Birgit Van Hout
Regional Representative for Europe of the UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR)
8 December 2020
Distinguished Member of the European Parliament, Pietro Bartolo,
Dear Co-Presidents of the European Civic Forum, Ms Bolini and Mr Roirant,
Dear civil society representatives,
Friends and colleagues,
Like last year, it is a great honor for me to be invited to the launch of the Civic Space Watch report 2020 “Stories from the lockdown” and to this moving Award Ceremony. I would like to commend the European Civic Forum and its members for a very timely report on both the challenges and contributions of civil society in 2020. Let me start with the latter.
Faced with the covid-19 pandemic, civil society organisations large and small have stepped up to the plate, boosting the capacity of public healthcare institutions, disseminating trustworthy information about the pandemic, and producing and distributing medical supplies. We have seen a surge in volunteerism - often benefitting from associative infrastructures.
As we heard from the various testimonies, civic actors have helped communities in many ways to cope with the impact of the pandemic, often reaching out to those most left behind, like the elderly, persons with disabilities, minorities, the homeless, migrants, refugees and rural communities. Civil society has also sought to respond to psychological and community traumas caused by lockdowns and loneliness. And the cultural sector, despite being very hard hit by the crisis, has supported all of us with online theatre, concerts and discussions. In fact, without the efforts of civil society, the impact of the crisis would have been much worse.
As the world finally came to realize that nobody is safe until everybody is safe, academic institutions and grassroot movements have also been at the forefront of formulating ideas and articulating suggestions to make our societies more resilient, more equal, and stronger.
Indeed, building back better requires a collaborative effort that involves States, civil society, and the private sector. The UN Charter starts with the words “We, the peoples” and in the recovery we need to harness the potential of people from different communities, backgrounds and age groups. Because sustainable change is hardly ever generated top-down and almost always the result of people making change in their communities.
Safe and effective participation channels are key to a more sustainable planet, more sustainable economies that benefit communities, more stable societies, and ultimately the achievement of the Sustainable Development Agenda. This is a good opportunity to recall that in target 16.6 of the Sustainable Development Agenda, all States committed to effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels; and in target 16.7. they committed to ensuring responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels.
An empowered civil society is an essential feature of democracy. People have the right to have a say, and the desire to do so is universal – across different continents and political systems. Rather than being afraid of these movements and voices, they need to be heard, taken seriously, brought to the table and involved in identifying effective responses.
As our Secretary-General said: “Participation in public affairs is a fundamental human right and an underutilized tool for better policy making. It deepens our understanding of issues and helps to identify better solutions. It ensures that concerns are heard, reducing social tension and preventing violence. It leads to a greater sense of ownership and allows more effective implementation. It can be the difference between progress and disarray.”
Colleagues and Friends,
On 10 December, we celebrate International Human Rights Day. And yet, the tide against civic space and civil society is strong – as we could read in the Civic Space Watch report. When civic space is reduced or threatened, this sets in motion a downward spiral, with a profound impact on human rights and society as a whole. We know from the past that when civic space shrinks, this is usually followed by a shift towards authoritarianism, and, ultimately, the erosion of democracy and human rights.
COVID-19 has also highlighted the need to pay more attention to online civic space – the space where more and more people access information, share their opinions, debate and mobilize. Much of the online space is run by private actors and thus viewed through the prisms of market shares and profit – but to what extent does that approach protect freedoms and privacy and amplify a diversity of voices? How to protect the right of people to express themselves, in the face of difficult challenges like disinformation, hate speech, etcetera?
Activists from around the world look to the European Union as a model and a defender of civil society participation. Regrettably, space for civil society is also shrinking in parts of the Union and this risks tarnishing the EU’s image as a beacon of human rights in the world.
There is a danger that, in public discourse, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and civic space become dissociated from one another, when in fact they are so closely interlinked. More than that, when one of them is weakened or undermined, they are all at risk.
This phenomenon is also linked to the pernicious tendency by some to redefine or re-interpret human rights in a manner that thwarts their original meaning. I am thinking for example about the concepts of "gender" or "family values" which come to mean the opposite of their human rights contents, or the organized movement to discredit the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
In an increasingly unfriendly environment for civil society, critical organizations find that Governments’ openness is diminishing. Deprived of access, they are excluded from important policy dialogues, as some human rights organizations and media representatives have reported. This trend already existed before, but with Covid-19, emergency procedures have further reduced opportunities and time for consultation.
States have the primary duty to guarantee an enabling environment for civil society and I would like to commend countries that have made a genuine effort to listen to civil society’s recommendations.
For the European Union and its member States a lot is at stake. Freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and the rule of law are human rights pillars, enshrined in binding treaties ratified by all EU member States.
If we were to witness a regression of space for civil society within Europe, that would certainly risk damaging the credibility of EU countries in the international sphere. To preserve its influence in the international community, it is in the interest of all EU member States to act against shrinking space in the EU, even when it may not be a domestic problem.
The European Parliament has proven to be a strong ally of civil society, with resolutions calling for greater protection of civic space both in- and outside the EU. We welcome that the Justice, Rights and Values Fund in the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) has been beefed up to support EU funding for organizations that are being cut off from national funding streams.
So, what can the UN do?
If you follow our work, you will have heard the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet speak out publicly on situations of concern based on the assessments made by the office. Our office is also responsible for the preparation of the report of the Secretary-General on reprisals for cooperating with the UN on human rights. Regrettably, reprisals are on the rise and constitute a totally inacceptable practice that undermines our work.
The UN Human Rights Council has independent mechanisms, called special procedures, that can receive complaints, raise their concerns with Governments, and carry out country visits. The first ones that come to mind are of course the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and Freedom of Assembly, but other mandate-holders also routinely address the question of civic space. I would like, in this context, to draw attention to the 10 principles by Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and to our publication “Making a Difference” which explains in a user-friendly manner how to engage with the international human rights mechanisms.
Unfortunately, the participation of civil society in international processes, like the Universal Periodic Review, is increasingly contested and certain States would like to see a Code of Conduct for civil society. We are also witnessing an increasing number of so-called “quasi-NGOs” - competing with independent civil society organizations, and often creating an intimidating environment for those wishing to provide testimony to international human rights bodies.
The UN is committed to maintaining and expanding civic space in 3 ways:
- By ensuring inclusive and meaningful civil society participation in UN processes (and, to the extent feasible, complement in-person participation with new technologies);
- By contributing to the protection of civil society actors at risk; and
- By actively supporting inclusive and safe participation in national decision-making processes, and legal frameworks that facilitate debate online and offline and allow civil society to organize and enable a variety of opinions to be voiced.
In closing, I would like to pay tribute to the civil society representatives present today and recognize you for your important contribution to society often insufficiently recognized. I thank you and encourage you. Civic space has suffered under the lockdown, but you have shown remarkable creativity and resilience, even under the most challenging circumstances.
The message of our High Commissioner for Human Rights to all of you is that we are here for you and will stand with you during these challenging times. Thank you.