Progress Report on the Informal Consultations on Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Observer Participation in the Work of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme and its Standing Committee
EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE OF THE HIGH COMMISSIONER'S PROGRAMME
9 April 1997
1. Informal Consultations on NGO observer participation in the work of the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme and its Standing Committee were held on 31 January, 19 February and 18 March 1997. Each session was chaired by the Vice-Chairman of the Executive Committee, His Excellency Mr. Björn Skogmo (Norway).
2. The process of informal consultations was initiated at the request of the Executive Committee at its forty-seventh session (A/AC.96/878, para. 26 (c) and (d)) and were considered in the broader context of initiatives taken by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), which adopted new arrangements for its consultative relationship with NGOs (resolution 1996/31) and simultaneously extended a recommendation to the General Assembly to examine the question of NGO participation in "all areas of the work of the United Nations" (decision 1996/297). During the Executive Committee planning meeting of 19 December 1996, it was decided that the consultations should be intergovernmental in nature, although a representative group of NGOs would be invited to the first meeting to give a briefing on their views and concerns. In this regard, an NGO delegation was present at the first meeting, consisting of Amnesty International, the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), the Steering Committee for Humanitarian Response (SCHR), the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) and the World Council of Churches (WCC). The NGO representatives put forward a proposal whereby the NGO community would nominate a limited number of "observers" of the Standing Committee, with access to Standing Committee meetings, official documentation, and the right to submit documents and make an appropriate number of statements. These "observers", it was explained, would range from NGO umbrella organizations, NGO representatives in Geneva with links in the field and NGOs with specialist knowledge. It was proposed that the number of observers would not exceed 4-6 organizations at one meeting.
3. Two discussion papers were presented to the first and second meetings respectively. The first paper, prepared by the NGO community, entitled NGO Participation in the UNHCR Executive Committee (SC/IC/NGO/1), presented the NGOs' position on this issue. A second discussion paper, prepared by the Secretariat, entitled Non-Governmental Organization Observer Participation in the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner's Programme and its Standing Committee (SC/IC/NGO/3) described existing practice in the Executive Committee, briefly outlined practices of other United Nations bodies and set forth options for delegations to consider. In addition, a statement prepared by Amnesty International entitled Access of NGOs to the Standing Committee of the UNHCR Executive Committee was made available to delegations at the second meeting, at the request of Amnesty International. This put forward arguments in favour of unrestricted NGO access to the Standing Committee.
4. Delegations' discussions on this issue revolved around several variables to NGO participation; the number of agencies (if any) to be admitted as observers; the right to address the Committee; access to official documentation; and the right to submit written contributions. In addition, delegations conditioned discussions upon two principles that should remain unchanged irrespective of whatever form of NGO participation is finally allowed; the need to preserve the intergovernmental character of the Standing Committee and the need for any arrangements for NGO participation to avoid a modification to the existing Rules of Procedure.
5. While no consensus on this issue has been reached and further informal consultations are foreseen, a number of proposals and comments have been made by delegations, some of which have found broad support. They can be summarized as follows:
- The potential useful input that NGOs could contribute to the Standing Committee was affirmed and welcomed by delegations, as well as the need for the Standing Committee to be as open and transparent as possible.
- Delegations stressed the intergovernmental character of the Standing Committee and the need not to unduly lengthen debates. Several delegations suggested a limitation of speaking rights of eventual observers, but there was no consensus on an agreed definition of that limitation.
- There was considerable support, in principle, for increased NGO participation in the Standing Committee, with comments focusing on ways of regulating this. Arrangements to enhance the interaction of NGOs with the Standing Committee, apart from their actual participation in Committee meetings, also received support from a majority delegations.
- Delegations expressed concern that the representation of NGOs should include agencies working in the field and especially those in developing countries.
- The need for an NGO self-regulatory mechanism, to select NGO observers, was frequently mentioned as an essential element of NGO participation, in order to avoid the Standing Committee or UNHCR becoming involved in lengthy consideration of which NGO(s) would be allowed to participate.
- The need for a code of conduct, endorsed by the Standing and/or Executive Committee, that could ensure (to the extent possible) the confidentiality of statements made by delegations during meetings and the documentation distributed at the meetings, was also discussed.
- Delegations considered it necessary to keep the possibility of designating certain meetings or agenda items closed to NGO participation.
- A one to two year trial basis was also suggested by a majority of delegations in order to gain a better understanding of how eventual NGO participation would affect the functioning of the Standing Committee.
6. Delegations have proposed that NGOs be represented again in a subsequent round of consultations, which would enable delegations to pose further questions in light of the issues outlined above.
7. The next round of informal consultations is planned for 24 April 1997. An oral update will be provided to the Standing Committee.