Disinformation in international forums: the civil society loophole – Szabina Horvath

An extensive investigation by EU DisinfoLab found that even United Nations (UN) forums are not immune from being fed misinformation and that UN initiatives intended to strengthen accountability can be a source of mistrust. The preliminary findings of the investigation should place the UN, states and civil society actors themselves on notice.

Engagement and involvement with civil society by international organisations can be an incredibly valuable tool. UN forums, in particular, value the input and views of civil society and see civil society as a useful mechanism for ensuring that states are accountable. However, like many mechanisms, this mechanism can be misused. The means and effectiveness of civil society engagement in UN forums and on international issues generally (including civil society led initiatives) should be regularly reviewed and assessed. 

The investigation, which focused primarily on messaging to discredit Pakistan, identified a range of means by which the extant system of engagement with civil society was being used for nefarious purposes. The investigation identified situations in which accredited non-government organisations (NGOs) were permitting non-accredited entities or their representatives to address UN forums on their behalf. These representatives used this opportunity to provide misinformation to the UN forum, including to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

In response to this concerning practice, a UNHRC spokesperson claimed that it was the prerogative of NGOs to raise issues as appropriate (from the NGOs’ perspective) and for the NGO to permit whomever to speak on its behalf. The spokesperson went further suggesting that imposing rules requiring NGOs to only speak on specific issues would infringe their freedom of speech. 

Of notable concern is the suggestion that actors or other entities, such as NGOs, have rights that include freedom of speech. A civil society actor, while comprised of human beings, does not itself have human rights. It is perhaps even more concerning that as the UN launches its ‘Verified’ initiative (to address the spread of misinformation about COVID-19), the UNHRC seems to accept that the provision of misinformation to UN forums should be tolerated or protected under the guise of human rights. 

Classifying an actor or entity as a member of civil society does not give that body a supreme or revered status (or human rights, for that matter). UN engagement with civil society is of such importance that in 2003 the then Secretary-General established a panel of eminent persons to undertake a review with respect to it and to make recommendations.  The panel cautioned the UN as to how it builds civil society partnerships and with whom. This contrasts sharply with the views expressed by UNHRC.

Where to from here?

One recommendation by the panel to enhance the partnerships between civil society and the UN was to strengthen the process for accrediting civil society actors. It recommended that accreditation be understood as 

an “agreement” between Member States and those accredited — a confirmation that the latter agree to make their expertise available and act in good faith, with an assurance that their views and expertise will be respected and used in governmental efforts in pursuit of the aims of the United Nations.

It is this understanding that should govern the relations between the UN (Member States) and civil society actors. Where an accredited civil society actor permits a non-accredited entity to engage with a UN forum, rather than making its own representatives and expertise available, or otherwise does not act in good faith, the agreement is breached and accreditation should be reviewed. Any assertion that placing rules on civil society’s involvement in UN process and the enforcement of those rules would be a breach of the civil society actor’s (human) rights is not sustainable. 

Where the involvement of civil society is provided for in treaties or other arrangements, states parties should ensure that appropriate processes and procedures are in place for 

  1. accrediting civil society actors, 
  2. enabling those actors to fulfil their intended role within the scope of their expertise, and 
  3. taking action against any actor that fails to engage as expected.

In addition, each actor within civil society has a critical role in preserving the integrity of its own operations and activities. Allowing non-accredited entities to use (and potentially abuse) its good standing in the international community potentially damages the credibility of that actor. Moreover, it undermines the positive contribution of civil society and the decades of work that have resulted in civil society acquiring its valued status.   

Arguably, there has never been a time when trust and dissemination of accurate information has been more important, and the laws and practice of international forums should reflect this.

Szabina Horvath is a PhD Candidate at the Australian National University. Her research examines extraterritorial human rights obligations. Szabina is a legal officer in the Department of Defence and a Navy Reserve Legal Officer. This article represents the author’s personal views and does not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Defence Force or Australian Government.

Suggested citation: Szabina Horvath, ‘Disinformation in international forums: the civil society loophole’ on ILA Reporter (9 January 2021) <http://ilareporter.org.au/2021/01/disinformation-in-international-forums-the-civil-society-loophole-szabina-horvath/>