Enhancing participation and protecting civic space

Participation in public life by rights holders and organizations that represent them is a fundamental principle of human rights. Participation also improves the efficacy of political systems, as well as policy development and implementation. Civil society space is therefore a threshold issue, not only for human rights, but also for development and peace and security more broadly. When civil society sits at the table, policy-making is more informed, effective and sustainable. Each advance in protecting civic space has a positive ripple effect for communities and individuals and their rights.

Civic space and civil society participation make critical contributions to the effective prevention of conflict and the fight against impunity and corruption. Jailing critics and suppressing peaceful dissent does not make societies safer: it drives legitimate and constructive opinion underground and deepens grievances. The freedom to speak out to criticize government policies and demand government accountability accelerates innovation and economic progress.

Yet civil society actors, including those who cooperate with the UN, are facing a push back across the world. Attacks on human rights defenders, including environmental activists, continue and in many places are worsening. Inequalities and discrimination are among the main obstacles that prevent people from exercising their right to participate. For historically marginalized groups, space that was already limited is shrinking further. While new technologies and interconnectedness have helped civil society networks to grow, including across borders, they have also created new excuses to control civil society movements and speech, often under security pretexts.

Over the period 2018-2021, we will work to protect civic space and those who stand up for human rights; strengthen monitoring of civic space; build public recognition of the role of civic space; and mainstream civic space issues in the UN system.

Together with our partners, we will work so that:

Stronger laws, policies and practices protect civic space, including online, and the environment for civil society is increasingly safe and enabling.

We will support the adoption and implementation of laws and policies that protect civic space and the right to participate. We will promote dialogue and participate in law-making processes and develop guidelines on effective implementation of the right to participate, that will target, inter alia, cities and local governments. In parallel, with our partners, we will resist attempts to restrict civic space and support litigation by, and access to justice for, civil society actors. As civic space and participation increasingly move online, we will develop and advocate for application of the human rights framework to the digital space.

The UN system and international, regional and national mechanisms provide increased, timely and effective protection to civil society organizations and individuals (including from reprisals).

In partnership with others, we will advocate for stronger protection of individuals and groups at risk and work with the UN system and international human rights mechanisms to do the same. We will monitor and report on cases of human rights violations against civil society actors, including reprisals against individuals for cooperating with the UN on human rights; and build on good practices of protection and replicate them. We will strive to increase the capacity of UN human rights mechanisms to protect all civil society actors and will reach out to partners outside the human rights sphere to help us do this.

Business, policy-makers and a public at large increasingly value and support civic space.

We will collect evidence to show the value of civic space and participation, and challenge negative human rights narratives; develop targeted messages on the value of civic space; and promote public recognition of the legitimacy and contributions of human rights defenders. We will reach out to new audiences and use our convening power to build support for civic space and participation.

Civil society assistance to victims of human rights violations is strengthened.

We will increase our efforts to strengthen the UN Voluntary Funds for Victims of Torture and Contemporary Forms of Slavery, which assist victims through grants to civil society actors. We will make their work better known; simplify the application process; expand partnerships with doctors, psychologists, social workers, lawyers and other professional groups, including national medical associations and bar associations; and develop tools on redress and rehabilitation, based on organizations’ experience, to build their capacity.

More systematic monitoring of the environment for civic space, including threats to it, takes place.

We will support and participate in global monitoring efforts on the enabling environment for civic space. We will facilitate the collection and exchange of relevant data, through online platforms, and the implementation of SDG indicator 16.10.1 (number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates).

In this context, we will improve data-collection methodologies on civic space on and offline; strengthen analytical, communication and advocacy tools that make effective use of data to support civic space; build monitoring networks that include non-traditional partners; and encourage the UN to support action to defend civic space.

The voice of people affected by decisions, particularly victims and those who face discrimination, is more clearly heard.

We will advocate for the participation of civil society in decision-making processes at all levels in different areas, inter alia in matters of development, peace and security, the environment, and corruption. This will help to build stronger alliances around civic space with specialized civil society groups. We will encourage use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and social media to promote broad-based consultations. We will help rights holders to build their capacity, assist their organizations to participate effectively in decision-making processes, advocate for their participation, and foster dialogue across movements for this purpose. In that context, we will strive to ensure gender balance and increasingly involve youth.

Public recognition that human rights and accountability make important contributions to effective responses to violence, including terrorism and violent extremism, increases.

We will gather evidence, including data, examples, and stories of resilience, that shows the contributions that human rights make to effective responses to terrorism and violent extremism. We will develop public campaigns, assist stakeholders to use the evidence for their own advocacy, and form strategic partnerships to disseminate our message and reach new audiences.

Work under all six pillars covers the core components of our mandate, enabling universal but strategic coverage (given resource limits) of human rights in all countries. The thematic pillars are indivisible, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.

Through four major Shifts to our approach, we will better adapt our work to the changing external context. These shifts will help us focus on key threats to rights and key opportunities for leveraging support to better protect and promote rights. The shifts we will make across our six pillars are to:

i. Support prevention of conflict, violence and insecurity.
ii. Protect and expand civic space.
iii. Support and further develop the global constituency for human rights.
iv. Deliver human rights in the context of emerging global concerns (‘frontier issues’).

These Shifts’ will further unify our efforts as one Office; driving coherence, scale and measurable human rights impact in an uncertain world.

Our work will be ‘people-centred’. Across everything we do, including when we focus on the human rights of other population groups, we will shine a spotlighton the human rights of women, young people and persons with disabilities. In support of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda’s human rights-based commitment to ‘leave no one behind’, we will highlight the human rights concerns of women, young people and persons with disabilities, including as defenders of rights.