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A History of the NGO Working Group

By James A. Paul (Founding Secretary)

September 2010

The NGO Working Group on the Security Council is an influential forum at the United Nations. When it was founded in 1995, no one imagined that an NGO body could have regular interaction with Council members at the highest level. But the Working Group proved that the unexpected can happen, even in the high-stakes world of international policy.

The Working Group today organizes dialogue meetings between a group of about thirty major NGOs and individual Council ambassadors, as well as top-level UN official and other key players in the international security world.  But the Working Group began with a different purpose in 1995.   It first aimed at influencing the debate about reform of the Council -- then entering a new and hotly-debated phase.  But soon, as reform discussion bogged down, the Working group changed course.  In 1996, it began to organize a public "dialogue" between Council members and the NGO community.  Finally, operating with a limited group of influential NGO members, it started its present series of meetings at the beginning of 1997.

This history considers the Working Group's development, as it gained increasingly-close access to the Council. The NGOs in the Working Group brought a new level of openness to the Council, at a time when the Council was a very closed and secretive body. The NGOs lobbied for accountability and they spoke in favor of human rights, humanitarian standards and the rule of law. At times, Council members listened and policies changed.

Council Reform Phase (1994-95)

In 1994, in response to a great increase in Security Council activity in the post-Cold War era, the General Assembly started negotiations to reform the Security Council. NGOs based in New York and Geneva decided to get involved. They organized a very successful conference on Council reform in New York on May 23, 1994.  Early in 1995, Global Policy Forum assembled a small group of NGOs in New York to organize an "NGO Working Group on the Security Council." The new Working Group was conceived as a forum to discuss and advocate for Council reform.

During 1995, the group held two public meetings on reform topics and it also organized several private meetings with delegates and with the office of the General Assembly President - to propose  initiatives, seek advice and garner support. Ambassadors Razali Ismail of Malaysia and Colin Keating of New Zealand - both recent Council members - gave encouragement to the group during this phase.  In January 1996, Assembly president Diogo Freitas do Amaral delivered an important speech on Council reform to a large public meeting organized by the Working Group.

Shift to Dialogue with Council Members - Early Efforts (1996)

As Council reform negotiations lost momentum, the Group decided to organize dialogues between NGOs and Council members. The Working Group approached Ambassador Juan Somavia of Chile, who had just joined the Council. He eventually agreed to speak to a public NGO meeting in April.  In May, the Working Group organized another public meeting with Council ambassador Nabil al-Araby.  In early November, the Working Group organized a meeting to discuss the annual report of the Council to the General Assembly.

Taking inspiration from that success, the Working Group wrote a letter in late November to incoming Council President Paolo Fulci of Italy, proposing that Council Presidents provide a regular briefing each month to NGOs. Fulci brought the issue promptly into Council consultations. The permanent members refused the plan, but the Council affirmed the right of its members, when not serving or speaking as Council President, to brief NGOs.  Ambassador Fulci then offered to be the first to brief the NGOs - in January, when his month-long Presidency was completed.

The Dialogue Takes Off (1997-98)

Ambassador Fulci met with the group in January 1997 in the first of this new series. The Swedish Ambassador, Peter Osvald, met the group the following month, but other ambassadors at this stage were hesitant. Finally, in early April, Ambassador Antonio Monteiro of Portugal, expressed his enthusiasm for the NGO effort and offered his solid backing.  Counsellor Ana Gomes of Portugal, began to give the Working Group regular briefings, while Monteiro persuaded other ambassadors to meet with the Working Group.  Soon there were meetings with the ambassadors of Russia and South Korea.  US ambassador Bill Richardson held a breakfast meeting with the group in September, and ambassador Somavia hosted a similar event the following month.  Momentum had built swiftly. The UK, France and many others now agreed to join the process.

The meetings typically lasted for an hour and a half, beginning with a statement by the delegate and followed by a question-and-answer period.  On the NGO side, about twenty senior representatives attended.   The NGO reps were still learning about the Council in this phase and much remained mysterious. But most sessions were lively and excitement high.  It was obvious that the ambassadors enjoyed the meetings too.  Compared to the slow-paced and tedious Council meetings, the NGO sessions were informative and lively.

The participants in these meetings were representatives of major NGOs with a special interest in the Council.  Among the most active in this early phase were Amnesty International, Oxfam, Doctors without Borders, Human Rights Watch, the Quaker UN Office, the World Federalist Movement, the International Women's Tribune Center and the World Council of Churches.  All thirty of the members were seasoned veterans of UN advocacy, but the WG gave them unique access, contact and insight into the work of the Security Council.

During 1998, with further help from the Portugese, the WG met increasingly frequently and enlarged the number of delegations it met. The ambassadors of Portugal, Sweden and Slovenia hosted lunches for the WG, signaling unprecedented support. Informal NGO contacts with delegations grew more routine and NGO members of the WG reached a far higher level of expertise on the Council's workings. Though the WG had established its closest relations with the Council's elected ("non-permanent") members, it also was meeting regularly with all five permanent members as well.

In 1998, the Group decided that it must formalize its procedures and its leadership. An election was held in the summer and GPF Executive Director Jim Paul was elected for a two-year term as chair, with Catherine Dumait-Harper of Doctors without Borders as Vice-Chair. Six others were elected to form an eight-member Steering Group that drew up membership criteria, considered future plans and drew up policies and procedures for the meetings.

New Horizons of Interaction and Advocacy (1999 and beyond)

A number of delegates proved to be strong friends and allies of the NGO initiative in the early years, including ambassadors Robert Fowler of Canada, Peter van Walsum of the Netherlands, Danilo Türk of Slovenia, and Fernando Petrella of Argentina. Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock of the UK adopted a very cordial approach, as did Alain Dejammet of France. China, hesitant at first, increased its engagement.

In 1999, delegations began to invite a few leading NGO representatives to private receptions at the end of their Council presidencies, providing an exceptional opportunity for informal communication. In many other ways, relations deepened between delegations and WG  members. Altogether, the WG held 45 events in 1999, a torrid pace of nearly one meeting each week. In December, the WG held its first holiday reception, which many delegates attended.

NGO advocacy on security issues steadily increased. Since the Working Group itself did not take common positions on matters of substance, members formed separate ad hoc groups to work jointly on advocacy topics.  The first such group was the NGO Working Group on Iraq, which took up the issue of the Council's general trade sanctions on that country.  Coordinating its work with colleagues in Europe, the group was able to make a strong impression on Council members with its well-researched information and robust criticism of the negative humanitarian effect of the Iraq sanctions regime.

The Security Council was deeply divided on the matter of Iraq sanctions and a worldwide public campaign to end the sanctions was well under way.  The new NGO Working Group helped to bring further pressure on the Council and the NGO effort paid off in a variety of ways -- a number of countries began to press for "targeted" sanctions, the Council eased its Iraq sanctions rules, and the Council set up a special committee to examine sanctions policy more generally.  In light of such successes, NGOs set up several more specialized advocacy groups - addressing the crisis in Central Africa, the civil war in Sudan, the Israel/Palestine conflict and other topics.

Particularly successful was the new Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.  With Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh as its champion, the WG succeeded in organizing a special Arria Formula Briefing on its topic, a step that permanent members had previously opposed.  In October, the Council passed Resolution 1325, a pathmark decision that put women's issues into its policy-making for the first time. It was clear that this resolution had come from the NGO side.  And there was much follow-up activity in the months and years to come, with influence over peacekeeping and security policy more generally.

Another influential new NGO advocacy group was the Children's Watch List, which focused on issues of children in conflict, such as child soldiers, sexual abuse of children by combatants, etc. This group succeeded in winning several major Council resolutions and it kept up a steady pressure for further progress.  With special support from Ambassador Jean-Marc de la Sablière of France, the NGOs persuaded the Council to set up a Working Group on this topic and to consider a range of cases.

The specialized working groups did not detract from the main Working Group on the Security Council but instead strengthened it.  They brought their well-developed advocacy concerns into the WG's meetings and took advantage of the contacts they made there with ambassadors and junior diplomats.  By concentrating their advocacy they made a greater impression on Council members and advanced the entire process of NGO interaction with the Council.

In addition to security policy concerns, the NGOs campaigned to make the Council more open and transparent.  By obtaining from friendly delegations the Council's "Program of Work" (a monthly calendar of meetings and other activities) and posting the Program on the Global Policy Forum website, the NGOs successfully pressured the Council to publish this information officially on the UN's website.  Similarly, broader NGO web publications persuaded the Council to set up a website of its own with a vast trove of information, including all previous resolutions and verbatim transcripts of meetings.  The Council's permanent members, always conservative in such matters, were not able to stand in the way.

NGOs also succeeded in winning influence over Council members' thematic debates during their Council presidencies.  Each month, the Council president rotates and when elected members take up the presidency they are inclined to raise a thematic issue such as  "protection of civilians," "peacebuilding," and "natural resources and conflict." These delegations increasingly turned to NGOs for advice on the themes and for help with related debates and resolutions.

As a result of all this cooperation, interaction between delegations and Working Group members changed from formality toward collegiality. Information and opinion flowed easily in both directions. The Working Group had become well-established in the Security Council landscape and its members were familiar personalities to all the member delegations.

The Process

The meetings of the NGO Working Group number about forty each year, an astonishing rhythm, given the busy schedule of the Council and the heavy demands on the ambassadors' time.  Global Policy Forum, acting as the Secretariat of the Working Group, makes the arrangements for all the meetings and devotes considerable time to the process.  Funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation provided essential support for this work.

No two meetings are the same and the experience varies a lot from one guest to another.  Some are brilliant, humorous, and brimming with information while others (inevitably) are less memorable.  After an initial statement by the ambassador or other invited guest, group members ask questions (often prefaced by background comments).  There is no set agenda, but meetings usually focus on the most important crises and other issues before the Council - such topics as Afghanistan, Darfur, Iraq, Palestine, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  NGOs also press Council members to take up neglected crises.  And they raise thematic issues that the Council tends to neglect.  The meetings are off-the-record, so that the diplomats can speak most freely.

Exchanges during the Working Group events are typically low key, but sometimes meetings take a dramatic turn.  Occasionally in meetings, members bring new evidence directly from the field, surprising the ambassadors with real-time reports of immediate interest to the Council - human rights violations, humanitarian crises, fresh outbreaks of conflict, peace agreements broken, unknown opportunities for peaceful solutions.  NGOs best able to present information of this kind command the attention of the diplomats by offering credible and well-targeted evidence.

The meetings serve four main functions.  First, they inform NGOs about the work of the Council (including its many private meetings and behind-the-scenes negotiations).  Second, they provide ambassadors with unique information and analysis from NGOs with field presence or analytic acuity.  Third, they offer NGOs an opportunity for advocacy and pressure.  And fourth, they introduce diplomats to NGO representatives (and vice versa), so that wider contact and advocacy (outside the meetings) can take place smoothly and easily.

The Working Group Meets with Senior UN Officials, Experts and even Foreign Ministers

In 2001, the Working Group decided to widen its horizons and to meet with senior UN officials, as well as policy experts. UN Under Secretary General Jayantha Dhanapala, head of the Department for Disarmament Affairs, launched this new process in January of 2001, followed by USG for Poliitical Affairs, Kieren Prendergast in July, Mary Robinson, the High Commissioner for Human Rights in November, USG for Peacekeeping Jean-Marie Guéhenno in February 2002 and USG for Humanitarian Affairs Kenzo Oshima in March 2002. Thereafter, the group met regularly with these and other high officials, including members of the Secretary General's Executive Office, Special Advisors, Envoys and a variety of others.

Among the special officials and experts meeting with the group were Professor José Alvarez. President of the American Society of International Law, Gerard McHugh, Coordinator of the Security Council Panel of Experts on Sudan, Ambassador Pierre Schori, Special Representative of the Secretary General for the Ivory Coast, Andrew Whitley, Director of the New York Office of UNRWA, and Carolyn McKaskie, Director of the Peacebuilding Support Office.

The group also began to meet occasionally with foreign ministers of Council members.  In October 2001, Brian Cowan, Foreign Minister of Ireland met with the group and followed with a second meeting in 2002.  There were meetings as well with UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, Miguel Angel Moratinos of  Spain, Rogtien Biaou of Benin, Rafael Bielsa of Argentine, Michael Spindelegger of Austria, and a number of junior ministers and ministry officials.

There were many memorable meetings and special events, including luncheons, with the ambassadors of Sweden, Slovenia, Portugal, France, Russia, Namibia and Bangladesh (among others).  There was a lively meeting with a group of Spanish parliamentarians in 2004 and briefings with incoming General Assembly Presidents - Jan Elaisson of Sweden in 2006, Sheikha Haya Rashed Al-Khalifa of Bahrein in 2007 and Joseph Deiss in 2010.


The NGO Working Group on the Security Council has continued to innovate in its meetings and broaden its perspective.  In 2010, for example, the group visited the 24-hour Situation Center of the Department of Peacekeeping and it organized a luncheon on Private Military & Security Companies.  But meetings with Council ambassadors remain at the center of the Working Group's program.  Members find that the group is a unique and exceptionally valuable process of interaction and consultation. After thirteen years and more than five hundred meetings, the process continues with renewed energy to address the great security issues of the day.

To view the previous version of A Short History of the NGO Working Group from April 2001, please click here.