Obama: States Must Protect Civil Society under Threat


“We must do more to spur global action” against restrictions on civil society, said US President Barack Obama in his opening address of today’s High Level Event on Supporting Civil Society.

On the margins of the 68th United Nations General Assembly in New York, heads of state, civil society, multilateral organizations, and private foundations gathered to discuss growing restrictions that are being placed on civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide. Hosted by President Obama, the event created space for the international community to coordinate strategies to push back against these constraints.

Speakers included President Obama, UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson, Mexican civil society leader and Open Government Partnership representative Alejandro Gonzalez Arreola, President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj of Mongolia, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai, Burmese activist Khin Lay, and Douglas Rutzen of the International Center for Not-for-Profit-Law (ICNL).

These speakers each affirmed the vital role of a vibrant civil society in building peaceful, prosperous nations. They also acknowledged the extraordinary opportunity to jointly protect civil society from the growing crackdown. In the past year alone, more than 30 countries proposed or enacted legislation that restricts civil society. Disturbing global trends have emerged, with an increasing number of states cutting off CSOs from receiving funds on which they depend.

“We must respond with vigilance and vigor” said ICNL’s President Douglas Rutzen. “We have an historic opportunity to shape the future of civil society.”

Panelists agreed that the international community must work together to improve the policy environment for CSOs among others, through multilateral, diplomatic pressure. They also agreed to strengthen existing institutions working to protect civil society, most notably the Community of DemocraciesLifeline: The Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

These commitments are laid out in the Joint Statement on the Promotion and Protection of Civil Society, which the group adopted at the end of the event.  The group will reconvene in one year, at the opening of the 69th United Nations General Assembly, in order to assess the international response.

Members of the Civic Space Initiative: The International Center for Not-for-Profit LawArticle 19CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the World Movement for Democracy welcome the commitment of world leaders to the promotion and protection of civil society. We commend the recognition that the strength of nations depends on the vibrancy of civil society, and we urge the international community to uphold the commitments agreed upon today.

Moreover, we call upon states to move from rhetoric to action and support courageous colleagues in civil society around the world who are calling for reform. Every day and in every corner of the globe, local civil society activists are fighting unjust laws, often at great risks to themselves. Ms. Khin Lay asserted through her own example of improving legislation that with effective coordinated action, progress is possible.  Ms. Khin Lay and her counterparts around the world deserve nothing less than the most resolute support of the international community.

This press statement is prepared by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law through the Civic Space Initiative, implemented in partnership with ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the World Movement for Democracy.