After years of delay 6 rights groups get UN accreditation

After years of delays, six human rights organizations — including the foundation that runs the online encyclopedia Wikipedia — have finally received permission to raise concerns and participate in discussions at the U.N. body overseeing economic development and social issues.

The United States had pushed for a vote on the six groups in June in the U.N. Committee on Non-governmental Organizations, which handles requests for accreditation to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, known as ECOSOC. But a majority of the NGO committee’s 19 members voted to end debate on the six applications -- which again meant no action.

The U.S., Italy, Sweden and Estonia then introduced a resolution seeking a vote in ECOSOC, which has 54 member nations. That took place Thursday and Russia asked for a recorded vote, rather than letting the decision happen by consensus.

The result was 23 countries in favor, 7 against and 18 abstentions. Russia opposed granting what is known as consultative status to the six rights groups, as did China, India, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

The six groups now join thousands of NGOs with consultative status at ECOSOC.

Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The decision to grant U.N. accreditation to six human rights groups is a step in the right direction. But it’s only a fraction of the hundreds of organizations whose applications have been unfairly blocked for years by Russia, China, and other abusive governments.”

The six organizations which won ECOSOC approval for consultative status are: the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Diakonia in Sweden, No Peace Without Justice in Italy, the Estonian Institute of Human Rights, and two U.S.-based groups -- the Syrian-American Medical Society and the Wikimedia Foundation. The foundation runs Wikipedia.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield singled out the two U.S. organizations in a tweet after the vote, citing their world on human rights, freedom of expression and humanitarian issues and saying: “We will continue to fight to ensure civil society voices are heard at the U.N.”

Amanda Keton, general counsel for the Wikimedia Foundation, called the vote “a decisive win for the protection of global civic space” in a statement Friday, saying consultative status in ECOSOC will enable the foundation “to work directly with member states and other stakeholders to promote greater and more equitable access to free knowledge globally.”

Maithili Pai, who focuses on civil society participation for the International Service for Human Rights, a human rights organization based in Geneva and New York, said the vote could make clear that the NGO committee “cannot continue to be a vehicle for reprisals against civil society,” noting that applications for over 350 organizations are still being held up.

Human Rights Watch’s Charbonneau urged countries that respect human rights to push for an urgent overhaul of the U.N.’s accreditation process for NGOs “and put a stop to efforts to silence human rights activists at the U.N.”