Freedom of Association

“We human beings want to get together with others, live together, eat together, laugh together, cry together, play music together, dance together, work together, and act collectively to improve our lives.”

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the 2011 ICNL Global Forum

The right to freedom of association enables individuals to come together to pursue shared interests and achieve common goals – to act collectively to improve their lives. It protects registered and unregistered groups alike, including civil society organizations, cooperatives, religious associations, political parties, trade unions, and online associations. Whether they seek to form a large advocacy organization or an informal group for hobby enthusiasts, individuals exercise this right by forming groups.

The laws governing associations and other groups should enable, rather than impede, freedom of association. Through engagement with local organizations, governments, and the international community, ICNL promotes this right and helps build environments in which people can collaborate to improve their lives.

Key Themes

Advancing Legal Reform

ICNL works with our partners to advance enabling legal reform and push back against restrictive measures. We support our partners with analysis, expertise, and technical assistance on a diverse range of issues affecting freedom of association. From Tunisia to Myanmar to Ethiopia to Peru, ICNL helps local partners enact legislation that widens the space for individuals and groups to exercise their right to freedom of association.

FOAA Online: Resource for Litigation and Advocacy

This resource is designed to provide easily accessible legal arguments that lawyers, activists, and judges can use to protect and promote the freedoms of association and of peaceful assembly. Initially published in 2017 by Maina Kiai, former UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, it is organized by theme and focuses on the most common restrictions on FOAA around the world.

Defending Civil Society, Second Edition

This 2012 report provides examples of the legal barriers that governments use to constrain civic space and articulates international legal principles to protect civil society.

Guidelines for Laws Affecting Civic Organizations

This seminal text offers guidance for creating and amending domestic laws to regulate civil society organizations, establishing the framework for such laws in internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The Role of Legal Reform in Supporting Civil Society

This primer from ICNL, commissioned by the United Nations Development Program, provides an overview of the legal environment for civil society and a general orientation to the reform of civil society law. Available in French and English.

Access to Resources

According to the United Nations special rapporteur of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, freedom of association is the ability “to form and join an association [and] seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial – from domestic, foreign, and international sources.” ICNL and our partners track and respond to legal and regulatory threats that could impede civil society’s access to resources and provide organizations with the tools they need to advocate for sustainable resources.

Associations Access to Financial Resources

In this 2013 report, the UN special rapporteur discusses the international legal framework governing civil society’s ability to access financial resources and analyzes several common government justifications for restricting such access.

General Principles on Civil Society's Right to Funding

This set of principles, issued by UN Special Rapporteur Kiai and the Community of Democracies, summarizes key aspects of civil society’s right to receive international funding.

Human Rights Defenders Briefing Papers: Right to Access Funding

This paper from the International Service for Human Rights examines the right of human rights defenders to access cross-border funding.

Cross-Border Funding

Access to funding is vital to civil society, and the ability to cooperate and receive support across borders further strengthens the sector. ICNL works around the world to protect and foster cross-border philanthropy and international development cooperation. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Domestic Fundraising

Domestic fundraising is a vital source of funding for many civil society organizations. New tools and technologies have dramatically increased funding sources, mobilized local resources, and improved civil society’s financial sustainability. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Digital Fundraising in Kyrgyzstan

Faced with more difficulty accessing foreign funding, Kyrgyz organizations are reaching out to communities to develop new, local sources of fundraising. This ICNL report explains what methods are available, how they work, and how they are regulated.

Fundraising Principles

This report provides a global overview of current trends in fundraising regulation and self-regulation and offers principles and recommendations addressing seven key areas based on international and regional standards and country practices.

Freedom of Association Online

The internet is both a tool and a space for exercising freedom of association. While the digital age has created new opportunities, it has also brought new challenges. Through our support of the UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule’s 2019 work on freedom of association in the digital age and our work on emerging technology on civic space, ICNL is working with our partners to better understand and address the challenges and opportunities facing freedom of association online.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

In this 2019 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association discusses the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

Technology & Civic Space

Online technologies are reshaping civic space by providing new ways to exercise the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression — as well as new methods for governments and private actors to restrict those rights. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Association and Assembly in the Digital Age

This 2011 article from the International Journal for Not-For-Profit Law explores the connection between new technologies and the fundamental rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

Challenges for Vulnerable Populations

Vulnerable populations, such as women, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities, and sexual minorities, face unique barriers to exercising their right to freedom of association. Governments may refuse to register or seek to curtail the activities of organizations serving these groups. Exploring this requires a specialized focus and ICNL works with partners around the world to help protect the right to freedom of association of vulnerable populations.

Right to Freedom of Association of Migrants and their Defenders

This report from the UNSR on the Human Rights of Migrants examines the right to freedom of association of migrants, looking at recent trends in restrictions in law and in practice on freedom of association for migrants and civil society organizations that work to protect migrants’ rights.

The Impact of the Closing of Civic Space on HIV Response in East Africa

Civil society organizations have helped propel the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, their activities could slow down or stop altogether if the space for advocacy is tightened or closed. In this 2018 report, ICNL presents in-depth research and analysis on the ways in which the closing of civic space is affecting HIV responses in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

Assembly & Association for At-Risk Groups

This 2014 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association addresses legislation and practices that discriminate against certain groups and deprive them of these fundamental rights.

Research on Violations of Environmental Groups’ Civic Freedoms

The 2016 issue of ICNL’s Global Trends in NGO Law presents research on the approaches that governments commonly use to undermine the ability of environmental activists to exercise their rights to assembly, association, and expression. Their techniques include the use and abuse of existing laws, restrictive new legislation, and extra-legal strategies, such as public vilification and violence.

Identifying & Addressing Challenges Facing LGBTI Groups

ICNL’s 2015 Global Forum included a session on legal constraints on the ability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex groups to fully exercise their right to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. The session identified successful strategies that LGBTI groups use to function and flourish. ICNL dedicated this 2016 issue of the Global Trends in NGO Law to discussing the challenges, successes, and lessons learned by organizations working in this space.

THE ENJOYMENT OF THE RIGHTS TO FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY AND OF ASSOCIATION BY WOMEN AND GIRLS

This 2020 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association recognizes the contributions of women in civil society and activism and examines the gendered and intersectional barriers, reprisals and backlashes confronting women and their full enjoyment of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

CLOSING CIVIC SPACE FOR CLIMATE ACTIVISTS

This briefer, presented by ICNL and ECNL, outlines some of the common legal and extralegal measures used to target civil society actors working on climate justice. Many of these measures violate international and regional law and threaten civil society’s ability to address urgent environmental challenges.

Guidelines & Best Practices

OSCE Guidelines on Freedom of Association

These 2015 guidelines from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe offer a practical toolkit for drafting legislation that promotes the establishment of associations, enables their operations and activities, and facilitates achievement of their goals.

BEST PRACTICES IN PROMOTING THE RIGHTS TO FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY & ASSOCIATION

This 2012 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association surveys the legal and institutional frameworks needed to comply with the spirit and the letter of human rights.

GUIDELINES ON FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION AND ASSEMBLY IN AFRICA

These guidelines, released in 2017 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, provide practical advice on protecting the right to freedoms of association and assembly, based on international law and best practices.

Safeguarding Freedom of Assembly and Association during a Public Health Crisis

In the face of the COVID-19 public health emergency, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Clément Voule issued ten key principles to remind States of the necessity of responding in a manner compliant with their human rights obligations. The UNSR also published an accompanying checklist and survey designed to help assess the implementation by government authorities and other key actors of UNSR’s guidance.

Reports & Articles

THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS & FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

This 2018 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association examines the relationship between the exercise of those rights and implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Civic Freedoms in the Middle East & North Africa

This 2018 in-depth study assesses the effect of formal and informal restrictions on the right to freedom of association in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. The report is available in English and Arabic.

Politics, Power, and Accountability: Addressing Civil Society Organizations' Right to Freedom of Association

This 2014 article from ICNL’s International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law argues that civil society and government are interdependent, with governments expected to provide a legal and regulatory framework that allows civil society to function independently and keep governments accountable to their citizens.

Safeguarding Civil Society in Politically Complex Environments

This 2007 article from ICNL’s International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law describes strategies and tools for protecting the right to freedom of association in politically complex environments.

The Associational Counter-Revolution

This article co-authored by ICNL’s president and vice president summarizes the actions that countries around the world have taken to constrain civil society.

The Law Affecting Civil Society in Asia

This report is an overview of the regulatory environment affecting civil society and civil society organizations across Asia, highlighting regulatory trends impacting civil society throughout the region.

Legal Instruments

All Freedom of Association Resources

The Rule of Law, Custom, and Civil Society in the South Pacific An Overview

The Rule of Law, Custom, and Civil Society in the South Pacific An Overview
Western legal thought, at least as popularized in general literature, assumes the universality of certain ... Read More

Ukrainian Parliament Passes Bill on Non-Entrepreneurial Organizations

Ukrainian Parliament Passes Bill on Non-Entrepreneurial Organizations
On October 19, the Parliament of Ukraine adopted the bill on Non-Entrepreneurial Organizations at the ... Read More

Ukraine NGO Legislation in Civil Code Passes Second Reading

Ukraine NGO Legislation in Civil Code Passes Second Reading
On July 18, 2000, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the Civil Code in the second reading ... Read More

Kyrgyzstan President Signs Long-Awaited NGO Law on Non-Commercial Organizations

Kyrgyzstan President Signs Long-Awaited NGO Law on Non-Commercial Organizations
Developing the non-commercial sector has become as growing priority for countries of the Central Asian ... Read More
Explore our full resource collection, which includes reports, legal analysis, and curated collections of materials covering an array of issues impacting civic space around the world.