Role of the United Nations in protecting and promoting civic space

"The UN depends on the active engagement of civil society actors. They are critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and addressing climate change. […] Where parts of civil society are considered a threat, we need a principled mindset and to engage constructively."

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
24 February 2020

UN entities, at the global, regional and national levels, have long been working in partnership with civil society to implement programmes and projects, e.g. to deliver life-saving services, to support mediation and post-conflict activities, to monitor political and social developments.

The UN has also sought to promote and protect civic space in a multitude of ways, e.g. through rule of law programming, capacity development, advocacy in support of open space, including through the work of UN human rights bodies and mechanisms. The UN therefore committed to enhancing internal coordination with a view to engaging more strategically to promote and protect civic space.

OHCHR, together with UN Women, has been leading the resulting UN initiative to take  promotion and protection of civic space and civil society to the next level. As part of this initiative, in January 2020, OHCHR and UN Women co-organized a global online consultation with civil society. Please see the consultations summary.

Civic space and the UN Secretary General's call to action for human rights

On 24 February 2020, the Secretary-General launched "The Highest Aspiration: A Call to Action for Human Rights", on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

The Call identifies civic space and participation as one of the key domains where action is needed and stresses that society is stronger and more resilient when women and men can play a meaningful role in political, economic and social life, contributing to policy-making that affects their lives, including by accessing information, engaging in dialogue, expressing dissent and joining together to express their views.

But in too many places, open space for this participation is under threat, from repressive laws and, increased restrictions on the work of journalists and human rights defenders, especially women. New technologies have helped civil society networks to grow, but they have also given authorities excuses to control civil society movements and curtail media freedoms, often under security pretexts. Shrinking of civic space is frequently a prelude to a more general deterioration in human rights.

The SG’s Call to Action for human rights identifies “public participation and civic space” as a priority area and commits to a number of action points, including to:

  • increase UN support and strengthen UN tools to empower civil society, protect civic space and encourage participation by all groups in democratic processes and promote laws and policies to that effect;
  • ensure that Resident Coordinators, UN Country Teams and heads of United Nations peace operations, in partnership with civil society organizations, contribute to an enabling environment for civic space; and
  • support more systematic participation of civil society in United Nations bodies and agencies, with special attention to women’s rights organizations and young people.

Civic space also permeates all other areas in the Call, as it refers to engagement with, and support to, Member States on creating avenues for civil society participation; increased support at field level for the development of protection mechanisms for human rights defenders; more regular participation of and consultations with diverse women’s human rights organizations and creating space for young people to participate in shaping the decisions that will affect their future; and applying the human rights framework to the digital space.

United Nations Guidance Note on Protection and Promotion of Civic Space

In September 2020, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, the United Nations adopted a Guidance Note on Protecting and Promoting Civic Space. The Guidance Note recognizes civic space as a threshold issue to successful implementation of all three pillars of the United Nations and, building on the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, commits the United Nations system to take concrete steps in protecting and promoting civic space at the global and country levels.

Open civic space will result in a variety of better outcomes

The Guidance Note defines civic space as the environment that enables people and groups to participate meaningfully, online and offline, in the political, economic, social and cultural life of their societies, within which people express their views freely and without fear, assemble peacefully, associate and engage in decision-making processes in relation to issues that affect their lives. The Guidance Note focuses on "3 Ps" of civic space:

  • Participation: Ensure inclusive, diverse, safe, independent and meaningful civil society participation in decision-making in line with the 2030 Agenda's. Advocate for inclusive, safe and meaningful civil society participation in UN intergovernmental processes.
  • Protection: Contribute to protection of civil society actors at risk (including from intimidation and reprisals for cooperating with the UN).
  • Promotion: Actively promote an open civic space, including legal and policy frameworks that facilitate debate online and offline and allow civil society to organize freely.

Please see the full 

UN Guidance Note
UN Guidance Note

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Executive Summary
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As part of public outreach and promotion of the new Guidance Note, OHCHR and UN-Women co-organized a virtual panel discussion, The UN and Civic Space: Strengthening Participation, Protection and Promotion, on Friday, 4 December 2020. The panel discussion featured civil society and UN representatives, and focused on the UN's role to promote and protect civic space under the Secretary General's Call to Action for Human Rights and the UN Guidance Note on Civic Space. Watch the recording of the event here on YouTube.