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Comments by UN Assistant Secretary-General, Andrew Gilmour at the UN Correspondents Association Press Briefing on the NGO Committee, New York, 16 March 2018

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this event. Over the past years, the reported number and severity of reprisals and intimidation against civil society – individuals and NGOs – cooperating with the UN in the field of human rights have increased. What often “gets the goat” of some governments is when NGOs have the gall to share information with us, submit complaints about human rights violations to UN bodies, attend UN events or trainings, and other forms of participation with the UN.

With this increase in reprisals and intimidation, there came the recognition by the former Secretary-General that we needed a more comprehensive response – in terms of both preventing and addressing cases – and I was designated to lead this effort. We, in OHCHR, are monitoring not only “reprisals,” forms of retaliation for past cooperation with the UN, but also measures of “intimidation,” meaning the intent to discourage future participation or cooperation with us. The range of both of these take on different forms, from travel bans, threats and harassment by officials, online smear campaigns, surveillance, passing of restrictive laws, to physical attacks, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and ill-treatment, including sexual violence, denial of access to medical attention and even killings.

Not on the same scale as what we see in the field, but also regrettable, is a phenomenon sometimes seen at headquarters – with the use (or abuse) of accreditation procedures being used to hinder people from speaking out in a number of UN fora. There have been cases related to UN events, like a conference that requires NGOs to pass security procedures to attend, and some have used that to block participants, or for designation of ECOSOC status, which is for longer-term engagement and participation with the UN. We have received reports that some Member States have attempted to block the accreditation of NGOs, especially human rights NGOs, through legal, political and procedural maneuvers in an attempt to silence critics.

Now, I think we are all aware that the NGO Committee – I won’t go so far as to call it the “Anti-NGO Committee” – and its accreditation process, has sometimes been linked to the issue of the reprisals. Indeed, this has been mentioned in successive annual reports of the Secretary-General in this context.

Various UN human rights mechanisms have addressed the need for the Committee to apply the criteria for assessing organizations in a fair and transparent manner. For example, in an April 2017 letter to the NGO Committee, some UN special rapporteurs raised concerns about the Committee’s decisions regarding granting accreditation to NGOs, and about their working methods in general, which the mandate holders said may hamper civil society access to the UN, and thus will affect their participation. They raised concerns in particular about the deferral of applications for consultative status of NGOs, which prevents them from engaging with UN bodies and human rights mechanisms.

The NGO Committee has an important function, because it has the power to recommend to ECOSOC whether any given NGO can have consultative status, or not. This has obvious ramifications for participation, and in turn how we (who work for the UN) engage with our civil society partners. We do welcome the fact that the Committee has agreed to further transparency, and to make some of its public deliberations available via webcast.

The Secretary-General and the High Commissioner have often spoken about the need for a vibrant civil society freed from unnecessary constraints. Yes, the UN is an intergovernmental body, of course, but “we the peoples” – the first three words of the UN Charter – was not just a rhetorical flourish, or a joke. We mean it, which is why we feel strongly that UN processes should not serve to undermine the important work of civil society. We will continue to address individual cases as they come up, in the context of the NGO committee’s work, and I look forward to engaging constructively with the membership of the Committee and its distinguished chairperson to address these concerns.