Widening the democratic space


Relevance of the issue

Transparent and participative societies based on dialogue, pluralism and tolerance can exist only where State and non-State actors respect the exercise of rights, including freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association and participation in public life. The exercise of these freedoms is fundamental to fostering dialogue, upholding the rule of law and democracy through participation and creating a safe and enabling environment within which an independent and robust civil society1/ can help build and maintain an effective human rights protection system. In many countries, independent State mechanisms have been established to promote and protect human rights as a key element of this participative system. Human rights education is also central to nurturing democratic spaces and contributing to an enabling environment through preventative strategies. In States in transition, where democratic space is nascent or limited, the protection of these freedoms is a test of political will and capacity for change.

She has something to say! A student raises her hand at a public school in Taliko Neighbourhood, Bamako. Education and human rights education is central to nurturing democratic spaces and contributing to an enabling environment. © UN Photo/Marco Dormino
She has something to say! A student raises her hand at a public school in Taliko Neighbourhood, Bamako. Education and human rights education is central to nurturing democratic spaces and contributing to an enabling environment.
© UN Photo/Marco Dormino

In recent years, political changes resulting from popular protests in several countries, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, have led to the opening of democratic spaces, including through an unprecedented use of social media as a mobilizing tool. However, those spaces are often disputed and in some cases, public freedoms are threatened by both State and non-State actors, with increasingly polarized economic, political, social and religious dynamics. These developments undermine meaningful transitions that should be anchored to the rule of law and fundamentally, the enjoyment of human rights, peace, stability and social justice.

Trends to restrict public liberties and curtail the role of civil society actors have been identified around the world, particularly in the context of electoral processes or in reaction to protests against austerity measures, corruption and social injustice. Moreover, in a number of countries, governments continue to use security policies, including counter-terrorism strategies, as a pretext to restrict public freedoms and the role of civil society.

In such contexts, human rights defenders, such as media workers and activists, are often the primary targets of threats and attacks by authorities and increasingly, by non-State actors, including those linked to the private sector. Women defenders are targeted when they are perceived to challenge socio-cultural norms, traditions, perceptions and stereotypes related to the role and status of women in society. In all regions, incitement to hatred2/ and discrimination, stigmatizing opponents or specific groups, are more evident in political speeches and are being trivialized and amplified through the media and use of communication technologies.

Rather than engaging in dialogue to address the root concerns of protestors, some governments are adopting measures to restrict public freedoms and resorting to violent repression of any forms of protest or criticism. The power and role of the military is frequently used and abused to curtail democratic spaces. These practices are likely to continue.

In other countries, the increased trend towards combining politics and religion and/or traditional values has led to restrictions on public freedoms, exacerbating intolerance, incitement to hatred and violence, and thereby endangering pluralism and dialogue. In those contexts, women are often exposed to multiple forms of discrimination and targeting.

Equality March, LGBTI pride festival in Moldova, 2013. © OHCHR Photo/Claude Cahn
Equality March, LGBTI pride festival in Moldova, 2013.
© OHCHR Photo/Claude Cahn

New technologies offer a variety of opportunities for media workers, activists and institutions to expand democratic spaces. But, they also carry with them additional human rights challenges. Measures to control these technologies, and those who use them, are rapidly developing, including measures of mass surveillance, leading to concerns for the right to privacy and the need to protect individuals who reveal human rights violations, such as whistle-blowers.

Although if the number of national human rights institutions (NHRIs) has grown from a mere handful 20 years ago to more than 100, the lack of independence prevents some of them from effectively fulfilling their mandates. NHRIs must be independent, equipped with sufficient resources and the competence to promote and protect the full spectrum of rights, in accordance with the Paris Principles. Victims of human rights violations often face serious financial and other difficulties in seeking access to justice. NHRIs, which in principle are much easier to access, can play an important role in receiving and considering individual complaints related to human rights violations.

Despite the creation of more mechanisms and mandates to protect civil society actors, in recent years they have been subjected to acts of intimidation and reprisals as a consequence of their cooperation with the UN, its representatives and its mechanisms in the field of human rights. As the Secretary-General stated in his report on peacebuilding in the aftermath of conflict,“[r]eprisals and intimidation against individuals cooperating with the United Nations are unacceptable [..] We must take action at every level to strengthen the voices of democracy.”

OHCHR expected contribution


Widening the democratic space
RIGHTS-HOLDERS CLAIM THEIR RIGHTS DUTY-BEARERS COMPLY WITH THEIR OBLIGATIONS
[EA5]
  • Increased participation of rights-holders, including women and discriminated groups, in public life at the national and local levels

  • Civil society, in particular youth and women, increasingly advocate and claim their rights; and protect themselves more effectively from reprisals

  • Rights-holders meaningfully participate in the design and monitoring of public policies, budgets and development projects particularly affecting their human rights, especially their rights to food, housing, water and sanitation, and their access to natural resources such as land

  • Increased use of national protection system by rights-holders, especially through strategic litigation on economic, social and cultural rights

[EA1]
  • Constitutions, laws, administrative measures and policies respect, protect and guarantee freedom of opinion and expression, including prohibition of incitement to hatred, peaceful assembly, association, conscience, religion and belief

  • State agents and political and faith-based actors increasingly comply with human rights standards related to public freedoms and take measures for the development of an independent and pluralistic civil society

  • Effective human rights education programmes, particularly for youth, established or strengthened

  • National human rights institutions established and effectively functioning in accordance with the Paris Principles and other relevant international standards and recommendations

[EA3]

  • Effective protection mechanisms and measures for civil society actors, including at-risk human rights defenders and media actors established and strengthened

[EA4]

  • Increased representation of marginalized and discriminated groups in State institutions and decision-making bodies

[EA7]

  • Increased number and diversity of rights-holders, and of NHRIs and civil society actors acting on their behalf, making use of UN and regional human rights mechanisms and bodies

[EA6]

  • Increased compliance and engagement of Member States with international human rights mechanisms

[EA8]

  • Advances in the progressive development of international and regional human rights law in areas relevant to the thematic priorities

[EA10]

  • Increased interventions of the international community to promote and protect civil society actors, including against reprisals

  • Increased responsiveness of the international community to potential, emerging or existing human rights crisis situations, with human rights protection as an integral element of this response

By 2017, OHCHR expects to have contributed to the achievement of the results outlined on the table above. OHCHR will pursue these behavioural, institutional and legislative changes in cooperation with relevant partners and using the different strategic tools at its disposal (see Part I on OHCHR’s Theory of Change). It is expected that if achieved, these results will contribute to improving the duty-bearers’ compliance with their international human rights obligations and to the rights-holders’ ability to claim their rights and thereby to widening the democratic space. To illustrate the inter related nature of the Thematic Strategies, the table shows the results to which OHCHR is planning to contribute in this area, including relevant results from other strategies, which can be identified as follows: Mechanisms Strategy; Discrimination Strategy; Rule of Law Strategy; Development Strategy; Violence Strategy.

OHCHR added value


Focus areas

  • Protecting public freedoms (freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly, association; prohibition of incitement to hatred)
  • Protection of media freedoms, including protection of journalists
  • Protection of human rights defenders, with a focus on women
  • Human rights education, particularly youth

Most international human rights instruments include provisions that are directly relevant to the protection of public freedoms and most refer to the principles of non-discrimination and participation in political, economic and cultural life. In particular, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights provide for the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association, conscience, religion and belief, as well as participation in political life. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights provides for the right to form or participate in a trade union and in cultural life. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women specifically provides for the right of women to participate in political, economic and cultural life. The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination prohibits all forms of discrimination on the grounds of race, color or ethnic origin. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities also guarantees the rights to freedom of opinion and expression; access to information; and participation in public, political and cultural life. Other relevant human rights instruments include: the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders; the Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training; and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.

Several UN actors working in this area include UNESCO, on freedom of expression and education; UNDP, on participation of civil society; and the ILO, on freedom of association. But, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the only UN entity with a comprehensive mandate in this field. It represents the leading, authoritative, global voice that promotes and protects these rights, including those related to public freedoms and human rights education.

OHCHR has built global credibility as a principled advocate, which speaks out against all forms of human rights violations wherever they take place, based on international human rights norms and standards. OHCHR is a voice, sometimes the only voice, for those who un able to speak out. One of the Office’s major achievements in the past 20 years has been its work to support civil society and help them build their capacity. In many countries, OHCHR’s promotion of the role of civil society, particularly human rights defenders, has been instrumental to their recognition and greater acceptance by authorities and, in some cases, by society at large. OHCHR’s advocacy and technical advice have also contributed to the adoption of legislation for the protection of public freedoms and civil society organizations. This work has assisted the establishment and strengthening of protection mechanisms, particularly for human rights defenders and journalists, examples include Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. In countries recently undergoing transitions, the Office has worked to ensure broad participation in fundamental processes such as constitution-making, legislative reforms and development strategies. OHCHR has seen increasing requests for higher expectations regarding OHCHR’s engagement to support civil society, particularly human rights defenders. There have also been numerous requests for advisory services and advocacy on relevant legislation, notably in the context of political transitions and where public freedoms have been curtailed.

Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who leads the Movement for the Peace with Justice and Dignity, demonstrates along with several social organizations in Mexico City, demanding more security to human rights defenders. © EPA/Sashenka Gutierrez
Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who leads the Movement for the Peace with Justice and Dignity, demonstrates along with several social organizations in Mexico City, demanding more security to human rights defenders.
© EPA/Sashenka Gutierrez

In addition, OHCHR has extensive experience in advocating and providing technical advice and training for the development of State institutions, including the judiciary, NHRIs, parliaments, and ministries; and for human rights education programmes.

The Office has played a key role in fostering  cooperation between NHRIs at the regional and global level. Its role as Secretariat of the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs and its Sub-Committee on Accreditation is of central importance, since only “A” status NHRIs benefit from speaking and participatory rights in the Human Rights Council. OHCHR assists NHRIs in setting up and building capacity, while also partnering with them in implementing the Office’s strategies at the country level. In a sense, NHRIs are OHCHR’s clients and partners at the same time. Specific attention has also been devoted to the role of law enforcement personnel in the context of demonstrations, with a view to ensuring ethical and lawful crowd control which fully respects relevant international human rights norms and standards.

The practical monitoring expertise OHCHR has gained over many years in a wide variety of contexts renders it an authoritative organization to objectively raise human rights concerns, including in polarized situations. Its independent and universal mandate also makes OHCHR a credible convener and facilitator of dialogue. At the country level, OHCHR generally works with a broad range of stakeholders, including diverse civil society actors (human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and media activists, trade unions, religious leaders, faith-based organizations, academics, etc.) as well as local communities and has used its convening role to facilitate sustained, long-term dialogue and promote interinstitutional and intersectorial dialogue and exchanges on human rights issues.

Leaders from four religions, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian, march together in Yangon, Myanmar, to mark the 25th anniversary of the “8888 Uprising”. The demonstrations which took place in 1988 were aimed at the one-party state regime. © EPA/Lynn Bo Bo
Leaders from four religions, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian, march
together in Yangon, Myanmar, to mark the 25th anniversary of the “8888 Uprising”. The demonstrations which took place in 1988 were aimed at the
one-party state regime.
© EPA/Lynn Bo Bo

OHCHR supports the international human rights mechanisms, including treaty bodies and the special procedures of the Human Rights Council. This work specifically focuses on promoting and protecting the rights to freedom of opinion and expression; on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; on the right to freedom of religion and belief; and on the situation of human rights defenders. The Office is also responsible for producing the Secretary-General’s annual report to the Human Rights Council on reprisals against persons cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanisms. By raising human right awareness, holding duty-bearers to account and providing guidance for the promotion and protection of human rights, the international human rights mechanisms play an important role in widening the democratic space. In addition, the High Commissioner has been entrusted with a specific mandate on human rights education in the context of the World Programme for Human Rights Education (2005-ongoing). Over the years, OHCHR has contributed to the increased and improved engagement of civil society actors from around the world with international human rights mechanisms, which has led to the recognition of their role and value at the international level.

OHCHR has considerable experience and expertise in this area, which has been central to its work since its inception. OHCHR’s policy on the protection of civil society actors, adopted in 2012, synthesized a range of protection interventions and provided guidance for the work of the Office in this area. For the next four years, OHCHR intends to capitalize on this experience with more concerted action, in particular through: increased and more visible advisory services, monitoring, reporting and advocacy; the collection and dissemination of good practices and lessons learned; and the strengthening of OHCHR’s convening role to facilitate dialogue between State actors, civil society, the international community and the UN system.

_____

1/As identified in the Handbook for civil society: Working with the United Nations human rights programme, and consistent with OHCHR documents and policies, civil society actors are individuals who voluntarily engage in forms of public participation and action around shared interests, purposes and values that are compatible with the goals of the United Nations.

2/“Incitement to hatred” is used with reference to article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (“Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law”). Reference is also made to General Comment No. 34 (Freedom of Opinion and Expression) by the Human Rights Committee and General Recommendation No. 35 (Combating Racist Hate Speech) by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.


For more information about how OHCHR intends to contribute to the changes outlined in this page, please see the complete text, which is contained in the OHCHR Management Plan 2014-2017.