This past Thursday and Friday were the much anticipated “informal interactive” hearings of the UN General Assembly with civil society. Many of us NGO reps in New York have been actively preparing for these hearings for the past year. I had an interesting perspective on the hearings as one of the rapporteurs of the sessions. I feel a mixture of relief, satisfaction and exhaustion that the hearings are finally over.
It was only a couple of months ago that the General Assembly agreed on the resolution calling for two days of hearings with “civil society, non-governmental organizations and the private sector” from June 23-24 to address the issues coming before the General Assembly, particularly related to the five year review of the Millennium Summit and the Millennium Development Goals.
The hearings were organized into four basic segments, focusing on the four areas of the UN General Assembly’s agenda: peace and security, human rights, development and UN reform.
A civil society task force was created by NGLS to advise the General Assembly on how to organize the hearings and choose participants from the enormous pool or potential folks who could be invited. Approximately 250 nominated individuals from NGOs and the private sector from around the world were invited to participate in the hearings, including a very large presence of groups from the developing world. Serious attention was paid to gender balance and youth participation. I was impressed by the expertise and enormous variety of people invited to the hearings.
I was nominated by CONGO to be a participant in the hearings. Although not selected as a participant, I was chosen to serve as one of the rapporteurs of one of the sessions, a position that turned out to have quite a lot of responsibility. More on that later.
The President of the General Assembly, Mr. Jean Ping of Gabon, presided formally over the meetings with civil society, which had its good and bad aspects. On the good side, Mr. Ping brought high-level attention to the entire gathering through his presence, which certainly was a strong incentive for governments to send senior officials from their Missions to the UN, instead of just junior staff.
On the bad side, Mr. Ping controlled the entire event, including calling on every speaker and participant, signalling them when they went on too long, and guiding the discussions. This meant that the “moderators” chosen by civil society had effectively no role to play in guiding the discussions or in giving the different sessions a different flavor or tone. Instead they were all conducted in the same, stilted, diplomatic format.
Many of us had hoped that in these “interactive” hearings there might be experiments with various types of facilitation and guided discussions, to ensure actual debate and frank exchanges among civil society and between civil society and the government representatives prescnt. This goal unfortunately was not really met.
Focusing more on the plus side, the entire event was webcast by the United Nations, despite us being previously informed that there were no plans for this to be done.
The rapporteurs for all of the sessions were chosen from civil society, which was a nice touch, ensuring that the main summaries of each of the meetings was done by an NGO representative instead of a government or UN official. The rapporteur position, seemingly a glorified stenographer, turned out to be quite an important role in the hearings. The rapporteur was the last person to speak at every hearing, summarizing everyone’s comments and the main themes. The rapporteurs also got to speak at a press briefing on Friday afternoon and at the final plenary before the UN Secretary-General.
One memorable incident that was a less than ideal opening to the hearings occurred during the opening session in the General Assembly Hall. The plan for was the GA President and a representative of the Secretary-General to give brief remarks opening the hearings, and then for the meeting to move to the ECOSOC Chambers for the actual hearing sessions. It was supposed to last just a few minutes.
Unfortunately, the GA Hall apparently has antiquated audio equipment in the public gallery, where several hundred civil society observers were seated. Thus the English interpretation was very, very soft. The GA President is francophone, so naturally he gave his remarks in French, which unfortunately could be barely heard by those tuning into the English channel of the interpretation system.
After a minute of so of the GA President’s speech, Rob Wheeler, an NGO activist from California, starts shouting from the public gallery “THERE IS NO TRANSLATION!!”
The GA President stopped for a moment, and then continued his speech. After another minute of this, Rob Wheeler shouts again “THERE IS NO TRANSLATION!!! AND WHERE ARE THE GOVERNMENTS!!”
UN Security escorted Rob out quickly, justifiably so. But he did have a point. No one could hear the GA President’s speech.
After several minutes of confusion, Louise Frechette, Under-secretary-general of the UN, apologized for the poor sound equipment, explained that it could not be fixed easily in the next few minutes, and that this session needed to just finish as quickly as possible in order of the actual hearings to begin. She noted that the GA President’s remarks would be made available in print form shortly. Everyone applauded and the meeting continued without incident.
Overally the sessions were all quite interesting, with very good opening speeches by several speakers. I particularly was impressed by the sessions on Financing for Development and on UN reform.
Many governments did participate in the hearings, even though we were warned to not get our hopes up. Most of them simply expressed appreciation of the opportunity to hear from civil society, but some made actual substantive comments and responses to questions from civil society. For example the UK explained its position on the call to increase official development assistance to 0.7% of GDP and South Africa noted that it supported a more active role for women in the United Nations.
I rapporteured the session on the prevention of armed conflict, which was probably the easiest session to report on, since there was already a large amount of general consensus around the main issues areas. Among the main points of this session:
- There was an overall endorsement of the Secretary-General’s call for a Peacebuilding Commission, with calls for the new body to engage actively with civil society.
- There was a strong call for a shift from “reaction to prevention” of armed conflict, including effective early-warming systems.
- Several interventions from both governments and civil society emphasized the important role of civil society organizations in conflict prevention and resolution.
- There was a special emphasis on the regions of Africa and the Middle East, including the call for more resources to strengthen conflict prevention mechanisms, end poverty, ensure good governance and support strong regional institutions.
- Women were highlighted as critical actors in peacebuilding and conflict resolution that needed to be included in conflict prevention efforts, while impunity in gender-based violence needed to end.
One open question is whether this kind of interactive hearing with the General Assembly will happen again or not. Several of us spoke out in favor of this being a regular part of the UN’s calendar every year. Whether or not this happens, civil society needs to have a serious discussion among themselves about how the hearings went, what went well, and what could have been improved. Because if we have to do this again, it would be good to learn from our mistakes.
Right now, I’m just glad that they are finished.