Imagine a UN committee dedicated to accrediting civil society that doesn’t accredit the vast majority of civil society organizations that apply. Next, imagine a UN committee dedicated to accrediting civil society dominated by governments leading crackdowns on civil society in their own countries. Pretty absurd, but put the two together and that’s what happened last month at the United Nations.
The UN Committee intended to accredit and approve international civil society to participate in the United Nation Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) completed its work in May and rejected 34 out of 37 applicants. One of those was the well-respected freedom of expression group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that, for decades, has protected the lives and rights of independent media and journalists across the world.
The reason was obvious (and sadly predictable): the UN body was doing the bidding of the authoritarian governments, such as China, Russia and Cuba, that make up a majority of the 19 countries represented on the committee.
The question is how did governments fundamentally opposed to independent civil society get on a global body dedicated to peace and freedom and on a committee charged with overseeing civil society?
The NGO Committee reviews applications from non-profit organizations seeking accreditation to participate in ECOSOC’s various committees, events and programs, including the United Nations Human Rights Council. Its 19 members are elected by ECOSOC, but seats are allocated by region, with little regard to NGO protections and regulations within a candidate country.
Of the 19 members on the Committee, 10 voted no, 6 voted yes, and 3 abstained, with regards to the CPJ application. The no votes included Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, and Venezuela—all of them regularly citied by CPJ and other human rights activists for their violations of freedom of expression. Three other countries that have had their own confrontations of freedom of expression in their country (and in the case of the latter, in Germany)—India, Iran and Turkey—abstained. Only Greece, Guinea, Israel, Mauritania, the United States, and Uruguay voted in support of CPJ’s accreditation before the global body.
Diplomats and UN officials have expressed their disappointment with the recent round of denials—though criticisms over the politicization of the body have percolated for some time. The spokesperson for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, stated “we see more and more evidence of more and more States clamping down on the freedoms of expression association and assembly, with the media and human rights defenders in the frontline… While this may be in the interests of authorities wishing to crush criticism and retain power, it is clearly not in the interests of their populations. This unfortunate episode involving CPJ is emblematic of this unfortunate and very negative trend.”
In South Korea UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that freedom for civil society, NGOs and human rights defenders is under attack, “including at the last place this should happen: the United Nations.”
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power denounced the Committee’s decisions, calling it the “anti-NGO Committee” and promised to bring the CPJ matter up before the full 54-member ECOSOC Council in July, to force countries to defend their votes.
In its press release, CPJ called the accreditation procedure “Kafkaesque,” with the Executive Director, Joel Simon, stating “a small group of countries with poor press freedom records are using bureaucratic delaying tactics to sabotage and undermine any efforts that call their own abusive policies into high relief.”
Rather than complaining about the one decision and the poor performance of the committee in doing its supposed job, perhaps time would be better spent understanding and doing something about how those governments even gained a seat on the committee to begin with. In the end, these representatives are doing what one would expect of autocrats. Energy and diplomatic efforts would be better spent finding more worthy candidates and calling out those governments that originally voted for such a rogues’ gallery of anti-civil society governments on a committee dedicated to supporting civil society’s global voice.
Because let’s be honest, at least in Latin America, the 33 governments that make up the region could have picked better representatives than Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find someone worse for that job.