ICNL’s Global Program seeks to protect and expand freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly by advancing global and regional norms that can be used to defend civic space at the national and local levels. With our partners, we seek opportunities to create and bolster protective norms across a variety of international bodies, such as the Financial Action Task Force, the OECD, and the Open Government Partnership. We also work in and through the United Nations, where we partner with civil society and governments to promote civic space and fundamental freedoms in the Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, and the UN Security Council and support the work of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Committee, including by contributing to the work of special rapporteurs who have mandates related to civic space.
On July 27, 2020, the UN Human Rights Committee issued General Comment No. 37, the Committee’s first comprehensive guidance on the right of peaceful assembly. This landmark document – developed with assistance from ICNL and our partners – presents progressive principles and standards on a range of issues relating to the right to engage in protests, meetings, and other gatherings, and will empower civil society to advance full respect for this right at the local, regional, and international levels.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, has prioritized research in fulfilling her mandate. To support her efforts, ICNL partially funded a briefing paper by the UN special rapporteur and Dr. Krisztina Huszti-Orban that was published by the University of Minnesota Human Rights Center. The paper addresses the proliferation of new institutions and the “soft” law standards they produce, with particular emphasis on the implications of these developments on the functioning of civil society organizations and civic space. It builds on her earlier report on the misuse of counterterrorism measures to restrict civic space.
Civil Society and the Financial Action Task Force
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is a global intergovernmental body that sets standards for combating money laundering and terrorist financing. Country-level adoption of FATF standards sometimes results in undesirable restrictions on the activities of civil society organizations. To avoid this development, ICNL helps civil society actors understand and engage in the implementation of FATF standards. For example, in April 2019, ICNL and the West Africa Civil Society Institute organized a FATF training in Ghana for English-speaking West African organizations. Additional workshops are planned for later this year in Francophone West Africa, Latin America, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, has identified the challenges posed by digital technology as a key priority during his tenure. To support his efforts, ICNL arranged for the special rapporteur to meet with civil society organizations working on technology, digital rights, and media issues in Mexico City and Nairobi. The consultations resulted in observations and recommendations that the special rapporteur can draw on in his 2019 report on this important issue.
What We Do
ICNL seeks to enhance international norms that protect civic freedoms. Working with ECNL and our CSI partners, we advocate with key United Nations member states to adopt progressive language in UN resolutions that promotes civic space and public participation. ICNL and ECNL have provided support to the UN Human Rights Committee in developing authoritative guidance on the protection of civic freedoms; this included organizing civil society consultations and developing expert submissions to inform the groundbreaking General Comment No. 37 on the right of peaceful assembly adopted by the Committee in 2020. ICNL and ECNL also continue to work with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to advance civil society’s access to multilateral fora and promote the right to participate in public affairs.
UN Special Rapporteurs
ICNL supports United Nations special rapporteurs with mandates relevant to civic freedoms, including the rights to peaceful assembly and association, the right to freedom of expression, counter-terrorism and human rights, and the human rights of migrants. To strengthen their mandates, ICNL supports research, provides expert submissions, convenes consultations with civil society, and hosts events to publicize special rapporteurs’ reports.
Civil Society & FATF
ICNL and ECNL work with national partners to respond to restrictions on civil society arising from processes associated with the Financial Action Task Force. We also directly engage with the Task Force through our membership in the FATF Private Sector Consultative Forum, a policy-implementation advisory body.
Civic Space & OGP
ICNL is working with the Open Government Partnership and civil society and government partners to increase recognition of the importance of an enabling environment and to promote the adoption and implementation of member state commitments to expand civic space and address key constraints on civil society. ICNL has provided technical assistance to OGP governments, including subnational governments through the OGP Local program, to support the development of ambitious civic space commitments. ICNL has conducted workshops, developed explanatory materials, and provided advice to civil society partners advocating for the inclusion of civic space commitments in OGP action plans. ICNL also works with the OGP Support Unit and government and civil society Steering Committee members to communicate the importance of civic space as a foundation of open government.
Development and Civic Space
Civil society organizations have a key role to play in delivering sustainable development. ICNL works on two levels to protect CSOs’ ability to play this role. First, ICNL promotes civil society participation in global development initiatives and organizations, including the annual High-Level Political Forum for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the Task Team for CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD/DAC). Second, ICNL seeks to promote norms in the context of development cooperation and humanitarian assistance activities that safeguard civic freedoms and elevate the role of civil society as partners and independent actors in these areas. In 2021, for example, ICNL worked with civil society partners to provide inputs into the OECD/DAC’s first-ever policy instrument on enabling civil society, which will provide a sound basis for efforts by donors to support civil society and civic space in the coming years.
Extractives and Civic Space
ICNL is working with civil society partners and with key multilateral initiatives, such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), to support an enabling environment for civil society participation in natural resource governance and to ensure accountability for restrictions imposed on civil society in the context of extractives activities. This includes the publication in 2021, by ICNL and partner Publish What You Pay, of guidance for civil society partners on using EITI processes to flag concerns about civic space in EITI implementing countries.
ICNL has produced many research products exploring issues affecting civic space on the global level. Below are our key resources.
The United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, identified the challenges posed by digital technology as a key priority during his tenure. To support his efforts, ICNL arranged for the special rapporteur to meet with civil society organizations working on technology, digital rights, and media issues in Mexico City and Nairobi. The consultations resulted in observations and recommendations that the special rapporteur drew on in his 2019 report on this important issue.
The recent wave of constraints on civil society is a subject of concern worldwide. ICNL’s 2018 report contributes to the discussion by examining trends in the closing of civic space, the reasons donor governments should counter these trends, and the ways in which they can do so effectively.
Between 2010 and 2015, 35 percent of new restrictions imposed on civil society around the world focused on international funding. ICNL president Douglas Rutzen explores this trend as well as the global crackdown on civil society in this article in the Journal of Democracy.