UN Member States Should Accredit Blocked Human Rights Groups

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The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meets at the UN Headquarters in New York, February 27, 2018.
© 2018 Luiz Rampelotto/Sipa via AP Images

United Nations member countries in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) should vote next week to grant UN accreditation to six human rights organizations whose applications have been unfairly blocked for years by Russia, China, and other abusive governments.

On July 21, ECOSOC’s 54 members will vote on whether to grant UN consultative status to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Diakonia in Sweden, No Peace Without Justice in Italy, the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, and two US-based organizations – the Syrian-American Medical Society and the Wikimedia Foundation. The six are among hundreds whose applications have been stuck in UN limbo due to interminable questioning from some members of the UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (the “NGO committee”). UN accreditation gives organizations access to many UN buildings, officials, and agencies – and to formally participate in numerous UN activities.

For example, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, one of Belarus’ oldest independent human rights groups, submitted its application for UN accreditation years ago. The Belarusian government has shut down its operations in Belarus as part of a wider effort to silence critical, independent voices. Belarus’ allies Russia and China have been using their seats on the NGO committee to keep the group out of the UN by repeatedly pushing to defer a decision, most recently in May.

While Russia lost an attempt in April to get reelected to the NGO committee and will be out on January 1, the committee will continue to be dominated by governments with records of severely restricting civic space. A number, such as China, Cuba, and Nicaragua, have abysmal records. The Chinese government has long used the NGO committee to prevent groups critical of China from being granted UN accreditation.

According to the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), in May the NGO committee had 586 applications for UN consultative status. Of those, 354 were deferred for further scrutiny. ISHR has noted that most applicants subjected to “disproportionate scrutiny” are human rights groups.

Fortunately, member countries can rescue applications from the NGO committee and force a vote in an ECOSOC plenary session, where rights groups stand a better chance of success.

Opening the UN’s doors to six more rights groups would be a step in the right direction. But it’s only a start. More rights-respecting governments should seek seats on the NGO committee to tip the balance against abusive ones. Otherwise, the NGO committee will forever remain the UN’s anti-NGO committee.

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