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NGOs & the United Nations

October 25, 2011

Just as misguided as the naive idealism regarding NGOs is the hostility toward them found among a minority of delegates to the U.N., who argue that NGOs are arrogant and unrepresentative. Some delegates from democracies say NGOs have little legitimacy when compared to governments acting as the voice of their voters. Other delegates from authoritarian regimes say diplomacy is the prerogative of sovereign states and that NGOs have no legitimate role to play in global policymaking. Some ultra-nationalist regimes label NGOs as the agents of a Northern neo-imperialism or assert that free association and free expression are not in accord with so-called “Asian values.” In practice, a few NGO leaders may be arrogant, but the great majority are not. A few represent no more than themselves, but the majority of them speak for a significant constituency.

That is Peter Willets writing on the role of NGOs at the UN at the World Politics Review.  I’d add that some delegations are composed of industry reps, so NGOs can also find hostility because the delegations are serving narrow interests.

And for those interested in doing civil society work at the UN, Willets gives a nice description of the work:

Today, about 3,400 NGOs are recognized by the U.N., and over time their participation rights have increased. They receive all U.N. documents and circulate their own statements to government delegates. They hold their own meetings as “side events” to the official proceedings, and they can often make their own oral presentations at the start or the end of the diplomatic meetings. At times, they even table their own agenda items and open the debate. Overall, NGOs exercise far greater rights at the U.N. than they do at parliaments within individual countries…

The U.N. provides three monitoring mechanisms for NGOs to use. First, U.N. secretariats may be asked to produce annual reports on progress. NGOs with high status and high expertise can assist the secretariats in the production of these reports, produce parallel reports or generate media attention and coverage of the reports. Second, specialized U.N. conferences often have five-year review conferences, and global treaties usually include articles for regular conferences of the parties (COPs). These often require governments to prepare their own reports on progress made, and they can at times generate media interest, with journalists seeking NGO assistance in writing their stories. The third and strongest mechanism occurs when the U.N. establishes specialist committees. These meet annually with the sole purpose of reviewing the implementation record of each government over a regular reporting cycle. Again, NGOs are built into the review process and can hold governments to account, both in the committee work and in the media.

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