete ways in which the Committee could better promote and protect rights.
The UN Secretary General’s ‘Call to Action for Human Rights’ states that the UN depends ‘on the active engagement of civil society actors’, and aims to create a strategy to ‘promote and protect the civic space for different stakeholders to express their views’. Similarly, commitments made on the 2030 Agenda and in June 2020 at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the adoption of the Charter of the UN include ‘inclusive multilateralism based on deep interaction with civil society.’ “We welcome member states sending out a clear message condemning the exclusion of civil society and suggesting concrete steps to address the situation” said Pai. There is serious concern that the pandemic is becoming a convenient excuse for those seeking to relegate civil society to the margins, a concerning issue even prior to the pandemic. “While we continue to be mindful of safety and health restrictions due to COVID-19, rules regarding access and engagement with the UN must be transparent, fair and applied consistently to all crucial stakeholders engaging with and contributing to the Third Committee. We hope for timely implementation of recommendations in the statement to be able to participate meaningfully at the earliest” she added.