Objections to NGO Participation in CoSP9 in Sharm El-Sheikh, December 13-17, 2021 - Sharaf Mohsen Al-Moussawi
The 9th session of the Conference of the States Parties (CoSP9) to the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) was held in Sharm El-Sheikh between December 13 and 17, 2021, and attended by 2,133 representatives of governments, regional organizations, NGOs, academia, and the private sector, either in person or virtually. More than 70 side events were organized around the conference, including dialogue sessions on corruption, gender, health care, COVID-19, sports, education, youth, international cooperation, the recovery of looted assets, and an assessment of anti-corruption strategies. Some countries also reviewed their efforts to combat corruption since the eighth session, in addition to expert discussions on future decisions and visions of anti-corruption efforts.
Objections to NGO Participation
According to Article 17 of the rules of procedure of the Conference of the States Parties, both NGOs with ECOSOC consultative status and national organizations without a consultative status may participate as observers, provided an approval by the Conference General Secretariat. However, those rules also grant the states parties the right to object to the participation of any such organization, especially those without consultative status. The reasons for the objection must be formally expressed and sent to all member states 30 days before the meeting, to be decided upon by the conference.
Consequently, both Turkey and Libya objected to the presence of 9 national organizations. Turkey accused 8 of those organizations of terrorism, which was not accepted by EU countries and the US, as some actually operated from their territories. At the beginning of the official conference, the EU requested an intervention on the subject on the first day. However, the new president ignored this request, pushing the discussion to the third day, to avoid any embarrassment to the host country in the presence of the Egyptian Prime Minister on the first day.
The Office of the Conference in the General Secretariat of UNODC submitted a proposal to postpone the topic and determine a final position by member states through informal discussions between member states organized by the General Secretariat after the end of the conference.
Nevertheless, several countries intervened on the subject beginning on the second day, providing official statements and inputs. On behalf of the EU (27 countries), Slovenia read out a statement, which stated that the EU considers CSO participation in the CoSP to be of utmost importance and a beneficial addition to state efforts in combating corruption. It called on all State Parties to respond, cooperate, and support NGOs in anti-corruption efforts. The EU was also concerned about the position taken by some countries in restricting NGOs, which goes in contradiction to the UNCAC. Speaking in support of participation were Canada, the US, Australia, Mexico, Britain, Chile, Latvia, Georgia, and Armenia, which stressed that it is unacceptable to object to well-established NGOs with a prominent role in anti-corruption and human rights. The US delegate believed the assault on NGO rights in the CoSP by some countries was unacceptable, must be stopped, and organizations must be allowed to work seriously with countries to protect their rights. He added that the US would not allow the conference to be used to settle scores with NGOs or achieve goals that are not agreed upon. He demanded the withdrawal of the state's objection to the participation of NGOs.
Only four countries supported the Turkish position: Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and China. Iran believed that such objections are sovereign decisions that must be respected. It also objected to finding a new mechanism other than the one contained in the conference rules of procedure. The representative of China saw that some countries' objections to the participation of NGOs should be taken into serious consideration, as one of their rights. The Russian delegate supported Turkey's position, saying it had followed the conference's internal rules, which do not require the objecting country to provide justifications.
In more than one intervention, Turkey requested that its letters to the CoSP General Secretariat, in which it objected to the NGOs' participation, be considered among Conference's documents. However, following demands by some countries to withdraw the letters, Turkey's representative asked to return to his government to determine the final position.
In her intervention on this matter, the Libyan government delegate expressed her desire for the association to participate for the remainder of the Conference. However, when the President of the Conference, at the request of the Conference Secretariat, asked for a clarification, the delegate withdrew the request, awaiting discussion with the Libyan government.
After marathon discussions in which the Turkish delegate intervened to defend his government’s opinion several times, the conference reached a decision to hold informal discussions on the subject to reach new standards regulating NGO participation in the CoSP in some detail. The standards must lay down foundations and standards corresponding to the desire of most countries to consider these organizations as key partners in fighting corruption, emphasizing the necessity of their participation in the conference. In the event of an objection from any country to any organization, the reasons for the objection must be raised to the member states that have the full right not to agree. The discussions will also address the adoption of mechanisms for NGO participation in the official meeting and side events from which they are currently excluded. Talks are expected to take place in the coming months to agree on better procedures for dealing with such objections. Organizations such as Transparency International and the UNCAC Alliance already began planning to intervene on this matter with representatives of countries that have offices in Vienna, such as the EU and the US, to agree on best practices before the next CoSP is held in the US.
NGOs participating in the conference, especially those present in Sharm El-Sheikh, worked in solidarity and held several meetings with some European countries, the EU Secretariat, Canada, and Australia, who supported the participation of CSOs in the CoSP and rejected the objections of some countries. They considered CSOs as essential partners in combating corruption. The efforts were led by the UNCAC Alliance. Participating organizations, including a representative from the Bahrain Transparency Society, agreed to maintain communications with the EU and its member states through embassies or representatives in Vienna before reaching a final position prior to the next conference in the US in 2023. Transparency International (TI) raised the matter at the OHCHR and the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders in Geneva. The matter will continue to be addressed to defend the rights of participation of all NGOs, whether they hold consultative status or not. CSOs shall be contacted through the various UN forums to identify common issues related to objections and exclusions.
Arab Events and Meetings
On the sidelines of the conference, the governmental and non-governmental groups in the Arab Anti-Corruption and Integrity Network (ACINET), held a series of events and a meeting of the non-governmental group. They included a panel on anti-corruption strategies in the Arab countries, where Professor Ali Berro from the Ministry of Administrative Development in Lebanon presented a review of the first report on the implementation of the strategy. The meeting included discussions on the extent of the Arab countries' commitment to implementing the strategies in general. Another event was also held in coordination with the Arab academies to combat corruption in some Arab countries such as Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and those affiliated with the League of Arab States. An expanded meeting of the network was proposed for the first quarter of 2022 in Beirut.
The CSO UNCAC Coalition also organized a series of events, including an expanded meeting between the attending members on December 12, a day before the conference, to delegate tasks and responsibilities of the attending members and the secretariat. It also held daily evaluations of the coalition's activities on defending the CSO right to attend the CoSP and other events related to the international struggle against corruption. It also issued a statement on behalf of its members, urging states to reject Turkey and its supporters' position on preventing some NGOs from participation in the CoSP. The UNCAC Coalition received support from some EU States, Canada, Australia, the US in an informal joint meeting.
COVID-19 and Security Measures
Covid-19 limited opportunities for direct communication and networking with country delegations and international organizations. Preventive measures controlled the movement of delegates, who underwent a test every other day and had to provide the information before entering the conference center. Social distancing of 1.5 meters was observed in all conference halls. However, 4 cases were detected in the first two days, which could mean that they had been infected before they arrived. They had to undergo precautionary, preventive, and protective measures and medical follow-up. A health unit was stationed in all approved hotels to follow up the procedures, including free tests, verification of health status, and temperature measurement before boarding the buses designated the conference venue every trip. The above procedures were imposed on official and civil society delegations.
The conference center and its surroundings were subject to strict security arrangements by the host country. The UN brought its own security to accompany leading figures. UN security personnel verified the official identities of people entering the conference venue.
Closing Session and Key Decisions
In her speech at the closing session, Dr. Ghada Wali, UN Under-Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC), announced that the conference had reached many recommendations on international cooperation and the recovery of looted assets. Countries agreed on 8 resolutions in support of international efforts to combat corruption in the coming years. The conference adopted the Sharm El-Sheikh Declaration, which focuses on fighting corruption in times of crisis, guiding recovery from the pandemic with integrity, and helping countries prepare for emergencies. The session also decided to recover looted funds and activate regional and international cooperation between countries, especially with regard to recovering funds resulting from transnational crime; support education by strengthening the inclusion of anti-corruption themes in educational programs and empowering youth; follow up on the implementation of the commitments adopted by countries in the previous sessions; strengthening cooperation among the supervisory institutions (anti-corruption bodies and others) in the member states, and follow-up the political declaration issued by the first special session of the United Nations General Assembly, which was held in June 2021 and urged countries to boost anti-corruption efforts. It also decided to hold the CoSP10 in the US in 2023. Some official delegations urged the US to facilitate the participation of all delegations without exception.
Wali also called for the continuous inclusion of anti-corruption on the political agenda of member states, which should take practical measures in this regard. She ended her statement by urging the fulfillment of promises to the people and the youth, without failing anyone or leaving anyone behind."
However, the final decisions will be announced and published on the UNODC website.
Sharaf Mohsen Al-Moussawi - Advisor to the Bahrain Transparency Society