UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations launched an initiative June 23 that for the first time accords a full, official role to grassroots, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the deliberations of the UN General Assembly.

The policy shift was announced at the start of a two-day program here by Jean Ping of Gabon, president of the Assembly, together with Louise Fre’chetti, the UN’s deputy secretary-general. It has the backing of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who attended the meeting on the second day.

There are hundreds of UN-recognized NGOs, civil society organizations and “private sector representatives” around the world concerned with a wide array of interests, from peace to labor rights to women’s equality to education and health care.

Marcia Campos Pereira of Brazil, representing the Women’s International Democratic Federation, was among many of the participants who emphasized the need for peace. She spoke forcefully against the war in Iraq and called for greater attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. “Life, not war!” she said to strong applause.

An NGO representative from a Belgian trade union demanded that the UN pay attention to the rights of workers who are trying to organize into a union, especially where employers fire workers for doing so.

A spokesperson for the World Confederation of Labor and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) stressed the urgent need to create jobs, underscoring the role of the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which to date has been cool to ICFTU’s participation. “Vision without implementation is hallucination,” he said. A representative of the World Federation of Trade Unions also took part in the proceedings.

A spokesperson from a Panamanian NGO said, “Racism is a major obstacle to sustainable development and the quality of life,” and NGO spokespersons from several developing nations called for debt relief.

In contrast to the progressive positions advocated by groups concerned with health care, education, and the need to eradicate poverty and to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS, the corporate viewpoint was represented by a speaker for the World Council for Sustainable Development, an umbrella group of 175 multinational companies. Its spokesperson lectured the gathering on how “countries must provide a friendly business environment.”

Her remarks received only minimal applause.