One of two Vice-Chairs of the NGO Committee is Azerbaijan, ranked by Freedom House as having the lowest status on its freedom index. The 2016 Freedom House report finds elections in Azerbaijan are "neither free nor fair," the political environment is "neither pluralistic or competitive," freedom of the press is "severely" restricted as is freedom of assembly, and "the judiciary is corrupt, inefficient, and subservient to the executive branch." "The country's dismal human rights record" includes "harassment, detention, and prosecution of...civil society activists, and their families..." and, moreover, "regressive laws" on NGOs have meant many have been "forced to suspend operations when their bank accounts were frozen, and in some cases, their offices raided and closed." And yet on February 3, 2017 the Committee chose the representative of Azerbaijan to be a Vice-Chair and Committee Rapporteur.
Turkey was chosen as the other Vice-Chair notwithstanding that Turkey is currently engaged in a vicious crackdown of NGOs. According to the 2017 Freedom House report, the situation in Turkey includes "a state of emergency...mass arrests and firings of civil servants, academics, journalists, opposition figures, and other perceived enemies."
NGOs seek UN accreditation or status because it permits them to attend meetings, to circulate documents, hold events inside the UN and occasionally address UN sessions. Meanwhile, the standard operating procedure of the NGO Committee is to defer applications, session after session, with inappropriate, specious or repetitive questions and demands of the applicant NGO. After years of deferrals, Western states find that if they bring applications to a vote, they are simply outvoted in Committee. Decisions can be appealed to the UN's Economic and Social Council, but are normally rubber-stamped. Currently, the United States and Israel are members of the Committee – but repeatedly find themselves in the minority.
As the January-February 2017 session wound down, Committee members wasted nearly half-an-hour patting themselves on the back for, in the words of the Iranian representative, "a job that should be admired and recognized," while the delegations of Cuba, China, and Venezuela expressed their belief that the Committee was "efficient." Minutes later, the Committee ceased reviewing applications, leaving dozens of NGOs that had applications ready for review hanging until the next NGO Committee session four months away.
Here is a sample of the "efficient" and "admirable" work at the latest session of the UN NGO Committee:
Russia's main targets for deferral were NGOs critical of Russia's human rights record. Among the 23 organizations that Russia prevented from receiving accreditation by deferral was the Swedish NGO "Right Livelihood Award Foundation." This organization had honored both a prominent Russian human rights activist, and a group known as the "White Helmets" that have accused Russia of war crimes in Aleppo.
Russia also blocked Russian NGOs that had been critical of Russia, including:
- The "Anti-Corruption Foundation," run by Alexei Navalny, a critic of Vladmir Putin who has been described as the "the man Vladmir Putin fears most."
- The "Interregional Non-Governmental Organization 'Committee Against Torture'," that investigates and publishes systemic obstacles to prosecution of torture in Russia. This is its fourth deferral since June 2015. Russia asked a question about their alleged receipt of money from the U.K. embassy and George Soros.
- The "Andrey Rylkov Foundation;" its website was temporarily shut down in 2012 by Russian authorities after the foundation criticized Russian policy against the use of methadone for opiate addiction treatment.
Iran targeted and blocked a number of human rights organizations. The "Iran Human Rights Documentation Center," that has been deferred since 2010 by over 60 questions, was blocked by Iran yet again. Initially, Iran posed a question regarding the organization's finances. The United States representative objected, noting that the question had been asked and answered numerous times before. Iran then switched tactics and concocted another question about the organization's "planned projects for 2017." Ironically, during the self-congratulatory conclusion of the review of applications on February 8, 2016, Iran remarked that it did not want to cause "unnecessary problems" or "burdens" on NGOs.
Iran also frustrated the attempts of three women's rights organizations to receive accreditation. On February 2, 2017, Iran blocked the U.K.-based "Women Living under Muslim Laws – International Solidarity Network.," that has been critical of Iran's treatment of human rights activists. On February 6, 2017 Iran blocked "Women's Freedom Forum," an NGO that has been critical of Iran's human trafficking record, and "Women's Voices Now," an NGO that in 2016 screened three short films focusing on the struggles of Iranian women. Iran asked "Women's Voices Now" how the organization ensures that the films it promotes are not based on "fake reports" by "terrorist organizations."
Other organizations deferred by Iran were:
- the Israeli NGO "Jerusalem Institute of Justice" that has highlighted human rights abuses by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Iran had the application deferred by asking: "...the organization claims that it is focused on the human rights in Palestine. We would like to know how it does the job as none of the board members are from Palestine";
- the "Syrian American Medical Society Foundation." Iran blocked this application by asking how it could ensure impartiality when the organization said it doesn't collaborate with the Syrian government; and
- the "Database Center for North Korean Human Rights." Iran blocked its application by asking for more details on its activities.
The NGO Committee denied UN NGO status for a U.K.-based organization that works on behalf of persecuted Christians and advocates for religious freedom. "Christian Solidarity Worldwide" had been deferred for 14 sessions starting in March 2010. Since that time, according to the Greek representative, it had been asked over 80 "often repetitive" questions by Committee members.
When the Committee was set to defer the organization for the 15th time after requests for more information by China and Cuba, the Greek representative called for a vote, emphasizing the importance of freedom of religion and the repetitive questions to which the organization had been subject. The Committee voted against status with 4 in favor (United States, Israel, Uruguay, Greece), 11 against (Burundi, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela), 1 abstention (Russia), and 3 absent (Azerbaijan, Guinea, Mauritania). Following the vote, an observer from the United Kingdom expressed disappointment at the result, vowing to pursue the matter further in the Economic and Social Council.
On the first day of the Committee session on January 30, 2017, Turkey alleged that three NGOs that already had UN NGO status were connected to the "Fetullahist Terrorist Organization," an entity that Turkey accuses of being behind the attempted coup in July 2016. Turkish authorities had shut down the operations of each of the NGOs in Turkey, and the Turkish representative requested that the Committee withdraw their consultative status without going through the regular procedures of giving the organizations an opportunity to respond. The United States and Israel opposed Turkey's move, with the U.S. diplomat expressing concern over the crackdown on civil society in Turkey.
Ultimately, several votes were held on Turkey's highly unusual move that culminated in the withdrawal of accreditation for all three NGOs. The United States had requested postponing consideration of withdrawal of status from the three NGOs in order to provide them time to respond to the allegations, but was outvoted with only 2 in favor (United States, Israel), 14 against (Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Guinea, India, Iran, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela), 2 abstentions (Russia, Uruguay), and 1 absent (Greece).
Votes were also held regarding whether the Committee was required to attempt to contact the NGOs about the decision to withdraw accreditation, and thus provide an opportunity to respond. The Committee decided against informing the NGOs by a vote of 13 in favor (Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela), 2 against (United States, Israel), 2 abstentions (Russia, Uruguay), and 2 absent (Greece, Guinea), effectively preventing the organizations from being able to dispute the allegations by the increasingly repressive Turkish authorities.
One of the organizations, the "Journalists and Writers Foundation," was not even operating from Turkey, but had moved its headquarters to the United States. Nevertheless, its accreditation was withdrawn by a vote of 16 in favor (Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Greece, Guinea, India, Iran, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, Venezuela), 2 against (United States, Israel), and 1 abstention (Uruguay). The Committee also voted to recommend withdrawal of status for "Kimse Yok Mu" and "Türkiye İşadamlari ve Sanayciler Konfederasyonu," each with a vote of 16 in favor, 2 abstentions (United States, Uruguay), and 1 absent (Israel).
A recurring theme of the session was the battle over procedural rules and transparency – like the one denying the three Turkish NGOs an opportunity to respond to a decision to withdraw accreditation. In that case, the governing rules say specifically: "In cases where the Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations has decided to recommend that the general or special consultative status of a non-governmental organization...be suspended or withdrawn, the non-governmental organization concerned shall be given written reasons for that decision and shall have an opportunity to present its response for appropriate consideration by the Committee as expeditiously as possible."
A particularly heated battle occurred during a "Q&A" session, where NGO representatives can appear in person and answer questions before the Committee. The Committee has had a practice of using video screens to display the NGO representatives and the Committee members posing questions. The images are not broadcast beyond the UN premises; the only people who are able to see the images outside the room itself are UN employees with local feed within the building. While many UN meetings are publicly webcast, NGO Committee meetings are not. At this session, however, China demanded that the screens at the front of the room be turned off. No reason was provided. This led to an extended debate involving occasional shouting matches among Committee members. In the end, despite the efforts of the United States, Israel, Greece, and Uruguay, the other fifteen Committee members succeeded in having the video terminated. Only a text of an application on the screen was subsequently permitted.
- China caused a deferral of 30 NGO applications, including 16 U.S.-based organizations. China asked for additional information from the "U.S. Committee on Human Rights in North Korea, an organization that has criticized China's forced repatriation of North Korean refugees. China blocked dozens of NGOs solely because the organizations referred to Taiwan, Tibet, or Hong Kong as a country or used "incorrect" terminology, such as "Republic of China" (Taiwan), either in the application or anywhere on the organization's website.
- Nicaragua, which has a total ban on abortions, blocked 19 NGOs from accreditation, many of them organizations focused on reproductive rights. Following Nicaragua's deferral of the U.K.-based organization "Population Matters," the Greek representative expressed concern at the trend of reproductive rights organizations being deferred. Nicaragua responded two applications following the Greek remark, by blocking a similar organization, the Danish NGO "Sex and Samfund [community]."
- Azerbaijan, which is in a territorial dispute with Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, blocked all three Armenian NGO applicants. Although Armenia is not on the Committee, an observer from the Armenian UN delegation was allowed to make a statement and complained that the "Committee membership was being abusive" and "sending the wrong message to civil society."
|State represented on the Committee/Committee member||Number of applicant NGOs based in a state on the Committee||Number of applicants from a state on the Committee recommended for accreditation||Percentage of applicant NGOs from a state on the Committee recommended
|Number of applicants deferred by the NGOs own country's representative|
|Committee Member||Number of NGOs Deferred by Committee Member||Countries of Origin of NGOs Deferred by Committee Member|
|China||30||Australia (1), Belgium (1), Cameroon (1), Egypt (1), Germany,(2), Indonesia (1), Netherlands (1), Norway (1), Republic of Korea (2),Sweden (1), Turkey (1), U.K. (1), U.S. (16)|
|Cuba||37||Belgium (1), Dominica (1), Egypt (1), France (3), Germany (3), India
(1), Netherlands (1), New Zealand (1), Philippines (1), Republic of Korea (2),
Somalia (1), Spain (1), Swaziland (1), Sweden (1), Switzerland (3), Togo (1),
Trinidad & Tobago (1), U.K. (4), U.S. (9)
|India||30||Bangladesh (1), Denmark (1), Egypt (2), Germany (1), India (17), Indonesia
(1), Jammu/Kashmir (1), Nepal (1), Netherlands (1), Pakistan (1), U.S. (3)
|Iran||18||France (1), Indonesia (1), Israel (1), Morocco (1), Netherlands (1),
Qatar (2), Republic of Korea (2), Switzerland (2), Syria (1), U.K. (2), U.S.
|Nicaragua||19||Argentina (1), Bangladesh (1), Brazil (1), Cameroon (1), Denmark (1),
France (1), Mexico (1), Morocco (1), Nigeria (1), Uganda (1), U.K. (3), U.S.
|Pakistan||18||China (2), Egypt (1), India (2), Pakistan (8), Switzerland (1), U.K.
(2), U.S. (2)
|Russia||23||Belgium (1), Brazil (1), Denmark (1), Egypt (1), Estonia (2), Germany
(1), Ghana (1), Indonesia (1), Lithuania (1), Netherlands (1), Norway (1),
Republic of Korea (1), Russia (4), Sweden (2), U.K. (2), U.S. (2)
|South Africa||45||Albania (1), Cameroon (1), Congo (1), Dominica (1), Egypt (2), Kenya
(1), Mexico (1), Netherlands (2), Nigeria (16), Republic of Korea (1), Senegal
(1), South Africa (5), Tunisia (2), Uganda (1), U.K. (3), U.S. (6)