Controversial UN Committee Kills Accreditation Application by Press Freedom Group

By Patrick Goodenough | May 27, 2016 | 4:26 AM EDT

An event in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) chamber at U.N. headquarters in New York on May 18, 2016. (UN Photo/Manuel Elias)

(CNSNews.com) – After deferring a decision for four years, a key United Nations committee on Thursday voted to deny official status to a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on press freedom, prompting strong criticism from the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.

“It is increasingly clear that the NGO Committee acts more and more like an ‘anti-NGO Committee,’” Power told reporters in New York after the 19-country body voted to deny “special consultative status” to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Power said it was instructive to see which countries had voted against CPJ’s application for the status, which allows an NGO to take part in sessions of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as several other U.N. organs. More than 4,000 NGOs are accredited.

“The vote is important because countries have to decide which side are they on,” she said. “Are they on the side of free expression and organizations try to advance that cause? Or are they hostile to Article 19 [of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which upholds freedom of expression]?”

“And I think if you look at the list of countries that voted ‘no,’ one learns a few things,” Power added.

In Thursday’s vote of the NGO Committee, six countries supported CPJ’s application, ten opposed it, and three abstained.

The “no” votes came from countries with mostly poor records on press freedom – Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan and Venezuela.    

Supporting CPJ’s application were Greece, Guinea, Israel, Mauritania, the United States and Uruguay. India, Iran and Turkey abstained.

Speaking ahead of the vote U.S. representative Sarah Mendelson urged support for CPJ’s application.

“Each and every day, brave journalists take extraordinary risks to bring us stories we otherwise would not hear: exposing corruption, asking tough questions, and bearing witness to the dignity of innocent men, women, and children suffering the horrors of war,” she said.

“In recognition of this bravery, the members of this committee should work hard to accredit NGOs that report on these issues, especially in light of the ever increasing global crackdown on civic space, the harassment and attacks against journalists, human rights defenders, as well as their friends, families, and supporters.”

The NGO Committee is a subsidiary of the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and its decisions must be endorsed by the full, 54-member ECOSOC at a meeting scheduled for July.

Power said the U.S. would bring the CPJ matter to a vote at ECOSOC, “and we look forward to a lively debate between now and then.”

The CPJ first applied for NGO status in 2012, but its bid was deferred seven times, based on what the group calls “arcane U.N. procedure,” involving “persistent, lengthy, and repetitive questioning.”

Power summarized that procedure as follows: “Countries defer by asking questions. Even when those questions are answered, more questions – the exact same questions – are asked again. It’s just a device, a way of ensuring that those accreditations are not forthcoming.”

‘Sabotage’

 CPJ executive director Joel Simon, who appeared before the committee two days before the vote to answer its questions, expressed regret at the vote outcome.

 “It is sad that the U.N., which has taken up the issue of press freedom through Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and through the adoption of the U.N. Action Plan, has denied accreditation to CPJ, which has deep and useful knowledge that could inform decision making,” he said.

“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.”

Of the ten countries that voted Thursday to deny CPJ’s application, four – Azerbaijan, China, Cuba and Russia – have been named “predators of press freedom” by Reporters Without Borders.

Moreover, most of the ten also fare poorly on the Reporters Without Borders world press freedom index for 2016.

Of 180 countries in the rankings, China is in 176th place, Sudan in 174th and Cuba in 171st. The other countries that voted “no” are Azerbaijan (163rd in the press freedom rankings), Burundi (156th), Russia (148th), Pakistan (147th), Venezuela (139th), Nicaragua (75th) and South Africa (39th).

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

ECOSOC and its NGO Committee have a controversial track record when it comes to accreditation decisions. Last year the full council voted to accredit an NGO with alleged links to the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas.

Last year the NGO Committee also voted to deny accreditation to U.S.-based Freedom Now, whose focus is prisoners of conscience. The countries voting against it were those most likely to themselves have political prisoners: Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, Sudan and Venezuela.

In that instance, however, Western democracies led an effort at the full ECOSOC session which succeeded in overturning the Freedom Now decision.

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

On that occasion, China led the opposition, accusing Dynamic Christian World Mission Foundation of showing “disrespect” to the committee by refusing to produce the data.

Another group advocating religious freedom around the world, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), has been trying unsuccessfully to get U.N. accreditation for at least 15 years, but has come up against strong opposition from repressive regimes in the committee including Sudan, Russia and China.

Meanwhile Christian Solidarity International (CSI) had its accreditation revoked by the NGO Committee in 1999, after complaints from Sudan.

CSW and CSI both earned the wrath of Khartoum for years of highlighting and campaigning against the practice of slavery in Sudan.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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