UNHRC: Action needed to safeguard civic space within international organisations

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the adoption of a resolution on civil society space at the 38th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC). With increased support from States than in previous years, the resolution makes clear that the effectiveness of inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) is “inexorably linked” to civil society participation, and reinforces that transparency and access to information are the bedrock of an enabling environment. It also sets out crucial actions for States to reverse the shrinking of civil society space at the national level.  

This resolution is unequivocal on the importance of effective civil society participation towards achieving global priorities – whether we’re talking about the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, effectively countering climate change, or ensuring accountability for human rights violations”, said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

Yet opacity, secrecy, and exclusion still define the operations of so many IGOs, including much of the UN. Openness and disclosure, rooted in rights-based policies, is in everyone’s interest, and demands urgent action”, Hughes added.

The resolution on “civil society space: engagement with international and regional organisations” (HRC Res 38/12), led by Chile, Ireland, Japan, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia, was adopted on 6 July 2018.

Despite the fact that China called a vote on the resolution, no countries voted against its adoption, with only a handful abstaining.[1] This, together with the more than 50 cosponsoring States, demonstrates increased international support for the role of civil society. Adverse amendments to the resolution tabled by China, Russia and Pakistan, including one seeking to limit civil society’s right to access resources, were either withdrawn, or rejected by vote.

HRC Res 38/12 is the fourth in a series of resolutions, dating back to 2014, addressing the global shrinking of civil society space, which has seen increased restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate safely and effectively around the world. Whereas the last resolution in 2016 (HRC Res 32/31) primarily addressed safe and enabling environments for civil society at the national level, the present resolution focuses on civil society space in international and regional IGOs. In doing so, it builds upon the conclusions and recommendations of an OHCHR report on the topic, and recommends ways that IGOs can become more participatory and transparent for civil society.

IGOs must open up

Reflecting the conclusions of the OHCHR report, the resolution recognises that civil society participation is “inexorably linked” to the effectiveness of IGOs, including regional and international human rights mechanisms. The resolution therefore encourages IGOs to review and update their frameworks for civil society engagement.

In particular, the resolution identifies IGOs’ accreditation processes as needing greater attention. The ECOSOC NGO Committee, which oversees NGO accreditations for the UN, is singled out in the OHCHR report as unfit for purpose, citing criticisms of its politicised nature, lack of transparency, and arbitrary decision-making – often blocking and severely delaying the accreditation of NGOs, in particular those working on human rights. Responding to this criticism, the resolution calls on the Committee to embrace “the fully diversity” of NGOs. More broadly, it calls on all IGOs to ensure accreditation processes deliver “prompt decisions” and are “transparent, fair and gender-sensitive”. It further calls for grievance mechanisms to be available, so that erroneous decisions may be addressed.

Importantly, the resolution calls on international and regional organisations “to adopt and implement robust policies on access to information in compliance with relevant international law.” The OHCHR report identifies access to information as “a precondition for any meaningful participation with multilateral organisations”, and a “recognized and indispensable element of freedom of expression”. Without access to information, the ability of civil society to monitor the activities of IGOs and to engage meaningfully in decision-making processes and policymaking, would be greatly limited.

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, who has previously described the lack of a UN-wide access to information policy as “intolerable”, has set out what international human rights law requires of IGOs to ensure access to information as a human right. While identifying UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) as a leading the field, the Special Rapporteur singled out other UN entities, in particular OHCHR, for falling behind. His conclusions and recommendations should be taken on board by all IGOs, which should adopt or revise their policies accordingly.

Lack of transparency and civil society to access is also a particular concern in relation to the UN’s counter-terrorism architecture. ARTICLE 19 has jointly and publicly condemned the lack of effective civil society participation in the recent General Assembly review of the UN’s Global Counter Terrorism Strategy.

Engagement on follow-up needed

ARTICLE 19 welcomes that the resolution calls on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report to assess progress made by IGOs in improving civil society engagement, before June 2020. This requires coordinated efforts at the highest levels across the UN and all other international and regional organisations to review and upgrade their policies and practices in line with the report and resolution.

It is also positive that the resolution reiterates and in places strengthens its calls on States for national action to address the domestic shrinking of civil society space. This is essential, since many States in all parts of the world continue to deliberately restrict civil society space, often targeting dissent and discriminated-against individuals and groups. We regret, however, that the resolution only foresees an informal convening of States in one year’s time to measure progress against these commitments, with no formal reporting-back to the HRC.

ARTICLE 19 will continue to monitor the progress on the commitments made in this resolution at the international and national level, including with our partners in the Civic Space Initiative, CIVICUS, ECNL, ICNL and the World Movement for Democracy.


[1] 35 States voted in favour, with 11 States abstaining. Voting yes: Afghanistan, Angola, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Cote d’Ivoire, Croatia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ecuador, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Iraq, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Senegal, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Togo, Tunisia, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Abstaining: Burundi, China, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela. The United States of America was not present, following its decision to quit the HRC.