Concern at Global Trend to Restrict Civil Society

thEdmund Rice International is an ECOSOC accredited NGO working within the UN. This means that it can be active within the UN in a variety of ways. From its very inception, NGOs have been recognised as having had a major role to play within the UN, particularly with regards to human rights. Increasing restrictions on the work of NGOs and harassment of human rights defenders by States are particularly concerning.

Of particular concern is the restriction of civil society at the UN through an increasingly politicised and non-transparent accreditation process for NGOs. The accrediting committee is currently made up of 19 countries, several of whom, Russia, China and Cuba for example, often act to suppress the voice of civil society.

The system works in such a way that any committee member can defer the decision of accreditation until the next session by a single question. Members will also make deals to ask questions on each other’s behalf to further hinder the process or will work together to push a vote of rejection or “non-action” to prevent the accreditation of an NGO. One example of this is the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center who have been deferred on eight separate occasions through 38 questions put forward on behalf of Iran.

There are civil-society allies on the committee such as the US, however they can only do so much and only have so much political capital to expend on this issue.

You can read more about the struggles of the NGO accreditation process here.

The above example is symptomatic of a wider problem. Civil society around the world is increasingly being silenced through violence and suppression of rights. For example in Russia, Egypt  and India,  NGOs are required to register which gives the authorities the power to block overseas funding, freeze assets and even shut down organisations who do not register.   In Sudan, police forces use sexual violence to silence female human rights defenders.

In the past three years over 50 countries have introduced or enacted measures to restrict civil society.

According to the World Press Freedom Index only one third of the world’s countries have a fully free press.

In his most recent report the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders drew attention to reports of reprisals against those who have spoken to the United Nations, made statements, sent documents or messages, or cooperated with it. He noted that reprisals or the threat of reprisals can take very sophisticated forms and States themselves have become aware of the power of reprisals to muzzle human rights defenders or prevent them from speaking out.

Such attacks may take a variety of forms: personal threats or threats against members of defenders’ families, smear campaigns, death threats, physical attacks, kidnapping, judicial harassment, murder and other forms of police harassment or intimidation.

ERI is mindful of any potential risk associated with its engagement with the UN Human Rights Council. According to its staff security policy “local communities, through the local Advocacy Co-ordinator will be consulted in the drafting of any statements made by ERI at the UN (UPR submissions, Treaty Body submissions, Urgent Appeals to Special Rapporteurs etc). The use of any language that has the potential to pose a threat to the safety and well-being of members of the local community will be avoided in all ERI written and oral statements.”

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