The Committee on Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) is an important one within the United Nations because it considers NGO applications for consultative status with the UN. This status is a valuable tool for international human rights advocacy, providing NGOs with access to a range of UN fora, including the Human Rights Council, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and its subsidiary bodies.
Alarmingly however, Committee members continue to oppose NGOs that hold views they do not agree with, or that have been critical of a government’s human rights record. Targeted NGOs include those dealing with sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), women’s rights, reproductive rights, minority issues, caste, and freedom of expression and association. They also include national NGOs working on human rights in countries that are not supportive of civil society.
The Committee met most recently at its resumed session in New York, from 21 to 31 May 2012, during which it granted consultative status to 129 NGOs and deferred the applications of 130. As in previous sessions, some of the more contentious moments concerned the applications of organisations that work on SOGI, which were impeded by continuous and often unfair questioning by Committee members. This article aims to provide details of the Committee’s deliberations on these applications. A more comprehensive review of the session can be found on ISHR’s website.
In response to the continued questioning of the Australian Lesbian Medical Association and Homosexuelle Initiative Wien by Morocco, Sudan and Russia; Belgium, Israel and the US spoke out to decry the obvious discrimination against these organisations. Belgium and the US expressed their hope that all questions had now been asked and that the Committee would grant status to these organisations at the next session. The US noted all delegations should be on notice and not use a procedural no-action motion to further defer consideration of the applications. However, it is worth noting the US and Belgium mentioned this at the previous session as well. In fact, this year marks the first since 2006 that likeminded members have not pressed the Committee to act by making a motion to recommend status for an NGO dealing with SOGI issues.
Australian Lesbian Medical Association (ALMA)
ALMA applied for ECOSOC status on 1 Feb 2007 but was first considered at the January 2010 session due to a backlog in applications and reports. Including the two questions asked at this session, the organisation has now received 52 questions. As in similar cases, Committee members took turns asking repetitive questions that go beyond the scope of what NGOs are required to submit with their applications. At the Committee’s January session, Sudan and Pakistan asked questions. At this session, it was Morocco and Russia. Israel, Belgium and the US spoke in favour of the application.
Israel noted the application has been deferred time and time again, and that ALMA is suffering the same treatment as all SOGI NGOs. Israel expressed concern with the Committee’s ‘extreme and irrational’ aversion to NGOs working on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. It also criticised the argument that LGBT is ‘undefined’, when the same states that make this claim have codified who belongs to these groups and how the state can sanction them.
Belgium said ALMA is a victim of discrimination simply because it is a SOGI organisation and its application has been deferred for reasons other than the criteria in ECOSOC resolution 1996/31. The US expressed serious concern that the Committee refuses to accredit by consensus any NGOs dealing with SOGI, despite guidance by ECOSOC that these organisations meet the criteria in ECOSOC resolution 1996/31.
Australia spoke as well, as the host country and an observer to the Committee. Australia deeply regretted the decision to defer the application, referred to the several rounds of questions and answers provided by ALMA from 2009 to 2012, and said ALMA should be granted ECOSOC status.
Homosexuelle Initiative Wien (HOSI-Wien)
HOSI-Wien applied for ECOSOC status on 31 May 2007 but was first considered at the January 2011 session due to a backlog in applications and reports. Including the four questions asked at this session, HOSI-Wien has now been asked 23 questions. At the January session this year it was Senegal, Morocco and Sudan asking questions. This time around it was Morocco and Sudan. The Holy See also spoke at both sessions. The exchange with HOSI-Wien was one of the more contentious ones at this session.
Among other questions, the Committee had previously asked that HOSI-Wien provide ‘if possible, a human rights definition of “sexual orientation” suitable for the United Nations, rather than a scientific one’ and that it include references to internationally adopted legal instruments. HOSI-Wien replied it could not provide a human rights definition but was ‘convinced it is the same as used in any scientific discourse, i.e. meaning heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual’. It referred to sexual orientation being a protected category in the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights (the EU Charter) and mentioned the UN has recently increasingly dealt with the issue ‘as the distinguished members of the Committee are undoubtedly aware of.’ This sparked a great deal of controversy in the Committee, with Morocco arguing at length that what is scientifically proven should not be equated with human rights, and that there is no agreed definition at the UN.
Both the US and Belgium reiterated the points made during the review of ALMA’s application. The US said it hoped the Committee would be ready to take action soon and not use a procedural no action motion as it had in the past.
The exchange in the Committee continued as Sudan agreed with Morocco, emphasising that all delegations have the right to ask whatever questions they want. Sudan also asked the NGO several new questions. Morocco eventually took the floor again to speak on the definition issue once more.
In its intervention on the discrimination against HOSI-Wien, Israel referred back to its previous statement about ALMA. This caused great commotion as Israel was interrupted several times and delegations argued back and forth over points of order, with Morocco arguing Israel was wrong to refer to another application in its intervention.
Eventually the Holy See also spoke to object to HOSI-Wien’s response to an earlier question on whether it ‘has an age limit in mind when it refers to sexual orientation’. In the course of its reply, HOSI-Wien mentioned that the only state in Europe with a lower age of consent than Austria is the Vatican, where it is fixed at 12 and they ‘can only speculate why it is so low in the Vatican.’ The Holy See said this was false and said the NGO reply was wrong and defamatory, questioning whether it could contribute to the UN when making such egregious mistakes.
Austria spoke again in favour of the application, noting that despite a lack of universal or global societal consensus and existing differences on LGBT issues, it is not the task or mandate of the Committee to discuss the substance of these issues.
Autonomous Women’s Center (AWC)
Another case to note is that of AWC, an NGO based in Serbia that focuses on violence against women. AWC applied for ECOSOC status on 24 May 2010 and stated in its application that its aims and purposes included, amongst other things, the ‘active decrease of multiple discrimination of women (Roma women, women with disabilities, women with psychological disorders, history of psychiatric and/or prison institutions, refugees, foreigners, rural women, women without residence, lesbians, women living in poverty, unemployed, older women, etc.).’
The reference to lesbians has led to repeated questioning by Committee members over the years about this aspect of its work, as well as unrelated questions designed purely to delay consideration of the application. The NGO has repeatedly stated in its answers that its focus is not SOGI but violence against women.
Some Committee members, including Pakistan, pursued a line of questioning over several sessions related to the fact that the NGO referred erroneously to a ‘UN Declaration on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (2008)’, asking them to provide the correct terminology regarding negotiated outcomes of UN documents regarding SOGI. Presumably, AWC was referring to the General Assembly Statement on Human Rights, Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, 18 December 2008. Israel and the US pushed back against further questioning by Pakistan, saying nothing was being asked specifically of the NGO and it should not be required to answer questions it does not have the capacity to answer. The US emphasised the NGO has clarified the focus of its work is not SOGI. The application was then approved.
Article supplied by the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR). ISHR is a non-governmental organisation based in Geneva, Switzerland, with a branch office in New York. The organisation aims to support and facilitate the work of human rights defenders with the United Nations human rights system and regional human rights systems. For further information or reporting from ISHR, visit www.ishr.ch