When the United Nations Charter was signed in June 1945, Article 71 introduced the term Non-Governmental Organizations, and opened the door to NGOs having a consultative status with the UN, notably through the UN Economic and Social Council. ECOSOC has subsequently passed three successive Resolutions governing the modalities for NGOs to obtain and maintain this Consultative Status. The most recently updated Resolution is ECOSOC 1996/31, which it is worth reading since it sets out many criteria and standards – and expectations – for the nature and conduct of NGOs. It also sets out the requirements that the UN – i.e. its member governments – must fulfill in implementing the procedures of Consultative Status, such as access to and at UN meetings, and the conditions under which that Status may be withdrawn.
While the terminology “NGOs” is now engraved in international usage thanks to its being written in such a fundamental text of international law as the UN Charter, the title of this article speaks of “Civic Associations”. This is deliberate. Over the 76 years of the UN’s existence, the UN has expanded to be a United Nations System comprising some 50 Councils, Commissions, Specialized Agencies, Entities, Programmes, Institutes, Universities and diverse other organs – almost all with their own intergovernmental governing bodies, and with a Secretariat responsible to that body and not to the UN HQ in New York.
In those decades, the UN System has entered political and social areas not specified in 1945: environment, climate change, migration, outer space, drug abuse, responsibility to protect, peacebuilding, heritage protection. Other examples would include relations between the UN and the world’s business community (the UN Global Compact), or Universities (the UN Academic Impact). In addition, concepts contained in the Charter have taken on significant new dimensions: major examples include human rights or peacekeeping.
The United Nations is indeed ever more – through Conventions, Covenants, and Treaties – the setter of standards in international law and the conduct of international relations, or in somewhat more targeted areas such as the Law of the Sea, Financing for Development, or Disaster Risk Reduction.
Expanding in purpose
Over those same 76 years, the worldwide NGO community has expanded in shape, form, purpose, constituency, geographical outreach, competence, agility, imagination, professionalism, advocacy capability and determination. Thus, the concept of Civic Associations is intentionally broader than NGOs, a term that the UN is required to use since it stems from the Charter. This requirement, by the way, has not prevented many UN Conferences and officials (notably at and since the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio in 1992) from giving credence to alternatives, notably “Major Groups”, “Non-State Actors”, and especially “Civil Society”. For the purposes of this article, I shall keep to “Civic Associations”, as an incredible multiplicity of such bodies interact on a daily, weekly or monthly basis with the diverse organs established throughout the United Nations System.
What is the nature and reach of such interactions? I shall describe three main ones:
There are Civic Associations by the thousand that work to improve people’s living conditions, their educational opportunities, their legal protection, their access to health and sanitation and water, their housing, their access to markets. Many of these cooperate regularly with such UN bodies as the High Commissioner for Refugees, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF, the World Food Programme and/or UN Women. Indeed, those UN entities would scarcely be able to fulfill their mandates without on-the-ground interaction with civic associations, both international and local.
The latter know their local constituencies – villages without paved roads, municipalities without internet, health clinics lacking medicaments or even functional equipment, transit facilities for refugees or migrants, schools in need of teachers, books and modern equipment. Local associations know the problems faced by small farmers, by street traders and street cleaners, by nurses and midwives, by factory workers laboring in insalubrious or unsafe environments. These associations may act as operating partners for UN agencies, and the information they feed upwards enables better and more timely decisions on aid and development to be made at the national and international level.
A second broad domain of civic associations worldwide is in advocacy for governmental and UN action to meet – and to the extent possible mitigate or eradicate – the root causes of poverty, of ill health, of deficient education, of economic deprivation, of gender inequity, of human rights violations. In short, advocacy organizations focus on the removal of social injustices, of patriarchal arrogance, of distorted economic opportunities, of an absence of decent work openings. Many also focus increasingly on the lack of awareness or the blindness of governments to the extent of growing climate crises. In more specific – though vast – areas, civic associations can be heard advocating for nuclear disarmament, for the limitation and control of small arms, for adequate drug control measures, for the protection of wildlife and nature reserves, for the suppression of human trafficking.
In each of these areas, one or more UN bodies are active, and the civic advocacy associations seek every opportunity to influence their decision-making processes. This includes addressing intergovernmental meetings, supplying documentation and advice, lobbying governmental ministries and missions, and keeping in regular touch with the relevant UN officials. This work has of course been complicated, indeed compromised, by the COVID pandemic which meant that most UN meetings over the past 19 months have been virtual or at best hybrid, annulling the personal interactions so essential to effective lobbying.
The third sector of Civic Association engagement that I shall quote covers those bodies that group professional, scientific, technical, legal, medical and academic constituencies. These organizations bring to the UN System their specific competences that should undergird and enhance the knowledge that the respective UN Secretariats provide to intergovernmental sessions, and the decisions that governments then make.
Among UN entities benefitting from these inputs one could name the World Meteorological Organization, the International Telecommunications Union, UNESCO, the UN University and its related Institutes, the United Nations Environment Programme, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Health Organization.
As my last point, I shall refer to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, where we are soon reaching the mid-point between their adoption in 2015 and their hoped-for achievement in 2030. The SDGs provide the most extensive opening yet for cooperation between the United Nations System and Civic Associations, whatever their ideals, goals, budgets or constituencies. By their breadth and depth, the SDGs are a challenge and an opportunity to change the world for the better. They concern every UN entity, every civic association, every Cabinet Minister, every Mayor, every citizen. Each of us can – and must – play a part in attaining the SDGs, which are interlinked and reinforce each other.
We can do our share as individuals. We can undoubtedly do even better through our engagement and commitment within our respective Civic Associations!