The space available for members of civil society to make their voices heard has, in recent years, been squeezed. We have seen this on the streets of major cities and online. It is also happening in multi-lateral international bodies, and the United Nation’s human rights mechanisms are an important case in point.
These bodies are a crucial forum for communities who do not have a formal seat at the UN table to deliver testimonies of discrimination, oppression and injustice. Yet despite conflicts and human rights abuses increasingly involving non-state actors there is a problematic diplomatic deficit: marginalised groups – whose interests are most at stake – often face enormous challenges when advocating at the UN.
A recent report based on interviews with advocates for stateless nations, Indigenous communities and minority groups documents how they are increasingly blocked, harassed, intimidated and even attacked or arrested by state actors for speaking out at the UN. This is happening both within UN meeting rooms and in advocates’ home countries. As a representative from the Ahwazi Arab community in Iran put it, the UN has a ‘really tiny door’ for those who do not represent member states.
Underpinning this is the politicised practice of denying consultative status (so-called ‘ECOSOC status’) to large numbers of NGOs and civil society groups. An organisation representing the Dalit community in India has been waiting almost ten years for ECOSOC status and has received over 80 questions – often spurious – from India as part of a deliberate delaying tactic.
Some member states also use the strategy of establishing government-affiliated NGOs (GONGOs). When operating within UN spaces, GONGOs often counter human rights narratives with government narratives and engage in intimidatory tactics. Recent sessions of the Forum on Minority Issues have also seen an unprecedented number of interruptions by member states. During the ninth session in 2016, delegates from the Ogaden in Ethiopia, Southern Mongolia in China, and the Coptic Christian community in Egypt were repeatedly interrupted by diplomats from their states: a tactic used to effectively shut down civil society space.
Outside of formal diplomatic spaces, harassment including physical violence and confiscating travel documents are used as way to prevent activists travelling to the UN. In September 2014, Crimean Tatar activists attempting to attend the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples were violently prevented from doing so. Meanwhile, the highest profile example of Chinese in-country harassment in recent years was the arrest and detention of Cao Shunli, a well-known Chinese human rights defender who was en route to the UN in Geneva in September 2013. Her consequent death in prison is an appalling example of the way that states can seek to prevent, challenge and eventually silence their would-be detractors at the UN.
The story of Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, is also indicative of many of these restrictions and reprisals. The Congress has regularly been denied ECOSOC status at the UN, Isa’s access to UN buildings and events has been restricted due to Chinese demands, he has been followed and harassed in Geneva, his mother was held in China’s anti-Muslim concentration camps as a result of his work, and for many years his ability to travel freely was frustrated by Chinese efforts to falsely label him a ‘terrorist’.
The UN is increasingly aware of the difficulties many individuals face in interacting with human rights mechanisms. Since 2010, the Secretary-General has produced an annual report on intimidation, harassment and reprisals, and reporting mechanisms are now in place in a number of the UN systems. However, more needs to be done to improve the support structures and ensure that the UN is a safe space for representatives of marginalised communities. Responses to incidents need to be streamlined, and UN staff need to be trained on how to provide support to vulnerable groups.
The NGO Committee should be carving out space for civil society to engage, and member states need to be actively supporting the right to freedom of expression at the UN. The workings of the UN’s human rights mechanisms rely on the information and testimony brought to them by individuals at the front line of violent, oppressive, and discriminatory situations around the world. These witnesses must be encouraged and protected as far as is possible. However, this is only possible when everyone has an equal chance to speak and when space is safeguarded for them within UN forums.
If we think that diplomacy is important, it is crucial that all voices – especially those of marginalised groups – are given meaningful opportunities to be heard.
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