Statement at Human Rights Council: Threats to civic space

37th Session of the UN Human Rights Council
Oral Statement

Restrictions of civic space and threats to human rights defenders is fast spreading in the Global North as well as the South. From Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, Egypt the threats are similar.

Threats to civic space and human rights defenders

According to the CIVCUS Monitor, in 2017 just only two percent of the world’s population live in a country with ‘open’ civic space. In Africa, only 2 countries are considered to have open civic space, while 52 are rated either as ‘closed’, ‘repressed’, or ‘obstructed’.

  1. Governments are involved in smear campaigns against civil society, seeking to undermine their credibility and legitimacy in the population. The attacks include accusations of being agents of foreign power, interference in political matters, conducting subversive activities and involvement in money laundering.
  2. Access to resources is being restricted in the guise of controlling terror financing and illicit wealth. Under pressure from governments, financial institutions have set intrusive and obstructive requirements for banking by civil society including deposit of donor contracts, work plans among others. In some countries, foreign donations are either banned or limited to percentages that cripple the work of the civil society, that is largely funded by donations.
  3. Regulations are being passed that create burdensome registration requirements, criminalises unregistered and informal forms of organising and giving vague and wide powers to government bodies to deregister civil society groups on such grounds as ‘acting against the interest of the people’. In many cases, these restrictions are intentionally aimed at stifling independent NGOs because they defend minority groups, and allow all sections of society to participate in decision-making.

Reprisal against human rights defenders

Around the continent there are increased reports of reprisal attacks, human rights defenders.

  1. In Uganda, Action Aid International Uganda and three other organisations had their accounts frozen in October 2017 by the government for over three months for leading a campaign against a change in the constitution that would undermine land rights of local communities.

Reliance of civil society and HRDs

The challenges notwithstanding, civil society groups have demonstrated remarkable resilience. As of September 21, 2017, the CIVICUS Monitor had documented 42 reports where this activism led to positive civic space developments.

  1. In Jan of 2018, Mali became the third Africa country after Côte d’Ivoire (June 2014) and Burkina Faso (June 2017) to enact a law on the protection of HRDs.
  2. In South Africa, the High Court, Western Cape Division, Cape Town in case filed by HRD and in which the UN SP FoAA filed an amicus, ruled that the notification provisions of South Africa’s Gatherings Act constitute “illegitimate” restrictions on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly

In light of the above and also in celebrating the unanimous adoption of the GA Resolution on HRDs last November we recommend the Council to:

Recommendation to the Human Rights Council

  • Encourage special procedure mandate holders to support or file cases for litigation in national and regional courts to challenge laws and regulations that threaten civic space and the work of human rights defenders. They can bring their expertise to the assistance of municipal courts.
  • Engage States to grant long term, as opposed to short term mandates, to the UN Human Rights Country offices because they are important in building the capacities of local civil society and the protection of human rights defenders.
  • Document cases of reprisals against human rights defenders and encourage the enactment of HRD laws