United Nations: UN Rights Chief issues call to protect and expand civic space

Press release published by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 26/05/2023 – accessible here.

We all want to help shape our futures, our communities, and our countries, but it is not possible when we do not have space to speak up and debate different viewpoints safely, noted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk today as he made a clarion call to protect and expand civic space. Civic space is the environment that enables each and everyone to play a role in political, economic, and social life, at all levels, from local to global.

“Civic space is a human rights issue, it is a peace issue, it is a development issue. It is key for sustainable and resilient societies, yet it is under increasing pressure from undue restrictions and repressive laws. From threats and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, online bullying and harassment, crackdowns on peaceful assembly, to internet shutdowns,” said the High Commissioner.

“States must step up efforts to protect and expand civic space as the precondition for people to be able to sustainably enjoy all other entitlements enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from access to health care and clean water and quality education to social protection and labour rights.”

Pressure on civil space continues despite the inspiring commitment of civil society groups, among them human rights defenders, journalists, trade unionists, environmental groups, climate justice advocates, LGBTIQ rights defenders and the feminist movement, youth and anti-racism activists, and migrants’ rights defenders, to addressing the world’s most pressing crises, from growing inequalities to the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution, and biodiversity loss.

“Civil society is a key enabler of trust between governments and the populations they serve and is often the bridge between the two. For governments to reduce barriers to public participation, they must protect this space, for the benefit of all – both online and offline,” said Türk.

“As crucial decisions about our lives are increasingly made online, with private companies playing an outsized role, having an open, safe digital public square has never been more important,” said the High Commissioner. “Yet we see states struggling, and often failing, to protect online civic space and those who use it, swinging between a laissez-faire approach that has allowed violence and dangerous hate speech to go unchecked, and overbroad regulations used as a cudgel against those exercising their free speech rights, including journalists and human rights defenders,” he added.

He called on businesses to step up, by substantially increasing their investment in preventing and responding to online harms, particularly in non-English language environments, stressing that doing business in any location requires making sure you can do so safely, in line with the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

He also thanked civil society for its tireless and invaluable work, describing civic space as the best indicator of a state’s commitment to uphold the noble aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a state truly willing to recognize violations when they occur, and work continuously to better protect human rights. “It is about the key question of whose voices we hear in decision-making – and ultimately, whose rights will be respected.”