Who can speak for NGOs in the UN? A precedent set in 1982

March 21, 2014

Yesterday, 20 March 2014, there was a fierce debate in the UN Council of Human Rights where the issue of the right of NGOs to speak came up, more precisely whether accredited NGOs had the right to let speakers mention other NGOs who do not have such accreditation. In this case it was China taking exemption to the FIDH letting its member NGOs (including a pro Tibetan group) take the floor in its name. For more context see my post of yesterday: https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/china-in-the-un-human-rights-council-manages-to-silence-cao-shunli-as-well-as-ngos/.

The Chair and Secretariat rightly spoke of a standing practice in this regards. One such precedent is 30 years old and probably lost to most observers, so I give here my own recollection of this story in the hope that someone with access to the UN files or a better memory can confirm or correct the details.

It is 1982 and the Working group on Disappearances (created in 1980 after a long struggle and with the active support from the then Director Theo van Boven)) is reporting to the Commission on Human Rights (the predecessor of the Council). The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), of which I was the Executive Secretary at the time, has lined up to speak.

When the legal advisor of the ICJ, Alejandro Artucio, after a short introduction passes the microphone to Emilio Mignone of the Argentinian NGO CELS, an affiliated organisation of the ICJ, the Argentine Ambassador Martinez immediately interrupts on a point of order saying that this man is a terrorist and has no right to speak in the Commission. NGOs should list the name of their speakers for each item in advance to the UN.

The Commission is caught by surprise. A few of the more repressive countries express support for the Argentinian position and only just – mostly thanks to the Canadian delegation if I remember well – the Bulgarian Chair is persuaded to call a recess for consultation. During that break the ICJ staff (its Secretary General Niall MacDermot is glued to his seat in case the debate suddenly resumes) goes out to canvass the different geo-political groups to point out the danger of States determining who can speak on behalf of NGOs and – at that time politically important – on behalf of other observers such as the ANC and the PLO. Seeing the danger, most States seem to withdraw support from Argentine’s postion. Niall MacDermot sends me over with a note to the Chair saying that when the debate resumes he insists to continue with the ICJ’s statement.

The Chair says that he give the floor to ..ahum..the…the speaker of the ICJ. MacDermot gives the microphone again to Mignone. Everybody looks to the Argentine Ambassador, but he has made the same calculation, namely that the votes are not there and he only interrupts to say that he will pursue it further. Mignone is able to make his statement, moved to tears when telling how his own daughter was kidnapped from his house at 5 o’clock in the morning by 15 armed naval soldiers while he and his wife had to watch. Fortunately by that time the media had the time to come to the Commission and hear the statement.

One would think that this settled the issue of who is allowed to speak on behalf of observers but apparently the mood in the Human Rights Council is neither inclined to follow precedents nor well-disposed towards NGOs.

PS Argentina did try and follow up later in New York by asking ECOSOC’s NGO Committee to revoke the consultative status of the ICJ. The day of the hearing a blizzard stopped the Argentinian representative to pursue it and soon after the military regime lost power.

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