It's one of those just-before-the-holidays stories that often disappear into the woodwork. But the UN secretary-general, the United States, France and the Human Rights Commissioner are keeping it alive.
At issue is a little-known UN committee that accredits non-governmental groups (NGOs) to participate in some meetings and conferences, including the Human Rights Council in Geneva. For the past four years it has deferred six times an application from the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The NGO committee, a subsidiary of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), is also known as "you keep my dissidents out and I will do the same for you" and has deferred or rejected a large number of NGOs.
US Ambassador Samantha Power, in answer to questions, said the NGO committee "acts more and more like an anti-NGO committee" and called the action "outrageous." She said she would bring it up in the full 54-nation ECOSOC that meets again in July. Often the West wins in this chamber as more nations participate and opponents have to justify their position in an open meeting.
The vote last week among the 19-member committee included six countries in favor: Greece, Guinea, Israel, Mauritania, the United States and Uruguay. The 10 voting against were Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan and Venezuela. Another three abstained: India, Iran and Turkey.
(Since then, South Africa has said its vote was a "misunderstanding" and it would affirm the CPJ application in an ECOSOC meeting.)
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also entered the fray. He "expressed his deep disappointment "that the NGO committee denied CPJ a consultative status, his spokesman said.
LGBT groups rejected at AIDS meet
The secretary-general also used the occasion to condemn nations who voted to exclude LGBT groups from next week's conference on ending AIDS. A defender of gay rights, he said:
These NGOs are close to communities affected by the epidemic and they must be part of the response. The UN is a big tent, he said, and NGOs belong inside it.
France's ambassador, François Delattre, said in an e-mail:
This vote is deeply disappointing and disturbing. The Committee to Protect Journalists defends freedom of expression around the world and the right of journalists to work without fear of reprisal. This vote can only be understood as a reprisal against this NGO.
He said France would vote in ECOSOC to reverse the decision.
And in Geneva a spokesman for Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, the UN High Commission for Human Rights said the NGO committee's action was "unfair and arbitrary." He quoted Prince Zeid as saying that
the deferral of a large number of NGO applications for consultative status, sometimes for years on end, and apparently for arbitrary reasons, has deprived international debate of important civil society contributions.
Human Rights Watch has had U.N. accreditation since 1993 but notes it is getting harder for others to join -- and it, too, has to report back periodically to the U.N. The organization was being put through "kind of an obstacle course of questions" about its work, said Akshaya Kumar, the group's deputy U.N. director.
In 2001 the late Richard Holbrooke, then US ambassador, successfully fought for Hadassah, the Israeli women's humanitarian organization, to be granted status. At one meeting, attended by this reporter, Hadassah was asked for a list of names of all Palestinians treated at its hospitals.
As for CPJ, Joel Simon, its executive director, called the proceedings "Kafkaesque."
A small group of countries with poor press freedom records are using bureaucratic delaying tactics to sabotage and undermine any efforts that call their own abusive policies into high relief.