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Protecting civil society space to guarantee human rights

“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 and defend free voices and protect those targeted,” said the UN Secretary-General, referring to civil society as “an indispensable part of the United Nations”.

“We must expand the space for civil society to meaningfully participate and contribute,” he added in a video statement screened at a discussion on the promotion and protection of civil society space, in the context of the Human Rights Council’s 25th session.

“Civil society actors around the world face risks ranging from threats and intimidation to horrible reprisals, even killings”, said UN Human Rights Deputy, Flavia Pansieri at a discussion on the promotion and protection of civil society space.

“From the NGO who is prohibited from receiving funding to the whistle-blower who is imprisoned for revealing corruption… we must work to protect civil society from such practices,” she said.

In her opening remarks, Pansieri highlighted the importance of civil society in helping people develop advocacy skills, shaping strategies, mobilizing claims, acting as a critical watchdog and informing people of their rights and duties.

Hina Jilani, a Pakistani human rights lawyer and one of the world’s pre-eminent human rights defenders, said that we have a long way to go to bring about the recognition that civil society not only benefits civil society, but also strengthens the state and explained that this is because of the many ways civil society expresses public opinion and can highlight the responsibilities of authority figures. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue, added that international bodies and governments alone cannot achieve the fulfilment of the protection and promotion of human rights without the full participation of civil society.

“Civil society is the crucial element that guarantees that rights will be protected,” he said.

“We are not talking about special rights for civil society, but about human rights that we defend for everyone…There should not be any special restrictions applied to civil society. It makes me worried if I see legislation that tries to limit the way people can organize freely or get funding for those associations because then it limits a legitimate, open and transparent activity which is organized for the defense of human rights,” La Rue added, stressing that everyone has a right to defend human rights.

During the interactive discussion which was organized in the context of the UN Human Rights Council’s 25th Session, Safak Pavey, a Turkish member of parliament and member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), gave an example of how civil society was able to influence the Government in her own country.

“Last year, attempts by the Government to develop protected spaces and national parks,” she said referring to the urban development plan for Istanbul's Taksim Gezi Park, “were prevented as a result of the work of 121 nature and environmental rights organizations. As a result of their systematic efforts, the Government withdrew the draft bill,” she said.  

As dangers posed by states emerged, civil society rose to meet those challenges, she said. “From women’s rights and environmental issues to humanitarian aid and constitutional reform, civil society became indispensable in every area where societal challenges formed.”

Mokhtar Trifi, a Tunisian defender and Honorary President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, gave an example of civil society’s fundamental role in building the state in Tunisia, following the revolution.

In the months leading up to the landmark 2011 elections, Trifi spoke of the more than 10,000 people who were trained to monitor the electoral process. “Every single phase of the elections was very closely monitored by civil society,” he said, adding that this led to a Constituent Assembly.

“The main goal of the Constituent Assembly was to draft a new constitution. The process took three years, and civil society played a critical role in it, in particular insisting on the provisions for full equality between women and men … Nowadays, civil society continues to play a role in development of central laws essential for human rights and democracy”, Trifi added.

The powerful role of art and artists in civil society was highlighted by Deeyah Khan, a critically acclaimed music producer and Emmy award-winning documentary film director.

“Art has the capacity to make us think and feel: both elements make it much harder to control us, to break our spirits and to impose on us things that are inhuman,” said Khan, who is an artist and activist through FUUSE, her own production company, which uses films to inform and encourage discussions on human rights issues.

“The power of art is demonstrated in the efforts taken to crush it,” she added, giving an example of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who took extensive measures to ban art and music from the public sphere.

This interactive panel discussion is the first formal discussion in the Human Rights Council on the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern. In an effort to facilitate the participation of persons with disabilities, international sign language interpretation and captioning was provided and webcasted.

The panel discussion drew on diverse experiences from the panellists as well as representatives of States, National Human Rights Institutions, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies in identifying the challenges, lessons learned, good practices, steps and strategies in the promotion and protection of civil society space.

A summary report on the panel discussion will be presented to the Human Rights Council at its 27th session.

26 March 2014

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