The Conference of NGOs (CONGO)
The Story of
Strengthening Civil Society
Engagement with the United Nations
W ritten and com pi l ed b y
Ren at e Bl o em
Is ol da Ag a zz i
Ph il ipp e D am
T a b l e o f c o n t e n t s
1 . I n tr o d u c ti o n 3
2 . L e g a l ba si s fo r t h e c o n su l ta ti o n o f NG Os w i th i n th e UN sy ste m 4
3 . T h re e ge n e ra ti o n s o f UN – c i vi l so c ie ty re la ti o n s 5
4 . E vo l u ti o n o f CONG O’ s r e l a ti o n sh i p w i th th e Un i te d Na ti o n s 6
5 . T h e W or l d S um m i t o n th e I n fo rm a ti o n S o ci e ty 8
6 . T h e c i vi l so c i e ty fo r a i n th e re g i o n s a n d a t UN Hea d q u a r ter s 12
7 . T h e M i l le n n i um + 5 16
8 . Hu m a n Ri g h ts 19
9 . L e sso n s l e a r n e d 22
10. Co n c l u si o n 26
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1. I n t ro d u c t i o n
The Conference of NGOs in Consultative Relationship with the United Nations (CONGO) was founded in
1948 to safeguard the rights of NGOs in consultative status, on the basis of article 71 of the UN Charter
providing that the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) “may make suitable arrangements for
consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence”.
ECOSOC established such arrangements by Resolution 288B (1950); revised by Resolution 1296 (1968)
and then fully replaced by Resolution 1996/31 (1996). Thus, for nearly 60 years, CONGO has actively
facilitated and promoted the participation of civil society organizations in the work of the United Nations and
its agencies. More recently, CONGO has been successful in helping influence and democratise further
global decision-making processes by ensuring a more strategic participation of the entire NGO community.
Today, CONGO reaches out to NGOs around the world to facilitate and enhance their efforts to cope more
effectively with important matters dealt with in UN fora. It seeks to raise and strengthen national NGOs‟
voices at global as well as regional levels in support of the consensus reached at major world conferences
and exemplified in the Millennium Summit Declaration and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
With more than 500 members representing the large diversity of NGOs (many of which are umbrella
organizations themselves), at all levels (local, national and international), and dealing with all major civil
society issues, CONGO is a truly global organization and is well recognized as a most effective interface
between the UN and NGOs.
CONGO‟s main purpose is to be a primary support for civil society, represented by informed, empowered
and committed NGOs. It aims at enabling these NGOs to fully participate together with the UN in decision-
making and the implementation of programmes leading to a more just, peaceful, diverse, sustainable,
socially and economically responsible world. CONGO believes that a global civic ethic, based on core
values that can unite people of all cultural, political, religious or philosophical backgrounds, should be the
bedrock for global governance. Such governance should be underpinned by the observance of human
rights, gender equality and true democracy at all levels and ultimately by the rule of enforceable law. The
UN is the principal intergovernmental body and the centre of policy formulation in the areas of economic
and social development, peace and security. In order to give the governed an opportunity to be a party to
these processes and their outcomes, it is crucial for NGOs and civil societies to actively participate at all
levels of UN policy mechanisms. CONGO can provide this access.
CONGO‟s strategic goals are to enhance: Dialogue to build partnership and synergy; Outreach, to meet, in
particular, the needs of the global South; Training and Capacity Building; Global Communications and
Member Services. Partners in carrying out CONGO‟s mandate are: CONGO members, other NGOs with
ECOSOC accreditation status, major groupings of civil society organizations, other intergovernmental
organizations and the United Nations, in particular the NGO Sections of the Department of Economic and
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Social Affairs (DESA) and of the Department of Public Information (DPI), and the Non-Governmental
Liaison Service (NGLS).
CONGO’s General Assembly
The General Assembly is the most important organ of the Conference. It is convened every three years with
a view to establishing CONGO‟s policy for the following triennium. The Assembly elects an individual as
President and 20 member organizations that are to serve on the Board.
CONGO‟s 22 General Assembly was held in Geneva, Switzerland, from 4 to 6 December 2003 at ILO
Headquarters. Its proceedings focused on the theme: Inclusive Global Governance: Challenges and
Opportunities for CONGO in Partnership with the United Nations. The general debate included discussions
relating to contextual problems facing the United Nations and NGOs. The meeting also offered an
opportunity for a dialogue with members of the UN-Civil Society High-Level Panel and a debate on the
Millennium Declaration and Development Goals.
Four Commissions dealing with Peace, Security and Disarmament; Human Rights; Sustainable Human
Development; and Information and Communication Technologies - all topics including both gender and
ethical values perspectives – helped deepen the discussions and prepare for guiding CONGO into the next
CONGO does not take position on substantive issues. However, it has established NGO Committees in
Geneva, New York and Vienna that work on substantive issues in compliance with the objectives of the UN
Charter. These issues range from human rights to development, peace and security, spiritual values and
the status of women. Committees are independent. Details on them and their activity reports can be found
at CONGO‟s website: http://www.ngocongo.org.
2. L e g a l b a s i s f o r t h e c o n s u l t a t i o n o f NGOs w i th i n t h e
UN s ys t e m
Several provisions established in the UN Charter and by ECOSOC pertain to the participation of NGOs in
the activities of the United Nations. National, sub-regional, regional and international NGOs may be granted
consultative status at ECOSOC pursuant to:
Article 71 of the UN Charter
“The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-
governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence. Such arrangements
may be made with international organizations and, where appropriate, with national organizations after
consultation with the Member of the United Nations concerned”. It is in this article that the term “non-
governmental organization” (as opposed to “association”) was spelt out for the first time in an official UN
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ECOSOC Resolution 1968/1296 provided a first specification of the modalities of NGO accreditation.
However, under that resolution, only international NGOs could obtain consultative status and their
possibilities of participation were still limited.
ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31
ECOSOC follow-up Resolution 1996/31 opened the door for accreditation of national and regional NGOs as
well, with the proviso that “their aims and purposes are in conformity with the spirit, purposes and principles
of the UN Charter”. It encouraged the accreditation of NGOs established in developing countries. Obtaining
consultative status was henceforth conditional upon the NGO having an established headquarters, a
democratically adopted constitution, an assembly, an executive organ, and a representative structure being
accountable to its members and nominating authorized representatives to speak in its name at the UN.
The consultative status is granted by the Committee on NGOs1, an ECOSOC standing committee made up
of 19 member states meeting two to three times a year in New York. The Committee may also suspend or
withdraw consultative status, particularly in cases of “unsubstantiated or politically motivated acts against
Member States of the UN incompatible with those purposes and principles”.
There are three different categories of consultative status: general, special and roster, for a total number of
almost 2900 NGOs at the time of writing. ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31 also sets the modalities of
accreditation, to UN conferences, of NGOs that are not in consultative status.
3. Th re e g e n e ra t i o n s o f UN – C i vi l S o c i e t y re l a t i o n s
Article 71 of the UN Charter set, in 1948, the legal framework for the relationship between the UN and
NGOs. Since then, that relationship has evolved considerably. Tony Hill, Head of UN NGLS, distinguishes
three generations in UN – civil society relations2:
The first generation
The first generation, which spans approximately from 1945 to the end of the Cold War, consists almost
exclusively of international NGOs having consultative status with ECOSOC. The Cold War frequently led to
a paralysis in the deliberations at the UN, thus creating an environment that was not conducive to strong
NGO participation in the activities of the Organization. NGO fora were therefore organized in parallel to
international summits, but were rather autonomous, having only little impact on intergovernmental
deliberations. An important exception was the participation of NGOs in the North–South dialogue held under
the auspices of UNCTAD during the 1970s and at the beginning of the 1980s to promote a New
International Economic Order. NGOs contributed however to the standard-setting in human rights. They
also helped specify the rules of accreditation outlined in more detail in ECOSOC Resolution 1968/1296.
Currently the members of the Committee on NGOs are: Angola, Burundi, China, Colombia, Cuba, Dominica, Egypt,
Guinea, India, Israel, Pakistan, Peru, Qatar, Romania, Russian Federation, Sudan, Turkey, UK and USA.
Tony Hill, Three generations of UN – CS relations, Padova, Italy, 2004 – paper written for a seminar on global civil
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The second generation
During the 1990s, at the end of the Cold War, the UN organized a series of world summits that gave rise to
a new type of relations with NGOs, not only with international, but especially with national and regional
NGOs active in both Western and Southern countries and, to a lesser extent, in the former Eastern bloc.
NGOs started to develop a strong interest in UN work as several of the conference themes tended to
receive ample attention at the international level, but which still needed to be conveyed at the national level.
In contrast to the first generation of NGOs, these new national and regional NGOs sought direct
involvement in intergovernmental deliberations and, through lobbying and the mobilisation of support, to
influence intergovernmental conclusions. New forms of transnational and international organizations started
to emerge, such as Oxfam, the Third World Network and the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.
This trend was perceived as the emergence of a “global civil society”, leading to its participation in
international deliberations (“democratisation of global governance”) and seeing the UN as backbone of a
new international architecture. It is also at that time that the private sector increasingly expressed interest in
a dialogue with the UN.
In light of this evolution, the UN redefined its relations with NGOs in 1996 by means of a new ECOSOC
resolution which paved the way for accreditation of national NGOs as well. The number of NGOs that
subsequently requested consultative status grew exponentially during the following years (from 744 in 1992
to almost 2900 in 2006). It is indicative, in that context, that more than 700 NGOs participated in the World
Summit on the Information Society. NGOs of the second generation tend to have a more “political”
character and seek to democratise the process of decision-making at the global level (“global governance”).
They have pursued an expansion of their operational relations with the Secretariat itself and the UN
agencies. UNDP, WFP, UNICEF, FAO, UNFPA and other agencies finance programmes and projects in
developing countries through direct collaborative arrangements with NGOs, contrary to what was happening
in the past when funds were often exclusively allocated to government agencies. This new approach has
been chosen even more frequently for the delivery of emergency and humanitarian assistance.
Towards a third generation
Today we are witnessing the emergence of a third generation of NGOs and hence of UN–civil society
relations: coalitions of governments and “like-minded” CSOs (such as those in support of the International
Criminal Court and the International Convention to Ban Landmines) as well as various forms of multi-
stakeholder partnerships, public–private sector partnerships such as the Global Compact and the more than
200 “Track II” partnerships launched in Johannesburg, or those concluded at the World Summit on the
It needs to be pointed out, however, that many NGOs see these new forms of partnerships sceptically,
particularly the involvement of the private sector.
4. E vo l u t i o n o f CON GO ’ s re l a t i o n s h i p w i t h t h e UN
The account of the evolution of CONGO‟s relationship with the UN follows the same approach
(differentiation between generations of NGOs) used in the preceding chapter.
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The first generation
CONGO was founded in 1948 to safeguard the rights of NGOs in consultative status and has, since then,
been an advocate for civil society. At a time when the Cold War paralyzed the activities of the United
Nations and gave rise to endless debates at the General Assembly (GA), CONGO provided a platform for
NGOs from the East and the West to meet and look for common positions. It is interesting to note that, by
an unwritten rule, half of the twenty CONGO Board members were NGOs from Western countries and half
from the former Eastern bloc.
The second generation
NGOs were not allowed to participate at the World Conference on Human Rights in Teheran in 1968, held
to celebrate the 20 th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In response to this refusal,
CONGO organized, in Paris, the first NGO Forum in conjunction with a UN summit. Since then, it has
insisted that, whenever UN summits are to be organized, NGOs in consultative status be automatically
invited and invitations also be extended to NGOs not in status, but with relevant expertise on the subject at
stake. CONGO was most notably present at the ground-breaking conferences in Rio, Beijing, Vienna,
Durban, Johannesburg, Geneva and Tunis.
Lessons were learned from the process leading towards the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna
in 1993. CONGO, having established an NGO Preparatory Committee, had not been sensitive enough to
include experienced human rights actors from different regional and diversity issues backgrounds. It was
consequently accused of being insensitive to cultural diversity and trying to impose a single voice on NGOs.
Since then, it has sought to adopt consistently a bottom-up, participatory approach reflecting the diversity of
sensitivities and opinions of NGOs participating at its meetings. It has been careful to present its positions
as emanating from a general consensus among NGOs and never pretended to “represent” or even
“coordinate” NGOs, nor to speak “on their behalf”. CONGO emphasizes nowadays that it sees its mission
as a facilitator and creator of space for NGOs to speak with their own voices.
At the World Conference against Racism in Durban (2001) CONGO participated actively at the NGO
Forum, being responsible for space allocation and events held in the international tent. CONGO helped
organize and chair the morning briefings for NGOs, during which space and opportunities were given to
different caucuses to express their views and have an impact on the proceedings of the Conference.
Throughout the Conference it consistently sought to pursue a vision of tomorrow, of changing mentalities, of
recognizing and respecting the „other‟.
2nd World Summit on Sustainable Development (Johannesburg, South Africa, 2002)
After the Rio Conference the “major groups” participation approach was meant to be adopted for the
participation of civil society at the Johannesburg World Summit, including both NGOs and the private
sector. The outcome of that Summit was considered by some a success, by others a failure, depending on
the issue and the geographic perspective . The World Summit had to tackle an unusually complex agenda:
the combination of social and economic development issues with environmental protection topics inevitably
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rendered negotiations difficult. The methods of work applied to track I (government negotiations) and track II
(partnerships with civil society) were innovative, although suspicious to many NGOs, fearing that
Governments tried to shy away from their responsibilities, leaving too much leeway to the private sector.
Civil society‟s impact on the Conference was fragmented, due to a variety of factors, including time
constraints as a result of long distances between the different venues. CONGO was a member of the
International Steering Committee set up to organize the People‟s Forum. It tried to liaise between those
NGOs working as „major groups‟ (however limited) at the Government Convention Centre at Sandton and
hundreds of NGOs meeting at the Global Peoples‟ Forum at Nasrec. CONGO also negotiated successfully
with governments and UN officials to avoid an NGO boycott or walk-out after security officials had denied
them access to the Convention Centre.
The third generation
The adoption of ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 and the subsequent exponential increase in the number of
accredited NGOs confront CONGO with an enormous challenge as it seeks to reach a certain degree of
coordination between them to attain maximum impact, while preserving every NGO‟s specificity.
The NGO world is characterized by a large diversity in their constituencies, many of which insist on
preserving their individual positions. However, in order to be accepted as partners by governments and not
to get bogged down by unmanageable agendas, they need to rationalize the pursuit of their objectives.
Despite initial mistrust and open opposition by some large and experienced NGOs, CONGO has
successfully acted as an honest broker among fellow civil society entities to achieve concerted action. That
approach has proven particularly beneficial in the context of the following events:
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS);
The civil society fora organized in the regions and at UN Headquarters;
The Millennium + 5 process; and
Human rights activities.
5. Th e Wo rl d S u m m i t o n t h e I n f o rm a t i o n S o c i e ty ( WS I S )
The World Summit on the Information Society, the most recently held UN global summit, constituted a
historic breakthrough in UN-NGO relations. For the first time, a Civil Society Bureau was self-established by
civil society constituencies involved in the Summit, as a counterpart to the intergovernmental bureau, for the
preparation and conduct of the Summit itself. Thus, the WSIS approach took the format of a multi-
stakeholder tripartite model and helped establish an exchange platform between governments, civil society
and the private sector. The promotion and the practical application of the multi-stakeholder approach in an
international political process are considered as one of the essential outcomes of the Summit, giving a
strong legitimacy to the WSIS process. During both Phase I and Phase II of the Summit, civil society entities
benefited from most favourable conditions for their participation in the decision-making process in terms of
access to policy documents and meeting spaces, modalities of interaction during the negotiation of the
outcome document and the inclusion of marginal groups.
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Civil Society’s self-organized structure
One of the main achievements of civil society entities during the WSIS process was, with CONGO‟s strong
support, the establishment of a civil society self-organizing structure. The Civil Society Plenary, fully
inclusive and open to participation for all civil society entities accredited to WSIS, was the ultimate decision-
making organ for civil society and the main organ for joint civil society initiatives and actions. More than 30
regional and thematic civil society caucuses and working groups, put together by groups of NGOs working
on the same issue, dealt with the gathering of substantive content, the drafting of statements and joint
official submissions, and the strengthening of joint lobbying strategies. A Content and Themes Group was in
charge of coordinating and strategizing the essential initiatives of these working groups. It notably
coordinated the drafting of an independent Civil Society Declaration “Shaping Societies for Human Needs”
at the end of Phase I and the Civil Society Statement “Much more could have been achieved” at the end of
The Civil Society Bureau dealt with procedural issues and organizational arrangements to facilitate civil
society contributions to the process. It worked closely with the intergovernmental bureau and the WSIS
Executive Secretariat. The Civil Society Bureau was composed of 20 members representing various groups
of civil society. CONGO led the process of identification, by each of the NGO groups, of a focal point
nominated to serve on this new Bureau. CONGO also played a moderator function and a leading support
role in the work of the Civil Society Bureau, servicing its meetings and implementing its initiatives, in
particular during Phase II of the Summit. In addition to meetings taking place during PrepComs, civil society
entities established list-serves and websites for dialogue and a transparent working process between the
official meeting periods. CONGO provided through these list-serves regular information and reports on the
ongoing negotiations processes, while leading several consultations on procedural and organizational
This bottom-up dynamics within civil society constituencies accredited to WSIS was one of their most
successful contributions to the Summit. It brought greater visibility to civil society‟s shared positions and
joint actions during the negotiations processes, while guaranteeing transparency, diversity and quality of the
civil society contributions. It promoted facilities for gathering and information-sharing for all civil society
entities, thus encouraging the exchange of experience and ideas as well as the creation of new networks
among civil society participants during the preparatory process and at the Summit. Civil society working
methods were hailed by most governments and NGO/CSOs as a major step forward. They also caught the
attention of the media and were widely reported in the press.
The WSIS experience of working together, overcoming the diversity of civil society entities and their
sometimes opposing interests, brought to CONGO a new vision of its role within civil society processes.
The modern nature of the issues addressed by the Summit and the development of ICT-based working
methods at the global level contributed to a better understanding, by CONGO, of the challenges and
opportunities facing civil society at large, even beyond WSIS. The WSIS process will certainly impact on
how CONGO will approach multilateral processes within the UN and promote building common
understanding and consensus among NGOs.
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WSIS Phase I, Geneva Summit, Switzerland, 8 - 12 December 2003
CONGO played a central role throughout the preparatory process of the Summit: Renate Bloem, President
of CONGO, served on the Civil Society Bureau since its creation during PrepCom-2, to ensure the effective
inclusion of civil society in the negotiations process. The secretariat and support services for the Civil
Society Bureau were provided by the Civil Society Division of the WSIS Executive Secretariat. Rik
Panganiban, CONGO Communications Coordinator, organized the WSIS Civil Society News Centre, a
website presenting the most up-to-date news and views of civil society organizations involved in WSIS. The
News Centre fed information and analysis of the negotiations to civil society groups around the world and
published their views and proposals.
During the Summit‟s Phase I the News Centre was hosted on the WSIS-online website4, thus significantly
increasing the visibility of civil society's positions and proposals. CONGO organized several parallel events
on critical issues, such as the eradication of poverty, human rights, interfaith dialogue and combating
HIV/AIDS. These events served to highlight their relation to the Information Society, bringing together key
actors in civil society, UN agencies and governments to discuss these issues. CONGO‟s President also
spoke on behalf of civil society at a welcome ceremony sponsored by the Swiss Government. Isolda
Agazzi, Senior Programme Officer, briefed at a side event on the NGOs‟ contributions to the implementation
of the MDGs.
WSIS Phase II, Tunis Summit, Tunisia, 16 - 18 November 2005
A reform of the working methods of the Civil Society Bureau in December 2004 entrusted CONGO with the
support and servicing activities for the Bureau until the conduct of the Tunis Summit. CONGO committed its
staff to ensure that adequate facilities be available for civil society during the Summit‟s Phase II as well. It
subsequently played a strong facilitating role for the 606 NGO entities (more than 6000 civil society
participants) registered for Phase II.
CONGO regularly liaised with senior management of the WSIS Executive Secretariat and the chairperson
of the intergovernmental bureau, with a view to ensuring a proper information flow between these and the
civil society constituency. It organized well attended orientation sessions at the beginning of each meeting
of the Preparatory Committees and prepared a comprehensive “Orientation Kit” in collaboration with UN-
NGLS and with financial support provided by the NGO HIVOS. A first version of that 50-page document was
circulated to civil society participants during PrepCom-3 in September 2005. An up-dated version, as well
as a French-language version, were made available on the occasion of the Tunis Summit.
As mandated by the Civil Society Bureau, CONGO assumed the responsibility for managing sensitive
issues for civil society constituencies. This task included the establishment of a close dialogue between
NGOs and the WSIS Executive Secretariat on the modalities of implementation of the Summit Host Country
Agreement. Tensions between NGOs focusing on the issue of human rights violations, particularly the lack
of freedom of expression in the host country, and the Tunisian Government persisted during the entire
WSIS process. CONGO‟s attempts to enter into a dialogue with Tunisian government officials were not
successful and a hoped-for lessening of restrictions did not occur. While the Summit itself was well
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organized and no incidents occurred within the Summit‟s premises, repression outside to prevent meetings
in support of Tunisian independent civil society continued. CONGO organized and supported a major part of
the media coverage of civil society participation at the Summit.
CONGO facilitated the achievement, by civil society, of a broad consensus to have an independent civil
society statement. The CONGO President delivered a statement during the first plenary session. CONGO
also organized a parallel event on “Civil Society Best Practices to Bridge the Digital Divide”, featuring high-
level UN officials and grassroots organizations as speakers.
The Tunis Summit left behind a complex follow-up structure. It created the Internet Governance Forum and
requested ECOSOC to oversee the overall follow-up within the UN system. It entrusted UN agencies with
facilitating the multi-stakeholder thematic implementation at the international level. ECOSOC was also
asked to enhance the responsibilities of its existing Commission on Science and Technology for
Development (CSTD) with the additional mandate of WSIS follow-up (implying an expansion of that
Commission). More recently, the UN Secretary-General established the Global Alliance for ICT and
Development (GAID), an open multi-stakeholder mechanism for advancing the UN development agenda,
including the pursuit of the MDGs, through ICTs.
ECOSOC and the CSTD
A series of open consultations between February and May 2006, convened by the ECOSOC President,
paved the way for negotiations on the review of the CSTD by ECOSOC. CONGO pleaded to open the
CSTD process for more stakeholders, in particular for WSIS-accredited entities, even if these were not
holding ECOSOC accreditation status (only 10 percent of all civil society participants in WSIS had
ECOSOC status). In parallel, CONGO held informal talks with the Executive Director of the WSIS
Secretariat and UNCTAD (providing the secretariat to the CSTD), to ascertain their support and identify
future opportunities for NGO participation.
ECOSOC‟s Working Group, chaired by Ambassador Janis Karklins, met in parallel to the annual ECOSOC
Substantial Session between 11 and 27 July 2006. CONGO was eager to ensure that civil society
representatives could observe and contribute to the Working Group‟s negotiations in an open and
transparent way until a consensus could be achieved. The consensus text admittedly contains rather weak
wording, having no provision, however, that would oppose the inclusion of civil society. The CSTD reform
thus paves the way for a follow-up process in an intergovernmental body that uses the multi-stakeholder
approach. The agreed final text contains constructive provisions, including interim modalities for the
participation of WSIS-accredited civil society entities at the next two sessions of the CSTD. Its first session
is to be held after its review in May 2007.
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Global Alliance for ICT and Development (GAID)
GAID is conceived as an open multi-stakeholder forum composed of representatives of governments, UN
agencies, civil society and the private sector, with a small secretariat at UN/DESA. Membership is open to
all parties with a relevant work focus. GAID is governed by a Strategy Council, a small Steering Committee,
to which the President of CONGO has been appointed, and is assisted by a High-Level Advisory Group and
a Champion‟s Network.
The Global Alliance stands for the implementation of an innovative multi-stakeholder model, working in an
inclusive, dynamic and bottom-up manner, opening great challenges for the commitment of civil society
actors and other stakeholders in the use of ICTs in the pursuit of the MDGs. CONGO will continue to play a
leading role in supporting the strengthening of the Global Alliance and the achievement of its goals, as well
as in the mobilization of civil society actors for its activities.
6. Th e c i vi l s o c i e t y f o ra i n t h e re g i o n s a n d a t UN
He a d q u a rt e rs
Reaching out to the people in the regions is one of CONGO‟s most important strategic activities. The UN
goals have to be conveyed to all stakeholders irrespective of their location. They must be given the
opportunity to express their views which, in turn, need to be channelled to international decision-makers.
CONGO has organized major civil society gatherings in the regions, targeting both NGOs in consultative
status and those that are not familiar with the UN system. With the general objectives of democratizing
global governance and contributing to achieving the MDGs, these fora were tailored to take into account
regional realities and local needs and organized together with local counterpart NGOs. So far, one forum
has been held in Africa, two in Asia and one in Latin America. A fifth forum is currently being prepared; it is
to take place in Africa in March 2007.
African Regional Consultation, Kampala, Uganda, 1998
The African Regional Consultation of NGOs, held in Kampala, Uganda, in 1998 was the first of CONGO‟s
outreach activities. In response to the keen interest expressed by African NGOs during consultations with
CONGO, four development themes were selected: “health and reproductive health”, “human rights and
gender equality”, “peace and conflict resolution” and “democracy and good governance”. The discussions
cut across thematic boundaries and revealed, inter alia, the dynamism of women‟s contributions and the
centrality of women‟s concerns for the future of African societies. The consultation on each thematic area
revealed many difficulties African NGOs encounter in their operational environment.
The African Civil Society Forum, to be organized by CONGO together with its partners in Addis Ababa,
Ethiopia, in March 2007, will be held under the theme: “Democratizing governance at the regional and
global levels to achieve the MDGs”. The Forum targets around 300 participants and is to address the
following issues: “peace and human security”, “governance and human rights” and “development: trade,
finance, debt relief and investment”.
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Asian Civil Society Forum, Bangkok, Thailand, 2002
The Asian Civil Society Forum was held in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 2002, focusing on the theme:
UN/NGO Partnerships for Democratic Governance: Building Capacities and Networks for Human Rights
and Sustainable Development. Its objectives were:
To promote cooperation and solidarity among NGOs in Asia engaged in advocacy activities at the UN;
To raise awareness among Asian NGOs of the MDGs and to assess their contributions to the MDGs‟
To facilitate proactive dialogue and debate among NGOs on issues pertaining to UN/NGO partnership
for democratic governance;
To provide NGOs with practical and innovative training in advocacy activities at the UN;
To assess the implementation and impact of UN conferences in Asia, such as the UN Millennium
Summit 2000, the World Conference against Racism (WCAR) 2001 and the World Summit on
Sustainable Development (WSSD) 2002; and
To develop NGO strategies to ensure that government pledges made at UN conferences be fully
The Forum was a success: A gathering of 572 participants from 33 countries exceeded everyone‟s
expectations. The particular situation in Afghanistan and the urgent need to strengthen that country‟s
emerging civil society made four Afghan NGO representatives attend the Forum. Most NGOs had come by
their own means (CONGO had been able to fund 148 participants), which was proof of their interest in the
issues and of the timeliness of the Forum. Participation was balanced in terms of gender and geographical
distribution, even though some countries came with relatively large “delegations” such as India, the
Republic of Korea and the Philippines, hence countries with strong and vibrant civil societies.
Most of the NGOs attended although they had no UN accreditation - hence were not CONGO members,
many of them participating in an international conference of this kind for the first time. Judging from the
scope and nature of the organizations represented, the objective of reaching out to grassroots organizations
that are active especially at the local and national levels seemed to be attained. However, most of the
participants‟ background implied that they had not been particularly active in advocacy work within the UN
system. The Forum therefore provided a much-needed opportunity for exposure to and learning about the
workings of the UN in relation to the many global issues that find their expression at the local and most
basic level in society. At the end of the Forum, most participants expressed serious interest in developing
international advocacy work geared towards the UN.
NGO Forum on the ECOSOC High-Level Segment on Rural Development, Geneva,
CONGO had been asked by the ECOSOC Secretariat to organize for the third consecutive year an NGO
Forum preceding the ECOSOC High-Level Segment (HLS). The theme of the Forum, as well as the one of
the HLS, was: “Promoting an integrated approach to rural development in developing countries for poverty
eradication and sustainable development”. The Forum took place in Geneva, Switzerland, on 27 June 2003.
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The purpose of the Forum was to bring to the attention of the HLS the recommendations of NGOs that were
to flow into the debate and the Ministerial Declaration. The Forum gathered some 100 participants, about
half of them being NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC, and hence already used to the functioning of
UN mechanisms and aware of advocacy activities of NGOs. The other half represented NGOs without
consultative status, which therefore had not had previous UN exposure.
The programme was clustered around five thematic subjects focusing on rural areas: poverty eradication;
agricultural development and food security; the promotion of health, water and sanitation; participation and
decentralization; the promotion of women and gender equality. Speakers had been selected along the
criteria of geographical and gender balance and on the basis of their experience/relevance in working in
rural development. The panellists had been asked to present concrete recommendations that were then
summed up by the general rapporteur of the session. These recommendations were subsequently
transformed into a declaration that the CONGO President presented to the ECOSOC HLS. The declaration
was well received by the audience which applauded the concerns and aspirations of NGOs.
Latin America and Caribbean Seminar, Santiago de Chile, Chile, 2004
CONGO organized a seminar for Latin America and the Caribbean in Santiago de Chile from 1 to 4 June
2004 with the theme: “Partnerships for a New Era: Achieving the Millennium Development Goals”. The
seminar was attended by some 130 participants, representing 120 local, national and regional NGOs from
Achieving the MDGs by 2015 was considered by many an impossible and unrealistic objective. The second
report released by the UN Secretary-General on the Implementation of the Millennium Declaration
(September 2003) indicated mixed perspectives for their achievement at a worldwide scale. The prospects
for Latin America and the Caribbean were, however, encouraging as most of the regional indicators showed
improvements during the 1990 – 2000 time-span.
The Latin American Seminar was a further stepping stone on the way from commitment to implementation.
It helped gain momentum in the process of awareness-raising of NGOs and civil society organizations in
Latin America, to alert the people of their region that their governments had committed themselves to halve
poverty, reduce child mortality, empower women and achieve universal primary education within a specific
timeframe and that this process was being monitored by the UN. The seminar provided an opportunity to
help participants learn more about the MDGs and about avenues for NGOs to contribute to their
achievement. It produced a concrete Plan of Action that was seen as a strong commitment to mobilize the
governments of the region, in cooperation with UN agencies, to increase their efforts to reach the MDGs.
The Santiago Plan of Action explicitly requests governments to include the MDGs in their national
strategies. It underlines the need for fostering good governance at the national level – through
transparency, accountability, participation and decentralization – by requesting governments to:
1. Clearly specify which government agencies are responsible for implementing each individual MDG;
2. Establish an agenda for monitoring the decentralized pursuit of the MDGs;
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3. Disseminate reports on MDGs to a large variety of segments of society, including especially the
media. It is considered imperative for civil society organizations and the media to join forces to raise
the awareness of and educate public opinion. The Plan of Action specifically states that the power of
information helps demand accountability from governments;
4. Involve NGOs in designing policies to achieve the MDGs and in the reporting on their implementation.
CSOs active in the region want to participate in the elaboration of pertinent indicators for monitoring
the attainment of the MDGs and in reporting thereon. They stress the need to “get each country
redefine and construct its indicators, as the 48 indicators were defined at the global level with no
participation of the regions or civil society”; and
5. Include the private sector to mobilize sufficient resources for achieving the MDGs.
Latin American NGOs advocated for a “change in mentality” that would help bring about changes in the
policies of international bodies. They intend to become protagonists of their own development and “stop
being poor and dependent on the rich”. They stress the importance of sustaining initially investments from
high-income countries in the areas of research and development, to be replaced progressively by public
and private sector investments. Knowledge – human intelligence – was seen as the highest economic and
social value. In general, the Plan of Action underlines the importance of shaping the MDGs to meet the
needs of local communities, to be responsive to specific socio-economic groups and cultural realities.
Civil Society Forum in conjunction with the ECOSOC High-Level Segment on Employment
and Decent Work, Geneva, Switzerland, 2006
The ECOSOC HLS in 2006 dealt with “Employment and Decent Work”. The objective of the Forum was to
produce recommendations that would be discussed with dignitaries and included in the HLS Ministerial
Declaration. It was imperative to give a concerted view on the issue at ECOSOC since many civil society
activists believe that globalization requires an appropriate international framework with the authority to help
implement the Millennium Declaration, including the MDGs. They also wanted to see included in the
conclusions a reference to the respect for human rights and particularly for core labour rights. The Forum
considered that ECOSOC – mandated by the GA‟s High-Level Meeting (September 2005) to act as the
coordinating body for development policies at the international level - should boldly take up its strengthened
mandate and strive for a consensus on how to best guarantee these rights.
The Forum‟s 306 participants, representing 80 civil society organizations from over 50 countries, took part
in the following six clusters:
1. Globalization and its impact on decent work, both in developing and developed countries (with a
special focus on labour migration);
2. Creating an enabling environment at the national level, conducive for growth and employment creation
(with a special focus on the informal sector);
3. Employment for women, youth and the elderly;
4. Human rights and employment for vulnerable groups: indigenous peoples, people with disabilities and
people living in post-crisis situations;
5. Employment in the rural and urban areas; and
6. New forms of employment (including e-employment).
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Speakers and workshop conveners had been identified for every cluster, taking into account geographical,
thematic and gender balance. African civil society organizations had expressed a particular strong interest
in participating and had been encouraged to do so by CONGO as the African region lags the furthest
behind in achieving the MDGs. Every cluster was divided into workshops focusing on specific issues that
reflected the substantive interests of the participants. The workshops‟ recommendations were synthesized
into cluster recommendations for debate and adoption by the Plenary. The final outcome recommendations
were presented at the HLS and discussed with HLS dignitaries and representatives of international
organizations on 5 July 2006 during an interactive luncheon.
Cluster 1 dealt with globalization issues and discussed how to achieve policy coherence between
international financial institutions, WTO and ILO. Tackling the issues of decent work, economic growth,
migration and development, the cluster emphasized that migration is the product of a new globalization that
has failed to achieve its goals of full employment and decent work.
Cluster 2 debated on working environments at national level and featured a workshop on quality public
services, with a special focus on the universal access to energy as a key factor for development. Major
issues discussed were: social dialogue and alliance building, labour standards and ILO‟s role in promoting
these key concepts, as well as presentations of country experiences and case studies cases.
Cluster 3 looked at the issue of decent work from a gender perspective, with an emphasis on discrimination
against women (particularly in Eastern Europe) and on “women in development”. Participants were invited
to equally consider other major topics such as: equality of opportunity for women, education issues,
trafficking and fight against poverty in Africa, youth employment and child labour.
Cluster 4 centred its debate on vulnerable groups with presentations by NGOs from war-torn countries and
by indigenous and marginalized people. One workshop focused on the issue of HIV/AIDS and decent work,
with an emphasis on the situation in Africa.
Cluster 5 addressed the theme of employment in rural and urban areas, covering issues such as the
informal economy and the roles of decentralized cooperation and of local authorities in employment
Cluster 6 dealt with new forms of employment, focusing on the use of ICTs and e-employment to provide
youth, women and deprived populations with decent work.
7. Th e M i l l e n n i u m + 5 p ro c es s
One of the most important tasks of NGOs is their “watchdog activity” which implies that (i) they remind
governments of the commitments taken at international conferences and of the treaties ratified and (ii) they
endeavour to monitor the implementation of such commitments and treaties. This process is illustrated by
the steps leading to the constitution of the Millennium Assembly and the adoption – and monitoring of the
implementation – of the MDGs. In May 2000, the Millennium Forum gathered, in New York, NGO
representatives from all continents to elaborate a declaration and an action plan that largely influenced the
adoption of an official Declaration by governments in September 2000, thus leading, in turn, to the adoption
of the MDGs, eight goals with objectives and indicators that best crystallise the engagements taken during
the 1990s in the areas of poverty eradication, health, education, gender, environment and international
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On 23 – 24 June 2005 the GA held its first ever hearings with representatives of civil society and the private
sector in preparation for the GA‟s High-Level Summit (14 – 16 September). The purpose of the hearings
was to obtain the views of some 200 organizations – and 1000 observers – on the four clusters of the
Secretary-General‟s report “In Larger Freedom”; i.e. freedom to live in dignity (human rights); freedom from
want (MDGs); freedom from fear (security) and United Nations reform. The conclusions of these hearings
were intended to be reflected in the Draft Outcome Document (DOD) of the GA‟s 60 session, also known
as “Millennium + 5 Summit”, that was to assess the implementation of the Millennium Declaration and the
MDGs five years after their adoption and endorse the Secretary-General‟s ambitious reform proposals.
The hearings, at which numerous Member States participated, were defined as an “historic moment” since
never before had the GA directly consulted CSOs and the private sector. They were chaired by the GA
President, opened by the Under-Secretary-General and closed by the Secretary-General. Ms Bloem,
President of CONGO, delivered a statement at the opening session.
The first cluster dealt with freedom to live in dignity, namely human rights. Generally speaking, NGOs
concurred with the Secretary-General on the principle that human rights must become the foundation of the
UN system and be given the same institutional status as security and development. The proposal to create
a standing Human Rights Council and to elevate it to one of the principal organs of the UN was welcomed
by many, who supported the idea that members should be elected by the GA with a two-thirds majority and
be seen as having demonstrated a genuine commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights.
Speakers insisted on the fact that NGOs be assured at least the same level of participation in the Council
that they presently have in the Commission on Human Rights. Due consideration should be given to
equitable geographical distribution in the Council, and it should be empowered to alert the Security Council
whenever urgent remedial action is deemed to be required.
Consensus was expressed on the need to strengthen the Office of the High Commissioner for Human
Rights, both by increasing its financial resources (which should be doubled within five years) and
diversifying its staff. The need was felt to take into account the situation of vulnerable groups, particularly
that of women, children, youth and indigenous peoples, when taking action on human rights issues. Several
NGOs regretted that the DOD did not adequately reflect women‟s human rights, especially at a time when
violence against women had become a high-priority issue of the international community.
NGOs conveyed the general dissatisfaction, during the session on freedom from want (MDGs), with the
prevailing approach to development that is centred on markets and not on human beings. NGOs advocated
for a paradigm shift from a neo-liberal approach to a human rights-based approach to development, arguing
that strengthening markets, liberalizing trade and producing goods primarily for export had proved to be
“disastrous”. Several speakers criticized the MDGs for “relying on the discredited notion that economic
growth can reduce poverty”.
More specifically, during the session on MDGs 1 to 7, speakers insisted on the interconnectivity of all
MDGs, that these must complement each other and cannot be treated separately. They argued that poverty
can be eliminated only through a genuine participation of the poor and called for the inclusion of particular
groups in the development and implementation of strategies to achieve the MDGs, especially the inclusion
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of indigenous peoples and youth. Women were seen as essential participants in such efforts. The DOD was
blamed for the disappointing way it treated women‟s rights, principally as the core actions for achieving the
equality of rights for women were well known . Local communities and grass-roots organizations being
other key stakeholders, it was recommended that 25 percent of national MDG-related budgets be allocated
to community-based projects and indigenous people.
NGOs insisted on the importance of environmental sustainability for the realization of the MDGs, pointing to
the need to increase agricultural productivity as one of the essential prerequisites. They proposed that the
DOD call for universal access to health care services and demanded a substantial increase in resources, to
reach at least $ 22 billion by 2007, to fight HIV/AIDS. They requested the elimination of school fees and
other barriers limiting access to education.
The session on MDG 8 witnessed strong NGO calls to resist the economic paradigm of “marketization” and
a policy framework that privileges the market over the state as “it gives priority to profits over the needs of
the people”. Several speakers considered MDG 8 being “full of contradictions”, including the assumption
that trade liberalization can solve the problem of poverty, to which they opposed the concept of “fair trade”.
There was a vigorous call for the UN reform process to strengthen ECOSOC so that the policies of the
World Bank, the IMF and WTO adjust to UN values. Noting that “social progress” had slowed down since
1999, it was urged to increase official development assistance without resorting to “cheap accounting
tricks”. Governments had committed themselves 36 years ago to meet the target of official development
assistance equal to 0.7 percent of gross national income, a target that is far from being met.
Local ownership of national development strategies and the need “not to impose global economic policies
on individual countries” (reference to the “policy space” of the Sao Paolo Consensus) were strongly
emphasized. It was pointed out that “Africa has to take its fate in its own hands, with a development coming
from within and not from without”. Economic growth was not seen as a means for poverty reduction as the
origin of poverty emanates from inequitable income distribution. Assistance should therefore not be given to
countries that do not adhere to democratic practices, concealing from their civilian population the actual flow
Some speakers challenged the importance given by member states and the private sector to foreign direct
investment, arguing that it often did not benefit the poor. They stressed the importance of corporate social
responsibility of transnational corporations and insisted on the need to protect workers‟ rights, along ILO‟s
four dimensions of decent work.7 There was a strong call for immediate and wide-ranging debt relief.
The session on freedom from fear – conflict prevention witnessed an enthusiastic endorsement of the
Secretary-General‟s call for the establishment of a Peacebuilding Commission to help countries in the
transition from war to a lasting peace. NGOs stressed that sustainable security is based on human security,
not on that of states, which required a shift from reaction to the prevention of armed conflicts. Women,
youth and disabled people are key stakeholders in any conflict prevention strategy and in any peacebuilding
measure. In line with the Secretary-General‟s proposal, NGOs endorsed the idea that, whenever prevention
These are: education; universal access to reproductive information and assistance; reduction of labour-intensive, time-
consuming tasks for women; improving inheritance rights; closing gender gaps in earning; increasing women‟s
participation in government; fighting violence against women.
Employment, basic rights at work, social protection and social dialogue.
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fails, the UN has the responsibility to protect the populations, particularly the most vulnerable, including
women, children, refugees and aboriginal people .
During the session on freedom from fear – peace and security some speakers argued that a non-
representative Security Council is a threat to international peace and security and that, therefore, the
international peace and security system must be democratized. It was proposed that a binding instrument
on the regulation of the flow and trade of small arms be adopted. The exploitation by multinational
corporations of mineral resources being often the cause of armed conflicts, it was underlined that the right
of indigenous peoples to self-determination be given due recognition. The plight of women in conflict
situations was reiterated as they are, together with girls, frequently victims of armed conflicts, threatened by
forced prostitution, trafficking and other forms of violence.
The session on strengthening the UN centred on the idea that “people, not power, must regain the priority
they deserve by taking back the UN”. Strong support was expressed again for a Human Rights Council and
a strengthened ECOSOC that should become a high-level development forum. It was argued that “for the
UN reform to be effective, there must be a re-invention of the World Bank and WTO and a coordination
mechanism with enforceable power over all intergovernmental organizations”. The wish was expressed to
abolish the right of veto in the Security Council. Tt was urged once more that gender equality be put into
practice at the UN as well, by nominating more women in visible roles.
8. Human Righ ts
The issue in which NGOs have probably become most involved in at the United Nations is that of human
rights. The Commission on Human Rights (replaced in 2006 by a Human Rights Council) was the ECOSOC
subsidiary organ to which NGOs had gained the best facilities for access. Thanks to the lobbying of NGOs –
and of CONGO in particular – these facilities are being maintained at the Human Rights Council. This
situation is probably due to the intrinsic nature of human rights, the initial affirmation of which aimed at
guaranteeing the freedom of the individual vis-à-vis the absolute power of the state. The paradox of human
rights lies precisely in the fact that they are set by states to self-restrain their sovereignty towards the
individual. Hence their protection would make no sense if NGOs – or associations of individuals – did not
have the chance to denounce the violations of their rights by the same states.
The number of NGOs in consultative status is growing steadily, thus leading to a consequential increase in
NGO participation in the Commission/Council. NGOs therefore need to self-organize themselves in order
not to present repetitive statements to the plenary. During the 61 session of the Commission (2005), 261
NGOs participated, represented by a total of 1946 individuals.
The NGOs‟ principal interventions at the Commission/Council take the following forms:
1. NGOs may present written statements (351 in 2005) and/or oral ones (473), the latter being limited to
six for each NGO for the whole duration of the session and to a speaking time of three minutes. In
“There is an emerging norm that there is a collective international responsibility to protect, exercisable by the Security
Council authorizing military intervention as the last resort …”
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order to avoid repetitions and to maximize their speaking time, NGOs are encouraged to present joint
statements (84 in 2006). Such interventions exemplify typical “advocacy” activities of NGOs in
2. NGOs may lobby national delegations to present or co-sponsor a given resolution. The real impact of
this lobbying activity depends on the preparedness of member states to act as intermediaries. Some
of them are known for being more “NGO-friendly” than others.
3. In addition to making statements in plenary, NGOs may organize parallel events that generally take
place during lunch breaks. Such events reached a record number of 153 in 2005.
The main challenge for CONGO at the Commission/Council is to guarantee a pragmatic quantum of
coordination between NGOs, most notably by encouraging qualitative rather than quantitative performance.
CONGO facilitates the participation of newcomers at the Commission/Council, mainly national and regional
NGOs. It routinely organizes training sessions on UN mechanisms, briefings and consultations to arrange
for concerted inputs by NGOs. CONGO liaises with the Bureau and other Commission/Council organs to
obtain the most appropriate opportunities for NGOs to speak. One of the greatest challenges for NGOs in
the human rights field are GONGO‟s – increasingly numerous government-organized NGOs or NGOs that
are not genuinely independent but controlled more or less discreetly by states.
The Commission on Human Rights
The Commission on Human Rights, created in 1946, had become the main body, both within the UN
system and at the universal level, dealing with the promotion and protection of human rights. It was a
subsidiary organ of ECOSOC, its 53 Member States being elected by ECOSOC for a period of three years.
Its six-week sessions once a year in Geneva were attended by delegates of Governments, NGOs and
national institutions as well as independent experts.
The UN Secretary-General, in his report entitled “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and
Human Rights for All”, released in March 2005, proposed to replace the Commission by a Human Rights
Council. He recognized in this report, which happened to be issued in the midst of the 61 st session of the
Commission, its unique contribution to the development and codification of international human rights law
and its “close engagement with hundreds of civil society organizations” which “provides an opportunity for
working with civil society that does not exist elsewhere” . However, he also acknowledged a situation that
NGOs had been denouncing for years, namely that the Commission had lost credibility and professionalism
and that “States had sought membership of the Commission … to protect themselves against criticism or to
The Secretary-General therefore suggested, with a view to doing away with this contradictory situation and
to elevating the issue of human rights to one of the three main pillars of the Organisation – along with peace
and security, and development – to replace the Commission by a smaller, standing Human Rights Council.
It was to become a principal organ of the UN – like the Security Council and ECOSOC – or, alternatively, a
“In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security and Human Rights for All”, para. 181.
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subsidiary organ of the GA, its members being elected by the GA by a two-thirds majority. Most importantly,
“those elected to the Council should abide by the highest human rights standards”.
This proposal put NGOs in a difficult position. On the whole, they favoured, in principle, a reform of the
discredited Commission. However, they also feared that they could lose, in the new organ, the rights
acquired at the Commission, for which they had fought for more than fifty years. Following the Secretary-
General‟s personal presentation of his reform proposal in Geneva, the Commission devoted an informal
session to a discussion of the issue, at which NGOs delivered three joint statements expressing their
concern10. GA Resolution A/60/251 establishing the Human Rights Council was finally adopted on 15 March
2006 in New York.
During the month of March CONGO organized NGO strategy meetings to discuss the agenda of the
Commission‟s last session. The Commission had started its work on 13 March 2006 only to adopt a motion
to suspend its work. NGOs had wanted the Commission to end its agenda in dignity and approve, at its last
session, two long awaited standard-setting instruments: the Convention on Enforced Disappearances and
the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Governments could, however, not reach consensus
on any substantive issue and decided to end the Commission‟s existence in a one-day procedural session.
A slot was to be given to one NGO to speak for all, to recall the history of the Commission from an NGO
perspective. CONGO convened another strategy meeting on 24 March 2006, during which it was concurred
not to accept this top-down decision of authorizing a single statement on behalf of all NGOs, but rather to
read a short non-statement emphasizing that this approach was unacceptable given the diversity and long-
standing participation of NGOs in the Commission. On 27 March 2006, the Commission thus ended its 62 nd
session and with it 60 years of human rights history in what NGOs called “a shameful funeral way”.
The way to the Human Rights Council
With the ending of the Commission‟s existence, both governments and NGOs focused on the establishment
of the Human Rights Council with considerable expectations. The GA President sent the GA Vice-President
to discuss with Geneva-based stakeholders ways for a smooth transition. CONGO arranged a meeting of
NGOs with him for in-depth discussions on the NGOs‟ positions. Many government representatives held
informal meetings also open to NGOs. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, acting as
Secretariat of the Council, held numerous consultations with NGOs on procedure, substance and NGO
participation in the Council. As this was the time before the election of Council members, set for 9 May 2006
at the GA, many governments lobbied during numerous consultations with NGOs to demonstrate their
support. The CONGO President was invited to speak at the opening session of the Committee on NGOs on
10 May 2006 in New York. She used the opportunity to arrange for an early appointment with the GA
President on 9 May 2006 to brief him on the ongoing positive consultations in Geneva. He invited her to
attend the election, on the same day, of the 47 Council members. All 191 member states participated,
electing the 47 members who, drawing on lots, were appointed for one, two or three-year terms.
On 19 May 2006, the Chair-Designate was elected President of the Council‟s first session. He helped
create an atmosphere of transparency and dialogue, by effectively consulting all actors, including NGOs, for
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the preparation of the agenda and methods of work of the Council‟s first session from 19 to 30 June 2006.
He invited the NGO community to provide him with three to five names of individuals or organizations to
speak during the official inaugural session. CONGO started a difficult process with many (including
regional) NGOs and succeeded in identifying five speakers from different regions, all known as human
rights defenders. One of them, Shirin Ebadi from Iran, could ultimately not attend. The others were:
Mr. Arnold Tsunga (Zimbabwe), Ms. Nataša Kandić (Serbia), Ms. Sunila Abyesekera (Sri Lanka) and
Ms. Marta Ocampo de Vásquez (Argentina). When taking the floor, they echoed the vision of many NGOs
and moved participants profoundly during the first session‟s ceremonial part. The High Commissioner called
CONGO in the evening to thank the speakers for their contributions and CONGO for identifying them.
Prior to the first session, on 12 June 2006, CONGO invited several key ambassadors and NGOs to an
informal discussion on how to address upcoming difficult issues in an attempt to help enhance the spirit of
dialogue among and with governments and NGOs. Detailed information on the above process, including
reports on the transitional period, the Council‟s first session and copies of letters of the President to the
Chair can be found at CONGO‟s website under the human rights and resources headings.
After three Council sessions in June, September and December 2006, the institution-building phase of the
Council has not yet been completed. One of the main tasks facing CONGO in 2007 will be in the area of
coordination, a difficult undertaking given the complexity and diversity of the pursuit of human rights.
9. L e s s o n s l ea rn e d
In light of the experience gained by CONGO during its almost sixty years of existence – and especially
since 2000, when CONGO‟s professional staff was strengthened, thus allowing a substantial expansion of
its activities – the time has come for a stock-taking of the lessons learned.
The current system of global governance needs to be democratized
The international system of governance is increasingly confronted with the phenomenon of eroding state
sovereignty while, at the same time, the role of multilateral organizations in international decision-making is
being enhanced. In this environment, pressure from civil society groups, NGOs and the private sector is
mounting with a view to further democratizing global decision-making processes by integrating more
decisively the positions of civil and non-institutional stakeholders into the shaping of global governance.
The current system of global governance is considered by many as undemocratic. Decisions are taken
increasingly by international organizations without the participation of peoples‟ representatives, be these
elected national parliaments or civil society organizations. Enhanced participation in international decision-
making processes is claimed especially by NGO representatives within the UN system and by several
international law experts. This situation is reflected by the Cardoso Panel on UN-civil society relations.
Under the leadership of the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan the UN embarked on an internal reform
process aiming at reinforcing its political legitimacy. He acknowledged, in his report "In Larger Freedom",
the need for increased participation of civil society in UN activities, reflecting the recommendations of the
Cardoso Panel. The 2005-2006 President of the GA, Jan Eliasson, expressed the same concern. In light of
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this state of affairs, it appears that the best approach for reinforcing NGO participation in global decision-
making processes is through a new modus operandi with the UN system. Thus an improvement of global
governance implies the opening of decision-making processes within the UN system to allow for more
The civil society fora organized by CONGO in the regions and at UN Headquarters aim at democratizing
global governance by empowering NGOs to participate more effectively in international decision-making
processes. Within the UN system, NGOs may be consulted by ECOSOC but not by the more political
organs, i.e. the GA and, above all, the Security Council. 11 Nor may NGOs bring a claim before the
International Court of Justice. NGOs are often excluded from negotiations and decision-making processes
of the World Bank and the IMF, which have an impact on the lives of billions of people around the world.
CONGO‟s activities therefore necessarily focus predominantly on ECOSOC. However, CONGO was given
the opportunity to address the opening session of the first ever hearings of the GA with civil society,
expressing the wish that these become the first of a long series. Since then, these hearings have been
institutionalized and take place every year on different subjects, such as, in 2006, on migration.
CONGO repeatedly expressed the wish to see the activities of the World Bank and the IMF supervised and
coordinated by ECOSOC. In that context, CONGO welcomes the enhanced role attributed to ECOSOC as a
result of the UN reform, more particularly the Annual Ministerial Review and the bi-annual Development
Cooperation Forum. Starting in June 2007, CONGO will organize annual civil society fora aiming at
providing a concerted input by NGOs for these new ECOSOC mechanisms and contributing to the MDGs
countdown reviews up to 2015.
The current status of NGOs within the international system needs to be enhanced
The growing importance of NGOs in the international scene has not been adequately reflected in
international law, or in the formal structure of international institutions. NGOs do not have an international
legal personality - the only exception being Convention 124 of the Council of Europe, entitled "Recognition
of the legal personality of international NGOs" (thus far only ratified by nine States). Hence, in the absence
of any remedial action, the gap between their international responsibilities and activism on the one hand,
and their legal standing in terms of international rights and duties on the other hand, is bound to widen.
Moreover, most UN subsidiary organs and agencies have their own accreditation mechanisms for NGOs,
thus adding to the complexity and limitations of the NGOs‟ working environment.
National, regional and international NGOs may be granted, within the UN system, consultative status to
ECOSOC in accordance with article 71 of the UN Charter and ECOSOC Resolution 1996/31. NGOs "in
status" may thus be consulted by ECOSOC or by any of its functional commissions (such as the former
Commission on Human Rights) on matters falling within their competence. This approach implies that
NGOs may merely be "consulted", while the decision-making authority rests exclusively with member
states. NGOs may therefore influence decision-making processes mainly through the following means:
a. Advocacy, by presenting to the sub-groups and the plenary statements voicing NGO positions on
Some limited access to these fora exists. Full access is however limited for NGOs to, usually, informal and ad hoc
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b. Lobbying, by seeking to convince individual delegations and "sympathetic" governments to include
constructive provisions into draft texts under negotiation;
c. Providing expert advice and testimony on scientific, technological or other highly specialized topics.
Despite the limitations imposed on NGOs in the conduct of their advocacy activities, their involvement
remains of primary importance. Their persuasiveness made governments commit themselves to adopt both
non-binding and binding instruments of international law. Examples of their achievements are the outcome
documents of world conferences such as the Rio Conference on Environment and Development (1992), the
Copenhagen Conference on Social Development (1995), the Beijing Conference on Women (1995) and the
GA Resolution containing the Millennium Declaration (2000). They helped accelerate the entry into force of
the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court following their worldwide campaign, as well as the
adoption of the International Convention to Ban Landmines and the almost universal ratification of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child, both of which can be attributed to their worldwide persuasive action.
Still, there have been cases of severely limiting the impact of such advocacy activities. A striking example is
the process from the GA hearings in June 2005 in preparation for the September High-Level Summit to the
limitations imposed on the contents of the final Outcome Document (see chapter 7). NGOs had contributed
valuable inputs which were incorporated, to a large extent, into the intermediate Draft Outcome Document
prepared by the GA President. Much of the proposed text was, however, subsequently deleted. Some
segments of the originally proposed text were then retained throughout the negotiations but were not
adequately reflected in the final Outcome Document. Many civil society organizations consider this
document as highly unsatisfactory because, inter alia, of its complete silence on disarmament and arms
proliferation, its vague commitments with respect to aid and the MDGs, its poor reference to women's rights
and its complete failure to address the reform of the Security Council.
Despite these set-backs CONGO advocates the approach that, although NGOs may not be allowed to
contribute to “decision-making”, they can certainly provide invaluable inputs for the process of “decision-
shaping” by governments. The influence of NGO statements and the impact of NGO lobbying, to have a
bearing on governments‟ decisions, is unquestionable and even growing, at least among “sympathetic”
governments. On the other hand, it must be underlined that the number of countries sceptical or even
hostile towards NGOs is still significant.
The granting of the consultative status needs to be de-politicized
Consultative status with ECOSOC has been granted since 1946, following screenings by the Committee on
NGOs, an ECOSOC Standing Committee now consisting of 19 member states, many of which have shown
serious shortcomings in the promotion of a genuine culture of civil society, democracy and human rights.
The granting of this status is often a highly politically-charged issue and, in the case of national NGOs, it
can even be subject to approval by the UN member state concerned. As a result, NGOs that are not legally
recognized in their home country, or NGOs that are considered too critical of their own government in
autocratic states, have little chance of obtaining consultative status, whereas GONGOs (government-
organized NGOs) tend to obtain that status easily. The serious problem of some 2800 NGOs currently
having consultative status, but a number of them not being independent NGOs, was acknowledged by the
Cardoso Panel on UN-civil society relations and by the Secretary-General himself. NGOs have long
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recognized the damaging interferences of GONGOs - most particularly at the former Commission on
Human Rights, where these tended to provide incorrect information on government policies and to "dilute"
the voices of the victims. It is difficult, however, to de facto sideline them without violating the legitimate right
of freedom of expression of all organizations. Some NGOs - including CONGO - have tried to tackle the
issue but, for the time being, no real progress could be achieved in this respect12.
These difficulties became evident during the recent second phase of the World Summit on the Information
Society: Independent Tunisian NGOs were unable to obtain accreditation to the Summit in their own name.
Accreditation was also refused for „Human Rights in China‟ - an NGO that has never been accredited to a
UN Summit because of its role in denouncing human rights violations perpetrated by China.
Problems also arise as a result of exclusion from accreditation with respect to the non-representation of
minority groups in intergovernmental decision-making fora. Example for such cases are NGOs focusing on
sexual orientation issues, or those accused by their national governments of being „terrorists‟ because of
their political stance. CONGO has pleaded before the Committee on NGOs to abide by the principles of the
widest possible inclusion of NGOs representing different sensitivities and of freedom of expression.
NGOs need to question themselves on their legitimacy and independence
The quest for a reworked accreditation mechanism for NGOs should thus address issues of their
responsibility and accountability as well as their representativity, which is, in turn, linked to their legitimacy13.
The issue of the degree of NGO independence vis-à-vis political authorities and governments is of particular
concern to national (in contrast to international) NGOs. The Tunis World Information Summit on Civil
Society provided examples for a coordinated submerging of debates by an impressive number of Tunisian
pro-government NGOs, thus hindering Tunisian human rights defenders and independent civil society
organizations to express themselves. As a result, GONGOs were successful in distorting the representation
of „civil‟ society. That Summit was nonetheless an opportunity for independent NGOs (not being associated
with governments or private interests) to express their concerns to the UN Secretary-General. They insisted
on the need: "... to revise the UN rules for civil society accreditation to ECOSOC and to UN conferences in
order to end the exclusion of civil society organizations on the basis of a decision of an individual
government with no right of appeal to any independent commission” . This concern was echoed by a
delegation of members of the European Parliament at a meeting organized in Tunis. The European Union
had supported the accreditation of „Human Rights in China‟ at the WSIS and the holding of the Citizens
Summit, which was cancelled by the Tunisian authorities. During the preparation for WSIS and the Tunis
Summit itself, CONGO tried to play the uncomfortable role of mediator between the freedom of expression
of NGOs, particularly human rights groups, and the constraints imposed by the host government, owing to
its minimalist interpretation of that freedom.
Isolda Agazzi, NGOs and GONGOs in the Context of the UN-CHR,
Is their legitimacy bound to the causes they are defending? Are those NGOs democratic in their internal
organization? Is it important that they are? Where are their funds coming from? What relevance does this have in
relation to their legitimacy?
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Multi-stakeholder partnerships may be the way forward
The WSIS in Tunis has, so far, gone furthest in implementing the "multi-stakeholder approach" called for by
the Cardoso Panel on UN-civil society relations. It thus helped tackle effectively complex technical issues at
stake - bridging the digital divide and reforming the system of Internet governance. CONGO made an
important contribution to the building of these civil society structures during the WSIS preparatory process
and during the summits themselves.
1 0 . Co n c l u s i o n
CONGO has been in existence for almost sixty years now. It has helped promote and accompanied a
stronger involvement of NGOs and CSOs in UN activities and in the process of democratization of global
governance. Yet, despite CONGO‟s efforts, the world we are currently living in is not particularly favourable
towards civil society and, despite frequent rhetoric, to a stronger participation of non-state actors in
multilateral affairs. However, this adverse position will need to change if the international community intends
to respond successfully to the threats of the new Millennium, most notably in tackling the most crucial one,
namely poverty eradication. CONGO will definitely continue its fight for a more just and equitable world
where peoples can have a sense of ownership and belonging.
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