Civil Society

At the UN, governments and civil society try a new mode of interaction

Historic “Informal Interactive” hearings with civil society focus on core issues of UN reform, poverty, human rights, and security; the advancement of women emerges as a critical theme.

UNITED NATIONS – Policy-makers at the United Nations are increasingly talking about the links between three core issues: poverty reduction, human rights, and peace and security.

But at an historic series of hearings with civil society in June, representatives of non-governmental organizations also reminded UN diplomats of another critical theme: the advancement of women.

The three core areas were still seen by NGO representatives as important, to be sure, and very much linked. But over two days of “Informal Interactive Hearings with Civil Society” on 23-24 June 2005, the issue of women was brought up repeatedly.

“Poverty is a function of human rights violations and a source of conflict,” said Betty Murungi of the Kenya-based Urgent Action Fund for Africa. “Unequal gender and power relations exacerbate poverty and violence against women.”

The hearings were designed to solicit input from global civil society in advance of the Millennium Plus Five World Summit meeting scheduled for September's General Assembly opening. The Summit will review progress made towards the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Attended by about 200 active participants and 1,000 observers, the hearings were divided into four sessions, each covering one of the four broad issue areas outlined in UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's recent report on UN reform, “In Larger Freedom.”

Those four sessions were “Freedom to live in dignity” (human rights), “Freedom from want (poverty reduction), “Freedom from fear” (peace and security), and “Strengthening the United Nations” (UN reform).

The focus of civil society representatives, however, was largely on the draft “outcome” document for the Summit, which world leaders will discuss and finalize in September.

Moreover, it quickly became clear that the division of the hearings into four topical sessions was almost superfluous, inasmuch as the remarks of civil society representatives quite frequently ranged widely over all of the issue areas, demonstrating that all of these issues are interconnected.

In the “Freedom from fear” session, for example, Catherine Barnes of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict said that human rights “must be at the center of all efforts to promote peace and security.”

“We believe that the sustainable security of the state can only be based on the security of people,” said Ms. Barnes. “We therefore welcome the recognition given by the Secretary-General and the General Assembly in its draft outcome document to the interconnectedness of threats and the need to simultaneously advance development, security, and human rights.”

Diverse range of views

Unlike many previous encounters between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the UN, which were often limited to the creation of a consensus statement or declaration, the June hearings were designed to allow civil society groups to express a diverse range of views.

Each three-hour session opened with five-minute statements by about seven or eight representatives chosen to reflect geographic and issue-area diversity. That was followed by a free-ranging “discussion” in which a select group of 40 to 50 “active participants” were allowed to raise their hands and make two-minute statements or points. UN diplomats, too, were encouraged to make “interactive” statements — and over the course of the two days ambassadors from some 22 countries did so.

As might be expected from such a format, the points and counterpoints that were made covered a wide range of topics, from the role the global business community can take in post-conflict reconstruction to the concerns of indigenous groups.

Overall, however, it was clear that many participants felt strongly about the importance of human rights, not only for their own sake, but also as the key to development and the promotion of peace and security.

The UN's own report of the hearings, issued about a month after they took place, said: “A key theme that emerged in all the interactive sessions was the emphasis on a human rights-based approach to development, peace, and security and the need to elevate human rights within the United Nations. Human rights are binding obligations on Governments and encompass political, economic, social and cultural rights.”

Numerous organizations backed the creation of a UN Human Rights Council as a means to strengthen the UN's emphasis on human rights. As well, the importance of the advancement of women was a recurrent theme in all of the sessions.

“Another major message was that gender equality, empowering women and protecting the human rights of women, including ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health and rights and ending violence against women, were prerequisites for achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” said the UN in its 21 July summary report on the hearings.

Indeed, the importance of considering the needs and rights of women was emphasized repeatedly by civil society groups. This theme also gave the hearings perhaps their most emotional moment, when a woman from the Philippines representing the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women broke down and wept as she talked about the problems faced by women who have been forced into prostitution.

“Prostitution is one form of violence against women that threatens the security of women and all human beings,” said Alma Bulawan of UNANIMA International and the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, her voice wavering as she gave a two-minute intervention.

“Our collective hope is for freedom from fear, freedom from violence, and freedom from prostitution,” said Ms. Bulawan, who then stopped, in tears and unable to continue.

Ms. Bulawan's statement prompted comments from several UN ambassadors about the need for a greater understanding of human needs in the work of the UN.

“These organizations have reminded us throughout the morning of something which is critical,” said a member of the UN delegation from Cameroon . “They have reminded us that all of our actions must deal with human beings — that human beings must be at the center of all of our concerns.”

Historic opening for NGOs

UN officials said the hearings were historic in that they represented the first time that the UN General Assembly as a body has held a meeting solely for the purpose of hearing directly from such a large number of civil society and non-governmental organizations on such a wide range of issues.

“It is not the first time the General Assembly has heard the civil society perspective,” said Zehra Aydin, chief of the New York office of the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (NGLS), which helped to organize the event. “But it is the first time that the term ‘General Assembly hearing' was applied to this scale of a meeting, and this kind of a process.”

In the past, Ms. Aydin said, the General Assembly held various types of hearings or meetings that were open to and/or solicited the opinion of civil society.

“But the opinions that were heard were more or less like a panel discussion, and it didn't have a massive selection process behind it,” she said, explaining that NGLS worked for months with a committee of NGO representatives to solicit applications from around the world, striving then to choose participants who would reflect global diversity of opinion and activity.

Moreover, noted Ms. Aydin and others, the hearings were set up in an “interactive” format that, in theory at least, allowed UN diplomats to reply and respond to points raised by civil society representatives.

“Again, at various UN Summits, such as Johannesburg, multi-stakeholder dialogues have been held,” said Ms. Aydin. “But officially, at a proper meeting of the General Assembly, there has never been an interactive dialogue of this length, with so many participants. That is a first.”

Many of those who participated said they also felt the hearings were historic. “There is an overwhelming sense that it has been an historic breakthrough and that these types of meeting should continue,” said Pera Wells, acting Secretary-General of the World Federation of United Nations Associations, who served on the joint NGO-UN committee that organized the hearings.

Ms. Wells and others said one key feature of the hearings was that they allowed participants to express a diversity of opinions.

Often in the past, NGO and civil society interactions with the UN have taken the form of some kind of joint declaration by NGOs. In May 2000, for example, representatives of more than 1,000 NGOs from more than 100 countries spent five days here at the Millennium Forum to draft and approve an NGO Declaration for presentation to world leaders at the 2000 Millennium Summit.

“I think that while we felt the Millennium Forum was an interesting meeting to be at, it is not the way we want to regularly interact with the UN system,” said Rik Panganiban, communications coordinator for the Conference of NGOs in Consultative Status with ECOSOC (CONGO), which played an active role in helping to organize both the Millennium Forum and the June 2005 hearings.

“But this hearing allowed NGOs to come and really reflect their diversity,” said Mr. Panganiban. “A group on indigenous issues can bring up their legitimate concerns based on their own experience, and there was no need to fit that into another group's concerns, say, about climate change or youth issues.”

Not everyone who participated in the hearings, however, felt that they necessarily represented an advance in NGO-UN relations.

In his statement before the General Assembly, William Pace of the World Federalist Movement-Institute for Global Policy said he disagreed with those who called the hearing unprecedented.

“[I]n all due respect, the Millennium Summit and now the Millennium Plus 5 processes for NGO participation in the summits have been mostly symbolic, superficial, and are a retreat from the major advances we achieved in UN treaty and world conference processes over the last 17 years,” said Mr. Pace.

In a subsequent interview Mr. Pace elaborated, saying his concern was that the Millennium Summit and the upcoming Millennium Plus Five Summit lacked the kind of preparatory committee meetings that marked the global conferences of the 1990s. Those preparatory meetings were characterized by extensive civil society involvement, often leading to dramatic changes in government outcome documents, he said.

“To say, in a summit process where there have been no preparatory meetings and no arrangements for NGOs, that this hearing is ‘unprecedented,' that is a pretty weak compliment,” said Mr. Pace. “This is a retreat from the progress we've made since the end of the Cold War where we had a much more effective preparatory process, which was much more inclusive of hearing the voices of NGOs, international organizations, and others, and integrating them into the decision-making process.”

Bahá'í Participation

For its part, the Bahá'í International Community had two representatives who were chosen to participate in the hearings.

On Friday, 24 June, Roberto Eghrari, from Brazil, gave a five-minute statement at the session on “Strengthening the United Nations,” saying Bahá'ís believe that the guiding principle that should animate UN reform “is the oneness of humanity, a spiritual principle that underpins the very nature of human reality.”

“We are one human family, and each member of the human race is born into the world as a trust of the whole,” said Mr. Eghrari. “It is on the basis of this recognition of our essential oneness that a process of reform can be successful.”

Mr. Eghrari also said that advancement of the role of women is an essential element in strengthening the effectiveness of the UN; that the Human Rights Commission should be greatly strengthened by creating a standing “Human Rights Council”; and that the capacities and diverse experiences of civil society must be included in all aspects of UN work — from decision making to on-the-ground implementation.

Diane Ala'i, the Bahá'í International Community's representative to the United Nations in Geneva, was also chosen as an “active participant” in the hearing on human rights, which was held 23 June.

In her two-minute statement, Ms. Ala'i also said the Bahá'í International Community supports the creation of a Human Rights Council. She added that such a council should continue to utilize so-called “special procedures” by which the current Human Rights Commission can create special rapporteurs who can monitor human rights in specific countries.

Ms. Ala'i also stressed the importance of maintaining the understanding that human rights are universal, as outlined in the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.