In contrast to the 2001 Durban Conference, where the NGO Forum functioned as an official UN platform for the demonization and delegitimization of Israel by “civil society,” the Durban Review Conference in Geneva limited meaningful NGO involvement. The interaction between the UN and NGOs highlights the latter’s ambiguous status in the UN framework and the questions about whom they represent.
At a number of public “NGO briefings” organized by the Civil Society Unit of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), NGO representatives expressed disappointment and alienation regarding NGO participation in the Durban Review Conference. Speakers for these groups – and to judge by the applause they received, they reflected the views of many participants – complained that their attendance at the conference was irrelevant and futile. Notwithstanding the claims of High Commissioner Navi Pillay and officials from Human Rights Watch (HRW) that the conference and Outcome Document were successful, many NGOs, in particular grassroots organizations without ECOSOC accreditation or a permanent presence in Geneva, were not satisfied with the proceedings.
- Adoption of the Outcome Document – In the briefings, representatives from a diverse selection of NGOs – including an African coalition of over 40 groups, a UK-based trade union NGO, an organization representing Roma rights, and the anti-Israel Islamic Human Rights Commission – objected to the adoption of the Outcome Document by the conference’s governmental bureau on April 21, before NGOs had the opportunity to address the plenary (starting Thursday, April 23). NGOs could not influence the Outcome Document and add their particular issues into the text. A number of speakers claimed that this process was undemocratic, allowing governments to ignore civil society. The speaker for the African coalition challenged: “How does the conference represent the people of the world?”
- Speeches to an empty Assembly Hall – As a result of the early adoption of the Outcome Document, the important business of the governmental forum ended on April 21. NGOs were concerned that they would be addressing an empty room; certainly, senior members of the governmental delegations would not be in attendance. NGOs from countries with what they termed “unresponsive governments” had hoped to use the conference as a vehicle to “make them listen.” Additionally, NGOs were only permitted to address the plenary under the general debate on the last agenda item: “Issues arising from the objectives of the Conference.” At one point during the Preparatory process, UN officials wanted to select a small number of powerful NGO representatives – reportedly including the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) – to speak at the high-level segment on behalf of “civil society.” However, many NGO members strongly objected to these efforts to control the NGO agenda, and the proposal was dropped.
OHCHR’s positive spin
In response to NGO comments and questions, staff from the OHCHR, including the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, described the UN’s vision for NGO participation:
- Influence the Outcome Document during the Preparatory process – Negotiations and NGO consultations about the draft outcome document had occurred in the Preparatory Committee and “intersessional” meetings. One month before the conference, the text was “streamlined” to achieve consensus among the governments (after Canada, Israel, and the US had pulled out), and references to specific countries were mostly removed. According to the OHCHR, an almost-final version of the document was available March 17, 2009, and it was unreasonable to expect major additions, changes, or re-insertions during the Review Conference.
- Side events, “a conference in itself” – The UN provided space for NGO side-events within the Durban Review Conference. According to UN organizers, 44 events were approved, and a publication may emerge from the speeches and discussions in these forums. (See NGO Monitor’s forthcoming report on NGO activity in side events.)
- Implementation and follow-up – Staff members from the OHCHR consistently emphasized that Durban is a “process, not an event.” While the governments control what transpires in the plenary – including the scope of NGO participation in the main Assembly Hall – the UN claimed that civil society could play a central role in the implementation of the Durban Declaration and Program of Action (DDPA) and the follow-up to the Durban Review Conference. But the differences in NGO participation between the 2001 Durban conference and the Geneva event were undeniable.
HRW’s privileged role
During a question-and-answer session with High Commissioner Pillay, a representative from HRW was given the floor. Instead of asking a question, the HRW official delivered a 3-minute speech congratulating the OHCHR, the UN, and the Durban Review Conference, and overtly praising the High Commissioner. Echoing Pillay’s remark that the Outcome Document was “satisfactory,” HRW extolled the “successful” text and its adoption by the governments at the conference. This activity accords with HRW’s campaign to promote the Durban process despite its many fundamental flaws, the campaigns to pressure the Canadian and the US governments to reverse their opposition, and also highlights HRW’s privileged position in the UN.
Towards the end of the speech, a few representatives from other NGOs heckled the HRW speaker, calling out “what’s the question?”, and reflecting friction between HRW and the less powerful groups.
NGO expectations of influencing the text of the draft outcome document at the Durban Review Conference were unrealistic. For NGOs active in the Durban process, these expectations were the result of their central role in 2001, as well as the NGO impact in the Human Rights Council and similar venues. But some government officials, as well as NGO Monitor, moved to prevent political NGOs from exercising a major influence on the process. In addition, for grassroots organizations that operate solely on the local level, the expectations reflect a lack of experience and power necessary to manipulate the inner workings of UN bureaucracy and politics.
Another factor is the perception among some NGOs that the UN exists primarily for “civil society,” which they believe is more representative than governments. This further emphasizes the ambiguous status of NGOs in what is fundamentally a state-based framework, and the tension between non-representative NGOs and democratic governments.
These aspects of the Durban Review Conference illustrate the need for NGOs that are seriously dedicated to universal human rights to work cooperatively to amplify their commitment and avoid being diverted by narrow political interests, particularly anti-Israel agendas.