UNITED NATIONS: Statement on strengthening civic society participation in the UN

Statement by the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ilze Brands Kehris, published on the OHCHR on 13/09/2023 – accessible here.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Distinguished participants here in New York as well as online participating from all around the world.

Welcome to today’s roundtable on civic space entitled “Enhancing participation through strengthened partnership”. It is part of a series organized by the UN Human Rights Office in New York to mark this year’s 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A roundtable on future generations was held in June this year, with two additional roundtables focusing on peace and security/prevention and inequalities still to come later in the year. These roundtables focus on contemporary human rights issues identified under the Human Rights 75 monthly thematic spotlights and also highlighted by the Secretary-General in his Call to Action for Human Rights and Our Common Agenda. They aim is to stimulate discussion on some of the most pressing global challenges regarding human rights protection and promotion, including climate change as a cross-cutting issue.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ milestone vision of “all human beings born free and equal in dignity and rights” proclaimed in 1948, is as relevant as ever in today’s world marked by conflicts and wars, deepening economic inequalities, humanitarian emergencies, and by what is called the triple planetary crisis.

The UDHR, in its article 21, provides that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country”. This gave life to article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees that “everyone shall have the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs”.

But other than being a fundamental right, let us also recall and reaffirm how meaningful, inclusive, and safe participation by civil society, from the global to local level, is a precondition for achieving development, for ensuring peace and security, and for realizing human rights. And investing in civic space, both online and offline, fosters trust between institutions and people and to build resilience.

Civil society plays a critical bridging role between governments and the populations they serve by bringing the voice, experience and knowledge of diverse communities to the table, including those who usually are least heard, and by drawing attention to critical human rights challenges on the ground.

UN Secretary-General Guterres was clear in his “Our Common Agenda” report that States and international organizations need to listen better to the people in order to build trust. Through the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights and the UN Guidance Note on Protecting and Promoting Civic Space, the UN has committed to stepping up its efforts to ensure safe spaces and inclusive participation, where every voice counts, including in intergovernmental fora and processes.

Yet, current engagement modalities very much differ from one UN process to another and, in many instances, inadequately allow for a safe and enabling environment in which civil society organisations can bring valuable information to the attention of decision-makers. As a result, civil society often faces various challenges ranging from restrictive participation or accreditation procedures over inadequate accessibility of venues, to unequal treatment of specific groups or even intimidation and reprisals linked to their participation at the UN to name just a few areas.

Barriers to effective and meaningful engagement indeed remain, but the different organs and bodies of the UN have also developed positive practices. For instance, the Human Rights Council adopted full online modalities for civil society engagement and continued with hybrid engagement modalities after the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing for an increased diversity of civil society actors, including those who traditionally have not engaged with the Council in the past, to virtually participate in the Council’s proceedings, to organize side events, and to deliver video statements.

In moving forward, we should collectively ensure that the good practices developed in response to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are mainstreamed in a fit-for-purpose United Nations that looks to the future and that we do not return full scale to the old ways of doing things merely out of facility. In this vein, we should collectively strive, for example, to maximise the opportunities for UN meetings and processes provided through digital tools and to do so in a creative way across the digital divide, including by investing in UN digital platforms that are safe; using innovative feedback channels, including on social media, to gather feedback at all stages of processes; revisiting the participation modalities across the spectrum of official UN meetings and sessions through a UN system-wide coherent and integrated approach; and facilitating open, genuine, effective, and meaningful consultations, offline and online, with diverse civil society actors.

Ladies and gentlemen,

For participation of civil society to be an adequate tool to effectively share local knowledge and experience with decision-makers and other stakeholders, we need channels that are accessible for everyone, especially for women, youth, groups at risk of being excluded and those facing multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination. We also need an environment where people can express their views and concerns without fear, especially when critical, and where they can freely assemble and associate, inspire and mobilize others, as well as access information from multiple sources without any hindrance, both online and offline.

Safety and security of people and civil society are indeed key – we will not hear many valuable voices if people do not feel safe when speaking up. Strengthening the prevention of and response to intimidation and reprisals against those seeking to cooperate or cooperating with the United Nations is critical and requires concerted action by Member States, civil society and the UN. On the prevention side, establishing dedicated focal points for civil society engagement and safe channels to share incidents of reprisals is a good start. On the protection side, specific budget lines for urgent protection support and quick referral paths with trusted partners can be instrumental. We must also move towards stronger protection mindsets: for instance, certain formats for participation expose individuals more than others and certain digital security tools can have some protective value – thinking about such steps must become routine in our everyday work.

Distinguished participants,

As we mark 75 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and look at events planned for the year, I should draw attention to the fact that the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Volker Türk , will convene a high-level meeting, at the level of heads of State and Government, in December aimed to act as a catalyst for transformative and positive change in terms of the promotion and protection of human rights. The High Commissioner calls on different players, all stakeholders, to make concrete human rights pledges on the occasion of this year’s celebration. Given the central role of civil society in all the work we do, we hope that this event will inspire forward-looking pledges that can ignite transformative changes for better participation going forward.

For today’s panel, we have brought together several voices of excellence, representing Member States, civil society and UN partners. I hope that in our discussions today, we may identify ideas and practical solutions for creating truly inclusive, non-discriminatory, diverse, and safe participation of civil society in UN processes.

Thank you.”