NGOs alarmed by Annan's call to reshape ties

SUNS #5228 Wednesday 6 November 2002

New York, Nov 4 (IPS/Akhilesh Upadhyay) - Secretary-General Kofi Annan's call to member states to take fresh stock of the United Nations' relationship with civil society has alarmed some groups, who hope that the world body does not give in to pressures from governments to limit their participation.

While acknowledging that U.N.-civil society interaction has grown tremendously in the past 15 years, Annan last week claimed that the U.N. system was under strain to accommodate an increasing number of non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

He said he was establishing a high-level panel to look into the issue.

"Much good has come from the contacts," Annan told the General Assembly on Wednesday. "At the same time, some real challenges have come to the fore, and we can all sense that it may well be time to look closely at what is working well and what isn't."

Annan made the remarks while presenting his reform report, Strengthening of the United Nations System, for discussion before the Assembly, which is expected to adopt it before Christmas.

The report points out the exponential growth in NGOs worldwide: the number stood at 35,000 in the year 2000. Within the U.N. system, more than 2,000 NGOs now enjoy consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the policy-making body that meets once a year, and about 1,400 are accredited by the department of public information.

As a result of this explosive growth, says the secretary-general, the system is showing signs of strain. "Many member states are wary of the government pressure to make more room for non-governmental organisations in their deliberations, while NGOs consider that they are not allowed to participate meaningfully."

Civil society leaders dismissed Annan's claim that the U.N. system is overstretched, seeing it as a sign that some people would like to limit their vigorous participation in the world body.

"While there is a certain grain of truth in it, the claim that NGOs have put strain is unsubstantiated," says Jim Paul of Global Policy Forum. "We have asked the U.N. - 'show us, give us examples of accredited NGOs straining the system'."

It is true that more than 2,000 NGOs are accredited by ECOSOC, says Paul, "but how many of them attend the meetings? The U.N. Secretariat has refused to provide us the details."

Annan's statement said that the rapid increase in NGO numbers has put U.N. facilities and resources under great pressure, so it is now "physically impossible to accommodate all non-governmental organisations requesting participation in United Nations conferences and meetings".

Paul believes that the secretary-general is being pressured by member-states to limit NGO participation. "I am not just referring here to governments that have less experience with vigorous civil society. But big democracies."

The United States, for example, does not want NGOs taking part on disarmament debates, he says, or "if the issue is about Iraq". The same is true, he adds, of other western democracies, depending on their interests.

Paul, who coordinates the Working Group on Security Council, an NGO, concurs with Annan that the NGO-U.N. dialogue has increased over the years.

The Working Group, for instance, meets one head of a New York-based foreign mission each week, and now plans to schedule similar meetings with foreign ministers.

But he labels the U.N. response "uneven", and says some officials feel discomfort because NGOs raise issues that may not always be agreeable to governments.

Annan's report says it is the prerogative of U.N. member states to define the extent of NGO participation in U.N. conferences and other deliberations.

"However," says Annan, "all concerned would benefit from engagement with civil society".

One representative says NGOs can bring particular knowledge and viewpoints that elevate discussions.

"We often are educating them as we specialise in one area unlike government delegates who are covering different areas," says Carol Schlitt of Planned Parenthood of New York City.

NGO participation at U.N. summits in Johannesburg, Cairo and Beijing, she argues, resulted in high-quality deliberations and greater sensitivity to issues. "The answer is not to limit the participation of NGOs, who have enriched the global dialogue through various coalitions, but to enhance their participation further through better reforms."

Schlitt says that NGOs voice dissenting views, often ignored by government delegates. Her group, Planned Parenthood, for example, stands for liberal reproductive laws both in the United States and abroad, a position that contrasts sharply with that of the Bush administration.

Schlitt says plans are afoot to allow more NGOs from developing countries to take part in U.N. activities.

The secretary-general's report points out a great imbalance in the numbers of NGOs from the industrialised and developing countries, with very few of the latter taking part in U.N. activities.

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