The non-governmental organizations have always played an important role in the development of the human rights norms at the United Nations (UN). Disregarding their success in lobbying the human rights, impact on drafting the important legislative documents and the recognition of the need for further cooperation between the official and societal players of the international policy-making processes, the benefits of the NGOs’ involvement into the UN are often questioned within the recent years.
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Effective cooperation of the Human Rights NGOs and the UN bodies requires development of the appropriate model of their interaction and defining the extent to which the non-state actors should be allowed to influence the international policy-making processes.
This paper reviews the recent tendency for deepening the interaction between the official and societal bodies, and the increasing importance of the Human Rights NGOs in UN as an intergovernmental organization, on the one hand, and the main preconditions for criticism of the NGOs’ input on UN processes and framework, on the other hand.
The development of the model and procedures requires reaching consensus between preserving the existing structure of UN and providing Human Rights NGOs with opportunities for making a substantial contribution to drafting the important documents and ensuring their implementation.
The growing significance of Human Rights NGOs at UN
The definition of the role of NGOs
In general terms, the NGOs can be defined as organizations that are made up of activists and independent of any government. The programs of these organizations can include both domestic and international issues. The goal of these organizations is to narrow the gap between the legislation acts, government’s policies and their actual implementation.
Historically, the contribution of NGOs to the development of human rights standards within the United Nations was reflected in the UN Charter as the founding document of the organization. 42 American NGOs lobbied the US delegation to the UN conference in San Francisco in 1945 for inclusion of the human rights issue into the UN program.
The place of NGOs in the UN system is defined in Article 71 of the UN Charter: “The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations, which are concerned with matters within its competence” (Breen, 2005, p. 103).
Thus, the NGOs have got the consultative status within the UN and the Article 71 is aimed at allowing them to participate in the drafting of the important documents and treaties. NGOs made a significant contribution to drafting the documents which were incorporated into the International Bill of Rights afterwards.
A clear example of the input of NGOs into the ensuring the human rights is their work on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of a Child. It is recognized that NGOs had both direct and indirect impact on the development of the Convention. At present, NGOs take part in drafting the treaty on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Breen, 2005, p. 106).
The professionalization of the Human Rights NGOs at UN
Over the previous decade, the NGOs became important actors of the international relations and with the increase of the interaction between societal players and the official institutions, a tendency towards the professionalization of the NGOs has been observed. Previously, the emphasis was put on the volunteerism of the NGOs participants, but with the recognition of the potential of the societal players and the growing size of the movement, the participation of the NGOs in developing the human rights protection strategies at UN was professionalized. “These internal changes, such as the division of labor, administrative structures and professional leadership, are necessary processes to ensure the ongoing success of the movement” (Martens, 2006, p. 20). These changes resulted in the growing interaction between the societal and official organizations and the growing importance of the NGOs’ representational functions.
On the other hand, the NGOs vary in the level of their professionalization and the level of their interaction and relations with the UN bodies consequently.
The growing reputation and the increasing importance of the Human Rights NGOs can be explained with the prolonged existence of the NGO sector within the UN, which allowed the representatives to acquire the necessary knowledge and expertise. “Officials seek contact with NGO representatives because they know that such contacts usually bring in. As a result, reliable materials and helpful analyses” (Martens, 2006, p. 24).
Along with the recognition of the NGOs representatives’ expertise, the growing job exchanges between the NGO and the UN staff prove that the Human Rights NGOs have become an integral element in the structure of the UN policy-making bodies and their significant impact on the UN legislative processes is undeniable.
Permission for influencing the international processes
Acknowledging the fact that the Human Rights NGOs make a significant contribution to drafting important international documents, it is the level to which they should be permitted to influence the UN processes.
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Article 71 of the UN Charter is the only official basis which legalizes the NGOs’ involvement in general and the UN processes, in particular. After this article has been developed in Resolution from 1996/31, the required standards for the organizational structure and the accountability procedures at the NGOs have been mentioned but not specified.
Along with the advisory status of the Human Rights NGOs, the current mechanisms of the interaction of the societal players and the UN are being reviewed and further deepening of NGO participation is suggested (AIV, 2006, p. 27). The AIV offers the Human Rights NGOs should reopen their knowledge and expertise in the sphere for participating in the interactive dialogue as well as participate in the annual review of the human rights in the member states on a regular basis (AIV, 2006, p. 28).
The Human Rights NGOs play a vital role in the development and the protection of the international human rights standards. The NGOs have carved a niche for themselves in the structure of the UN, and the interaction of the societal and the official players is so close that the NGOs are considered as the integral element of the UN and depend upon their functioning to a certain degree.
Criticism of Human Rights NGOs input in the UN policy making
The role of NGOs in the global arena is growing along with the responsibilities such role creates. Accordingly, growing criticism of NGOs can be seen as one of the accompanying elements of their increased participation and responsibilities. The areas of criticism can be categorized into such aspects as legitimacy and accountability, politicization of interests, and human rights. A detailed analysis of those issues can be seen in the following sections.
One of the areas of criticism directed toward NGOs can be seen through their participation in policy-making processes that involve multi-stakeholder scenarios. An example of such multi-stakeholder scenarios can be seen through NGOs’ participation in the United Nations-brokered World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (Franklin, 2007). Generally, the participation of NGOs can be seen as a positive note, in which NGOs take a formative role in a process that was previously reserved for experts and diplomats (p. 310).
It should be noted, however, that such participation might create certain challenges to the established policy-making process. Such aspect is namely concerned with those NGOs representing local communities and/or disadvantaged groups. In that regard, the main point of criticism can be seen in that such NGOs cannot be free of politicized interests.
NGOs, as non-expert actors, might create “new frictions and unforeseen pressures for traditional policy-making and UN hierarchies whereby incumbents are confronted directly by the politically engaged voices that characterize NGO activism” (Franklin, 2007, p. 311).
Similarly, politicization can work in the opposite direction as well, with international intergovernmental organizations influencing NGOs. The linkage of NGOs to governmental institutions can be seen as an area of criticism in itself, in which NGOs might lose their autonomy and their independent stand, being funded by official institutions (Martens, 2001, p. 388).
Thus, politicization is an important area of criticism in the relations between NGOs and the United Nations. On the one hand, NGOs might create tension to the traditional mode of policy-making, while on the other, NGOs might be influenced to lose their autonomy as critical observers of official policies (p. 388).
Legitimacy and Accountability
The next area of criticism of NGOs can be seen to be derived from the previous one. The question of whose interests should NGOs represent is of great importance, answering which enlightens about whose interest NGOs should represent and what they should be held accountable for.
The problem of legitimacy can be seen in many perspectives, one of which is the fact that the legitimacy of many NGOs can be undermined through the lack of support for the opinion they represent. In that regard, the legitimacy of NGOs cannot be claimed on the basis of representativeness. Lacking support and representativeness, the involvement of a particular NGO in international decision-making can weaken the legitimacy of the international organizations themselves (AIV, 2006, p. 30).
Another point of criticism can be seen through their accountability or its lack thereof. There are cases of NGOs’ misconduct, the most prominent example of which can be seen through disruptions caused during WTO and IMF meetings. In that regard, the reliance on self-regulation alone might not be sufficient to hold NGOs accountable in their relations with such organization as UN (AIV, 2006, p. 33).
At the same time, it can be stated that many NGOs have sufficient power and authority, and thus, a risk of abuse might exist. Thus, such areas of criticism can be seen through the imbalanced capabilities and challenges presented by NGOs legitimacy and accountability.
NGOs and human rights
NGOs contribution to the development of Human Rights standards cannot be overstated. NGOs contribution can be seen through establishing and monitoring many human rights standards. At the same time, NGOs have faced criticism from states within such area of work. Despite the contributions, the lack of regulations has led to abuses from NGOs, which compromised Human Rights Commission and its mission.
Partly, such aspect might be related to the accountability factor mentioned earlier, as a demonstrative example of the lack of such accountability. The abuse specifically might be concerned with many NGOs pursuing political confrontation in the name of human rights (Breen, 2005, p. 118).
Apart from such conflict of interest and utilization of such purpose as protection of human rights, it can be stated that NGOs’ influence was incorporated into UN affairs. As stated by the former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, “even a cursory examination of the participation of NGOs in the decision-making systems and operational activities of the United Nations shows without any doubt that NGO involvement.has far exceeded the original scope of” the legal provisions under Article 71of the UN charter” (Blitt, 2007, p. 31).
Such influence of NGOs’ within the UN, combined with the apparent imbalance in NGOs’ representatives from developing and developed countries, show the extent of such influence.
The aforementioned statement indicates that the criticism directed toward NGOs is largely justified. However, such criticism does not imply ignoring past and future role of NGOs in such aspects as human rights, rather than pointing out to that the current system of relations between NGOs and the UN needs serious revisions.
The development of the model for effective interaction
The institutional framework for interaction of NGOs and UN
The current institutional framework of the UN limits the opportunities of the NGOs for the participation in the development of the human rights policies and predetermines the specific procedures which need to be observed before a particular societal actor is allowed to be present at conferences or to participate in drafting the documents and contributing to the development of the human rights norms.
There are four major options for applying for the participation in the conferences and achieving a consultative status within the UN. According to the legalized standards for the participation in the international policy-making procedures, along with requesting for accreditation for participation in a particular conference, NGOs can “establish working relations with special bodies of the UN, associate itself with the UN Department of Information (DPI), or ask for consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the UN (ECOSOC)” (Aston, 2001, p. 944).
The consultative status with ECOSOC is the most promising opportunity among all the above-mentioned options, which presupposes the greatest amount of rights and privileges. Despite the well-organized procedures for requesting the accreditation, a number of NGOs consider the public criticism of their activities as a significant hurdle for their involvement into the international processes, which would limit their opportunities for receiving the accreditation and/or a consultative status.
With the growing importance of the Human Rights NGOs and their professionalization, the UN established the standardized procedures for requesting accreditation and considering the appropriateness of every individual organization.
The major requirements for receiving a consultative status include the proper competence of the societal player in the chosen field, the conformity with the UN Chart and well-organized inner structure (Aston, 2001, p. 947). NGO can receive a general consultative status in case its program covers a number of ECOSOC issues, a special consultative status in case its program focuses on several issues or a Roster if it does not meet the requirements of any of these two subgroups.
Every four years, NGOs are obliged to submit the reports on their activities so that the Committee could make sure that the activities of the organization continue meeting the requirements of ECOSOC. Disregarding the fact that these procedures are standardized and well-developed for the purpose of minimizing the risk of occurrence of the procedural mistakes, the decision-making mechanism for allotting a consultative status to NGO is often criticized.
The AIV, for instance, offers minimizing the existing procedures and establishing a single procedure controlled by the General Assembly (UNGA) (AIV, 2006, p. 36). The AIV believes that these measures could improve the current situation and have a positive impact on further interaction of NGOs and the UN.
Acknowledging the need for closer integration of the UNGA and the non-governmental sector is insufficient for developing future strategies for their collaboration and requires defining the most appropriate model for enhancing its effectiveness and establishing the proper limitations for the extent to which NGOs can influence the policy-making procedures.
Consensus between the structure of the UN and the NGOs’ input into its processes
Considering the growing importance of the NGOs’ contribution to the protection of the human rights by UN, on the one hand, and the growing criticism of the impact of the societal players on the UN policy-making processes, on the other hand, it is important to reach consensus, considering both aspects of the problem.
Preserving its intergovernmental body, UN should develop proper regulations which would allow NGOs contributing to the policy-making procedures but to the extent predetermined by the corresponding regulations. Deepening the involvement of non-state actors into the UN processes requires modification of the current institutional framework of UN.
For this reason, the views on the extent to which non-state players should be allowed to participate in the policy-making procedures differ significantly. States fear that further deepening of NGO participation would decrease the importance of their own role in the UN policy-making procedures. At the same time, the Article 71 limits the participation opportunities of the societal actors, defining their status and role as consultative.
Another important issue which should be taken into consideration for developing the appropriate interaction strategies is the possible misbalance between the representatives from the developing and developed country in the numerical sense. “Practice shows that ‘Western’ NGOs often advocate positions favorable to Third World countries” (Aston, 2001, p. 961). At the same time, considering the ethical and religious issues, this tendency would be regarded as violation of the rights of some member states.
The development of the model and regulations, which would allow the substantial contribution of NGOs to the policy-making processes and provide the necessary limits of their participation has proven to be a real challenge for UN, giving rise to the prolonged and intense debates. Deepening interaction of Human Rights NGOs and UN bodies requires taking into account the necessary modifications of the UN structure and the possible consequences of the imposed measures.
With the increasing importance of Human Rights NGOs’ role in the UN policy-making procedures, the extent to which these societal actors should be allowed to participate in the policy-making processes is debated. The development of the appropriate model and strategies for the effective cooperation of Human Rights NGOs and the UN requires considering both positive and negative impact of non-state players on the policy-making procedures and international regulations.
AIV. (2006). The Role of NGOs and the Private Sector in International Relations. Advisory Council on International Affairs Web.
Aston, J. (2001). The United Nations Committee on non-governmental organizations: Guarding the entrance to a politically divided house. EJIL, 12 (5): p. 943 – 962.
Breen, C. (2005). Rationalising the work of UN human rights bodies or reducing the input of NGOs? The changing role of human rights NGOs at the United Nations. Non-State Actors and International Law, 5: p. 101- 126.
Blitt, R. C. (2007). Who Will Watch the Watchdogs? Human Rights, Nongovernmental Organizations and the Case for Regulation. International Journal of Civil Society Law, 5(4), 8 – 96. Web.
Franklin, M. I. (2007). NGOs and the “Information Society”: Grassroots Advocacy at the UN—A Cautionary Tale. Review of Policy Research, 24(4), 309 – 330.
Martens, K. (2001). Non-governmental Organisations as Corporatist Mediator? An Analysis of NGOs in the UNESCO System. Global Society, 15(4), 387 – 404.
Martens, C. (March 2006). Professionalised representation of human rights NGOs to the United Nations. The International Journal of Human Rights, 10 (1): p. 19-30.