Christian Religious Freedom Group Wins UN Accreditation After Years of Rejection by Repressive Regimes

By Patrick Goodenough | April 20, 2017 | 4:22 AM EDT

The U.N. Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC, meets in New York. (UN Photo, File)

(CNSNews.com) – After having its application slapped down more than a dozen times by a committee often dominated by repressive regimes, a Christian non-governmental organization advocating religious freedom finally won official U.N. accreditation on Wednesday.

The case of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) once again has turned a spotlight on the U.N. Economic and Social Council’s 19-member NGO Committee, long accused of arbitrary or politically-motivated decisions.

Meeting in New York on Wednesday, the 54-member ECOSOC voted to overturn the committee’s earlier decision refusing accreditation to CSW.

Wednesday’s ECOSOC vote passed by 28-9, with 12 abstentions. Leading the “no” votes, again, were countries with poor records on religious freedom, including China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Turkey and Vietnam.

And, in a decision hailed by advocates for more transparency at the U.N., ECOSOC also voted to require live webcasting of future NGO Committee deliberations.

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, who has made human rights a focus for the U.S. presidency of the Security Council this month, said the webcasting decision would bring increased transparency and accountability.

“Now all of these meetings and votes will be open for the world to see,” she said, adding that this would “greatly assist organizations that stand up to oppressive governments around the world.”

The negative influence of such “oppressive governments” has long been evident at the NGO Committee, whose current membership includes just six countries (Greece, India, Israel, South Africa, United States and Uruguay) ranked “free” by Freedom House, the Washington-based democracy watchdog.

Of the rest, eight (Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Iran, Mauritania, Russia and Sudan) are “not free” and five (Guinea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Turkey, Venezuela) are ranked “partly free.”

When the committee last February once again turned down CSW’s application for “consultative status” at the U.N., most of the countries voting “no” were “not free” or “partly free.”

After that committee vote the British mission to the U.N. spearheaded an effort to get ECOSOC to overturn the decision. Also speaking out on behalf of CSW, a group of U.N. human rights experts (“special rapporteurs”) in a letter of support criticized what they called the committee’s “continuous and arbitrary deferral of applications or accreditation.”

“When a serious and credible NGO such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide is kept waiting in limbo for seven years, the system is clearly not working as it should,” British ambassador Matthew Rycroft told the meeting.

After the vote CSW chief executive Mervyn Thomas said the group was pleased with the outcome, but added that “the questions raised regarding the NGO Committee’s tendency to repeatedly defer and deny the applications of human rights organizations need to be addressed.”

He said the decision to open future meetings to live webcasting “will assist in ensuring greater transparency in the accreditation process.”

Controversies

American taxpayers account for 22 percent of the regular budget of the U.N., which includes its major organs like ECOSOC.

The 19 countries empowered to decide which groups are accepted and rejected for consultative status wield considerable clout, given that accredited NGOs are able to take part in sessions of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva and other U.N. meetings.

Controversy has dogged the NGO Committee in the past.

In recent years human rights NGOs that have been barred from accreditation included the Committee to Protect Journalists and Freedom Now, a U.S.-based group focused on prisoners of conscience.

The committee members voting against their accreditation tended to be those most likely to target journalists or to have prisoners of conscience in their jails.

In the case of the Committee to Protect Journalists, most of the 10 committee members which voted down its application last year fared poorly in the 2016 Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index: China was in 176th place (out of 180), Sudan 174, Cuba 171, Azerbaijan 163, Burundi 156, Russia 148, Pakistan 147, Venezuela 139, Nicaragua 75 and South Africa 39.

Freedom Now accused China of leading the effort against its application in 2015, because of its work representing Chinese dissidents including the imprisoned 2010 Nobel peace prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.

In both cases, the committee decisions were eventually overturned by the full ECOSOC.

In earlier years, the NGO Committee rejected a Christian NGO’s application in 2009 because it refused to make publicly available the names and addresses of its members in China, fearing for their safely.

Beijing accused the Dynamic Christian World Mission Foundation of showing “disrespect” to the committee by refusing to produce the data, and Cuba’s delegate accused the NGO of using “evasive tactics.”

In 1999, the committee revoked the accreditation of Christian Solidarity International, an NGO working in Sudan, after President Omar al-Bashir’s regime complained that CSI had invited the head of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army, John Garang, to address the HRC’s predecessor body. CSI said later the real reason for the move was the organization’s “uncompromising stance in defense of the victims of slavery and other abuses in Sudan.”

Meanwhile, the NGO Committee in 2015 approved an accreditation application by a British NGO, the Palestine Return Centre, which Israel accuses of having ties to the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas.

Israel led the unsuccessful attempt to have ECOSOC block the group’s application, supported in the vote by mostly Western democracies. Opposing voted came mostly from Islamic, African and Latin American members, along with Russia and China.

The Palestine Return Centre denies accusations of links to Hamas or any other Palestinian party.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow