Social Education 58(7), 1994, pp. 420-421
National Council for the Social Studies

Voices at the United Nations: The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Rosalind W. Harris
"We the Peoples of the United Nations" are the opening words of the Charter of the United Nations. But the Charter goes on to establish an organization run by representatives of 184 independent countries. It is often asked whether "the Peoples of the World" have any voice in the proceedings of the UN when ministers, ambassadors, and government delegates appear in news photographs and on television as the key actors.
There is, however, a unique feature of the UN system that enables non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to express the concerns of their members. During the past forty-five years, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) has recognized some 1,000 organizations as consultants to its work. The reach of the international non-governmental organizations to which ECOSOC has granted status is global. NGOs have affiliates or members in virtually every country of the world, and have built bridges among Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western groups to create genuine world organizations. Their representatives bring the "human face" into the global debates. They range in size from organizations with millions of members in all areas of the globe (e.g., the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions) to smaller groups composed of specialists in a particular area (e.g., the International Association for Water Law). They have the right to send observers to meetings of the UN economic and social bodies, to submit written statements, and to speak during the discussions.

In 1945, when the UN was being formed in San Francisco, forty-two NGOs were associated with the American delegation and made several significant contributions to the Charter. They were instrumental in introducing strong language about the promotion of human rights for all people. They also insisted that the UN develop ways of ensuring the protection of these rights, which resulted in the establishment of the UN Commission on Human Rights. And, of course, the proposal that the UN Economic and Social Council consult regularly with non-governmental organizations (Article 71) came from this group of NGOs.

Since that time, NGOs have continued to be very active in the promotion of human rights and have provided essential information about the violations that occur all over the world. Amnesty International is well known for its efforts on behalf of political prisoners and the introduction of the idea of a Convention Against Torture, which was adopted by the UN. Amnesty's work is based on the participation of individuals deeply concerned for political prisoners and willing to act on their behalf. Individuals form groups to adopt particular prisoners. These groups in turn belong to a national body, a part of Amnesty International that represents the entire constituency at the UN.

At a major UN Conference on Human Rights held in 1993 in Vienna, thousands of persons arrived to speak of a whole range of problems. Foremost among these was the demand for recognition of women's rights with testimony given by women from many countries describing the lack of equal opportunities for education, food, jobs, and ownership of land. The women in Vienna also were vocal about the universal violence against women and shocked many of the governmental delegates into agreement that action must be taken to improve the situation. Currently, the UN has appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women who will continue to report on violence within families, trafficking in women, damaging religious practices, and situations in armed conflict. She will rely on information from NGOs as well as governments in preparing her reports.

Sustainable development is a far-reaching concern of all members of the UN. It includes the effort "to promote social progress and better standards of life" for people in developing countries, together with efforts to slow the destruction of the natural environment throughout the globe. This will require changes in the consumption of natural resources by the more developed nations. In this area, NGOs have led the way in bringing the hazards of pollution, the destruction of forests, the results of over-fishing, and the impact of desertification to the attention of the international community. The first UN Conference on the Environment in 1972 came about largely because of the pressure from non-governmental organizations. NGOs continued their pressure, provided massive amounts of research, and mobilized citizens, inducing the members of the UN to hold another conference in 1992. This time many more thousands came to Rio de Janeiro to insist that governments deliver on their promises to promote better standards of life while maintaining a globe fit for future generations.

Other issues have become so important that the UN finds it must bring together all of its members to agree upon what action to take. In each case, the basic work of bringing these matters to the attention of governments and the UN was done by NGOs. And after the governments have agreed upon a "plan of action" or a "declaration," it is NGOs that implement the action within local communities.

Some NGOs work directly with people in other countries in assisting victims of armed conflict or organizing services on behalf of the High Commissioner for Refugees. In the civil wars raging today, there are many times when officials of a foreign country are not welcome, but NGOs devoted to humanitarian assistance can bring in needed food and medical supplies. Support for these activities may come from groups organized within a church or a school club, or around a professional activity. Students and teachers can and do get involved.

When people come together and form organizations, for whatever purpose, they can bring about change. This is true at all levels from the local community to state and national groupings to international associations. The UN has taken advantage of this powerful resource and has invited NGOs into its legislative bodies where they contribute to the formulation of policy based on their experience.

The future success of the UN will depend not only on the commitment of member states to make it work but also on the efforts of citizens throughout the world, working through hundreds of non-governmental organizations, to bring their concerns, expertise, and ideas directly into the process through which UN policy is formed.

Rosalind W. Harris is President, Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status with the UN Economic and Social Council.