Of the three groups that make up the United Nations — civil society, member states and organizations, such as UNICEF and UNESCO — civil society is the most complicated, diverse and difficult to define. Yet this complexity and diversity charge the group with its very vitality and strength. Most importantly, as a group, civil society functions as the conscience of the U.N., preventing the General Assembly, for example, from becoming a self-congratulatory, mutual admiration society.
The concept of civil society at the U.N. suggests that governments are not the sum total of a people. Different forms of government are created not to replace citizens, but to serve and represent them. From its beginning, the U.N. recognized that an uncritically positive evaluation of governments was naïve and there needed to be a type of checks and balances that allowed a voice to nongovernmental organizations — hence, civil society — and it is with this group that Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) is accredited to the U.N. Department of Global Communications.
Yet nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are not all the same; they are described and function differently, depending on the legal and political realities where they are situated. Some, such as CNEWA, are referred to as nonprofit agencies, others as lobbying groups or advocacy organizations or 501(c)(3) corporations.
Regardless of how they are defined, civil society members enable citizens to address specific issues, such as landmines, child marriage, human trafficking, rape as a weapon of war, ecological issues, migration and refugees. NGOs can focus on issues that governments overlook, deliberately choose to overlook or even violate. As nongovernmental entities, NGOs can form cooperative blocks for advocacy. NGOs working together on issues such as human trafficking, empowering women and nuclear disarmament have been effective in getting governments involved in projects governments might prefer to ignore.
Every four years, each U.N. member state has to submit a Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which reports on the state of human rights in that country and how that country is living up to its treaty obligations on human rights. Very often, NGOs function as the conscience of the reporting country to ensure that its UPR is honest and its commitment to human rights ongoing. Not surprisingly, the more repressive and authoritarian a government is, the less favorably disposed it is to the very notion of NGOs presenting a narrative different from its own.
There are several ways an NGO can interact with the U.N. The first is through what is now known as the U.N. Office of Global Communications (UNDGC). Akin to press accreditation, it allows the NGO access to the resources of the UNDGC, to attend meetings and to obtain a U.N. grounds pass. It does not allow that particular NGO, however, to have a direct voice within the U.N. civil society group. The second and primary way NGOs interact with the U.N. is accreditation to the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). ECOSOC accreditation has three levels, the highest being General Consultative Status, which allows the NGO, among other things, to propose amendments to documents and proposals being submitted to the General Assembly.
There are well over 4,000 NGOs with varying kinds of accreditation to the U.N. Some are, as to be expected, more active than others. There is also a considerable number of faith-based, that is, religious, NGOs at the United Nations, a few of which have General Consultative Status. At the New York headquarters of the U.N., there are more than 50 Catholic NGOs with different levels of accreditation. CNEWA is one of them.
The ambitious U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) list 17 objectives. While no one organization or NGO focuses on all of the goals, CNEWA and all the other Catholic NGOs are focused on achieving one or more of those goals. In a sense, the SDGs provide a loose framework that links different NGOs with each other and to other U.N. agencies.
While cooperation among NGOs is inspiringly high, cooperation among Catholic NGOs is extraordinarily good and helpful. Many NGOs specialize in specific issues. When there are cross-cutting issues that arise, NGOs will cooperate to share information and resources. Over its many years of participation at the U.N., CNEWA has been involved with issues such as the protection of children, refugees, the Israel-Palestine conflict, religious freedom and food security. These are subjects the church in CNEWA’s world faces daily, issues closely aligned with many of the SDGs outlined by the U.N.
Being at the U.N. also provides CNEWA with statistics and sources of information it would not have otherwise. In our digital and print publications, CNEWA disseminates a great deal of helpful information from these reliable and objective U.N. sources.
CNEWA’s president, Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari, is looking into new ways the agency might cooperate with appropriate U.N. agencies in areas where we work and on issues we share in common. He believes such cooperation could be beneficial to the missions of both CNEWA and the U.N. organizations.
CNEWA sees its involvement with the United Nations as part of its mission. Promoting as we do a culture of encounter, the U.N. provides CNEWA with an opportunity to encounter other agencies, Catholic and other, in our mission to promote peace and justice and to alleviate suffering among the peoples we serve.
Atonement Father Elias D. Mallon is CNEWA’s special assistant to the president.