NGO participation at the UN: A roadmap for reform


States committed to civil society participation at the UN should commit themselves to a roadmap for reform of the workings of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, the effective gatekeeper to such participation, writes Jean-Daniel Vigny.

By Jean-Daniel Vigny, Swiss human rights expert and member of the ISHR Board

States committed to civil society participation at the UN should commit themselves to a roadmap for reform of the workings of the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs, the effective gatekeeper to such participation, writes Jean-Daniel Vigny.

After being posted for 4 years - from 2007 to 2011 - in New York as a Swiss human rights diplomat to the UN, I would now like - in my capacity as a senior international human rights expert and member of the board of ISHR - to share my personal experience with the ECOSOC Committee on NGOs and to outline five key recommendations about how to improve its work at the political and operational levels

As an observer to the NGO Committee, I actively took the floor each year during its main and resumed session to support numerous Swiss NGOs or international NGOs based in Geneva – in particular human rights organisations - applying for consultative status to ECOSOC. I defended our NGOs when their representatives were on the podium to answer oral questions from the Committee and I myself sometimes even made comments and asked questions in the hope to help the NGO confronted with members of the Committee not favouring civil society. I also took the floor when our NGOs where confronted with odd questions or wrong critics on the quadrennial reports they have to present on their activities. I also had each year to defend one or two Swiss based NGOs threatened with a withdrawal or suspension of their consultative status by some members of the Committee. In most of such cases, it is impossible for the minority of the State members of the NGO Committee favourable to NGOs to successfully oppose such a decision. Thus, the only way out for the minority of the Committee is to oppose a withdrawal of the consultative status by reluctantly going for a consensus on a lesser evil, that is a suspension of the NGO for 2 or 3 years. This works in general since the majority of the Committee prefers a consensus decision to a vote.

Since a majority of the NGO Committee usually has problems with NGOs from the North but is more positive towards NGOs from the South, in particular so called Governmental NGOs, it took as a general rule - with some positive exceptions - Swiss-based NGOs at least 3 sessions (this means one year and a half as a minimum) to obtain consultative status to ECOSOC. And the worst case scenario was reserved to NGOs concentrating on a country-specific human rights situations, on women issues, in particular sexual and reproductive rights of women, on LGBTI rights, on minority issues, on caste, on freedom of expression and association, or on the abolition of the death penalty. In such cases, the majority of the NGO Committee members filibuster literally for years with a range of procedural tactics, including endless and repetitious questions, in order to stall or deny requests for consultative status, going even so far as to table a no action motion when confronted by a proposal to take action.

So, my first recommendation to Ministries of Foreign Affairs positively inclined to civil society participation at the national and international levels is to ask their missions in New York to attend each session of the Committee and to commit themselves for their own NGOs. And believe me that is alas not the case yet since very few States do 'démarche' NGO Committee members bilaterally or take the floor to defend their NGOs. I also urge the few big international NGOs represented in New York, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and FIDH,to also attend the biannual sessions of the NGO Committee and be active or at least witness the way the majority of the Committee treats civil society.

An NGO applying for consultative status could also encourage the State where it is based to be more active in the Committee, including by asking parliamentarians to request the government to champion their application. And one should not forget that ECOSOC with 54 members compared to the 19 of the NGOCOM has occasionally overturned negative decisions by the Committee thanks to strong lobbying by Member States favourable to civil society! But this should be more often the case, especially when the majority of the the Committee refuses through a no action motion to take a decision on a long overdue application for consultative status.

My second recommendation is to rally a large group of supporters for a common cause, the EU and the rest of WEOG and other friendly States of civil society from the East European Group, GRULAC, the African Group and the Asian Group. And I would dearly hope that many national and international NGOs from the world at large join the campaign to invest in reform of the system by joining the campaign for improved membership and modalities of the NGO Committee.

My third recommendation is to break the status quo of quasi permanent membership to the NGO Committee by some States not favourable to civil society by starting a wide international campaign in New York, Geneva and capitals by inciting States positively inclined to civil society to apply for membership to the Committee! There are indeed many such States in the WEOG, the East European Group,  GRULAC and several ones in the African Group as well as a few in the Asian Group.

My fourth recommendation is a rather difficult one: since several rules of procedure and methods of work set out in ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 have been misinterpreted by a majority of the NGO Committee, ECOSOC could develop an ‘interpretative guide’ for the Committee on the application of ECOSOC resolution 1996/31. Another option would be to consult progressive States on the possible inclusion - in the ECOSOC yearly resolution on the NGO Committee - of a paragraph calling for all applications for consultative status to be forwarded to ECOSOC for decision within a 3 years limit, thereby short-circuiting the present practice of repeated deferral of many applications.

My fifth and final recommendation is to continue to share cases of denial or repeated deferral of consultative status as reprisals with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association and Assembly and to pursue implementation of his recommendations to strengthen NGO participation at the UN and in other multilateral fora. We could also encourage the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders to study, report and make recommendations as to the reform of the NGO Committee, including in relation to the misapplication of ECOSOC resolution 1996/31.

Finally let’s make ISHR’s Practical Guide to the UN Committee on NGOs known to the national and international civil society at large in Geneva, New York as well as in regions and cities of the world!

This is an edited version of remarks delivered by Jean-Daniel Vigny at an event co-hosted by ISHR and the Australian Mission to the UN in Geneva on 22 April 2015.


  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • NGOs
  • ECOSOC Committee on NGOs