UN HRC rejects hostile amendments and reaffirms importance of civil society

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption by the UN Human Rights Council on the resolution on civil society space by consensus, with the support of more than 66 co-sponsors. Attempts made to dilute the resolution through hostile amendments were largely unsuccessful.

The resolution was tabled by Ireland, with a core group of Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia. It is the second resolution on this issue, building upon resolution 24/21 of 27 September 2013 and the panel discussion on civil society space that took place on 11 March 2014.

“This resolution is a vital and timely response to the shrinking of civil society space that we see globally”, said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19. “We welcome that the Council rejected attempts to weaken this text, thus reaffirming that a pluralistic civil society is critical to strengthen democracy and development, provide essential services, and promoting and protecting human rights.”

In discussions during the adoption of the resolution, many delegations expressed robust support for it. The delegation of Brazil emphasised that civil society space online is crucial. The Sierra Leone delegation gave a personal account of how “instrumental” civil society has been to building peace in the country. Similarly, the delegation for Chile stressed that its transition from a military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy.

Importantly, the 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, and to engage with and seek the view of all stakeholders including the special procedures and civil society in this regard.

The practical recommendations, which will be presented at the 32nd Session of the Council, will assist States in identifying how to address the implementation gap on the protection and promotion of rights essential to the maintenance of civil society space, principally freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and public participation.

The resolution articulates crucial points of principle based on States’ existing obligations under international human rights law, including that:

  • The ability of people to collectively solicit, receive and utilise resources is a key component of 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.

Despite extensive consultations on the resolution held by the core group throughout the 27th Session of the Human Rights Council, bilateral negotiations continued after an initial draft was tabled up until the introduction of the draft to the plenary.

10 written “hostile amendments” were proposed to the draft resolution in the last week, sponsored by Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Russia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. More than 40 organisations wrote to UN States to reject the amendments, since they would seriously weaken the resolution.

ARTICLE 19 welcomes that the Council resoundingly rejected all of the hostile amendments that went to a vote. In doing so, many States reiterated and stressed the guarantee in Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, reflected in the resolution, that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources.”

However, we are deeply concern that some States, including India and South Africa, made strong statements in opposition to the resolution. While they did not call a vote on the resolution, they officially disassociated themselves from consensus.

“This resolution sends an important signal to States that it is their responsibility to bring their laws and practices into compliance with international human rights standards, including on freedom of expression, to protect civil society space,” said Thomas Hughes. “We are perplexed that supposedly democratic States, like India and South Africa, have taken issue with this basic principle.”

We urge all States to act on this resolution to reverse the concerning global trend where civil society space is shrinking.

ARTICLE 19 also encourages States to engage proactively with the High Commissioner in the development of practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society. Civil society participation will greatly enhance the effectiveness of this process. Likewise, we stress the need for independent human rights experts, in particular the special procedures, to have a key role in contributing to discussions on the recommendations.