ARTICLE 19, joined by more than 40 other leading international and national civil society organisations, has called on Member States of the UN Human Rights Council to reject proposed amendments that would weaken a draft resolution to promote and protect civil society space.
As the space for civil society continues to shrink globally, the draft resolution on civil society space is a timely and vital response to contribute to the reversal of this trend. The joint open letter from civil society stresses the importance of fully supporting this initiative, and expresses deep concerns at proposed hostile amendments that would significantly weaken it.
In light of the growing challenges facing civil society, the resolution stresses the critical role of civil society in strengthening democracy, providing essential services, and promoting human rights. Based on States’ existing obligations under international human rights law, it unequivocally reiterates crucial points of principle that are too often flouted, including that:
- The right and ability of people to collectively solicit, receive and utilise resources is central to the right to freedom of association;
- National-security and counter-terrorism legislation, and provisions on funding should not be abused to hinder the work or safety of civil society;
- Civil society space is particularly important for persons belonging to minority and marginalised or otherwise disadvantaged groups, as well as for persons espousing minority or dissenting views and beliefs;
- The real and effective participation of people in decision-making processes should be secured, including at the domestic level in the development, implementation or review of legislation, but also at the regional and international levels.
Importantly, the draft resolution requests the High Commissioner to prepare a compilation of practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society. Such a report would help bridge the implementation gap seen in all parts of the world on the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and public participation.
However, the negotiations of the draft resolution have been protracted with many States expressing unease with protecting and promoting the critical role civil society plays in democratic and accountable States.
Some of those States have tabled hostile amendments to the text, that will likely be voted on as the Council enters the last two days of its 27th Session. The ten written amendments are all supported by Bahrain, China, Egypt, Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. Cuba, India and South Africa have supported some of the amendments, but not all.
In the joint civil society letter to States, ARTICLE 19 has expressed its deep concerns that the proposed amendments seek to undermine the spirit of the resolution and attempt to detract from States’ obligations to protect and promote civil society space. The proposed amendments would:
- Remove reference to previously agreed Human Rights Council resolutions on preventing reprisals against civil society that engage with the UN system, and that set out States human rights obligations in the context of protests, both of which are critically important and relevant to the protection of civil society space at the international and domestic levels.
- Weaken references to the binding nature of international human rights law by qualifying State obligations under international law with unnecessary qualifying references to national law.
- Narrow the more inclusive references to “minority and vulnerable groups” by replacing them with the more exclusive formulation. This would limit recognition of the important work of civil society to empower persons belonging to all minority and marginalised or otherwise disadvantaged groups, and would dilute the call on States to “ensure that legislation, policies and practices do not undermine the enjoyment of their human rights or the activities of civil society defending their rights”.
- Remove reference to the importance of civil society space for empowering dissenting voices to speak out. States should expect and welcome robust public debates, including criticism and political opposition of the State, its institutions, and public officials. This underpins the guarantee of freedom of expression contained in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and it is crucial that this be reiterated without qualification.
- Weaken language calling upon States to ensure that provisions on funding to civil society are in compliance with international human rights law and are not misused. The proposed amendments would diminish the right of everyone, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilise resources, as an integral part of the right to freedom of association. Access to resources is a challenge facing civil society in all parts of the world, and must be addressed by the Council.
- Limit the enjoyment by civil society of the right to unhindered access to and communication with sub-regional, regional and international bodies, which is essential to the effectiveness and accountability of these bodies.
- Dispense with the request on the High Commissioner to prepare a compilation of practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, replacing this with a request for a weaker report with greater deference to the views of States.
Together with civil society organisations from around the world, ARTICLE 19 calls on the Human Rights Council to support the draft resolution as it was tabled, and oppose all of the proposed amendments to it if they come to a vote.