Fighting the Closure of Civil Society Space

By Carolyn Greco

Last week, the United States joined other governments at the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass the Irish-led resolution A/HRC/27/L.24 calling for support and defense of civil societies.

The cases of Maryam Al KhawajaNabeel RajabGhada JamsheerWaleed AbulkhairPu ZhiqiangEvgeny VitishkoYara Sallam, Sanaa Seif and many, many others make all too clear that civil society actors across the globe are unable to do their work freely and independently, safe from fear, intimidation or retaliation. This resolution serves as an important reminder to the world that it is the primary responsibility of States, in accordance with their international human rights obligations, to promote and protect human rights, including rights that enable civil society to operate.  Or, more importantly, that failure to promote and protect civil society space and ensure a safe and enabling environment undermines States’ existing commitments and obligations under international human rights law.

The resolution coincides with two actions taken by the Obama Administration on the same day: (1) remarks by President Obama to an audience of activists, civil society groups, human rights defenders, and government leaders at the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) announcing the United States’ mission to partner with and protect civil society groups around the world, and (2) a Presidential Memorandum issued by the White House memorializing the mission, charging U.S. agencies abroad to oppose efforts by foreign governments that restrict freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

Governments should follow the Council’s lead and take concrete steps to protect civil society space. This includes making it a priority to react to, and defend against, attacks on civil society – via retaliation, threats, intimidation, imprisonment, peaceful demonstration bans, funding limitations, internet access restrictions. Governments should react to these kinds of attacks with diplomatic pressure, high-level statements publicly or privately condemning the restrictions, and direct assistance to civil society actors. These and other pledges of support for civil society movements reinforce the critical role civil society plays in building peaceful, prosperous nations.

As the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has affirmed, it is not a matter of creating special rights for civil society organizations, but of ensuring that the rights everyone is entitled to are afforded to civil society actors. Put simply, by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, “They protect our rights. They deserve their rights.”

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Published on October 3, 2014

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