Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd's sculpture outside the United Nations in New York

Playing sardines: how civil society forces its way into the United Nations

Last month Ihlara McIndoe travelled as Head Delegate of the Aotearoa Youth Leadership Institution delegation to the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. The Commission is held every year, with a focus on a particular group of females and the issues they face. Here she recounts her experience at the UN.

The level of chaos in the hallways at the UN falls somewhere between a high-school corridor during the rush between classes, and the zoo stand at the Dunedin Forsyth Barr stadium. However, the atmosphere is markedly different. No longer are test scores or lost shoes of concern, rather, the lives of women and girls from around the world.

I always thought that the UN would be an inspiring place, full of feelings of positivity, enthusiasm, and productivity. I was wrong. That is not to say that the United Nations isn’t a well-intentioned organisation that makes positive impacts on the world – it certainly is and does – but in many ways it seems that civil society members (who were almost the only people I had any contact for the full first week at the UN) spend all their time pushing to get into conference rooms, raising their voices over-top of each other, desperate to have their rhetoric heard, but seemingly very far removed from those in the General Assembly hall. To start with, every time I went to a civil society session, I felt like we were playing a very heated, loud, political, exhausting game of sardines.

Early on, after quite the tussle to make it into the crowded session room, I found myself sitting cross-legged, half underneath a table, practically perched on the feet of Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury, former under-secretary general and high representative of the United Nations, and initiator of UNSCR 1325 as Security Council president. He spoke of the three pillars that form the UN body; the member states, the secretariat, and civil society. He reminded those listening that without the third pillar, civil society, there would be no point in the United Nations existing.

I had spent a full week seriously questioning why we were all here in New York, why we all desperately tried to turn our questions into confrontational statements, why we sat listening to each other talk about all the things that have been done and need to be done but not actually doing anything when it comes to decision planning or making. But I had never thought about what the UN would be like without civil society. I had never thought about how, although civil society members have limited access to the actual decision making and negotiations, they are the ones who turn the rhetoric and policy into real action. They are the ones who go out and turn the bureaucratic, complicated, and oftentimes archaic UN administration into an organisation that actually can and does make a positive impact in the world.

In almost every casual discussion I’ve had about the UN, the topic of the infamous permanent five has come up. The notion of veto powers, in my mind, goes against the very point of the UN, and the likelihood of a movement to abolish these powers being almost certainly vetoed by one of at least three P5 members is even more frustratingly ludicrous. While the veto power issue seems unlikely to resolved in the near future, a slightly more likely possibility is the extension of the permanent five Security Council members to include more countries.

Brazil and Germany are common favorites to be potentially added, but an area that frequently goes forgotten in these discussions (and in my opinion, is more vitally in need of representation), is the African continent. Given the majority of Security Council decisions that are made are to do with the African region, it seems nonsensical, not to mention unjust, to have no African member state permanently seated on Security Council. Of course, if an extra place were to be offered, the difficulty would then arise as to which African nation should have the seat. The lack of representation, and complication of selecting and implementing this seat if it were to be granted, is at least, for the meantime, mitigated by the saving grace of civil society non-governmental organisations. While a voice outside the council is by no means the same as one inside, the power of constant campaigning, questioning, negotiating, research sharing, and advice giving cannot go underestimated or unacknowledged.

Without African representation on the Security Council, a strong civil society presence focusing on issues affecting the African region is essential. While the archaic, unrepresentative format of the Security Council remains, the role civic society plays does all that is currently possible to strive towards greater representation, consideration, and transparency.

Not only does civil society play an important role in ensuring the voice of all is heard and considered in decision making, but NGOs also play a vital role in taking UN and government policy back to the people. It is a well-known concept that in order for a legal system to be fair and just, all people should have access to information in order to know the laws they are living under. The same logic can be applied in the reasoning that in order for a legal right to exist, all people should be aware of the right and have the means of accessing that right.

This is where civil society comes in. Fauzia Viqar, chairperson and chief executive of the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women, gave an example of this, in a session I attended focusing on inclusive institutions for advancing women’s access to information. Through UN discussions, leading to national policy reform, women in Pakistan can now legally divorce their husband without losing their family dowry. However, still today, many women are not aware of their rights under this law. While the legislation is accessible to the public online, an illiteracy rate of 55% of women means that many women, unaware of their rights, stay in toxic and often abusive relationships for fear that leaving would mean losing their family’s money and the entirety of their financial support.

It is the role of NGOs to inform women on their legal rights using alternative methods which are more widely accessible, usually through on the ground, face to face interaction. Without civil society, UN articles and government policy would be nothing more than words on paper. Civil society transforms those words into accessible information and makes those statutory rights a reality.

I am beginning to understand why the atmosphere around the United Nations isn’t as positive and enthusiastic as I had expected it to be. Civil society members are desperate to be heard, because if they are not, a large number of people will go unrepresented in the international political sphere. They need to push their way into sessions, because otherwise they will not hear about methods of disseminating information and sparking community engagement, or they won’t hear about strategies that have succeeded or failed. They snap and scold each other because they are exhausted from moving back and forth between the political world and on-the-ground aid and implementation. They are exhausted from holding the United Nations as an organization together. Civil Society may seem removed and excluded from the General Assembly stage, but their true power is both behind the scenes and in the real world. And it is immense.


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