The UN Human Rights Council (HRC) must act to address the shrinking space for civil society across the globe, urged member organisations of the Civic Space Initiative* (CSI) at a side event in Geneva on 12 June.
In September 2013, the HRC adopted by consensus a landmark resolution urging States to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society to operate and carry out their essential work.
The side event sought to identify how States must address the “implementation gap” between international standards and domestic law and practice, in particular for marginalised groups.
“Freedom of association is a fundamental right, yet its core is being chipped away. Perhaps it’s time to shape the contours of this right more clearly: the existence of an independent civil society is a prerequisite for a legitimate democracy,” said Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association. “It is the primary vehicle for people to organize and make their voices heard. States have no business interfering with that process – rather, they should encourage it.”
Frank La Rue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression pinpointed the Arab Spring as triggering a pushback against civil society. “Unfortunately the situation for human rights is worse off, especially in the case of freedom of expression, than it was 6 years ago when I began my mandate,” said Mr La Rue. “The growing power of internet and civil society has provoked tremendous fear in authoritarian governments and sometimes democratic ones,” he added.
At the event, which was also supported by Irish Government, civil society activists from Bahrain, Venezuela and the Philippines lamented the widening implementation gap at the national level of the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression, which are fundamental to civil society.
Maryam Al-Khawaja, Vice President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, called on the HRC to adopt a resolution on the human rights situation in Bahrain. “The regime in Bahrain continues to systematically restrict civil society space because it believes its enjoys international immunity. The Council must unequivocally condemn the ongoing human rights violation in the country by adopting a resolution without delay.”
The CSI reiterates its call on the HRC to take action to address the implementation gap in the protection of civic space at the national level, both by elucidating State obligations to create a safe and enabling environment for civil society and insisting on accountability for failures by States.
*Members of the CSI are ARTICLE 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the World Movement for Democracy, and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law.