The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) together with delegates to the Forum on the Participation of NGOs in the 44th Session of the ACHPR on 8 November 2008 endorsed the Defending Civil Society report that focuses on legal barriers facing civil society and the principles that must be defended against violations by governments.
The 45-page report co-authored by the World Movement for Democracy at the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy and the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) is based on extensive research and wide consultation with NGOs around the world, particularly those working on the advancement of democracy and human rights.
The launch ceremony in Abuja, Nigeria was co-sponsored by the African Democracy Forum, World Movement for Democracy and African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies. Panel discussions on the report focused on international principles protecting civil society such as:
- The right for individuals to form and join civil society organisations.
- The right of such organisations to function without state interference.
- The right to free expression.
- Advocacy – to communicate freely with domestic and international parties.
- The rights also include the right to seek and secure resources across borders and the state obligation to protect the rights of NGOs and civil society.
The report notes the serious threats against civil society through intensified offensives against democracy. “This ongoing backlash against democracy has been characterised by a pronounced shift from outright repression of democracy, human rights and civil society activists and groups to more subtle governmental efforts to restrict the space in which civil society organisations – especially democracy assistance groups operate,” says the report.
Barriers to free civil society work come in the form of imprisonment, harassment, disappearances and executions of activists and legal and quasi-legal obstacles. The Interception of Communications Act in Zimbabwe is cited as among the legal barriers and criminal sanctions affecting free use of the Internet and web-based communication that has seen human rights defenders being arrested in countries such Syria, Angola and Russia. Laws prohibiting or restricting certain categories of funding have similarly been imposed in Eritrea, Algeria, Egypt, Moldova, Venzuela and Uzbekistan.
The report calls upon international organisations to endorse it and the principles it identifies; civil society organisations to conduct national and regional discussions to mobilise support for the reform of legal frameworks governing them. It further urges democracy assistance organisations to distribute and promote the report to its partners and grantees.
Proposed actions and strategies to increase global response to the increasingly restrictive environments for civil society organisations include among others:
Calls on democratic governments and international organisations including the United Nations financial institutions and appropriate regional organisations to endorse the report and principles it articulates and to encourage national governments to adhere to them.
Urge established democracies and international organisations to reaffirm their commitments to democratic governance, rule of law, respect for human rights and develop consistent policies based on the principles.
Urge established democracies and international organisations to reaffirm that proposed restrictions on freedom of association are subjected to the rigorous legal analytical test defined by in Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and energetically publicise transgressions, particularly on the part of ICCPR signatories.
Organise discussions and hearings in parliaments, congresses and national assemblies to raise lawmakers’ awareness of the issues and principles.
Monitor the degree to which the principles in the report are being applied in bilateral and multilateral relations.
The report is available here in Arabic, English, French, Russian and Spanish.