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Protecting and expanding civic space

“Civil society participation is the lifeblood of any healthy democracy and society. When civil society channels flow freely, it means vibrant debate, freedom of thought and opinion, and public engagement in policy.”

--Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
2 October 2019, Dublin Platform for Human Rights Defenders

What is civic space?

Civic space is the environment that enables civil society to play a role in the political, economic and social life of our societies. In particular, civic space allows individuals and groups to contribute to policy-making that affects their lives, including by:

  • accessing information,
  • engaging in dialogue,
  • expressing dissent or disagreement, and
  • joining together to express their views.

An open and pluralistic civic space that guarantees freedom of expression and opinion as well as freedom of assembly and association, is a prerequisite for making development and peace sustainable.

Civic space is under pressure

Today, this civic space is under pressure. Repressive laws are spreading, with increased restrictions on freedoms to express, participate, assemble and associate. New technologies have helped civil society networks to grow, but they’ve also given governments excuses to control civil society movements and media freedoms, often under security pretexts.

Civil society actors are facing pushback

Civil society actors, including those who cooperate with the United Nations, are also facing a pushback across the world. Online and off-line attacks on human rights defenders, including journalists and environmental activists, continue and in many places are worsening. In the most extreme cases, human rights defenders have suffered arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance and killings.

UN Human Rights’ unique role protecting civic space

OHCHR has a unique role to play in protecting civic space and enhancing participation. The Office works to:

  • Support opportunities to improve civic space at country level, while enhancing strategic responses to threats
  • Strengthen good protection practices, including protection networks
  • Raise the visibility and increase support for the work of defenders and influence the narrative
  • Monitor civic space trends and situation of human rights defenders, and
  • Mainstream civic space in the wider UN policies, practices and operational activities.

The United Nations and civic space

The United Nations as a whole is stepping up its commitment to civic space.

  • The UN Human Rights Office recently worked with other UN agencies to conduct a global consultation among civil society actors from around the world.
  • The UN Secretary General released a Call to action for human rights that reiterated several commitments to civic space.

Read more about the United Nation’s role in promoting and protecting civic space.

Our reports

Civil society space: engagement with international and regional organizations - 2020 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
View report page on the 3 "Ps" of civic space / View document (A/HRC/44/25) / Summary leaflet: The 3 "Ps" of civic space (PDF)

UN Secretary General's report on the 20th Anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights
View report page / View document (A/73/230)

Procedures and practices in respect of civil society engagement with international and regional organizations - 2018 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
View report page / View document (A/HRC/38/18) / Summary leaflet: Stepping stones for civil society engagement

Practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, based on good practices and lessons learned - 2016 report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
View report page / View document (A/HRC/32/20)

Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights - UN Secretary-General's reports

Draft guidelines for States on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs - 2018 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/39/28)

Safety of Journalists: 2018 Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (A/HRC/39/23)

The Declaration on Human Rights Defenders

The Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms – more commonly known as the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders’ –is based on and incorporates human rights enshrined in legally-binding international instruments. More about the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

Speeches and Statements on Human Rights Defenders and Civic Space

View speeches and statements on civic space and human rights defenders made by the UN Secretary-General, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights. View speeches and statements.