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A club of censors at the United Nations

The following is a 30 May 2014 guest post from the Human Rights House Foundation. By Florian Irminger.

In a discretion well known to diplomatic circles, the United Nations so-called Committee on NGOs is meeting in New York this week. It is to select which NGOs fit the institution. The 19-member body's aim could be to ensure a high-level and quality participation of independent NGOs to the United Nations - it is instead the 21st century censorship bureau.

Any governmental institution has to establish mechanisms by which participation of external organisations and lobbyists is regulated. The role of the Committee on NGOs of the United Nations is to look into applications of NGOs from all around the world. It is supposed to assess, case by case, whether the applicant NGO respects the Charter of the United Nations and abides by basic principles such as non-violence and democracy.

We know how much civil society has contributed to the development of the United Nations as such, and has been a force in pushing States to adopt a set of internationally binding standards to protect human rights and so many other issues. Access to the international bodies allowed NGOs to have a direct and formal input into the discussions. Unlike lobbyists at parliaments, representatives of NGOs can officially participate in the debates at the United Nations Human Rights Council. No need to be invited by an official or find strategies to get in contact with decision-makers. The access guaranteed to independent civil society, representing values and principles, not financial interests, is at the very core of the United Nations and a consequence of the organisation recognising it would be nothing if it had to count only on States to build itself and its standards up.

Some of those States are indeed the ones most willing to silence critical NGOs.

Throughout the globe, NGOs are fighting more and more for their own space in society, for their ability to work and defend victims of human rights violations. The work used to be all about those who lose their lives working as slaves, those who end up behind bars because of their beliefs, their engagement or their sexuality, those who lose their houses because from one day to another a ruler wants the land or a country believes it has the absolute right over it. Human rights defenders used to give body and soul to those people, and to so many others. Now, we need to include that we need to challenge governments shrinking the ability of those fighting for rights - human rights defenders need more and more to fight for themselves and their own space.

The United Nations should be an arena of dialogue aspiring to protect victims and promote peace. To do so, various voices are needed at the table. However, those who shrink space for civil society at home certainly do not want to see them at the table in New York or Geneva, or at any other international forum for that matter.

Along with inter alia Cuba, Pakistan and Venezuela, China and Russia are long-standing members of the Committee of NGOs. Both can proudly wear a label of censorship. Following President Vladimir Putin's third election in March 2012, the country is undergoing a wave a repression and has adopted some of the most draconian laws against independent civil society. Dissenting with the Chinese regime is at the cost of one's life, safety and integrity. The same behaviour is being observed by China and Russia at the Committee on NGOs - the institution is its tool to repress those the countries' leadership do not agree with. And the consequences are grave. As world powers and permanent members of the Security Council, the two countries are already immune to critics within the UN on their rights record. The repression against political activists, human rights defenders and their NGOs, should have brought both countries to the centre of debates at the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly. It did not because they effectively prevent critics from getting into the room. Other States are now following the same strategy; one cannot believe that Azerbaijan, which will become a member of the Committee in 2015, shows a genuine interest in NGO participation in the international debate when it jails those who want to monitor public life in Azerbaijan, such as the leader of the country's only independent election monitoring group, Anar Mammadli.

Member States of the Eastern European Group in the United Nations (the geographical groups are one of the legacies of the post world war era) should have run against Azerbaijan and Russia. Many of those Eastern Europe States are within the European Union. The Union was a step behind others by omitting to see that its willingness to promote rights and democracy in its direct neighbourhood will be affected by leaving a censorship tool in the hands of people who enjoy it.

Western countries have on their side left Turkey run unopposed for the Committee. The country has singled itself out recently, from all members of the Western European and Others Group, in blocking access to social media, especially Twitter. The single fact that a leader believes the power held in his hands allows him to block freedom of expression on the media of one's choice should imply that that leader's government is not to participate in the selection of civil society organisations participating in shaping the international arena.

Within the protected compound of the United Nations in Manhattan, the Committee on NGOs is this week looking into accepting those NGOs nobody will oppose, whilst blocking those NGOs publicly and forcefully engaging for human rights, including rights of people belonging to minorities or espousing minority beliefs. States should stand up for the space for critical NGOs. They might have the numbers and if they do not they are on the honourable side trying to support those NGOs that deserve to be at the United Nations. There is no shame in losing against censors - there is one in not trying to oppose them.

This article was originally posted on 30 May 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

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