Role of the United Nations in protecting and promoting civic space

"The UN depends on the active engagement of civil society actors. They are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing climate change. […] Where parts of civil society are considered a threat, we need a principled mindset and to engage constructively."

António Guterres, The Secretary-General of the United Nations
24 February 2020

UN entities, at the global, regional and national levels, have long been working in partnership with civil society to implement programmes and projects, e.g. to deliver life-saving services, to support mediation and post-conflict activities, to monitor political and social developments.

The UN has also sought to promote and protect civic space in a multitude of ways, e.g. through rule of law programming, capacity development, advocacy in support of open space, including through the work of UN human rights bodies and mechanisms. But the UN could do better and is therefore resolved to take its civic space work to the next level.

A UN initiative to take to its work on civic space to the next level

OHCHR and UN Women have been leading a UN initiative aimed at developing system-wide guidance and strategies to take promotion and protection of civic space and civil society to the next level. These efforts have focused on "3 Ps":

  • Promoting civic space: advise on, and proactively advocate for, safe participation of diverse civil society groups in national decision-making processes, including through protests; seize opportunities to expand the space for civil societies and systematically highlight the positive contributions of civil society.

  • Ensuring civil society participation: enhance civil society engagement with the UN and strengthen policies and practices on participation of / partnerships with civil society, drawing on examples of good practice from across the UN system.

  • Protecting civil society actors: coordinate and strengthen UN responses to protect civil society actors effectively, including from reprisals against those who cooperate with the UN and by identifying and disseminating examples of good practice across the UN system.

A key part of this initiative: the global online consultation

As part of this initiative, in January 2020, OHCHR and UN Women co-organized a global online consultation with civil society. This is what they asked of the UN:

  • Lead by example on civil society issues in their engagement and advocacy with Member States, also by highlighting positive contributions of civil society as active agents of change.

  • Avoid tokenistic and bureaucratic engagement with civil society, and prioritize the most marginalized, excluded and discriminated groups, in line with the "leave no one behind" vision of the 2030 Agenda.

  • Through direct channels with civil society, including safe online interactive forums and venues for greater inclusivity and diversity. Create feedback channels through which civil society can express their views how the UN is delivering on its promises.

  • Publicly and unequivocally condemn physical and online attacks, threats, intimidation and reprisals against all civil society actors in a timely manner, including through better understanding of specific protection needs of the most excluded and discriminated groups.

  • Advocate for greater compliance by States with their international human rights obligations, with a particular focus on human rights to access to information, freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and participation in national decision-making processes, online and offline.

Please see the Global Dev Hub discussions and consultations summary.

Civic space and the UN Secretary General's call to action for human rights

On 24 February 2020, the Secretary-General launched "The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights", on the occasion of 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

The Call identifies civic space and participation as one of the key domains where action is needed and stresses that society is stronger and more resilient when women and men can play a meaningful role in political, economic and social life, contributing to policy-making that affects their lives, including by accessing information, engaging in dialogue, expressing dissent and joining together to express their views.

But in too many places, open space for this participation is under threat, from repressive laws and, increased restrictions on the work of journalists and human rights defenders, especially women. New technologies have helped civil society networks to grow, but they have also given authorities excuses to control civil society movements and curtail media freedoms, often under security pretexts. Shrinking of civic space is frequently a prelude to a more general deterioration in human rights.

The Call to Action, under the different headings, contains concrete action points relating to civic space for the UN system:

  • On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations and building on positive participation by civil society in climate negotiations and the Sustainable Development Goals, launch a dialogue on more systematic participation of civil society in United Nations bodies and agencies, with special attention to women's rights organizations and young people.

  • Design a system-wide strategy on civic space and adequate guidance to UN leaders in the field along with mechanisms to: (i) positively engage with interlocutors to promote and protect civic space; (ii) respond to undue restrictions on civic space; and, (iii) protect the space for different stakeholders to express their views.

  • Review and strengthen United Nations tools that aim to empower civil society, protect civic space and encourage participation by all groups in democratic processes.

  • Ensure that Resident Coordinators, UN Country Teams and heads of United Nations peace operations develop partnerships with civil society organizations to contribute to an enabling environment for civic space, including for women's organizations and women's rights defenders.

  • Increase UN support at field level for the promotion of laws and policies that protect the right to equal participation and civic space, including a free and independent media – a foundation of open, democratic societies and most critical at a time when citizens demand accountability.

  • Consult regularly with diverse women's human rights organizations to discuss trends, challenges and potential solutions at field level, including in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

  • In the context of including civil society voices in UN bodies and agencies, create space for young people to participate in shaping the decisions that will affect their future, including but not limited to climate change.

  • Engage with and support Member States on policies and legislation that promote […] positive laws, […] striving for women's equal representation and participation in all spheres.

  • Increase United Nations support to Member States at field level for the development of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders and environmental activists, particularly young people, women and girls.

  • Support Member States to ensure that human rights principles inform implementation of the 2030 Agenda, including empowering people and creating avenues for civil society participation.

  • [E]nsure that conflict analysis and ensuing policy and operational responses […] prioritize the full and meaningful participation of women in all areas of prevention and resolution, including in formal peace processes.

  • Advocate for the application of the human rights framework to the digital space.

  • Develop an agenda for protection for the United Nations system, underpinned by a common understanding of the centrality of protection in our actions. Ensure that [it …] creates adequate protection approaches for women human rights defenders.