United Nations

UN reform tied to NGO access

UNITED NATIONS - Among the key points to emerge from a 30 April meeting on increasing UN access for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) was a conviction that effective reform of the United Nations system hinges on its willingness to accommodate greater participation by civil society.

"No reform can take place without civil society." 

—Bella Abzug, co-chair of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO)

"No reform can take place without civil society," said Bella Abzug, co-chair of the Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), an NGO which has played a critical lobbying role at recent UN conferences. "NGO representatives should be on all task forces for UN reform. Unless that happens, all of the wonderful partnership experience we've had, from Rio de Janeiro to now, will be thwarted."

Likewise, Maurice Strong, head of a task force on UN reform, indicated that his report will stress the importance of NGOs.

"The UN realizes that there has been an immense transformation in the whole role of governments and government bodies," said Mr. Strong. "It is too much to suggest that governments are not the main bodies. They are and will continue to be. But they are no longer as inclusive in their ability to affect events, and the reality is that the activities that determine the quality of life in the human community take place in the organizations that you represent."

NGOs currently have access to many UN bodies. In particular, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which oversees UN social and economic programs, has granted more than 1,500 NGOs the right to be present, to lobby, and to make statements to certain committees and agencies under its authority. The Department of Public Information (DPI) allows another 1,500 NGOs to observe some types of UN meetings. And many onetime events or conferences, such as the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, have set up their own procedures for access.

The main decision-making body of the UN, the General Assembly, does not offer formal access. But the growing influence of NGOs, exemplified at major UN conferences like the Earth Summit, has led many to suggest that governments must allow access to the UN's main bodies. The General Assembly itself has established a working group headed by Ambassador Ahmad Kamal of Pakistan to examine this idea.

Amb. Kamal, who addressed the NGO-sponsored meeting, warned that some governments are leery of increased access. "The highest levels of the UN have recognized that there is a constructive role to be played by NGOs," he said. "The problem arises because, in the subconscious of many member states, there is a feeling that the debate is one about power-sharing."

Little will be resolved until Amb. Kamal's working group completes its work - and the General Assembly itself turns its attention to the issue, possibly after the 52nd Assembly convenes in September.

However, events at June's Earth Summit + 5, which was itself a "special session" of the General Assembly, appear to bode well for the possibility of increased access. At the Summit, NGOs were allowed access to many meetings, and 12 speakers representing NGOs and other "major groups" - such as youth, farmers, business groups and indigenous peoples - were allowed to make statements from the same podium as heads of state.

Ambassador Razali Ismail, President of the General Assembly, said after the Summit that he was "very happy" to see such participation. "One of the important features of this Special Session is that we have been able to bring the non-governmental sector right into the plenary of the General Assembly," he said. "This is a milestone."