Sign-on "A call for strong and inclusive civil society engagement at UN virtual meetings "
The UN has an unprecedented opportunity to ensure continued and improved civil society access and meaningful engagement as meetings and processes are moving online to safeguard public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of civil society actors engaging with UN agencies, mechanisms, and bodies, including after in-person meetings are resumed, as it will remove the resource constraints linked to travel.

We are convinced that, as the Agenda 2030 states, meaningful, diverse and substantive participation of civil society in UN processes contributes to significantly strengthen the multilateral system and aid the realization of the Agenda 2030 at all levels. It is worrying to see, however, that there are escalating limitations on civil society participation and on freedom of assembly and association, with the pretext of the COVID-19 crisis, at national level and attacks on multilateral cooperation and processes at the global level.

The upcoming High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) 2020 will be an important moment where the opportunity presented by virtual engagement can be utilized fully. Since its inception, civil society has worked hard to contribute to and utilize all participation possibilities at the HLPF. We, as the undersigned major groups and stakeholders, civil society organizations and coalitions (CSOs), call on the UN, its agencies and member states to take note of and implement the set of recommendations below to ensure the virtual nature of upcoming meetings do not hinder, but extend the inclusiveness of HLPF for meaningful civil society participation.

Existing barriers and risks to meaningful engagement by CSOs in UN virtual meetings must be acknowledged by the UN, and a plan to address them must be developed and implemented; this plan should be guided by principles of accountability, transparency, equity, and take a rights-based approach. While we understand the technical limitations and logistical challenges that arise, existing barriers and risks to address include:
- Digital divide, including the digital gender divide and rural access to digital platforms
- Timings that favor the Global North, due to time zones
- Language and accessibility
- Lack of digital security, threats to human rights defenders, marginalized groups and people in vulnerable situations
- Inequality in access to information (due to language barriers, technical shortages, public availability of the information, etc.) and spread of misinformation
- Restrictions to civil society access
- Lack of information about changing modalities, timetables and opportunities
- The short turn-around times imposed on civil society for participation

Before finalizing CSO engagement procedures for UN virtual meetings, the UN, its agencies and member states should:
- Actively seek feedback from civil society actors, in all their diversity, when selecting secure and accessible means of communication to engage with them online or by phone
- Engage with and reach out to civil society actors in all of their diversity and scope (e.g., global to grassroots); relying on large international organizations is not sufficient as they can act as gatekeepers (whether intentionally or inadvertently)
- Perform an impact assessment on CSO participation to ensure that civil society space is not limited over time and by any changes in working methods or modalities

To facilitate CSO engagement at UN virtual meetings, the UN, its agencies and the member states should:

- Make available, at least two weeks prior to the meeting, comprehensive and readily understandable information in a variety of languages, at a minimum in all six UN languages, on how to engage with the UN virtually, and test the methodologies used prior to the official sessions (for example, through call testing by UNDESA with participants prior to the calls, preparatory calls for answering technical questions, etc.)
- Take measures to mitigate and respond to the possibility of new and increased risks of intimidation and reprisals targeting human rights defenders, as well as marginalized groups and groups in vulnerable situations, when operating online, and when submitting information to the related mechanisms. Engage the relevant UN human rights mechanisms in these measures as they are implemented at the HLPF and across all sustainable development processes.
- Connect with civil society actors who are less able to acquire the necessary technology and connectivity on their own to provide them with financial and technological assistance, reaching first to the groups left most behind.
- Adopt secure, open, inclusive and accessible communication platforms to protect civil society and ensure participation regardless of technological resources or accessibility needs.
- Clearly indicate how data will be stored and only share participation lists externally if participants have consented to it being shared.
- Ensure that opportunities for participation, real interaction and engagement for both ECOSOC-accredited and non-accredited NGOs should be, at a minimum, as significant and as meaningful as they were in person, with a goal to increase opportunities

In addition, the UN and its agencies, offices, and other constituent bodies should:
- Develop indicators to understand the impact of virtual meeting participation on the meaningful and effective participation of major groups and other stakeholders, and civil society organizations and coalitions, in consultation with those groups.
- Collect, analyze and use diverse data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts to understand participation and broader trends
- Adapt processes based on the data analysis, including towards narrowing and eliminating the digital divide
- Ensure data security and privacy
- Utilize the lessons learned from this virtual HLPF 2020 to establish best practices of sustained and inclusive virtual civil society engagement processes, throughout the year for all sustainable development processes.

In order to ensure that HLPF 2020 can be as participatory and as inclusive as possible, UN, its agencies and members states should:
- Ensure that as many representatives of Major Groups and other Stakeholders as possible are given the opportunity to participate and speak at all official sessions and activities of HLPF, including the thematic sessions and the voluntary national reviews (VNRs). We recommend a minimum of five civil society speakers per session, self-selected by the MGoS mechanism, with an aim for diversity in all its forms.
- During VNR sessions, and throughout the whole HLPF 2020, inclusion of national and local civil society groups, especially from the VNR countries, should be prioritized.
- All civil society speakers should have time to read their questions during the VNR sessions. In the event the Member State presenting a VNR does not have sufficient time to answer, they will provide a written response within a month, to be posted on the HLPF website.
- Because interaction with member states will be limited, and because many of the national VNR processes were gravely affected by COVID-19 crisis, the engagement of civil society organizations at the national level were limited. Taking this into consideration, the alternative reports prepared by CSOs should be made available on the UN Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.
- Virtual engagement opportunities should be utilized for a better connection between the sustainable development processes and the human rights mechanisms of the UN. These should be guided by meaningful interactions, such as discussion rooms, and should not be broadcasts or webinars where interaction is limited to chat conversations.
- Information regarding the civil society led events should be made as accessible as the member state led events (e.g. side events, trainings, information sessions)
- Member states should be encouraged to establish follow up mechanisms, even if virtually, including a follow up meeting with civil society, after their VNR at HLPF 2020, to engage them in national implementation and monitoring efforts.
- All meetings shall be inclusive by providing for accessibility needs, such as international sign language translations and closed captioning.

We voice our concern over escalating limitations on civil society participation, freedom of assembly and expression in certain national contexts, and the attacks on the multilateral institutions and processes, under the pretext of the COVID-19 crisis. In the wake of such a time, and taking into consideration the impact of the pandemic on national VNR consultation processes, and regional sustainable development fora, the UN and member states must provide a platform for strong civil society engagement during the HLPF2020.

We, as the undersigned civil society organizations, coalitions and major groups and other stakeholders are ready to collaborate and cooperate for increased inclusivity and meaningful participation, and in the implementation of SDGs, especially at this challenging time for all. We call on the UN, its agencies and the member states to take these relevant measures to ensure this participation. We must not miss this opportunity to meet the call to leave no one behind!

Spanish translation of the letter can be found here:
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