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COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON IMPORTANCE OF PROMOTION AND PROTECTION OF CIVIL SOCIETY SPACE
11 March 2014

The Human Rights Council this afternoon held a panel discussion on the importance of the promotion and protection of civil society space.  The discussion included a video message from Ban Ki-Moon, United Nations Secretary-General, and a statement from the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights.

In his video message Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said that civil society brought vital issues to attention, helped make the case for stronger protection of human rights and pushed for more equal societies.  They mobilized actions to address violations and many risked their own lives.  Civil society actors had to be able to do their work freely, independently, safe from fear, retaliation or intimidation.

Flavia Pansieri, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the extent to which people contributed to and monitored decisions that affected their lives was a fundamental indicator of the extent to which they enjoyed their human rights.  Expressions of civil society fostered civic virtues and awareness of human rights.  Those actors helped persons develop political consciousness and skills, as well as knowledge of their rights and duties.

Moderating the panel discussion was Hina Jilani, prominent human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner; the panellists were Safak Pavey, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Deeyah Khan, film, music and arts producer; and Mokhtar Trifi, Honorary President, Tunisian League for Human Rights.

Hina Jilani, prominent human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner, acting as moderator of the panel discussion, welcomed the Council’s interest in expanding civil society space which it had to acknowledge was thanks to civil society’s concerted work.  No notion of international community was complete without the recognition that civil society was very much a part of it.

Safak Pavey, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, said the most tragic aspect of the shrinking space of the civil society was the targeting of humanitarian aid and health workers in war zones while providing care. Creating a collective platform between society and State or among societal groups appeared to be challenging, but civil society made a powerful impact in cultural transformation towards participatory democracy.

Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said it was important to make clear that international bodies and Governments could not achieve enjoyment and protection of human rights without civil society.  Civil society everywhere needed the rule of law and equal access of justice, and must enjoy the right to freedom of expression in all its dimensions.

Deeyah Khan, film, music and arts producer, said that there was a reason why artists, intellectuals and women tended to be targets of reactionary and totalitarian regimes.  Art was a universal, very direct and human form of communication and had the ability to touch people.  Art had many purposes in society and thousands of artists in the world created art in service of social activism and so became truth-tellers and voices of the voiceless.

Mokhtar Trifi, Honorary President, Tunisian League for Human Rights, said that the role of civil society in Tunisia’s transition was fundamental.  It had always tried to take part in essential laws for human rights and democracy.  After the revolution, three essential civil society organisations were widely consulted, resulting in the very many institutions that were part of a democratic State. 

In the discussion that followed, speakers recognized the important role of civil society in the protection of human rights at national, regional and international levels, stressing their contribution to the development of social, economic and cultural rights.  Civil society embraced a myriad of actors, whose empowerment was essential for the development of a democratic society.  There was concern about the very serious risks faced by human rights defenders, including their family members.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, minority and religious organizations were often particularly targeted.  Some speakers noted that if civil society organizations conducted erroneous ideologies, their credibility would be undermined.  Panellists were also asked questions including how civil society organizations could protect themselves against governmental repression, how children or persons living in poverty could be included in civil society and how States could better engage with civil society at the international and multilateral levels.

Speaking in the discussion were Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, Ethiopia on behalf of the African Group, India on behalf of the Like-Minded Group, European Union, Yemen on behalf of the Arab Group,  Norway on behalf of the Nordic Countries, Morocco, Algeria, China, Czech Republic, Germany, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UN AIDS), Chile, Uruguay, Indonesia, Portugal, Tunisia, Republic of Korea, Thailand, Japan, Colombia, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Angola and Hungary.  European Disability Forum, International Service for Human Rights, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, CIVICUS, International Federation for Human Rights Leagues, and Save the Children International also took the floor. 

At 9 a.m. tomorrow, Wednesday 12 March, the Human Rights Council will continue its clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief and on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism.  At approximately 1 p.m. it will hold a dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs in the field of cultural rights and on the sale of children, children prostitution and child pornography.  At 4 p.m. the Council will hear a presentation of the reports of the Special Representatives of the Secretary-General on violence against children and on children and armed conflict.

Opening Statements

BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, speaking in a video message, said that civil society brought vital issues to attention, helped make the case for stronger protection of human rights and pushed for more equal societies, mobilized actions to address violations, and their criticism strengthened all that was done.  Many also risked their own lives.  Civil society actors had to be able to do their work freely, independently, safe from fear, retaliation or intimidation.  The space for civil society had to be expanded.

FLAVIA PANSIERI, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in opening remarks said that  the extent to which people contributed to and monitored decisions that affected their lives was a fundamental indicator of the extent they enjoyed their human rights.  People had to have a role in decision-making when the decisions concerned their own lives and livelihoods.  Participation could take many forms.  Informed debate, political engagement and strong mechanisms for accountability for public officials should be facilitated and underpinned by a legal framework grounded in international human rights law.  That however, was fraught with obstacles.  Expressions of civil society fostered civic virtues and awareness of human rights.  All those actors helped persons develop political consciousness and skills, as well as knowledge of their rights and duties.

The risks that many civil society actors around the world faced were deplored.  Those risks ranged from threats and intimidation to horrible reprisals, even killings.  The involvement of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in creating space for the engagement of civil society in the promotion and protection of human rights was one of its major achievements of the past twenty years and would be one of the most important priorities in years to come.  Out of the six thematic strategies to be concentrated on, one would be on the widening of democratic space, with an enabling environment for civil society, including human rights defenders.  The Secretary-General had made it clear that more participation, democracy and engagement were necessary.

Statements by the Panellists

HINA JILANI, prominent human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner and moderator, said that while she welcomed the Council’s interest in expanding civil society space, she acknowledged that the expanded participation was thanks to the concerted work of civil society and recognized its value in strengthening human rights and democracy today.  No notion of international community was complete without recognition that civil society was very much a part of it; the international community was not just limited to States.  The High Commissioner had spoken of the great work and value of the civil society organizations, and also how that came at a great cost to their personal freedom, their credibility, and of the political pressures straining the space within which they worked.

SAFAK PAVEY, member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, congratulated the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council on their accessibility guide and noted that civil society sought to liberate and protect society without directly participating in politics.  As a forum outside of State control and under the guarantee of good governance, it became an arena for empowerment for autonomy, voluntary unity, pluralism and social demands.  It greatly served to limit the powers of governments and hold them accountable.  In the simplest definition, civil society was peoples doing things together that they could not achieve on their own.  Ms. Pavey highlighted the most tragic aspect of the shrinking space of the civil society, that humanitarian aid and health workers were targeted in the war zones when providing care.  Creating a collective platform between society and State or among societal groups appeared to be challenging, but civil society made a powerful impact in cultural transformation towards participatory democracy.

FRANK LA RUE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that it was important to make clear that international bodies and Governments could not achieve enjoyment and protection of human rights without civil society.  Civil society everywhere needed the rule of law and equal access of justice, and must enjoy the right to freedom of expression in all its dimensions.  Challenges to the promotion of civil society included unequal access to the internet for everyone, particularly for remote rural populations; limitations and barriers put up by Governments, for example surveillance which encroached on privacy; attacks against the media, bloggers and journalists, particularly women, and attacks on civil society participation.  It was important to strengthen access to public information because limitations were growing again under the pretext of national security.  Attempts to limit the ability of civil society to raise funds, particularly internationally, was a concerning challenge that was reducing the space and possibility for society to organize and participate.  Another worrying trend was the criminalization and restriction of peaceful demonstrations.

DEEYAH KHAN, film, music and arts producer, said that there was a reason why artists, intellectuals and women tended to be targets of reactionary and totalitarian regimes.  Art was a universal and very direct and human form of communication and had the ability to touch people.  Art had many purposes in society; thousands of artists in the world created art in service of social activism and so became truth-tellers and voices of the voiceless.  Such artists were in danger in all corners of the world; harassed, threatened, imprisoned or even killed.  Unlike journalists, artists did not enjoy same protections and very few civil society organizations provided support. Despite the release last year by the United Nations of a report on the freedom of artistic expressions, it was sad to note that the situation of artists had not improved.

MOKHTAR TRIFI, Honorary President, Tunisian League for Human Rights, said that Tunisia underwent its revolution on 14 January 2011.  The role of civil society in that transition was fundamental throughout; it always tried to take part in essential laws for human rights and democracy.  The very first Council of Ministers in 2011 promulgated a law of general amnesty for prisoners of conscience.  After the revolution, three essential civil society organisations were widely consulted, namely the Tunisian Human Rights League, the historic Trade Union, and the Lawyers’ Association.  Consultations resulted in very many institutions that were part of a democratic State.  The Assembly also promoted an important law on association, giving freedom to form associations.  Some associations had been suspected of fostering terrorism and recruiting jihadists to fight in Syria and Mali, as documented in the press.  Voices were raised to review the law on association and of course civil society mobilized to avoid that.  However, monitoring on recruitment and financing had to be carried out.

Interactive Discussion

Pakistan, speaking on the behalf of the Organization of Islamic Conference, said that civil society played a crucial role in advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms for all citizens.  Civil society complemented efforts made by national State institutions, and had to work within the parameters of national law and institutions, and in consistency with the international law.  Ethiopia, speaking on the behalf of the African Group, recognized the important role of civil society in the protection of human rights at national, regional and international levels.  States should encourage civil society’s contribution to the development agenda, and should create a safe and enabling environment conducive to the work of civil society.  India, speaking on the behalf of the Like-Minded Group, said the pluralist society contributed to helping marginalized and poor groups.  The protection of civil society was the foremost responsibility of every State, but civil society could not function efficiently without defined limits, and had to hold itself to the same standards of accountability and fairness expected of a government.

European Union stated that civil society embraced a myriad of actors, whose empowerment was essential for the development of a democratic society.  A robust democratic framework was necessary to guarantee fundamental freedoms, but in some States, limitations had been introduced which led to stigmatization and reprisals against civil society actors, something the European Union objected to.  Yemen, speaking on the behalf of the Arab Group, stressed the importance given to the work conducted by civil society organizations and their contribution to the development of social, economic and cultural rights.  The Arab Group recognized the importance of promoting well-being and development, fully in line with the United Nations Charter.  Norway, speaking on the behalf of the Nordic countries, said States should create an environment safe of hindrance for the operation of civil society organizations.  Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, minority and religious organizations were often particularly targeted.  There was an indisputable link between social stability and vibrant civil society.

Morocco acknowledged the crucial role played by civil society in establishing a truly participatory democracy.  The construction of participatory democracy should also focus on constitutional provisions, defining legal framework for the operation of civil society.  Algeria believed that the role of civil society should be further strengthened, and it could carry out its missions only under favourable conditions.  The work of civil society had to be based on respective rules and legislations and applicable international covenants, and its activities had to be professional and respectful of ethical norms.  China said that Governments should create enabling environments for the development of civil society organizations and encourage their legal activities.  However, if civil society organizations conducted erroneous ideologies, their credibility would be undermined, and if their activities undermined the law or interfered in the priorities of States, they would be punished.

Czech Republic deemed civil society indispensable for any genuine attempt to sustain and ensure human rights for all and asked the panellists what could be done to actively support the important ‘checks and balances role’ of the civil society, and limit attempts to restrain their activities.  Germany said civil society facilitated the achievement of the purposes and principles of the United Nations and contributed to the work of diplomats, but warned against narrowing of civil society space.  It asked the panellists whether there were early warning signs for systematic policy of repression as well as best - or good - practice examples of resilient civil societies.

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UN AIDS) declared that the civil society, particularly people living with and vulnerable to HIV, was essential to an effective AIDS response.  UN AIDS said it faced many challenges which needed the vital input of civil society, but in many countries their space was threatened or curtailed.  European Disability Forum, speaking on behalf of the International Disability Alliance, underlined the accomplishment of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Persons with Disabilities in negotiating the participation of persons with disabilities and their representing organizations.  Where they were actively involved in decision-making, it resulted in greater wellbeing and better social structures. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), speaking on behalf of the coalition of non-governmental organizations, urged the Council to condemn threating legislation in States including Nigeria, Uganda and Russia which prohibited human rights advocacy relating to sexual orientation and gender identity.  It implored those States to consult civil society at the outset of policy development.

Portugal said that it was strong supporter of civil society space.  A diverse and free civil society was a pre-requisite for a democratic, open and ultimately free society.  Cooperation and integration of civil society was a significant aspect of its national and international human rights policy.  How could States improve their engagements with civil society at the international and multilateral level?  Uruguay was convinced that all States had to comply with their commitments to establish and maintain in legislation and practice a safe and enabling environment for civil society.  There was concern about the very serious risks faced by human rights defenders, including their family members.  Chile considered it fundamental to have an institutional level debate assessing options for strengthening civil society at the national, regional and international levels.  How could persons that did not actually join a specific organization, such as children or people who lived in extreme poverty, be included? 

Poland said that the trend of imposing restrictions on civil society in some countries was becoming increasingly visible. What were the panellists’ views on how non-governmental organizations could increase their capacity to protect themselves against governmental repression?  What should the international reaction to various restrictions on society look like?  Indonesia said that civil society should be provided with adequate space and opportunities to express their opinions and States had to ensure that that space was available.  Civil society had been able to assist the development programmes of the Government.  However, there were elements in society that promoted intolerant views. 

Republic of Korea said there were two actors in the field of human rights protection – States and civil society organizations.  The more often the two met and understood each other, the better the human rights environment would be.  Japan said that civil society could play an indispensable role in the development of society by channelling voices and opinions in policy development process.  Colombia said civil society was a key partner in the promotion and protection of human rights and that was why it needed to have the freedom of expression and adequate space.  Thailand said that States had to ensure civil society had a space in which it could operate without fear, underscored the obligation of the civil society to provide accurate information about human rights situations.  Italy expressed its concern at recent administrative and legal regulations aimed at curbing the space for civil society in some countries and asked how the civil society could serve as an early warning system for human rights violations.  Tunisia asked how to regulate external funding of civil society organizations without curbing their work or disrupting internal security.

Switzerland expressed its concern that, in many parts of the world, increasing pressure was being placed on civil society, whose work was essential for concrete amelioration of respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms.   It was thus important to ensure that civil society worked without obstacles and in a safe environment.   Civil society was placed at centre of the agenda of Switzerland’s chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe in 2014.  Ireland said that wherever civil society space was compromised, the capacity of the State to respond to human rights, humanitarian or economic crises was severely weakened.   National legislation should be consistent with international human rights law.  It was vital that Governments saw civil society as an asset, not as a threat, as more engagements and inclusive participation could only cultivate democracy and enhance the promotion of human rights.

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia affirmed that democracy was not qualified only by holding of regular elections, but also by the plurality of views and open debates.   In the Malaysian context, there had been numerous restrictions, including on the work of certain non-governmental organizations.  CIVICUS urged the Human Rights Council to maintain its focus on this subject as States around the world were seeking to increase their control over critical voices, including by excessive use of force.  Online dissent was also targeted and censorship put in place without proper judicial authorization.  International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said that, while in Afghanistan and Tunisia civil society had expanded, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia a number of new restrictions had been seen, including in Russia.  In Iran, civil society was the first victim following the 2009 protests.  In Turkey, a series of legislative proposals were adopted limiting freedoms of civil society, and a high number of journalists were still detained.  Save the Children International said that the strong civil society was important for the protection of children’s’ rights.  As part of their rights and freedoms, children had the right of expression and association, but were frequently not given the opportunity to do so.  Governments were called to create an enabling environment for children for their full participation.

Angola said that thanks to the commitments of the executive and civil society, the human rights situation in the country had significantly improved and efforts were being made to ensure better participation of civil society in governance.  Hungary was concerned about the increasingly worrying trend of shrinking civil society space in a number of countries and the curtailing and silencing the voice of civil society.  It asked how civil society could be better protected against reprisals for cooperating with the human rights system and the United Nations.

Concluding Remarks by the panellists

HINA JILANI, prominent human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner, moderator of the panel, said several questions asked were extremely pertinent to the discussion.  She wondered whether this was a phase of acknowledging the importance of expanding civil society space and making sure that civil society was able to act to promote human rights.

DEEYAH KHAN, film, music and arts producer, was encouraged by what was heard but that words were very easy to say and statements easy to make.  What was at stake was the future of our children.  We were entrusted with trying to build a society that was open and just for all.  There had to be more compassion and understanding for each other, which went beyond rhetoric and down to genuine openness and freedom of expression.  Freedom was a cornerstone of what was needed to have a healthy, open and plural society.

FRANK LA RUE, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said that we had to remember that we were talking about human rights, not a special or different set of rights for civil society organizations, but of rights for everyone.  Civil society organizations were organizations of society demanding the rights that all persons had.  It was true that civil society organizations should abide by principles of the rule of law, transparency and accountability, but it did not mean that there had to be special restrictions.  Legislation that could limit civil society organizations was thus worrying and suspicious.

MOKHTAR TRIFI, Honorary President of the Tunisian League for Human Rights, said that States should respect human rights and be accountable.  States that were against freedom of expression, association and human rights should not be elected to the Human Rights Council.  Proper legislative framework and the independent nature of civil society associations had to be ensured.  It had to be ensured that there was a dialogue between the Governments and civil society, and that public funding was available without constraints.  Civil society associations had to respect certain provisions and regulations.  An early warning model of alerts should be put in place for violations of human rights.

SAFAK PAVEY, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, reminded the Council of the space between civil society and various human rights mechanisms.  A relationship of trust had to exist between human rights treaty bodies and civil society organizations.


For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC14/023E