The role of civil society
A look at the organisations behind the work of the Human Rights Council
1 Mar 2023

It would be impossible, and definitely incongruous, to speak of the Human Rights Council (HRC) without shedding some light on the important role played by NGOs, and civil society at large, in the work of this intergovernmental body. Civil society participation is a cornerstone of the whole UN human rights machinery, and the HRC would not be able to fulfil its mandate without their input.

In Resolution 60/251, the General Assembly acknowledged the important role played by non-governmental organizations and other civil society actors nationally, regionally and internationally in the promotion and protection of human rights. NGOs enjoy a level of participation in the HRC that is unique in the United Nations system. They are observers of the Council, meaning direct stakeholders with certain rights and privileges. The participation of NGOs in the sessions of the Council is based on arrangements and practices observed by the former Commission that continue to develop and evolve: to achieve “the most effective contribution” of observers. In turn, the HRC is enriched by the knowledge and expertise, the witness-bearing role, and the grass-roots relevance that NGOs bring to its work.

Only NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC can be accredited to participate in the HRC’s sessions as observers. In order to do so, they firstly need to fulfil their accreditation with the United Nations Office in Geneva (UNOG) with regard to their annual designations. This is a prerequisite that all NGOs, even those intervening only via pre-recorded video messages, have to complete. After having completed this step, which does not fall directly under the Council secretariat’s responsibilities, it is their prerogative to accredit their representatives to the session of the Council. For example, NGOs can accredit different temporary representatives to attend different meetings of one session, in addition to their main representatives with annual badges at UNOG.

Once accredited for the session, NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC enjoy a number of privileges and arrangements at the HRC. They are able to:

• Submit written statements that are relevant to the Council’s work, either individually or jointly with other NGO’s. Once received and processed by the HRC secretariat, NGO written statements become part of the official documentation of Human Rights Council’s sessions.

• Make oral interventions during all substantive items and debates of the Council’s agenda. The modalities for NGO oral interventions, which have been adapted to take into account the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, can be found on the Council’s extranet at the NGO liason information page. There are four different types of debates at the Council (general debates, interactive dialogues, adoption of UPR outcomes and panel discussions). For each one of these, NGOs will use different ways in order to transmit their key messages in the limited time at their disposal (only one minute and thirty seconds for general debates and interactive dialogues, and two minutes for panels and UPR outcomes).

• Participate in informal consultations on draft resolutions, providing their feedback and advocating for certain outcomes, thus influencing directly the text that is going to be considered by the Members of the Council, and organize parallel events on issues relevant to the work of the Council. Usually combining panel presentations with open discussions, parallel events provide NGOs with a space to share their experiences and to engage un a dialogue with other NGOs, states and stakeholders (including special procedure mandate-holders). Rooms are provided free of charge for the hosting of parallel events during HRC sessions. In-person parallel events were suspended from March 2020 due to the pandemic, but were reinstated for the fifty-fifth session of the Council. They represent key opportunities to address human rights, situations and certain issues parallel to the programme of work of the Council.

It appears clear why it is critical for NGOs to have unrestricted access to the Council. Advocacy activities by these actors can be conducted in a number of different ways through all these arrangements, for example by addressing a specific issue in a certain way during an interactive dialogue with a special rapporteur, or by submitting a certain written statement on a specific country situation, which will be used by experts to inform their reports, or by organizing a side event to draw the Council’s attention on a specific issue. A number of resolutions, for example the one establishing the mandate of the Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI), the mandate of the Special Rapporteur or climate change, or the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the issue of human rights obligations relating to the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment – all benefited from the contributions and the advocacy conducted by civil society organizations that effectively (and tirelessly) worked for these outcomes.

Since the first Council session in June 2006, civil society input in the HRC is becoming increasingly meaningful. With more than 300 NGOs bringing concerns from the ground at each session of the Human Rights Council. The fifty-first session in September 2022 witnessed the participation of 327 NGOs, which represented a return to pre-COVID levels. At this very same session, NGOs made 875 oral statements, 50% of which through pre-recorded video statements, allowing for greater participation of NGOs not based in Geneva.

The COVID-19 pandemic posed both a challenge and an opportunity for NGO participation. In the light of the travel restrictions, as well as the limitations in the in-person participation following the onset of the pandemic, the Council’s Bureau and the secretariat actively sought innovative solutions that could build upon practices and arrangements, as well as best practices, for ensuring participation, while taking into account the Human Rights Council rules of procedures. As a result, the rules set forth to overcome the limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic that enhanced the use of remote participation in the work of the Council allowed for an increased number of civil society representatives addressing the Council via an unprecedented number of pre-recorded video messages. This allowed grass-root organizations, representatives from the Global South, or individuals for which traveling would have been almost impossible even in a pre-pandemic setting (or, at the very least, extremely difficult both at the logistic and the financial level) to have their voices heard when it was needed the most.

After almost three years of use of these hybrid modalities, is it clear that the use of remote participation has proven to be an effective way for the Council to hear the voice of civil society in all its diversity, and for civil society to address the Council in a more accessible and inclusive way. Remote participation enabled the engagement of organizations based outside of Geneva, and to hear from more diversified and less traditional voices, including from people that, in normal circumstances, would have not been able to travel to Geneva. This represented a silver lining, if any, of the pandemic.

Obviously, some limitations were in place, but the possibility for non-governmental organizations to participate through video statements in the Council’s regular and special sessions, and the number of written statements submitted to the Council by NGOs (which increased by 63 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic period) had partially offset the lack of in-person side events of non-governmental organizations and the limited in-person participation. These online modalities have, for example, allowed more children to advocate for their rights directly with the Council, with children from India and South Africa, from the Amazon region and the Gaza Strip directly addressing the Council.

There is a need to invest in inclusive and diverse participation and to provide the space and means for an empowered civil society and vibrant debate in the Council, while ensuring a protective environment for civil society. In this regard, the secretariat of the Human Rights Council has been creatively finding new solutions that allowed for substantive participation by civil society, and to make sure that all stakeholders could be timely informed about these solutions, which were very often found as a matter of urgency.

To conclude, the participation of civil society in the work of the Council represents a fundamental part of the whole architecture of this body, and of the UN as a whole. NGOs can channel critical voices and provide meaningful contributions, while also holding States accountable for their human rights record, promises and shortcomings, and putting them in the spotlight. This role is unique, and has to be protected against any attempt of shrinking or diluting it. In this regard, the role of the secretariat and the Bureau is key in ensuring that the voice of civil society will continue to be relevant for the Council in the future. 

* Antonio Nicolini and Kurveena Pyneeandy are Human Rights Officers at the Human Rights Council Branch, OHCHR.
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