Civil Society Space and The United Nations Human Rights System

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently published a guide of practical recommendations on how to create and maintain space for a free and independent civil society. The civil society plays an important role to influence positive change in communities, but this role can only be effective if certain conditions are met. The guide has identified five of such conditions.

  • A conducive political and public environment : The political and public environment must value civil society’s contributions.
  • A supportive regulatory framework: The legislation, administrative rules and practice should be conform to international standards and effectively protect civil society activities. This also means that access to justice, to both national and international human rights institutions should be open to everyone, including civil society actors.
  • Free flow of information: For civil society actors to become aware and informed about issues, effectively articulate concerns, engage constructively, and contribute to solutions it is important that they easily have access to good information.
  • Long term support and resources: There is a need for measures to build capacity for marginalized voice and ensure that all civil society advocates have access to resources, meeting place, and technology.
  • Space for dialogue and collaboration: Civil society must have a place in decision-making processes.

In addition to these five conditions the guide states that “a safe and enabling environment for civil society work must be supported by a robust national legal framework, grounded in international human rights law. Freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are rights that enable people to mobilize for positive change”.

This said, whether active at the micro level (locally), or at the macro level ( globally) civil society actors may be confronted to a variety of obstacles. The UN High commissioner for Human Rights’ guide listed three of these obstacles. Laws and regulations (e.g Limiting what types of activities can be done, criminal sanctions for unregistered activities), arbitrary measures (e.g Forced office closures,search and seizures of property), and extra-legal harassment, intimidation and reprisals (e.g. Surveillance, torture, disappearances, and killings).

More interestingly the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ guide also explains how UN human rights mechanisms can protect civil society space. Documentation about human rights situations forms the basis for interventions by UN human rights mechanisms, so civil society advocates are invited to carefully document obstacles and threats to their activities.

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