UNITED NATIONS - A major structural renovation of the U.N. Secretariat is being used as a pretext to curb media access to delegates and Security Council members, and is also a veritable smokescreen to tighten restrictions on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accredited to the world body, critics say.
"It's absolutely scandalous," says Jim Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, which provides intense coverage of U.N. activities in its widely-accessed website.
The Capital Master Plan (CMP), a five-year U.N. restructuring project costing about 1.9 billion dollars with a 2013 deadline, is apparently the primary excuse to restrict the physical movement of NGO representatives in the U.N. building, he said.
"The United Nations appears to be getting progressively more hostile to NGOs - and member states appear to be behind this trend," Paul told IPS.
Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had a love-hate relationship with NGOs, once described them as "indispensable partners of the United Nations" and "the conscience of the world".
But his administration also had occasional battles with NGOs whose presence in the U.N. building, particularly during summit meetings and General Assembly sessions, was restricted on security grounds.
But the current situation is the worst because "it is 10 times more difficult", complained Paul, who is a member of a new 'NGO Working Group on U.N. Access'.
The NGO complaint follows a strong protest by the U.N. Correspondents' Association (UNCA) which recently faulted the world body for new restrictions imposed on press access to delegates and members of the Security Council.
Asked for an update, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky told reporters Friday: "I think you should ask the President of the Security Council what the arrangements (for press access) are."
"It is not for me to second guess what the Security Council is doing. I am not going to pre-judge," he added.
Meanwhile, in a hard-hitting letter to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Working Group says that NGOs "are amongst the closest partners of the United Nations - sharing the vision and promoting the goals and ideals on which the United Nations was established."
But "we (are) compelled to write to you at this time in light of a number of obstacles restricting NGO access to the United Nations at different levels."
"Some of the restrictions are structural and related to the renovations, while others, of greater concern, reflect the political mood prevalent today," the letter complains. "We are particularly concerned that the temporary arrangements, as part of the Capital Master Plan, are creating additional access problems and significantly reducing space for NGO participation."
Currently, over 3,000 NGOs are recognised and provided "consultative status" with the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Additionally, over 2,000 NGOs are recognised and accredited to the world body by the U.N.'s Department of Public Information.
The new NGO Working Group, which is fighting for the rights of NGOs, includes the Conference of NGOs (CONGO) in Consultative Relationship with the U.N., International Service for Human Rights, World Federalist Movement - Institute for Global Policy, Baha'i International Community and Global Policy Forum.
The NGO letter also said: "It is widely acknowledged that in today's increasingly interdependent world, deliberation on issues of global concern - development, security and human rights - requires a closer participation of NGOs than ever before."
"We therefore believe that it is imperative for the United Nations to explore ways and means to expand and render more meaningful the access of NGOs to the Organisation, and its negotiation and decision-making processes," the letter adds.
The Working Group has also asked the secretary-general to assign an individual at a senior level within the executive office to serve as a liaison to the NGO community.
Under Annan, the Assistant Secretary-General for External Relations Gillian Martin Sorensen was the coordinator of NGOs.
In this role, Sorensen "played a significant role in engaging with and assisting NGOs, by organising regular meetings to discuss matters of concern," the letter adds.
In his response, Ban sent a letter pointing out that despite careful planning, "significant challenges remain from the current stage of the implementation of the Capital Master Plan."
"Indeed, the situation is difficult, not only for NGOs but also for member states and the Secretariat," he wrote.
The secretary-general also said that he has directed all departments concerned "to seek sound and coordinated solutions to providing access to as many NGOs as possible, within the security and safety requirements."
Paul dismissed Ban's letter as an "empty, say-nothing" response.
Meanwhile, in a letter to the secretary-general and to the president of the Security Council, UNCA President Giampaolo Pioli expressed "serious concern" about proposed restrictions on press access to Council members outside their new meeting area.
Any attempt to use the move and/or safety concerns as a pretext to institute unprecedented and unnecessary limitations on press access to the delegations is unacceptable to UNCA members since it would further reduce the transparency of the most powerful body within the United Nations, Pioli said.
"It is ironic that the very Security Council whose members have jointly and individually criticised governments around the world for not allowing a free press to operate in their countries have suddenly gotten into the business of curtailing a free press at U.N. headquarters," he added.