Recent Developments for NGO Engagement with the UN

Recent developments have made it easier for civil society to engage in advocacy in before various UN human rights bodies.  The changes particularly benefit NGOs that lack a permanent presence in Geneva and New York, allowing them to watch sessions or in some cases even participate even when travel to Geneva is not feasible.

Online Speaker Lists for NGOs at the Human Rights Council

The Human Rights Council is the main body at the United Nations that deals with global human rights issues. The Council holds Regular and Special Sessions to address human rights issues throughout the year and also conducts the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of all UN member states’ human rights record every four-and-a-half years.

One opportunity for NGOs with ECOSOC consultative status to contribute to Council Sessions is to provide oral statements to the Council. Previously, speakers had to register in person to speak at Council sessions. Now, organizations that want to register for a speaking slot at the UPR can register online in advance.  Registration for each session usually opens roughly a week before the first day of the session.

The new system does not completely resolve the logistical challenges for speakers, as the number of NGO representatives that may speak on each Council agenda item is still limited to ten.  NGOs still must have ECOSOC consultative status. Still, the advance sign-up system allows NGOs to plan ahead and register further in advance of a Council session. The change is particularly beneficial for organizations that do not have a permanent presence in Geneva, as they no longer need to travel to Geneva far in advance just to register to deliver an oral statement.

To register for an oral speaking slot, NGOs should complete the online form as soon as it is available; one of the factors for determining whether an NGO’s application succeeds is the order in which the NGO applied. Information on eligibility and how to apply for ECOSOC consultative status is available through the UN.

Pre-recorded Video Statements to the Human Rights Council

In April 2012, the Human Rights Council adopted procedures for allowing NGOs that are not physically present in Geneva to present oral statements to the Council through pre-recorded video statements. This option will be available to civil society for the first time at the 21st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, taking place in September 2012.  Currently, video statements may be played at four different times, during:

  1. Council’s plenary session;
  2. “[i]nteractive dialogues with special procedures relating to reports on country missions…”;
  3. “[p]lenary adoption of universal periodic review outcomes”; and
  4. panels and annual discussions.

The pre-recorded video statement option, combined with online speaker registration, gives NGOs that are not located in Geneva equal opportunity to participate in the UPR processes as those based in Geneva. However, NGOs delivering pre-recorded video statements must have ECOSOC consultative status and cannot have a permanent presence in Geneva. Detailed requirements for the video statements are available online. NGOs can also find the pre-recorded statement application forms online.

UPR-Info Organized “UPR Pre-Sessions”

Starting with the inauguration of the second UPR cycle in May 2012, the non-governemental organization UPR-Info has arranged for informal sessions where NGOs and government representatives meet to discuss the status of human rights in the countries to be reviewed by the Council during the UPR. These pre-sessions allow NGOs to express their concerns and provide human rights documentation to government representatives from a number of countries in a moderated forum. Also, because the pre-sessions are held in Geneva roughly two months before the UPR Working Group meeting, countries have more of an opportunity to take steps to address NGOs’ concerns in the lead-up to the UPR.

The pre-sessions for each Member State is only one hour long, and each NGO is limited to a presentation of 5 to 10 minutes.

Webcasts of the Human Rights Council and Treaty Bodies

NGOs unable to attend Human Rights Council meetings in person can now watch Council proceedings, including UPR sessions, webcast live online and through archived videos online dating back to 2006.

A collaboration by NGOs has also formed UN Treaty Body Webcast with the purpose of making UN treaty body sessions more accessible. Live webcasts and archived webcasts allow viewers to see the work of a number of treaty bodies, including the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC), Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Committee against Torture (CAT), Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), and the Human Rights Committee.

UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations

The UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations was created in 1985 with the goal of facilitating the involvement of indigenous populations in international human rights discussions. The scope of the Fund expanded in 2010 to help defray the costs of representatives from indigenous populations attending UN Human Rights Council and human rights treaty body sessions. According to the Fund’s criteria, only two representatives from each organization may apply for assistance to attend a session as observers. Applications for the different types of sessions are available online.

Universal Human Rights Index

The Human Rights Index is an online database of UN human rights documents dating back as far as 2000 (depending on the type of document).  The documents include observations from treaty bodies, UPR recommendations, and country visit reports. Since 2010, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has sole responsibility to maintain and update the Index.