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Below comments are based on the meeting with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon of the United Nations and the UN associated NGOs at the UN HQ in NYC on October 26, 2011.

A New Era in UN for the NGOs
Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Maher Nasser, Director, DPI

Universal Declaration of Human Rights - Article# 19:
"Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

* * * * *

Despite the developments in the global communication, pressure and restrictions on freedom of expression have been escalated during the first decade of the 21st century.

by Lightmillennium.Org

-Summary of the Briefing: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-MOON:
"Women and girls are unfortunately marginalized groups of our society."

-Secretary-General Highlights Crucial Role Civil Society Organizations Can Play in Sustainable Development,
Disarmament, Helping Countries in Transition

First time in many years; the NGOs were able to engage in direct conversation with the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon during the briefing on October 26th, 2011. The acknowledgement and the appreciation of NGO work by Mr. Secretary General during his speech was certainly encouraging for everyone involved in the NGO community.
Whereas the NGOs were given opportunity to ask Secretary-General questions, his time was limited, preventing him from dedicating his entire morning to listen all potential questions and concerns. The session was continued under the leadership of Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Mr. Kiyo Akasaka and Mr. Maher Nasser, Director of the Outreach Division of the Department of Public Information. Nonetheless, some of the attendees couldn’t get the opportunity.  One of the questions left out was from The Light Millennium Founder; Bircan Ünver, intending to ask: "Is there any resolution in place for freedom of expression in terms of including it to the MDGs as the 9th or 10th Goal?”

Although the issue is currently underrepresented, except in the annual international press day, freedom of expression remains one of the most important problems for people from all layers of societies and cultures. Every year millions are persecuted for their thoughts or beliefs. Moreover, in most cases, there are multiple layers of restrictions to freedom of expression that stem from “religious” and “traditional” practices, limiting the development of one’s mind and thinking abilities from early childhood. Unfortunately, freedom of expression is commonly understood only as the persecution an intellectual faces when he/she attempts to disseminate a controversial idea, such as authors being prosecuted for their books or journalists for their reports.

Therefore this question would have been a unique opportunity in terms of hearing of Secretary General’s opinion on this issue.

We believe, this issue should either embedded in each and all eight Millennium Development Goals or a separate goal be added that guarantees freedom of speech for all. For this reason,  “freedom of speech is for all” is a concept very much in line with “global security for all”, “food for all”, “water is human rights”, “education for all” and more. We think that the inclusion of freedom of speech as one of the Millennium Development Goals is very crucial in achieving each and the rest of the MDGs as well as sustainable development and “global security for all”.

This issue is as imperative as oxygen for one’s survival, mental, social and spiritual developments. Despite the developments in the global communication, pressure and restrictions on freedom of expression have been escalated during the first decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately this issue did not receive enough attention from the global community and the UN system. We regret this given that the freedom of speech is Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fundamental document in the foundation of the United Nations. Therefore it is unfortunate to see “freedom of expression being left out of the Millenium Development Goals during its first eleven years while we are approaching to the 63rd Anniversary of the UDHR (10 December 1948). Furthermore, as far as we know, there has not been a specific UN entity established for the Article 19 so far that could be something similar to the UN’s “Alliance of Civilizations” or “Interfaith Week” or “Nowruz Celebrations” or a week or two weeks long “Holocaust” related programs. Overall, we sincerely hope that this issue also will be owned and promoted by the Secretary General as one of his priorities in his second term.

Akasaka, Nasser and Hanif
(Right to left) Under-Secretary General Kiyo Akasaka, Mr. Maher Nasser,
Director, Outreach Division at Department of Public Information,
and Mr. Navid Hanif, ECOSOC

All in all, Secretary General’s speech marks one of the milestones for the relationship between the NGOs and the United Nations. During the last three years, it had been noted that the NGOs were not given the importance and reverence they deserve. NGOs access to UN has been greatly reduced lately. NGOs physical space and presence has been reduced by the renovations and as well as lessened hours of the resource centre. Starting with the Paris Conference in 2008, practices towards the NGOs has drastically changed. Under the premise of relocation of the conference, most of the NGOs were cut of from the planning committees of the conference. Following the 2008 conference, the organization committee meetings were closed to most NGOs except those appointed by the co-chairs of each Planning Committee, thus exacerbating the divide.

Therefore the trend was unfortunately against the inclusion and active involvement of NGOs in last three years. This made devoted NGO leaders “feel like step-children of the UN” as Bircan Ünver, founder of the Light Millennium Organization put it in a personal e-communication.
However the tide seems to be turning in favor of the NGOs. In the briefing held on October 26th, with the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has stated that one of the most important lessons he has learned in his first term was the importance of NGOs for the collective humanitarian effort. He has promised to make sure that the NGOs will have a greater inclusion in and access to UN. This acknowledgement and support is rare but well appreciated.

The recent events seem to be the product of this new understanding. In less than a month, the NGO representatives have had the chance to attend three utmost level meetings. The first briefing with the 66th President of the General Assembly was followed by meetings with UN Secretary General and UN High Commissioner for Refugees. These meetings have allowed the representatives of the non-governmental organizations to engage in a direct conversation with the top level management of the UN. More importantly, such high level acknowledgement of the NGO community and their efforts has been very encouraging and promising for the challenges ahead towards to taking further active roles in humanitarian efforts as Secretary General and Mr. UN High Commissioner for Refugees stated, the NGOs could campaign and make pressures on the governments on critical issues that UN may not be able to do it alone otherwise.

Although these developments have been very encouraging and promising yet they are far from designing and developing a new mechanism or action plan that NGOs also could have an effective voice and active role all layers of the decision making mechanism of the UN. Including the six Committees of the General Assembly as well as other UN entities, which directly work with the governments that not leaving much space for NGO involvement. When and if these ideas find their way within the UN system, and implemented effectively, they will also be reforming the UN and will sweep away all the hurdles in the UN system. Hence, we hope that the trend of decreasing influence of NGOs in the NGO Conference and NGO committees will be reversed from the next year’s 2012 Annual DPI NGO Conference. Of course, more things could be done in addition to the trend reversal. As stressed by Mr. Guterrez, UN could change the way it treats the NGOs by positioning them more as planning partner as opposed to being implementing partners. In support of this, perhaps there could be a more frequent opportunities to convey NGO concerns directly during the interaction session, thus empowering both the NGOs and UN humanitarian works in the ground.  

All in all, all these developments are very encouraging and mark a new era in United Nations. On those grounds;

Thank you Mr. President of the GA,
Thank you Mr. Secretary General,
Thank you Mr. High Commissioner,

Thank to the Department of Public Information NGO Relations Section for providing us these opportunities and closing the mentioned gaps.

- . -

Written by: Bircan Ünver and Cem Zorlular, Lightmillennium.Org

- Summary of the Briefing: UN Secretary General Ban Ki-MOON: "Women and girls are unfortunately marginalized groups of our society."

-Secretary-General Highlights Crucial Role Civil Society Organizations Can Play in Sustainable Development, Disarmament, Helping Countries in Transition

- Universal Declaration of Human Rights

- Millennium Development Goals

- H.E. António GUTERRES: "There is 28 million people, who have been internally displaced due to natural disasters or internal conflicts such as Palestinians."

- Commentary on the Briefing by UN High Commissioner for the Refugees

- "There is no dialogue without civil society". Neither progress!
H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the 66th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations met representatives of NGOs in consultative status with ECOSOC or associated with DPI.

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