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PRESS BRIEFING BY CIVIL SOCIETY REPRESENTATIVES ON GENERAL ASSEMBLY HEARINGS

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

24 June 2005

“We don’t want decisions to be taken in small groups and behind closed doors”, Pera Wells of the World Federation of United Nations Associations told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon. “We want to see the United Nations come back to an open, inclusive decision-making process.”

Also briefing the press on the General Assembly’s first-ever informal hearings with civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector were Peggy Hicks of Human Rights Watch, Shannon Kowalski of Family Care International, and Rik Panganiban of Millennium+5 NGO Network. The briefing was moderated by Zehra Aydin, Chief of the United Nations Non-Governmental Liaison Office.

Participants in the two-day session lauded the hearings as a significant new step in the way the United Nations related to civil society. They called for the continued and active participation of NGOs and civil society in the international efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and expressed hope that the dialogue would become an annual feature, which would allow governments and civil society to interact on a more consistent basis. The Millennium Goals, endorsed by heads of State at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000, are a set of qualified targets ranging from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education, all by 2015.

Convened as part of the preparations for the 2005 World Summit, which is scheduled for 14 to 16 September in New York, the dialogue involved some
200 representatives of civil society organizations, NGOs and the private sector, with some 1,000 more participating as observers. The event’s interactive hearings were focused on the clusters of the Secretary-General’s report, “In Larger Freedom”, as follows: freedom from want; freedom from fear; freedom to live in dignity; and strengthening the United Nations.

Ms. Wells called the event “a terrific opportunity” for the members of civil society to bring across their message for consideration by Member States. Civil society wanted to see action from a much more operationally effective Organization. There was a strong feeling among civil society organizations that they should be included in the process of follow-up of the Summit’s outcome. Of particular importance were such initiatives as the creation of a Human Rights Council and a Peacebuilding Commission, the development of a binding instrument regulating small arms, and the responsibility to protect.

Speaking about the “Freedom to live in dignity” session, Ms. Hicks stressed that human rights were the foundation for both security and development, and the time had come to give them the role that they deserved. There was also a strong call for greater recognition of women’s human rights. Violence against women, land ownership and sexual and reproductive rights were among the main issues discussed. Some overarching human rights concerns included the rights of indigenous peoples, children’s rights and labour rights.

She added that the participants of the session had focused on specific recommendations in the draft outcome document, in particular the need to strengthen the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. There was support for the call to double that body’s budget within five years. There had also been considerable discussion of the recommendation to create a Human Rights Council, which would need to address the full range of issues, including women’s, economic, social and cultural rights. Real action on the proposals was needed in the context of the forthcoming Summit, and the credibility of the process depended on that.

Ms. Kowalski said that none of the Millennium Goals could be achieved in isolation, and their interrelation had been stressed in the panel on “Freedom from want”. Those hearings were devoted to the review of Goals 1 to 7, which deal, respectively, with: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger; achieving universal primary education; promoting gender equality and empowering women; reducing child mortality; improving maternal health; combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and ensuring environmental sustainability.

Gender equality, sexual and reproductive health and rights, environmental sustainability, human rights and education were defined as cross-cutting issues required for the achievement of the Millennium Goals, she said. Participants stressed that governments must increase efforts towards implementing existing international agreements on relevant issues and commit now to meet the 0.7 official development assistance (ODA) target. Also emphasized in the debate was the impact of HIV/AIDS and the need to mobilize resources for the elimination of poverty. All communities and groups in society must be involved in the elaboration and implementation of national poverty-reduction strategies.

Mr. Panganiban, who reported on the “Freedom from fear” session, said that the session had seen the greatest convergence of issues coming from civil society and government interventions. There had been a very strong endorsement of the Secretary-General’s call for a Peacebuilding Commission, which -– it was said –- required strong civil society participation. Also emphasized was the need to ensure a shift from reaction to prevention of armed conflict, including effective early warning systems; and the important role of civil society organizations in prevention and resolution of conflict. There was special focus on Africa and the Middle East. Women were highlighted as critical in conflict prevention. Impunity and gender-based violence needed to end. There was also a strong call for effective institutions at all levels.

Speaking about the upcoming “Strengthening the UN session”, Ms. Wells said that there was “fantastic” NGO engagement in the full range of issues on the United Nations agenda. Civil society, NGOs and the private sector were very committed to participating fully in the work of the Organization. Among the issues that would be addressed at the session, she mentioned the value of the Organization to the people and United Nations reform. The Organization needed to become more conscious of its constituents. Women, children, vulnerable groups, indigenous and disabled people should benefit from United Nations reforms.

She expected some discussion of Security Council reform and the role of the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly. The exciting point, however, was the need to recognize that the three pillars of the United Nations -– security, development and human rights -– should be reflected in three respective councils.

Also important to NGOs was the issue of funding, she said. The participants of the debate wanted a trust fund to be developed to facilitate participation of NGOs from developing countries. Financing of the United Nations was a high priority, and there was support for the Secretary-General’s request for $1 billion for voluntary emergency stand-by arrangements, as well as a trust fund for peacebuilding.

“So far, most of what you just said sounds just like the Secretary-General’s report”, a correspondent said. “Where do you differ from it?”

Responding to that question, Ms. Wells said that only a couple of paragraphs of the draft outcome document referred to NGOs and civil society, and they would like to see continuing references to civil society in that document.

Ms. Hicks added that one point that had not been captured either in the Secretary-General’s report or the outcome document was the issue of women’s rights and the fundamental relationship between the advancement of gender equality and making real progress in development, security and human rights.

Ms. Kowalski agreed on the need to mainstream the gender perspective in the development process. Civil society wanted a strong statement of support for women’s human rights and an increased commitment to their protection. Stronger references were needed to the right to be free from violence, and sexual and reproductive rights were not adequately covered in the report and the draft outcome document.

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