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25th session of the Human Rights Council focuses on the importance of the promotion and protection of civil society space

arton4412A number of discussions were held during and on the margins of the 25th session of the Human Rights Council on various aspects of promoting and protecting civil society space, including the difficulties human rights defenders increasingly face, bringing together a wide range of actors to reflect on the issue.


This article provides coverage of:
> 11 March panel discussion of the Human Rights Council on “Promotion and protection of civil society space”;
> ISHR side event: “Creating a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders”;
> Workshop of the Community of Democracies Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society: Best practices and lessons learned from Ukraine, Tunisia and Burma.

Human Rights Council 11 March panel discussion focuses on “Promotion and Protection of Civil Society Space”

On 11 March, during its 25th session, the Human Rights Council held a panel on the “Promotion and Protection of Civil Society Space” that sought to identify a number of the challenges facing States in their efforts to ensure space for civil society as well as lessons learned and good practices. Based on resolution A.HRC/RES/24/21, entitled “Civil society space: creating and maintaining, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling environment,” the 11 March panel was the first formal discussion in the Council on the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern. This cross-regional resolution, presented by Ireland, Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia, and adopted by consensus at the September 2013 session of the Council, examines the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern, which is not limited to the role of civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights. It includes work on countless issues that fulfil the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

The panel discussion, chaired by President of the Human Rights Council Baudelaire Ndong Ella, sought to analyze the contributing factors which reduce civil society space, and to consider the necessary elements for, and further promote, constructive inter-active partnerships between States and civil society.

In his video message to the Panel, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon indicated that a free and independent civil society is the bedrock of democratic, responsive governance. “Civil society brings vital issues to our attention. They help us make the case for stronger protection of human rights. They push for more equal societies. They mobilize action to address violations and injustice. Their constructive criticism strengthens all that we do. […] Civil society actors must be able to do their work freely, independently, safe from fear, retaliation or intimidation. This requires collective action to denounce reprisals, defend free voices and protect those targeted. We must advance our work for human rights, peace and development. We must expand the space for civil society to meaningfully participate and contribute,” he concluded, calling on all to seize this opportunity and strengthen the vital role of civil society.

In her opening remarks, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri said that the extent to which people contributed to and monitored decisions that affected their lives was a fundamental indicator of the extent they enjoyed their human rights. People must have a role in decision-making regarding their own lives and livelihoods, she stressed. Such participation could take many forms, ranging from the local level, such as community-level committees and associations, to national and global fora, including the Human Rights Council. “It is in the interest of peace, security, and economic and social development that individuals be empowered to mobilize and participate to make their voices heard; to claim their rights; and to build responsive, inclusive, accountable institutions in their communities and societies,” she urged. In this regard, informed debate, political engagement and strong mechanisms for accountability for public officials should be facilitated and underpinned by a legal framework grounded in international human rights law. Widening and deepening democratic participation, however, is fraught with obstacles, she cautioned. Civil society – whether volunteers, associations, non-governmental organizations or social movements – helps to foster civic virtues and awareness of human rights through teaching political skills, shaping strategies, mobilizing claims, and acting as a critical watchdog.

“A diverse, independent and vibrant civil society can only flourish within guarantees of a safe and enabling environment, and OHCHR has long advocated for this,” Ms. Pansieri urged, deploring the risks that many civil society actors around the world face, including threats, intimidation, and terrible reprisals. Concluding, she drew attention to one of OHCHR’s six thematic strategies for 2014-2017 entitled “Widening Democratic Space” (see section below).

Hina Jilani, human rights lawyer, pro-democracy campaigner and Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders from 2000-2008, moderated the panel discussion. Panellists included Safak Pavey, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Deeyah Khan, film, music and arts producer; and Mokhtar Trifi, Honorary President, Tunisian League for Human Rights.

Opening the discussion, Ms. Jilani said that while she welcomed the Council’s interest in expanding civil society space, she acknowledged that the expanded participation was thanks to the concerted work of civil society and recognized its value in strengthening human rights and democracy today. “No notion of international community is complete without recognition that civil society is very much a part of it; the international community is not just limited to States,” she stressed, noting that the High Commissioner had spoken of the great work and value of the civil society organizations, and also how that came at a great cost to their personal freedom, their credibility, and of the political pressures straining the space within which they worked.

Ms. Pavey indicated that most simply defined, civil society is peoples doing things together that they could not achieve on their own. The most tragic aspect of the shrinking space of civil society is the targeting of humanitarian aid and health workers in war zones while providing care, she noted. Creating a collective platform between society and State or among societal groups appeared to be challenging, but civil society can make a powerful contribution in cultural transformation towards participatory democracy, Ms. Pavey urged.

Mr. La Rue said it was important to make clear that international bodies and governments could not achieve enjoyment and protection of human rights without civil society. Civil society everywhere needed the rule of law and equal access of justice, and must enjoy the right to freedom of expression in all its dimensions. Challenges to the promotion of civil society included unequal access to the internet for everyone, particularly for remote rural populations; limitations and barriers put up by governments, for example surveillance which encroached on privacy; attacks against the media, bloggers and journalists, particularly women, and attacks on civil society participation. Mr. La Rue emphasized the need to to strengthen access to public information because limitations were growing again under the pretext of national security. Attempts to limit the ability of civil society to raise funds, particularly internationally, is a concerning challenge that is reducing the space and possibility for society to organize and participate. Another worrying trend he pointed to is the criminalization and restriction of peaceful demonstrations.

Ms. Khan said that there is a reason why artists, intellectuals and women tend to be targets of reactionary and totalitarian regimes. Art, a universal and very direct and human form of communication, has the ability to touch people and has many purposes in society. Thousands of artists around the world create art in service of social activism and thus become “truth-tellers” and “voices of the voiceless”; such artists are in danger in all corners of the world; harassed, threatened, imprisoned or even killed. Unlike journalists, Ms. Khan stressed, artists do not enjoy the protections under the law, and very few civil society organizations provide support. Despite the release last year by the United Nations of a report on the freedom of artistic expressions, she acknowledged with sadness that the situation of artists has not improved.

Mr. Trifi said that the role of civil society in Tunisia’s transition was fundamental. It had always tried to take part in essential laws for human rights and democracy, but after the revolution, three essential civil society organizations were widely consulted, which resulted in many institutions becoming part of a democratic State.

In the discussion that followed, speakers highlighted the critical role of civil society in the protection of human rights at national, regional and international levels, stressing its contribution to the development of social, economic and cultural rights. Civil society encompasses a myriad of actors, the empowerment of which is essential for the development of a democratic society, participants noted. Concern was voiced over the very serious risks faced by human rights defenders, including their family members. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, minority and religious organizations are often particularly targeted, several speakers noted. There is also an indisputable link between social stability and vibrant civil society. Panellists were also asked questions on how civil society organizations could protect themselves against governmental repression, how children or persons living in poverty could be included in civil society, and how States could better engage with civil society at the international and multilateral levels.

European Disability Forum, speaking on behalf of the International Disability Alliance, underlined the accomplishment of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities in negotiating the participation of persons with disabilities and their representing organizations. Their active involvement in decision-making has resulted in greater well-being and better social structures, the representative indicated.

International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), speaking on behalf of a coalition of NGOs, including Amnesty International, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Human Rights House Foundation, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, the World Organisation Against Torture, and Peace Brigades International, underscored that activism and protest are essential to progress. “Accusations that activism hinders progress or threatens security should not be tolerated. Questioning motives or methods of protest cannot justify a loss of rights. Laws restricting freedom of assembly – as passed in Egypt and proposed in Spain – should be rescinded, whilst States must prevent and sanction the excessive use of force, of the kind seen recently in Venezuela and the Ukraine,” Ben Leather of ISHR stressed.

These organizations also urged the Council to condemn threatening legislation in States including Nigeria, Uganda and Russia which prohibited human rights advocacy relating to sexual orientation and gender identity and implored those States to consult civil society at the outset of policy development. “The criminalization of advocacy relating to LGBT rights and equality is manifestly incompatible with basic rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly,” Mr. Leather said.

The joint statement also called on States such as Ethiopia to revoke laws which criminalize NGOs on the basis of their funding or activities, and promote laws which prohibit the State from doing just that, such as that enacted in Australia. “We commend Australia on the recent passage of its Not-for-Profit Sector Freedom to Advocate Act,” Mr. Leather said.

On behalf of the Civic Space Initiative – which includes the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL),ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the World Movement for Democracy – CIVICUS made an oral statement during the panel, urging the Council to maintain its focus on this topic, in particular through its special procedure mechanisms to develop and adopt guiding principles on creating a safe and enabling environment for civil society.

Concluding remarks by the panellists Ms. Jilani, indicating that several questions asked were extremely pertinent to the discussion, wondered whether this was a phase of acknowledging the importance of expanding civil society space and making sure that civil society was able to act to promote human rights. Ms. Khan said she was encouraged by what she had heard but that words were very easy to say and statements easy to make. There has to be more compassion and understanding for each other, she stressed, which goes beyond rhetoric and enabled genuine openness and freedom of expression. Freedom is a cornerstone of what is needed to create a healthy, open and plural society, Ms. Khan concluded. Mr. La Rue reminded the audience that it was talking about human rights, not a special or different set of rights for civil society organizations, but of rights for everyone. Civil society organizations are organizations of society demanding the fulfillment of rights of all persons, he stressed. While civil society organizations should abide by principles of the rule of law, transparency and accountability, it did not mean that there had to be special restrictions on their activities; legislation that could limit civil society organizations was thus worrying and suspicious, he concluded.

Mr. Trifi said that States should respect human rights and be accountable; States that were against freedom of expression, association and human rights should not be elected to the Human Rights Council. Proper legislative framework and the independent nature of civil society associations must be ensured, he stressed. In addition, efforts need to be made to ensure dialogue between governments and civil society, and that public funding is available without constraints. At the same time, civil society associations have to respect certain provisions and regulations. Concluding, he noted that an early warning model of alerts should be put in place for violations of human rights. Ms. Pavey reminded the Council of the space between civil society and various human rights mechanisms. A relationship of trust had to exist between human rights treaty bodies and civil society organizations, she concluded.

Click here for the OHCHR summary of the discussion. Click here for the concept note. Click here for the webcast of the panel discussion.

ISHR side event: “Creating a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders”

On 11 March, the International Service for Human Rights (ICHR) organized a side event that sought to shed light on the threats and obstacles encountered by human rights defenders, and identify actions and protection strategies for the UN, States, national human rights institutions and civil society to contribute to a safe and enabling environment for them. The discussion drew on the new perspectives offered by two recent publications: the latest report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; and the recent Special Issue of the Journal of Human Rights Practice (Volume 5, Number 3, November 2013).

In her latest report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Margaret Sekaggya finds that human rights defenders – especially journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, and those who work to promote women’s rights and the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons – face “extraordinary risks.” Her report documents an increased incidence of violations against people and communities opposed to mining, construction and development projects, and the worsening “use of legislation in a number of countries to restrain the activities of human rights defenders and to criminalize them.” The report makes a wide range of recommendations to ensure that human rights defenders are protected and can operate in a “safe and enabling environment.”

The recent Special Issue of the Journal of Human Rights Practice also explores these issues with a specific focus on the protection of human rights defenders. Human rights defenders and those who work closely with them reflect in the journal on the threats and risks they face, share insights into their experiences, and present perspectives on the effectiveness of existing protection mechanisms and practices.

The side event took the format of an interactive panel moderated by the BBC’s Geneva Correspondent, Imogen Foulkes. Panellists included the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders; Hassan Shire Sheikh of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Network; Daniel Joloy, human rights defender from Mexico; Sabrina Dallafior, Minister and Deputy Head, Human Security Division, Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs; and Danna Ingleton, Research and Policy Advisor, Amnesty International.

The discussion focused on recent threats and risks human rights defenders face, whether legislative rules (including access to foreign funding), growing “agoraphobia,” or fear of civic activism; stigmatization and criminalization of human rights defenders; and attacks on freedom of association.

Speaking of the situation in Mexico, Mr. Joloy drew attention to the militarization of society in his country. Community defenders were defending their communities against large-scale development projects. He noted, however, that Mexico lacks the capacity to fight against these projects that often include the mining or forest sectors. He noted that civil society space is shrinking, citing the recent attacks on 53 environmental defenders, 23 of whom were killed. Ms. Ingleton drew attention to challenging laws that are unjust or do not fit international norms, particularly in terms of national security concerns, and protection of land. A dialogue was also urgently needed on third party States and the impact of their activities on the rights of people.

Looking at how States can provide an enabling environment, Ms. Dallafior drew attention to Switzerland’sguidelines on protecting human rights defenders on the ground, acknowledging the State’s duty to protect and the need for a holistic and gender appropriate approach.

A number of other issues were also considered, including the need to provide particular focus on vulnerable groups, including LGBT persons; the role of the media; acknowledging that preventive efforts are as important as protective measures in terms of protecting human rights defenders; and how to fight against impunity.

Community of Democracies Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society Workshop

A workshop on “Civil Society, Government and the Law: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from Ukraine, Tunisia and Burma” was also held on 11 March. It was organized by the Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society at the margins of the meeting of the Governing Council in Geneva, and held at the premises of the Permanent Mission of Canada.

Moderated by the Secretary-General of the Community of Democracies, Ambassador Maria Leissner, the workshop was divided into three case-studies panels – on Burma/Myanmar, Tunisia, and Ukraine – with the participation of several experts and activists: Doug Rutzen, President of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law; Anastasia Krasnosilska, Project Coordinator at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research; Nwe Zin Win, Chairperson of the National NGO Network in Burma/Myanmar; Abdel Basset Hassen, President of the Arab Institute for Human Rights (Tunisia); Kamal Labidi, former Chair of INRIC (Tunisia); Thomas Vennen, Head of the Democratization Department of OSCE-ODIHR; Herdis Thorgeisdottir, Vice-President of the Venice Commission.

The workshop highlighted the importance of enlarging civic space and enabling the activity of civil society, explored ways of encouraging governments to develop enabling legal frameworks for civil society and share best practices for this purpose, showcased concrete examples of cooperation between governments and civil society, and developed concrete recommendations for the Community of Democracies and other international actors.

OHCHR: Widening democratic space

Widening democratic space is one of the priority areas of focus for OHCHR in the next four years (2014-2017). It is underpinned by the right of persons to participate in government, and freedoms of association, assembly and expression; ensures promoting and protecting the right of people to exercise control and participate in decision-making in matters that affect their lives; and aims to bring together the various strands that the Office is engaging in, give greater cohesion and focus, with the aim of seeing progress in this area by the end of the cycle.

At its essence, the strategy is about empowering individuals and civil society through information and skills about claiming rights; promoting participation in decision-making processes; and protection of democratic space.

The focus areas of the strategy include:
> Compliance of laws, policies and institutions;
> Accountability mechanisms; and
> Participation, for both individual rights-holders and civil society actors.

Photo credit: UN Photo, Jean-Marc Ferré

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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