The protection of civic space is an essential requirement for achieving the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs
By Maria Victoria Espada – An active, free and well-organized civil society is crucial for a healthy democracy. However, the reduction in civil society’s scope and room for manoeuvre is a global reality. In some cases, this involves stricter registration rules for civil organizations or budget cuts, and in others, restrictions on freedom of assembly and expression that could result in the violent repression of civil society actors.
Through different initiatives, the United Nations (UN) has sought to promote and protect civic space. One of the most recent was the creation of an online global consultation with civil society actors on the ‘United Nation’s Approach to Protecting and Promoting Civic Space‘. This consultation, which took place in January 2020, involved more than 260 civil society actors and organizations from more than 80 countries across the world.
The discussions focused on a series of key questions about the United Nation’s three main roles – in terms of civic space – that should be improved and prioritized: partnership and participation, protection of civil society actors, and the promotion of civic space. The consultation offered participants the opportunity to express and share their views and experiences, resulting in a number of recommendations that the UN will take into account when planning its next strategy for the promotion and protection of civic space.
With regard to improving partnership with civil society actors, channels for participation and access to information, those consulted highlighted the importance of bringing the UN “closer” to the regional, local and community level, in order to reverse their impression of an organization that is impenetrable, elite or selective in its commitment. They also highlighted the need to institutionalize civil society’s accessibility to, and participation in, all intergovernmental processes, while at the same time simplifying bureaucratic procedures – and the need to provide political, technical and financial support to civil society actors. The promotion of face-to-face forums and the use of simple digital platforms in different languages will undoubtedly aid the creation of direct communication channels with civil society and bring about a more inclusive participation. Equally, the establishment of complaints and accountability mechanisms within the UN will ensure that human rights defenders can follow up complaints and applications by civil society.
Regarding the protection of civil society actors, the need was identified to publicly and unequivocally condemn physical and psychological attacks, threats and intimidation against all human right defenders, and to develop a sound policy against harassment in virtual spaces.
Likewise, agreements between the UN, national governmental authorities and civil society that guarantee the latter’s safe participation in any environment must be sought. Undoubtedly, the above measures will jointly contribute to the empowerment and strengthening of civil society’s resilience, particularly in hostile environments.
Regarding the promotion of civic space, the need was reiterated for States to implement and comply with legally binding international standards, including human rights treaties, and to hold citizens accountable. Strengthening the UN’s partnership with other organizations, including parliaments, the academy, businesses and national human rights institutions, will boost civil society participation in national decision-making processes. Likewise, both States and organizations should revise and update their national frameworks to ensure that civil society has total and effective access to the available information and resources. Finally, increasing public awareness and education about human rights, as well as affording greater visibility and recognition to positive civil society contributions, will encourage States to voluntarily develop good practices for the construction and promotion of civic space.
Those organizations and civil society actors consulted agreed that a safe, open and free space, in which the freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly is guaranteed, is essential to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the maintenance of peace and security, humanitarian aid, human rights and the rule of law.
Therefore, it is our responsibility as citizens to contribute as much as we can towards the protection and promotion of civic space and to uphold it, so that its legitimacy is neither reduced nor revoked.