Protecting and expanding civic space

"The importance of ensuring the broadest possible civic space in every country cannot be overstated…The protection of the civic space, and the empowerment of human rights defenders, needs to become a key priority for every principled global, regional and national actor."

 --Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
October 29, 2018, Human Rights Defenders World Summit1

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:

  • Suppport 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.

 Read more about OHCHR’s strategic priority to "enhance participation and protect civic space". 

OHCHR also leads the UN system-wide effort to mitigate reprisals against those who cooperated, cooperate or seek to cooperate with the UN system on human rights.

Our reports

  • 2018 report of the UN Secretary-General (A/73/230) on "Twentieth anniversary of 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"
  • 2018 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Draft guidelines for States on the effective implementation of the right to participate in public affairs (A/HRC/39/28)
  • 2018 Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Safety of Journalists (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.