It is a lost opportunity for the UN and state diplomatic delegations to interact freely with civil society representatives who bring with them a wealth of expertise, on the ground experience and deep commitment to resolving global challenges in line with UN Charter principles.
By Thalif Deen
When world leaders, numbering over 150, make their annual political pilgrimage to address the General Assembly in the third week of September, the security at the world body is exceptionally tight.
And this year is no exception.
After two years of on-again and off-again lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Secretariat is back in full swing – but in a virtual high security war zone.
The weeklong high-level meeting is scheduled to take place September 20-26, but civil society organizations (CSOs) have been barred from the UN premises September 16 through 30.
Mandeep S. Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, told IPS the note (http://csonet.org/?menu=86) issued by the NGO branch of UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) states that “as per standing practice”, access to the UN premises is restricted.
From 16-30 September, says the circular, UN headquarters will be accessible only to UN staff and member delegations.
“Suspension of the annual and temporary grounds passes of NGOs in consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) during the UNGA session is not just perplexingly discriminatory but also counter-intuitive as it deprives the international community of the benefits of civil society engagement in times of immense mayhem, disruption and contestation globally,” said Tiwana.
It’s a lost opportunity for the UN and state diplomatic delegations to interact freely with civil society representatives who bring with them a wealth of expertise, on the ground experience and deep commitment to resolving global challenges in line with UN Charter principles, he argued.
“This cavalier attitude of the UN establishment once again highlights the critical need for civil society to have a champion within the system in the form of a UN Civil Society Envoy,” he noted.
Appointment of such an envoy, he pointed out, can help unblock bottlenecks that inhibit civil society engagement at the UN, promote best practices on people’s and civil society participation across the UN and also drive the UN’s outreach to civil society at the regional level.
During an event marking the 75th anniversary of the UN Charter in 2020, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said civil society groups were a vital voice at the San Francisco Conference (where the UN was inaugurated).
“You have been with us across the decades, in refugee camps, in conference rooms, and in mobilizing communities in streets and town squares across the world.”
“You are with us today as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. You are our allies in upholding human rights and battling racism. You are indispensable partners in forging peace, pushing for climate action, advancing gender equality, delivering life-saving humanitarian aid and controlling the spread of deadly weapons”.
“And the world’s framework for shared progress, the Sustainable Development Goals, is unthinkable without you”, he declared.
Still, all CSOs have been barred from the UN building during one of the most politically crucial General Assembly sessions.
Louis Charbonneau, UN Director of Human Rights Watch said: “As you know, the UN Secretariat has an unhelpful policy of barring civil society organizations (CSOs) from UN headquarters during high-level week, so we won’t be in the building. But we will be around to answer questions or do interviews, when possible, outside of UNHQ.”
“We’re also asking member states and the UN secretariat to end the senseless exclusion of civil society during one of the most important weeks on the UN calendar,” said Charbonneau.
In a subsequent email interview, he told IPS: “We have complained publicly about the terms of the UN General Assembly period ban on NGOs in the past, because it is arbitrary and sometimes extends past high-level week, which makes no sense”.
“We are now calling on the UN to end the UNGA period ban altogether.”
He said: “Our experience with the outrageous ban on civil society on the pretext of COVID-19 when everyone else – including tourists – was allowed back in the building made us realize there’s an urgent need for civil society to push back against attempts to marginalize NGOs at the UN.”
“The way COVID-19 was used to keep civil society out of the UN when diplomats, UN officials and journalists were allowed back in confirmed our belief that it is high time for us to push to end the UNGA high-level ban and other senseless restrictions.”
He pointed out that the Secretary-General’s “Common Agenda” is full of language about the importance of civil society.
“Now it’s time the UN made their actions reflect the rhetoric, declared Charbonneau.
Jens Martens, Director, Global Policy Forum Europe, told IPS the behavior of the UN and Member States towards NGOs has often been hypocritical.
“On the one hand, they praise NGOs and declare that engaging civil society in the work of the UN is a top priority. On the other hand, they restrict or even prevent access for NGOs, as just now during the high-level week of the UN General Assembly,” he said.
If Member States and the UN Secretariat are serious about their appreciation for NGOs, they should not treat them as potential security risks, said Martens.
“Instead, they should facilitate access and create better working conditions for NGOs at UN headquarters”.
The UN clampdown triggers the question: Are NGOs deemed security risks?
While visiting heads of state, heads of governments, foreign ministers, ambassadors and other diplomats are permitted to move around freely and avoid security checks, most UN staffers resident UN correspondents and visiting journalists are deemed security risks and their movements curtailed and subject to restrictions— while UN retirees are barred.
Failed 1964 bombing
Incidentally, the only “terrorist attack” on the UN came from the outside, not from the inside.
When the politically-charismatic Ernesto Che Guevara, once second-in-command to Cuban leader Fidel Castro, was at the United Nations to address the General Assembly sessions back in 1964, the UN headquarters came under attack – literally. The speech by the Argentine-born Marxist revolutionary was momentarily drowned by the sound of an explosion.
The anti-Castro forces in the United States, backed by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), had mounted an insidious campaign to stop Che Guevara from speaking.
A 3.5-inch bazooka was fired at the 39-storeyed Secretariat building by the East River while a vociferous CIA-inspired anti-Castro, anti-Che Guevara demonstration was taking place outside the UN building on New York’s First Avenue and 42nd street.
But the rocket launcher – which was apparently not as sophisticated as today’s shoulder-fired missiles and rocket-propelled grenades – missed its target, rattled windows, and fell into the river about 200 yards from the UN building.
One newspaper report described it as “one of the wildest episodes since the United Nations moved into its East River headquarters in 1952.”
As longtime U.N. staffers would recall, the failed 1964 bombing of the UN building took place when Che Guevara launched a blistering attack on US foreign policy and denounced a proposed de-nuclearization pact for the Western hemisphere. It was one of the first known politically motivated terrorist attacks on the United Nations.
After his Assembly speech, Che Guevara was asked about the attack aimed at him. “The explosion has given the whole thing more flavour,” he joked, as he chomped on his Cuban cigar.
When he was told by a reporter that the New York City police had nabbed a woman, described as an anti-Castro Cuban exile, who had pulled out a hunting knife and jumped over the UN wall, intending to kill him, Che Guevara said: “It is better to be killed by a woman with a knife than by a man with a gun.”
As a longstanding former UN staffer, long retired, remarked jokingly last week: “This must be the first known instance of gender empowerment at the UN.”
This piece has been sourced from Inter Press Service.