United Nations

 

  • #UN75: ‘The UN cannot afford to miss opportunities for civil society engagement’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to Angie Pankhania, Acting Executive Director of the United Nations Association – UK (UNA-UK). Founded in 1945, UNA-UK is devoted to building support, both political and financial, for the United Nations among policy-makers, opinion-formers and the public. Its actions are based on the belief that a strong, credible and effective UN is essential to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world.

    Angie Pankhania

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    The UN was set up primarily to prevent another world war. This, by far, is the UN’s biggest success in its 75-year history and in doing so the UN has saved millions of lives, and also helped humanity progress in so many other ways, such as by fostering technical advancement it has achieved economic prosperity and advances in health in addition to reducing world poverty and preserving everyone’s basic human rights.

    Beyond that, the UN makes positive differences every day, from the UN Mine Action Services clearing thousands of landmines every year to the dozens of war criminals who have been brought to justice through UN processes – including, in 2019, Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda – to the thousands of people the UN feeds and houses every day, and the most important – but least measurable –  work of providing a forum for the nations of the world to resolve their differences diplomatically rather than resorting to wars.

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    At a time of global uncertainty, the UN is needed now more than ever. Public support for the UN is vital if our ambitions for a better, more sustainable and fairer world are to be realised. The UN must do all it can to protect civil society space, both inside and outside the UN. Determined work here will not only help strengthen public understanding and support for the UN but also motivate individuals, society and businesses to play their part to help us collectively take action to avert global challenges such as climate crisis, protection of everyone’s human rights, end poverty and hold our world leaders to account. For these reasons, the UN cannot afford to miss opportunities to strengthen engagement with civil society.

    There are several civil society initiatives focused on strengthening citizen engagement. Among them is Together First, a campaign led by a coalition of over 150 civil society organisations, launched in 2018. It is a fast-growing movement of global citizens, experts, practitioners, civil society activists and business leaders from all regions of the world. The campaign calls for ideas on global governance reform and brings new voices to the decision-making table. Those ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions will be taken forward with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges. UNA-UK provides the secretariat for Together First.

    What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and how did you overcome them?

    The main challenge is always that the UN is a collection of individuals representing member states, and some of those states don't always have the greater good at the heart of their actions. This is often the bottleneck when it comes to solving some of the world’s problems and it is important to bear this in mind when communicating why the UN can sometimes be seen to underperform. The famous US ambassador Richard Holbrooke once said that blaming the UN itself when it fails is like blaming the stadium when a sports team loses.

    As for the staff who keep the organisation running: we generally find them to be hardworking, diligent and idealistic – doing wonderful work, day after day, despite near-impossible demands and woefully insufficient resources. But of course, it's not without its frustrations. We've come across situations such as parts of the UN contacting us because they want to get in touch with other parts of the UN and don't know how, or UN staff acting in an entitled manner. And of course, in our campaigning work we've come across very serious issues, particularly the problem of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, which is the subject of our ongoing Mission Justice campaign.

    These issues cannot be downplayed, but nor must they obscure the good work that the UN does, particularly at a time when multilateralism is very much under threat as a result of the dissemination of a sceptical political culture. But as a critical friend to the UN, we feel that the best way we can help the UN is not to sweep these issues under the carpet, but to help them resolve the underlying problems. We do feel that the UN needs to change – in its recruitment processes, in its accountability mechanisms, in its diversity, in how it measures and rewards success and above all in how it involves civil society. Our Together First Campaign aims to take forward ideas that offer the most promising realistic and implementable solutions for change with the hope of transforming how the world reacts to global challenges.

    Get in touch with UNA-UK through itswebsite andFacebook page,follow@UNAUK on Twitter, and get involved in theTogether First campaign.

     

  • Lettre conjointe sur la surveillance des droits de l'homme des Nations Unies au Burundi

    À l’attention des Représentants permanents des États Membres et Observateurs du Conseil des droits de l’homme des Nations Unies, Genève (Suisse) 

    Le 21 août 2020

    Burundi : le rôle vital de la Commission d’enquête dans l’optique de progrès concrets en matière de droits humains 

    Madame, Monsieur le Représentant permanent, 

    En amont de la 45ème session du Conseil des droits de l’homme de l’ONU (ci-après « le CDH » ou « le Conseil »), nous, organisations nationales, régionales et internationales de la société civile, vous écrivons afin d’exhorter votre délégation à soutenir le renouvellement du mandat de la Commission d’enquête (CoI, selon l’acronyme anglais, largement utilisé) sur le Burundi. Ce renouvellement, ancré dans les investissements consentis à ce jour dans et par la CoI et dans le contexte des développements politiques récents, fournirait la meilleure occasion de provoquer des progrès concrets en matière de droits humains au Burundi. 

    À ce jour, la CoI demeure le seul mécanisme indépendant ayant pour mandat de documenter les violations des droits humains (y compris sur leur étendue et sur le point de savoir si elles constituent des crimes de droit international), de suivre et de faire rapport publiquement sur la situation au Burundi, et doté par ailleurs de ressources et d’expérience suffisantes pour le faire. Des réalités politiques mouvantes n’équivalent pas à des changements systémiques en matière de droits humains. Le Conseil conserve une responsabilité de soutenir les victimes et les survivants des violations et d’œuvrer à améliorer la situation au Burundi. 

    Dans le passé, un Expert indépendant ou d’autres experts mandatés pour faire rapport sur la situation des droits humains au Burundi n’ont pas été en mesure de publier des informations atteignant le même niveau de précision que la CoI, qui dispose de contacts dans le pays et d’une équipe d’enquêteurs dévoués et expérimentés. Ceci est d’autant plus vital à cause de l’intransigeance du Gouvernement burundais, de l’absence de personnel onusien en charge des droits humains dans le pays, et du manque d’accès physique au territoire burundais. 

    Le travail mené par la CoI, qui doit présenter son rapport écrit au Conseil lors de sa 45ème session (14 septembre-6 octobre 2020), continue de fournir un aperçu vital de la situation des droits humains au Burundi. La crise que connaît le pays a été déclenchée par l’annonce du Président Pierre Nkurunziza, en avril 2015, de son intention de solliciter un troisième mandat. Au fil des années, la CoI et sa prédécesseure, l’Enquête indépendante des Nations Unies sur le Burundi (EINUB), ont mis en lumière des violations et atteintes flagrantes, généralisées et systématiques aux droits humains, dont certaines pourraient être constitutives de crimes contre l’humanité. 

    Le Gouvernement, les services de sécurité étatiques, y compris la police et le Service national de renseignement (SNR), et les membres des Imbonerakure, la ligue des jeunes du parti au pouvoir (le Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD)), sont responsables de la plupart des violations. Au cours de son travail, la CoI a documenté des violations des droits civils, politiques, économiques, sociaux et culturels dans un contexte de détérioration économique et humanitaire. Les violations et atteintes constatées comprennent des arrestations et détentions arbitraires de prisonniers d’opinion et de ceux perçus comme étant opposés au Gouvernement, des passages à tabac, des atteintes aux biens, notamment la vandalisation de locaux du parti Congrès National pour la Liberté (CNL) et l’usurpation des biens appartenant à des membres de partis d’opposition et à des défenseur-e-s des droits humains (DDH) en exil, ainsi que des mesures arbitraires de suspension et de radiation d’associations et de médias indépendants. Les violations comprennent également des actes de torture et de mauvais traitements, l’usage excessif et parfois létal de la force à l’encontre de manifestants pacifiques, des disparitions forcées, des violations des droits des femmes et des filles, le viol et d’autres formes de violences sexuelles et basées sur le genre, le travail forcé, l’extorsion de contributions en faveur de projets étatiques, les discours de haine et d’incitation à la haine inter-ethnique (qui se poursuivent dans un contexte d’acquiescence des autorités politiques et judiciaires, dont le Parquet), ainsi que des exécutions extrajudiciaires. 

    De telles violations continuent d’être perpétrées dans un contexte d’impunité quasi-totale. À ce jour, aucun responsable de haut-niveau n’a été tenu pour responsable. Plusieurs centaines de prisonniers d’opinion ayant purgé la totalité de leur peine ou dont la libération a été ordonnée demeurent arbitrairement détenus, en dépit, pour certains d’entre eux, d’avis rendus par le Groupe de travail des Nations Unies sur la détention arbitraire (GTDA). Les victimes et survivant-e-s d’actes de violences sexuelles se voient refuser l’accès à un cadre spécialisé de traitement médico-psychologique et de réhabilitation. En outre, ces derniers mois ont été témoins d’une augmentation des discours de haine ethnique visant à déshumaniser une partie de la population (les Tutsis), notamment par des individus proches du pouvoir. 

    Les membres et soutiens de partis politiques d’opposition, en particulier le CNL, ainsi que des voix indépendantes, notamment des membres de la société civile, des DDH, des membres d’organisations non gouvernementales (ONG) et des journalistes, ont été pris pour cibles. Depuis avril 2015, l’espace civique et démocratique s’est rétréci de façon continue. Au moment où cette lettre est rédigée, en dépit d’appels au nouveau Président, Évariste Ndayishimiye, à démontrer son ouverture à la réconciliation en libérant les DDH détenus, Germain Rukuki, Nestor Nibitanga et les reporters du groupe Iwacu, Egide Harerimana, Christine Kamikazi, Terence Mpozenzi et Agnès Ndirubusa, demeurent en détention. 

    Le Gouvernement burundais a cessé de coopérer avec les mécanismes du Conseil, notamment en déclarant, en 2016, les membres de l’EINUB personæ non gratæet en forçant, en février 2019, le Bureau de la Haute-Commissaire de l’ONU aux droits de l’homme (HCDH) à quitter le pays. Nonobstant sa qualité de membre du Conseil (2016-2018), le Burundi a refusé de mettre en œuvre les résolutions de ce dernier, y compris la résolution CDH 36/2, adoptée à l’initiative du Burundi lui-même et avec le parrainage du groupe africain. En outre, les responsables burundais ont régulièrement insulté et menacé les membres de la CoI et ont exercé des représailles envers les DDH exilés, notamment des avocats et des activistes ayant cherché à interagir avec le système onusien de protection des droits humains. Le Gouvernement a coopéré de manière inadéquate avec les mécanismes régionaux. Les observateurs de l’Union africaine (UA), qui n’ont pas été pleinement déployés, continuent à faire face à un certain nombre de restrictions à leur travail. Contrairement à la CoI, leurs conclusions ne sont pas rendues publiques. Le Burundi a ignoré les résolutions adoptées par la Commission africaine des droits de l’homme et des peuples (CADHP), notamment la Résolution 412 (LXIII) 2018, qui exhortait le Gouvernement à « [m]ener dans les plus brefs délais, des enquêtes indépendantes, impartiales et efficaces » sur les violations alléguées et à « [c]oopérer avec toutes les parties prenantes au niveau de la Communauté Internationale ; y compris l’Union Africaine, les Nations Unies et la Communauté de l’Afrique de l’Est dans la recherche d’une solution pacifique et respectueuse des droits de l’homme pour régler la crise burundaise ». 

    S’appuyant sur des méthodologies de documentation indépendantes, approfondies et professionnelles, en dépit de son manque d’accès au territoire du pays, la CoI continue de faire la lumière sur les violations. En 2019, conformément aux principes d’alerte précoce et de prévention, s’appuyant sur le Cadre d’analyse des atrocités criminelles développé par le Bureau onusien de la prévention du génocide et de la responsabilité de protéger, la Commission a identifié plusieurs facteurs et indicateurs de risque des violations. Si certains des facteurs que la Commission a identifiés sont relatifs à des circonstances spécifiques (telles que des élections), de nombreux autres revêtent un caractère structurel. Cela signifie qu’au-delà de l’arrivée de nouveaux responsables politiques, des changements systémiques doivent être apportés et des réformes profondes conduites afin de parvenir à des améliorations durables de la situation et à des garanties effectives des droits des citoyens burundais.  

    À la suite des élections présidentielle, législative et locale du 20 mai 2020 ayant mené à l’élection d’un nouveau président, Évariste Ndayishimiye, et du décès de l’ancien Président Nkurunziza, le Burundi se trouve dans une période de transition potentielle. Au moment où ces lignes sont rédigées et dans ce contexte précis, il existe à la fois des signes d’espoir et d’inquiétude sérieuse. 

    En dépit de remarques encourageantes que le Président Ndayishimiye a formulées lors de sa prestation de serment, ainsi que de la nouvelle approche des autorités, empreinte de davantage de transparence, quant à la lutte contre l’épidémie de COVID-19, les observateurs ont aussi soulevé des inquiétudes ayant trait notamment au fait que plusieurs membres dernièrement nommés de l’administration Ndayishimiye font l’objet de sanctions individuelles internationales en raison de leur responsabilité présumée pour des violations des droits humains. Toutefois, la transition politique représente une occasion d’ouvrir un nouveau chapitre pour le peuple burundais et pour la relation du Burundi avec le système onusien de protection des droits humains. 

    Malgré le fait que les élections de mai 2020 et leurs suites immédiates n’ont pas été marquées par des violences de masse, les inquiétudes et signaux d’alerte demeurent. Des actes d’intimidation à grande échelle et des violations récurrentes à l’encontre de membres et de soutiens de l’opposition, ainsi que l’arrestation de centaines de militants du CNL, contribuent à la persistance d’un climat de peur. Comme la CoI en a fait état lors de sa mise à jour au Conseil, le 14 juillet dernier, « [d]es violations des droits de l’homme se sont poursuivies jusqu’à présent et il serait prématuré de se prononcer sur la possible évolution de la situation avec les nouvelles autorités ». 

    Dans son adresse du 14 juillet, la CoI a identifié certains « domaines prioritaires d’action à l’aune desquels les nouvelles autorités pourraient attester de leur volonté de changement et de normalisation sur le long terme […] ». Ces domaines d’action comprennent :  

    • La lutte contre la pauvreté et l’instabilité économique (facteur de risque n° 1).
    • La lutte contre l’impunité de facto dont bénéficient les principaux auteurs de violations des droits de l’homme (facteur de risque n° 2) et la réforme du système judiciaire (facteur de risque n° 3). Il est de notre avis que les actions pertinentes incluent : 
      • La mise en retrait immédiate des responsables qui ont de manière crédible été impliqués dans de graves atteintes aux droits humains et de possibles atrocités criminelles, dans l’attente d’enquêtes approfondies et impartiales. Là où il existe suffisamment de preuves admissibles devant la justice, les individus dont la responsabilité pénale est susceptible d’être engagée devraient être poursuivis quels que soient leur rang, statut ou appartenance politique, dans le cadre de procès équitables. Les victimes, les survivants et les membres de leurs familles devraient être en mesure d’accéder à la justice et à la vérité et d’obtenir réparation ; 
      • Des réformes complètes des forces de police et de sécurité, qui comprennent le fait de mettre un terme aux violations commises par la Force de défense nationale, les organes chargés du maintien de l’ordre, le SNR et les Imbonerakure et de s’assurer que la ligue de jeunes du parti au pouvoir soit désarmée et ne soit pas utilisée pour des fonctions officielles visant à la sécurité de l’État ou fonctions similaires. Les forces militaires, de sécurité et de maintien de l’ordre devraient entreprendre un processus approfondi de vetting, avec une assistance régionale ou internationale, afin de démettre les personnes ayant participé à des violations des droits humains. 
    • La réouverture de l’espace démocratique (facteur de risque n° 4). Nous pensons que les efforts pertinents incluent notamment : 
      • L’établissement et le maintien d’un environnement sûr et habilitant pour les DDH, les membres de la société civile, les journalistes et les membres et soutiens de l’opposition. Un espace civique ouvert repose notamment sur la libération de tous les prisonniers d’opinion, y compris les DDH et journalistes détenus ; la fin des ingérences politiques dans le système judiciaire ; la protection complète des droits à la liberté d’expression, de réunion pacifique et d’association ; et la réhabilitation et le plein respect des droits des organisations de la société civile et organes de presse interdits ; 
      • Des progrès mesurables devraient également être enregistrés, permettant un retour sûr, volontaire et dans des conditions respectueuses de la dignité humaine de plus de 300.000 réfugiés, qui comprennent notamment des réfugiés politiques qui ont été contraints à fuir le pays afin d’éviter d’être soumis au harcèlement. 
    • La coopération avec la Commission d’enquête. De façon plus générale, nous exhortons à :  
      • Une pleine coopération avec les organes et mécanismes internationaux et africains de protection des droits humains, incluant la coopération avec la CoI (en lui permettant un accès au pays), la reprise de la coopération avec le HCDH et la finalisation d’un mémorandum d’entente avec la mission d’observation des droits de l’homme de l’UA. Les ONG régionales et internationales devraient pouvoir fonctionner sans ingérence, en ayant accès au pays. Le Burundi devrait sans délai accéder à nouveau au Statut de Rome de la Cour pénale internationale (CPI) et coopérer pleinement avec la Cour. 

    Nous nous féliciterions d’améliorations concrètes de la situation des droits humains au Burundi. Nous sommes convaincus que la meilleure chance de parvenir à ces avancées est incarnée par le renouvellement du mandat de la Commission d’enquête, ainsi que par un dialogue renouvelé des autorités burundaises avec la CoI, le HCDH et les autres organes et mécanismes de protection des droits humains de l’ONU et de l’UA. Par un tel dialogue, les autorités burundaises indiqueraient de façon claire et résolue qu’une autre voie que le contexte actuel de violations et d’impunité généralisée est possible. Pour cela, des progrès doivent pouvoir être mesurés en relation avec des indicateurs clefs tels que ceux référencés ci-dessus.  

    Lors de la 45ème session, le Conseil devrait éviter d’envoyer au Gouvernement burundais des signaux décourageant des réformes nationales en faveur de la protection des droits humains – ainsi de la discontinuation du mandat de la CoI en l’absence de progrès mesurables. Il devrait éviter un scénario dans lequel le ré-établissement du mandat de la CoI serait nécessaire après une interruption prématurée, en raison d’une nouvelle escalade des violations et atteintes aux droits humains. Au contraire, le Conseil devrait s’assurer de la poursuite des enquêtes, du suivi de la situation, de la présentation de rapports publics et de la tenue de débats sur la situation des droits humains au Burundi. 

    Nous vous remercions de l’attention que vous porterez à ces préoccupations et nous tenons prêts à fournir à votre délégation toute information supplémentaire. Nous vous prions de croire, Madame, Monsieur le Représentant permanent, en l’assurance de notre haute considération.

    1. Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture – Burundi (ACAT-Burundi)
    2. African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS) 
    3. AfricanDefenders (Réseau panafricain des défenseurs des droits de l’homme)
    4. Amnesty International 
    5. ARTICLE 19 
    6. Association burundaise pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues (APRODH)
    7. Association des Journalistes Burundais en Exil (AJBE) 
    8. Centre africain pour la démocratie et les études des droits de l’Homme (ACDHRS) 
    9. Centre pour les droits civils et politiques (Centre CCPR)
    10. CIVICUS 
    11. Coalition burundaise pour la Cour pénale internationale (CB-CPI)
    12. Coalition burundaise des défenseurs des droits de l’homme (CBDDH)
    13. Collectif des avocats pour la défense des victimes de crimes de droit international commis au Burundi (CAVIB)
    14. Commission internationale de juristes (CIJ) 
    15. Coalition de la société civile pour le monitoring électoral (COSOME)
    16. DefendDefenders (Projet des défenseurs des droits humains de l’Est et de la Corne de l’Afrique)
    17. Fédération internationale des droits de l’Homme (FIDH)
    18. Fédération internationale des ACAT (FIACAT)
    19. Front Line Defenders
    20. Genève pour les Droits de l’Homme / Geneva for Human Rights 
    21. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P)
    22. Human Rights Watch 
    23. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada 
    24. L'Initiative pour les droits humains au Burundi (IDHB)
    25. Institut du Caire pour l’étude des droits de l’Homme (CIHRS) 
    26. Light For All 
    27. Ligue Iteka
    28. Mouvement érythréen pour la démocratie et les droits humains (EMDHR) 
    29. Mouvement des femmes et des filles pour la paix et la sécurité (MFFPS)
    30. Mouvement international contre toutes les formes de discrimination et de racisme (IMADR) 
    31. Observatoire de la lutte contre la corruption et les malversations économiques (OLUCOME) 
    32. Odhikar 
    33. Organisation mondiale contre la torture (OMCT) 
    34. Organisation pour la transparence et la gouvernance (OTRAG) 
    35. Réseau des citoyens probes (RCP)
    36. Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique australe (SAHRDN) 
    37. Réseau des défenseurs des droits humains en Afrique centrale (REDHAC) 
    38. Réseau européen pour l'Afrique centrale (EurAc) 
    39. Réseau ouest-africain des défenseurs des droits humains (ROADDH/WAHRDN) 
    40. Service international pour les droits de l’Homme (SIDH)
    41. SOS-Torture/Burundi
    42. TRIAL International
    43. Union burundaise des journalistes (UBJ)

     

  • ‘Even the most progressive UN agencies have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture; fortunately, there are precedents of the UN tackling this kind of challenge’

    As the2017 State of Civil Society Report identified, private sector influence on international governance is an increasing civil society concern. CIVICUS speaks on this issue withThea Gelbspan, Membership and Solidarity Director atESCR-Net – the International Network for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.ESCR-Net is acollaborative initiative of groups- grassroots organisations, social movements, civil society organisations and academic centres -as well as individuals from around the world working to secure economic and social justice through human rights.With over 280 members in 75 countries,ESCR-Net seeks to strengthen all human rights,with an emphasis on economic, social and cultural rights, and further develop the tools for achieving their promotion, protection and fulfilment.ESCR-Net members engage in mutual learning and exchange, deepen solidarity, enter into collaborations and join collective work in efforts to build a global movement to make human rights and social justice a reality for all.

    1. What are the current major trends in private sector partnerships with the United Nations system, particularly with regards to Agenda 2030?

    All agencies and offices of the United Nations (UN) are subject to frameworks that the UN system adopts and operates under, including the last of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), SDG 17, to revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development. That goal clearly states that its “sustainable development agenda requires partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society.” Moreover, it cites an urgent need for action to “unlock the transformative power of trillions of dollars of private resources.” Through Goal 17, the UN system has, regrettably, enshrined a mandate for its various agencies and operations to explore partnerships with companies and private investors. The UN Secretary-General's Guidelines for a Principle-Based Approach to Cooperation between the United Nations and the Business Sector, adopted in 2000, also detail the UN’s internal rules and procedures and have provided further guidance that directs this trend.

    In the face of these developments, ESCR-Net members have expressed a growing concern about what they have termed the corporate capture of UN processes and institutions. Corporate capture refers to the means by which an economic elite undermines the realisation of our human rights and our environment by exerting undue influence over decision-makers and public institutions, in domestic and international spheres. Softening regulations, weakening regulatory powers, bankrolling elections, utilising state security services against local communities, causing judicial interference and implementing revolving-door employment practices are just some of the instances of corporate capture that ESCR-Net members have tracked.

    We are concerned that even the most progressive UN agencies and offices have become vulnerable to the threat of corporate capture. For example, on 16 May 2017 the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced a new five-year partnership with Microsoft, consisting of a US$5 million grant, plus a commitment of pro-bono assistance to the OHCHR. After an exchange between the ESCR-Net Secretariat and the OHCHR, on 17 October 2017 the members of ESCR-Net’s Corporate Accountability Working Group sent a letter to raise concern regarding the actual or perceived effect that this partnership will have on the OHCHR’s independence.

    2. What do you think is motivating partnerships, both from the private sector and UN viewpoints?

    The UN Charter establishes that its member states are fiscally responsible for UN activity expenses(Chapter IV, article 17.2).Yet, as many UN member states fail to fulfil their obligations in terms of member dues and the overall financing of agreed-upon priority activities, a worrying gap has emerged that the private sector is now seeking to fill. Similarly, in the face of a substantial crisis in terms of public development financing, we have witnessed the whole-hearted embrace of public-private partnerships across the UN system, with a notable deficit in terms of critical assessments of this model.

    3. What are the implications of this on the space for civil society participation at the international and local levels?

    Human rights defenders (HRDs) play a critical role in identifying, mitigating, exposing and ensuring accountability for the adverse human rights and environmental impacts associated with some corporate activity and development projects. Yet all too often, governments have criminalised legitimate activity to defend and promote human rights and corporate accountability. We have witnessed a series of attacks, harassment, restrictions, intimidation, reprisals (including arbitrary arrest and detention), disappearances, judicial harassment, torture and killings of HRDs confronting human rights abuses that derive from private sector activity. Too often the application of restrictive or vague laws - such as those relating to national security, counter-terrorism, and defamation - inhibit the work of HRDs at the behest of private sector interests. Business actors also have been known to interfere with access to information and communication, financial freedom and trade union activities undertaken by HRDs.

    Unfortunately, as the UN system has forged more and more partnerships with private sector interests, the ability of its human rights mechanisms to uphold universally recognised standards effectively with actors who do not believe that such standards apply to them could be compromised, as could the system’s ability to provide protection for HRDs at risk.

    To counter these trends, ESCR-Net members have called on states to recognise and support the leadership and contributions made by communities affected by business-related abuses and generate sustainable economic and development models that align with human rights and minimise environmental impacts. In order to create an enabling environment for the defence of economic, social and cultural rights, states must mandate human rights and environmental due diligence, including project assessment, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and ensure the rights of people affected, or potentially affected, by corporate activity to participate actively, freely and meaningfully in those processes.

    4. What can be done in the face of these challenges?

    I think that a challenge of this magnitude truly requires collective efforts - across borders and regions - to confront these trends and elevate alternative approaches to advancing sustainable development that promote an environment that is friendly to human rights and those who defend those rights.

    This model of work can prove to be quite effective. For example, the ESCR-Net Corporate Accountability Working Group (CAWG) was central to the advocacy that led to the UN Human Rights Council’s creation of an Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises(IGWG) to begin drafting a binding treaty on transnational corporations and human rights. As part of this work, CAWG participants in three regional consultations and strategy meetings repeatedly raised the issue of corporate capture, as well as the possibility of using the UN process, and the international attention it attracts, to confront this trend at the national level.

    Now, as the negotiations within the IGWG have progressed, ESCR-Net members are calling attention to the risk of corporate capture of the binding treaty process itself and advocating for clear lines to be respected in terms of private sector participation.

    This is not the first time the UN system has grappled with the threat of undue influence that corporations or industry sectors may exert over the very treaties or bodies that are supposed to regulate corporate practices. The World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control contains an explicit recognition that establishes the tobacco industry’s irreconcilable conflict of interest in public health matters. Its article 5.3 states: “In setting and implementing their public health policies with respect to tobacco control, Parties shall act to protect these policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry in accordance with national law.” Accordingly, precedents exist. We can insist on clear lines that keep private sector interests out of spaces that are not appropriate for their participation.

    In any accord, human rights are clear, universally accepted and non-negotiable standards that imply clear obligations for states and, progressively, responsibilities for non-state actors including those from the private sector. ESCR-Net understands human rights to transcend the UN system and the purview of law, being derived, essentially, from long legacies of struggles by social movements and communities for a life of dignity. We must stand together to support these values that we share, in the face of ongoing efforts to turn public affairs over to market forces. Together with CIVICUS and other important civil society networks, ESCR-Net envisions a world where all people can enjoy human rights and social justice.

    Get in touch with ESCR-Net through their websiteor Facebookpage, or follow @ESCRNet on Twitter.

     

  • ‘In response to anti-right narratives, we need to support one another in all of our diversity’

    Sahar MoazamiAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to Sahar Moazami, OutRight Action International’s United Nations Program Officer. Sahar is trained as a lawyer specialising in international human rights law. Primarily based in the USA, OutRight has staff in six countries and works alongside LGBTQI people across four continents to defend and advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world. Founded in 1990 as the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, it changed its name in 2015 to reflect its commitment to advancing the human rights of all LGBTQI people. It is the only LGBTQI civil society organisation with a permanent advocacy presence at the United Nations Headquarters in New York.

    OutRight is unique in that it has a permanent presence at the United Nations (UN). Can you tell us what kind of work you do at the UN, and how this work helps advance the human rights of LGBTQI people around the world?

    OutRight is indeed uniquely placed. We are the only LGBTQI-focused and LGBTQI-led organisation with UN ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council accreditation) status focusing on the UN in New York. Prior to 2015, when we formalised the programme as it exists today, we would do UN work, but with a focus on human rights mechanisms in Geneva and a more ad-hoc participation in New York, such as making submissions on LGBTQI issues to human rights treaty bodies with civil society partners in specific countries or bringing speakers to sessions and interactive dialogues.

    In 2015 we reviewed our strategic plan and realised that we were uniquely placed: we are based in New York, we are the only LGBTQI organisation here with ECOSOC status, there are a number of UN bodies here in New York, and there is a bit of a gap in LGTBQI presence. So we decided to shift our focus, also taking into consideration that we work with a lot of great colleagues overseas, like ILGA (the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), which is permanently based and has staff in Geneva, or COC Netherlands, which has easier access than us to Geneva mechanisms. So it made sense, given that we had great colleagues working in Geneva and we were the only ones based here, to try and make sure we were using our resources constructively and thus covering all spaces. As a result, we now focus specifically on the UN in New York, which is quite an interesting landscape.

    While there are 47 states at a time that are actively engaged with the Human Rights Council in Geneva, all states that are UN members have a permanent presence in New York, throughout the year. This creates an opportunity for continuous engagement. We are part of an informal working group, the UN LGBTI Core Group, which includes 28 UN member states, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch, alongside OutRight Action International. This group provides the space to do LGBTQI advocacy throughout the year and gives us direct access to the 28 member states involved. We work in the UN LGBTI Core Group to identity and take advantage of opportunities for promoting LGBTQI inclusivity and convene events to increase visibility. While we also engage with other states, the Core Group provides a specific space for the work that we do.

    In addition to year-round engagement with member states, there are a number of sessions that are of particular interest: the UN General Assembly, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March and the High-Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Developments Goals in July. In all of these forums we provide technical guidance to UN member states on using inclusive language in resolutions and outcome documents and we host events with Core Group and non-Core Group member states relevant to topics and themes discussed in these forums, with the aim of increasing LGBTQI visibility and inclusion. Throughout the year we also work on the Security Council, as members of the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security.

    Every December we hold our own flagship programme, in which we support between 30 and 40 activists from all around the world to come and undergo training on UN mechanisms in New York, and take part in numerous meetings with UN officials and bodies, and member states.

    The impact that our work has on people’s lives depends on our ability to leverage the status that we have to open doors. We use the access we have via our ECOSOC status to get our partners into spaces otherwise not available to them and to support them in their advocacy once they are there. So many things happen at the UN that have an impact on our lives, yet it is a system that is difficult to explain. It is easier to show activists the various UN mechanisms, how they work and how activists can use them to further their work.

    Being able to open spaces, bringing information and perspectives into the conversation and then getting the information that we are able to gather back to our partners on the ground so they can use it in their advocacy – that is what I am most proud of in terms of the real impact of our work on people’s lives.

    Over the past decade there have been sizeable advances in recognition of the human rights of LGBTQI people. Have you experienced backlash from anti-rights groups that oppose these gains?

    I think we are seeing significant progress. Over the past year, a number of countries passed or began to implement laws that recognise diverse gender identities and expand the rights of transgender people, remove bans against same-sex relations and recognise equal marriage rights to all people regardless of gender or sexual orientation. At the same time, and maybe in reaction to these gains, we are experiencing backlash. We are witnessing the rise of right-wing nationalism and anti-gender movements targeting gender equality and advocating for the exclusion of LGBTQI people and extreme restrictions on sexual and reproductive health and rights. This has led to a rise in queerphobic, and especially transphobic, rhetoric coming from political actors and, in some cases, attempts to roll back progress made to recognise the diversity of gender identities.

    The CSW is a good example of a space that has undergone regression, particularly regarding the rights of LGBTQI people. What we saw during its latest session, in March 2019, was a very vocal and targeted attack against trans individuals. The anti-gender narrative was present in side events that were hosted by states and civil society groups both at the UN and outside the UN.

    Do you think these groups are part of a new, more aggressive generation of anti-rights groups? Are they different in any way from the conservative groups of the past?

    I wouldn’t say they are so new, and they certainly did not come out of nowhere. Such narratives have been around in national discourse for quite a while. What seems new is the degree to which the right-wing groups promoting them have become emboldened. What has emboldened them the most is that powerful states are using their arguments. This anti-gender narrative has penetrated deeply and is reflected in negotiations and official statements. During the 73rd Session of the UN General Assembly, for example, representatives of the USA attempted to remove the word ‘gender’ from numerous draft resolutions, requesting to replace it with the term ‘woman’. And at the 63rd Session of the CSW, a number of delegations negotiating the official outcome document, including from Bahrain, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the USA, attempted to remove or limit references to gender throughout the document, proposing instead narrow terms reinforcing a gender binary, excluding LGBTQI – and especially trans persons – from the CSW's guidance to states on their gender equality efforts.

    So clearly the anti-rights discourse is not coming from fringe right-wing CSOs or individuals anymore, but from heads of state, government officials and national media platforms, which give it not just airtime, but also credibility. As a result, anti-rights groups feel increasingly free to be more upfront and upright. I don’t know if they are really increasing in popularity or if people who have always held these views are also emboldened by leaders of nations who are using the same rhetoric. Maybe these right-wing populist leaders just opened the door to something that was always there.

    But I think there is one change underway in terms of the kind of groups that promote anti-rights narratives. In the past it was clear that these were all religion-based organisations, but now we are seeing secular and non-secular groups coming together around the narrative of biology. Some of them even identify as feminists and as human rights defenders but are particularly hostile toward trans individuals. Of course, there are some groups that are clearly hijacking feminist concepts and language, attaching them to new interpretations that are clearly forced, but there are also groups that actually consider themselves to be feminists and believe that trans individuals should be expelled from feminist spaces.

    Either hypocritically or out of some sort of conviction, these groups are using feminist language to further their goals. And they are using the same rhetoric against abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQI people. They are well-funded. They have plenty of resources and supporters. Of course, plenty of people stand vocally in support of abortion rights, sexual health and education, and the human rights of LGBTQI people, but what I am trying to emphasise is that the anti-rights forces are mobilising people differently and are able to amplify their message in a way that makes them very dangerous.

    From our perspective, they are mobilising against the rights of certain people – but that is not the way they frame it. They are not explicit in using the human rights framework against certain categories of people. Rather they claim to be upholding principles around, say, the freedom of religion, the rights of children, or women’s rights. They depict the situation as though the rights of some groups would necessarily be sacrificed when the rights of other groups are realised; but this is a false dichotomy. Human rights are universal as well as indivisible.

    How can progressive rights-oriented civil society respond to help resist these advances?

    I think there are different tactics that we could use, and we are already using. There is an argument to be made against responding to things that are said by anti-gender and anti-rights groups. Faced with this challenge, different people would have different responses, and I can only speak from my personal background and for my organisation. I think that these are false narratives and we shouldn’t engage with them. We need to be more proactive. Rather than engaging, we should focus on ensuring that all the work we do is truly collaborative and intersectional, and that we acknowledge each other and support one another in all of our diversity.

    People who really uphold feminist values agree that the root of gender inequality is the social construction of gender roles and norms, and that these constructions produce personal and systemic experiences of stigma, discrimination and violence. Those of us who believe this need to continue mobilising our narratives to fight against structural barriers to equality. The fact that some anti-rights groups are using a bogus feminist rhetoric is no reason to abandon feminism, but rather the opposite – we need to embody the version of feminism that is most inclusive, the one that is truer to its principles. We cannot accept their claim that they speak for all of us. We need to reclaim feminism as our own space and reject the terms of the debate as they are presented to us.

    Get in touch with OutRight Action International through its website and Facebook page, or follow @OutRightIntl on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Market discourse has captured the development agenda to a point that may be incompatible with UN mandates’

    CIVICUS speaks with Barbara Adams, senior policy analyst at the Global Policy Forum (GPF),an independent policy watchdog that monitors the work of the United Nations and scrutinises global policy-making. Founded in 1993 by a group of progressive scholars and activists, GPF promotes accountability and citizen participation in decisions on peace and security, social justice and international law. It does so by gathering information and circulating it through a comprehensive website, playing an active role in civil society networks and other advocacy arenas, organising meetings and conferences and publishing original research and policy papers.

    1. What is driving the turn towards the private corporate sector for development funding?

    To implement the 2030 Agenda, many in the international community have addressed the financing gap, proclaiming the need to go from “billions to trillions” of dollars. This has propelled a turn to the private sector, and not just the private sector - given the trillions needed - but more so the corporate sector.

    According to this view and the analysis of multilateral development banks, as reflected in a 2015 report by the World Bank, the global community needs to move the discussion from billions in official development assistance to trillions in investments of all kinds, to meet the investment needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While admitting that the majority of development spending happens at the national level in the form of public resources, advocates stress that the largest potential for additional funds is from private sector business, finance and investment - working in partnership with governments. Assessments, however, have not adequately addressed the accompanying policy influence,  programme distortions and undermining of the 2030 Agenda and ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This has been the conclusion recently reached by the Reflection Group on the 2030 Agenda.

    A related trend is the emphasis put on multi-stakeholder partnerships by some governments and United Nations (UN) agencies and the former UN Secretary-General. This has been reinforced by the 2030 Agenda, and the push for its implementation and achievement of the SDGs.

    For instance, a report released in 2015 by the UN Environment Programme emphasised the need to “access private capital at scale, with banking alone managing financial assets of almost US$140 trillion and institutional investors, notably pension funds, managing over US$100 trillion, and capital markets, including bond and equities, exceeding US$100 trillion and US$73 trillion respectively.”

    2. To what extent has market discourse captured the development agenda, and why has this happened?

    The fact that the action phase of the ‘big three’ landmark agreements - the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (AAAA) and the Paris Agreement - is dominated by attracting private financing demonstrates the extent to which market discourse has captured the agenda. On a planetary scale this discourse or narrative capture continues patterns well underway at national and global levels.

    Inadequate quantity and quality financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states has prompted different patterns of finance, including through philanthropists and big business. Core or un-earmarked resources have plummeted from nearly half of all resources in 1997 to less than a quarter today. According to a recent report by the UN Secretary-General, some 91 per cent of all UN development system activities in 2015 were funded with non-core and earmarked or project-based resources. A report that we published a couple of years back showed that between 1999 and 2014, total non-core resources for UN-related activities increased by 182 per cent in real terms, while core resources increased by only 14 per cent. Much of this increase has gone through a proliferating number of UN trust funds.

    The growing use of trust funds - where contributions have jumped by 300 per cent over the last decade - allow donor governments and corporate interests to direct UN funding choices outside the ‘one country, one vote’ UN policy processes. This represents a substantial change in the funding architecture of the UN development system, characterised by the growing ‘bilateralisation’ of funding for multilateral aid.

    The Third International Conference for Financing for Development launched the Financing for Development Business Compendium, which highlights 33 efforts aimed at mobilising business sector capital, claiming these provide “a strong indication of the broad scope of ongoing initiatives and the potential for scaling up to achieve the demands of the Sustainable Development Goals.” It also launched the Global Infrastructure Forum to bridge the “infrastructure gap.” The AAAA conference outcome document agreed that “to bridge the global infrastructure gap, including the $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion annual gap in developing countries, we will facilitate development of sustainable, accessible and resilient quality infrastructure in developing countries through enhanced financial and technical support.”

    To mobilise this support, the AAAA endorsed blended finance and emphasised public-private partnerships (PPPs) as a method of high potential among the instruments of blended finance. In order to assess this potential, it called for “inclusive, open and transparent discussion when developing and adopting guidelines” for PPPs and iterated that they “should share risks, reward fairly, include clear accountability mechanisms and meet social and environmental standards.”

    To date, PPPs have been more commonly executed in developed countries, as lower-income countries are less likely to attract large private investors. The extensive use of PPPs in Portugal and Spain contributed to their domestic financial crisis, yet domestic experiences are not informing the donor push for PPPs in developing countries. This is despite warnings that modalities that were unsuccessful in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries are even more unlikely to succeed in less developed countries, where cost recovery is more difficult.

    At a global level, the embrace of partnerships with the business sector brings with it a number of risks, side-effects and spill-over effects that have not received careful consideration and adequate independent scrutiny regarding compatibility with UN mandates for human rights and sustainable development; and their extra-budgetary funding lines remove the global partnerships from regular review and impact assessment.

    3. Are civil society actors being recognised as UN partners alongside corporate actors?

    The emphasis on public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder partnerships has technically included civil society organisations (CSOs). For example, member states have adopted mechanisms to support such engagement, such as in the resolution of the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and in structuring the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) as a multi-stakeholder forum (A/RES/68/1). However, this inclusion tends to be procedural and more needs to be done to recognise the expertise and experience of civil society and its contribution in enriching substance in the context for policy decisions as well as in implementation strategies and monitoring. It is essential to differentiate the classifications of non-state stakeholders, rather than lumping them together as partners, and to recognise their different mandates and commitments to the public good.

    However the emphasis on multi-stakeholder partnerships tends to be driven by the funding gap issue and it favours the corporate sector.

    While CSOs focus on the enabling environment for their participation in key policy streams, it is important to broaden this attention. While the embrace of partnerships continues, the UN Secretary-General’s June 2017 report, ‘Repositioning the United Nations development system to deliver on the 2030 Agenda: ensuring a better future for all’, (A/72/124) has put in motion the mandate from the Quadrennial Comprehensive Policy Review (QCPR) (A/RES/71/243) to “recalibrate and enhance other critical United Nations skill sets to match the needs of the 2030 Agenda,” and seeks “revamped capacities in partnerships and financing.”

    Additionally, the UN Human Rights Council resolution establishing an Open-ended Intergovernmental Working Group on Transnational Corporations and other Business Enterprises with respect to Human Rights (OEIGWG), seeks “an international legally binding instrument to regulate, in international human rights law, the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises” (A/HRC/RES/26/9).

    The UN General Assembly partnership resolution has been on the General Assembly’s agenda since 2000 and is the main intergovernmental framework in place to govern non-state partnerships and hold them to account. But it lacks robust reporting and implementation. Its latest iteration is ‘Towards global partnerships: a principle-based approach to enhanced cooperation between the United Nations and all relevant partners’ (A/RES/70/224). While it references for the first time the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, its main emphasis continues to be the UN Global Compact’s 10 principles, which pre-date and are inadequate for the comprehensive 2030 Agenda and the SDGs.

    In December 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted decision A/72/427, in which member states decided to “defer, on an exceptional basis, the consideration of the item entitled ‘Towards global partnerships’ and to include it in the provisional agenda of its seventy-third session.”

    4. What can civil society do to respond to these trends?

    There are a number of ways to respond, starting with an analysis and understanding of the overall context within which partnerships are promoted - the inadequate financing of the UN and its mandates by the member states. Crucial for CSOs is to assess their own situation and actions and the extent to which organisations have become passive participants in processes that are very limited, if not counter-productive to the pursuit of human rights and to strengthening the normative ability of the UN.

    Another way to take action is to monitor these trends at the UN more broadly than in specific processes and siloes, and be more actively involved in the partnership resolution dynamics and the importance of championing the public interest. This will require strategic substance-led alliances, not ‘big tent’ groupings in which strategies based on substance tend to evaporate.

    Additionally, it is important for civil society to undertake monitoring and to mobilise to prevent UN system activities, practices and appointments that undermine UN values-based mandates and that contradict the objectives of the 2030 Agenda.

    Finally, civil society actors need to support each other to strengthen the independence of civil society monitoring, not only in developing countries but all countries. An independent civil society cannot rely only on financing through development assistance that focuses primarily on developing country policies and programmes.

     

  • "Stubbornly optimistic": Reflections from Lysa John, CIVICUS SG

    FRANÇAIS

    It has been a little over 60 days since I took on my new role with CIVICUS and the question I get asked most frequently is:How does it feel to be SG?Fortunately, this query has an easy answer! It involves being reminded on a daily basis of the need to celebrate and reinforce efforts taken to defend and strengthen rights-based values and freedoms by individuals and organisations worldwide. It also involves being stubbornly optimistic about our ability as civil society to demonstrate greater accountability and impact, while continuing to learn from each other and from unconventional champions of the causes we believe in!

     

  • “Fake news” violates citizens’ right to be informed

    CIVICUS speaks to Lyndal Rowlands, United Nations Bureau Chief at Inter Press Agency on what is “fake news”, its effect on civil society and how civil society can respond to it.

    1. How would you define fake news? How is this different from propaganda and established forms of political campaigning?
    Fake news only very recently became a part of our collective vocabulary. During the 2016 United States of America presidential election “content mill” websites created articles which mimicked the real news but were in fact entirely made up with the sole intention of going viral to make money from “clicks” or people visiting their websites. Yet before most of us had even begun to wonder what exactly fake news was, the term was co-opted by the very people who arguably benefited from fake news in its original form, and I think that it is important for civil society to pay attention to this later shift in how the term fake news has been employed.

    As comedian John Oliver has said, audiences need the press to help them to sort out fact from fiction and yet now that same press finds itself under attack. Even small mistakes made by journalists, have been seized upon by political figures as a way to discredit and delegitimise the so-called fourth estate. In light of this, I think it’s important to try and restore trust in the vast majority of the media who do uphold the professional standards that differentiate them from fake news.

    So, rather than trying to define fake news, I think that it’s better to focus on how we can discern which news audiences should trust and why. A few things that I would suggest would include making sure that you get your news from a wide variety of sources, finding out who owns the media companies you are getting your news from, and making sure that you double-check check anything that seems unusual against a primary source.

    2. Why do you think we are seeing a rise in fake news?
    The motivation for the initial rise in fake news was advertising revenue, however the disinformation that we are now seeing shared is more complex. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen says that the spread of disinformation can help benefit a political side because it makes it more difficult for undecided voters to find out the truth. These undecided people may hear so much shouting and disagreement going on that they decide that it’s simply easier to go about their everyday lives, than to try and work out exactly who is telling the truth.

    This may explain why USA President Donald Trump’s team have now referred to three separate incidents which haven’t happened: namely Trump’s reference to “last night in Sweden”, Kelly Anne Conway’s reference to the Bowling Green Massacre and White House spokesperson Sean Spicer’s three references to a terrorist attack in Atlanta.

    As professor Rosen says, many of the Trump/Republican administration’s policies are not necessarily popular so by surrounding them with “fog and confusion” the administration “can get a lot more done”. However it’s also another reason why it’s so important that we all commit to not add to that fog and confusion ourselves, by making sure we don’t inadvertently share disinformation.

    3. Why do you think some citizens believe fake news?
    Sometimes we may believe a fake news story because it confirms our world view. We may then not be corrected, because for most of us, our world view has become increasingly polarised because of social media bubbles, which mean that we now almost exclusively see news which confirms our pre-existing opinions and values.

    4. How does fake news impact on civil society and human rights defenders?
    Attacks on press freedom affect civil society and human rights defenders because it is the job of the media to hold the powerful to account. If the vital democratic role of a free press is endangered through accusations that they are fake news and should be censored, then who will be there to report when the government or others in positions of power attack people demonstrating in the street or imprison them?

    Those who spread disinformation may also use it to discredit human rights defenders and civil society organisations. They may make up information about how many people attended a demonstration or argue that protestors are “paid”. Disagreements have begun to emerge over which protestors are violent, and whether they have been planted by the opposition, in order to discredit one side or the other. This may lead eventually to a curtailing of the right to protest, if peaceful protestors are successfully discredited.

    5. How should civil society respond to fake news?
    Sadly, the same people who seek to curb the freedoms of civil society organisations often also seek to control the media, so I definitely think that civil society and the media should work together to address these issues. Many media organisations are now also set up to serve the public interest as non-profit organisations, and many journalists are also freelancers, so there are other things that the media and non-profits have in common. If you rely on high quality journalism to get your story out, don’t forget to also support the journalists who produce these stories. If you can’t afford to buy a subscription, find other ways to support journalists, even through messages of support. Foundations and other funding organisations should also seriously consider supporting public interest journalism.

    In countries where the media is not free or where due to ownership interests they only partially or incompletely cover civil society issues, civil society organisations have also successfully begun using social media to tell their own narrative. By telling their stories directly to the public civil society organisations can also counter the sharing of disinformation. However, I would also encourage civil society to work together with the media, since there are many journalists who are committed to accurately representing issues on a wide range of topics in the public interest from human rights to climate change. 

    Follow Lyndal Rowlands on Twitter at @lyndalrowlands

     

  • #BEIJING25: ‘All efforts towards gender equality must be built upon intersectionality and power-shifting’

    For the 25th anniversary of theBeijing Platform for Action, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the progress achieved and the challenges ahead. Focused on eliminating violence against women, ensuring access to family planning and reproductive healthcare, removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making and providing decent jobs and equal pay for equal work, the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted at the United Nations’ (UN)Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. After 25 years, significant but unequal progress has occurred, not least as the result of incessant civil society efforts, but no country has yet achieved gender equality.

     

  • #UN75: ‘Commitments to the Women, Peace and Security agenda are going unfulfilled’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to Sally Chin, Head of the New York Office at Oxfam International, a global confederation of 20 affiliates working on humanitarian and development issues with the aim of tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality around the world. Oxfam is present in more than 90 countries and works with thousands of partners, allies and communities to save and protect lives in emergencies, help people rebuild their livelihoods and campaign for genuine, lasting change, with an approach centred on women's rights. In New York, Sally oversees Oxfam's work with the UN.

    sally chin

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    It would be impossible to sum up all of the successes or challenges of the UN in one response given how many issues the UN deals with. Nevertheless, one thing I can say is that one of the biggest successes of the UN in its 75-year history has been the countless lives saved through its humanitarian efforts. At its best, the UN has acted as a place of refuge, a voice that speaks out and defends the rights of all the people whose rights would otherwise be violated or forgotten. When we reflect upon the roots of the UN, the fact that we now have these standards, agreements and norms of how we act and expect others to act is truly remarkable. UN peacekeepers have protected people seeking safety at their bases, and UN humanitarian agencies and their partners have got aid to some of the most difficult to reach locations. Fundamental treaties, resolutions, structures and frameworks have been agreed and created that protect people’s rights and at times allow them to participate in processes that affect them, including the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Human Rights Council with its Special Procedures and Universal Periodic Review, to name a few. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the architecture of the UN system put in place, is one of the key multilateral mechanisms for defending both the full human rights of people worldwide and the civic space for people to exercise the three fundamental rights of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

    The UN has also been indispensable in bringing together the world to tackle problems that are bigger than any one member state can handle. One example of this is the climate crisis –this generation's existential threat. Through economic policies that devalue people and planet, we have become our own greatest enemy. To the UN's collective credit, over the course of three decades, countries have established the framework for a global governance regime to address the climate crisis. Now they must match their actions to the scale of the problem. If every nation – led by big polluters and wealthy nations – implemented these already-agreed commitments, we would be able to solve the climate crisis!

    And with the inclusion of Goal 10 in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), inequality has been officially recognised as a constraint to development and poverty eradication and an intergovernmental space has been created for countries to make voluntary commitments and track progress on ending inequality at home and globally. However, a binding system and institutional mechanisms overseeing Goal 10's implementation is still lacking.

    In addition, in recent years both the UN Secretariat and some UN Security Council (UNSC) member states have  been introducing promising reforms and ways of working. One example would be the advances made by the UN in achieving some levels of gender parity in the Secretariat. Although on that note, we still have not yet seen a female UN Secretary-General and hopefully we will not have to wait another 75 years to have a feminist woman as Secretary-General.

    Another positive trend is the increasing number of civil society activists from around the world that have been able to brief the UNSC. The UNSC’s Resolution 2242 on Women, Peace and Security, adopted in 2015, “expresses its intention to invite civil society, including women’s organizations, to brief the Council in country-specific considerations and relevant thematic areas…”. According to data gathered by the NGO Working Group on Women Peace and Security, in 2015 only 16 civil society members briefed the Council, but by 2019, that number had grown to 53.

     

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    As we know, the UN is only as successful as its member states, collectively, want it and allow it to be. And herein we see many of the challenges and the flaws. Here are just a few.

    First, globally we are seeing a terrifying rollback of women’s rights, attacks on women human rights defenders and a shrinking of civic space. This is happening at a national level – where we see decreasing compliance with international human rights law – as well as at a global UN level. Member states with regressive agendas are using any opportunity they can find to chip away at long-established norms regarding rights. An example of this was at the negotiations in April 2019 around UNSC Resolution 2467 on conflict-related sexual violence, when the Council stripped all language on sexual and reproductive health rights from the final text, including previously agreed language. And 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, and 20 years on from the adoption of UNSC Resolution 1325, commitments to the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda and gender equality more broadly are going unfulfilled. Gender advisors are being cut from UN missions, women’s rights and women-led organisations in conflict and fragile states are not getting enough funding, and gender mainstreaming efforts are slow.

    As civic space is shrinking around the world, it is also being challenged at the UN – indeed, even the importance of multilateralism is being challenged – with key human rights mechanisms being defunded, civil society access to the UN being blocked through visa denials, and the people affected by conflict not being consistently included in the processes that impact them.

    Another challenge is that while the UN and its partners may be saving lives, the current humanitarian system is overstretched, outdated and not yet able to respond adequately to all the growing need. Leadership and resources for humanitarian response need to be decentralised, with more power and funding given to the local organisations that are often the first to respond, and humanitarian action needs to be gender transformative. The whole system will need to rise up to all the challenges ahead, including the humanitarian dimension of the climate crisis.

    Unfortunately, it’s not just the humanitarian aid system that is in trouble. Funding for climate and the SDGs is off-track too. Currently there is an outsized reliance on the business sector for delivering the SDGs, when what we need is more action by member states themselves.

    A major additional challenge is that the UNSC, which is tasked with maintaining international peace and security, is blocked and paralysed due to its members’ own geopolitical fights. When wars are not prevented or resolved, humanitarian need only grows. Combine this with humanitarian need driven by natural hazards and other causes: according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in 2020 167.6 million people – about 1 in 45 of the world’s population – will be in need of humanitarian aid and protection. It appears that there is now little that the UNSC can find agreement on. And as it fails to address crises, warring parties also fail to uphold their responsibilities; we see decreasing compliance with international humanitarian and international human rights law, with harrowing impacts. In too many conflicts we are seeing civilian populations, their organisations and infrastructure, as well as humanitarian aid workers, being targeted. And when the parties at war are supported by the member states on the UNSC or indeed are the member states themselves, where is the accountability and incentive to action?

    Some kind of change at the UNSC is clearly needed. In the first instance, the five permanent members could voluntarily agree to not use their veto in the face of mass atrocities. This then should be followed by serious efforts to make the UNSC fit for purpose in the 21st century. Or how about asking incoming elected UNSC members to commit to adopting a feminist foreign policy – with the rest of the existing Council following suit?

    For his part, the UN Secretary-General should take more advantage of his Article 99 powers under the UN Charter to ensure the Council discusses topics it would rather ignore. He must also ensure the implementation of the UN’s own Human Rights up Front approach, speaking out strongly against injustice and violations when they occur.

    Do you know of any civil society initiative pushing for that kind of change?

    While we must of course celebrate the successes of the UN this year on its 75th anniversary, as civil society we are most focused on working to both advance a rights agenda as well as defend against the attacks on this work that we increasingly see at the UN headquarters level and globally. Working together in alliance has been one of the most effective ways to do this. One important example of this coalition work is the 19 international non-governmental organisations that have been working together in New York as the NGO Working Group on WPS to advocate collectively for better implementation of the WPS agenda.

    Other examples include the Charter for Change (C4C) network, the Network for Empowered Aid Response (NEAR) and the Global Refugee-Led Network (GRN), which are all civil society initiatives pushing for reforms within their member organisations and the humanitarian system to enable more locally-led responses. These three networks work to ensure that the perspective and direct representation of crisis-affected communities and their organisations are part of decision-making processes.

    Get in touch with Oxfam International through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@Oxfam and@sallyportia on Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘Governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    cristina palabay pictureCIVICUS speaks to Cristina Palabay, Secretary General of theKarapatan Alliance Philippines, a national alliance of civil society organisations and activists working for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines. Established in 1995, Karapatanhas 16 regional chapters and includes more than 40 member organisations. It documents and denounces extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary imprisonment and militarisation, helps organise mass actions to expose human rights violations and challenge the prevailing culture of impunity, and monitors peace negotiations between the government and the insurgent National Democratic Front of the Philippines. Karapatan is currently facing bogus court charges and state vilification in reprisal for its advocacy work at the UN Human Rights Council.

    What would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    I deem the international human rights covenants and declarations as among the greatest successes of the UN in its history. By establishing such norms, including the right of peoples to self-determination, the UN has laid down principles for the respect, promotion and protection of individual and collective rights.

    Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In 2019, the UN made a positive difference when the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in the Philippines, which is expected to put into motion stronger international accountability mechanisms with regard to the human rights crisis we face in the Philippines.

    The resolution on the promotion and protection of human rights in the Philippines was adopted in July 2019, and it urged the Government of the Philippines to “take all necessary measures to prevent extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, to carry out impartial investigations and to hold perpetrators accountable, in accordance with international norms and standards, including on due process and the rule of law.” It also called upon the government to cooperate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the mechanisms of the HRC, including by allowing country visits and refraining from intimidating or retaliating against human rights defenders (HRDs). Finally, the resolution requested the OHCHR to prepare and present a comprehensive report on the situation of human rights in the Philippines for follow-up.

    What things are currently not working at the UN and need to change?

    Positive actions of the UN to uphold human rights and peoples’ rights are stopped short when it comes to implementation by governments, including that of the Philippines. Governments use a variety of tactics to undermine human rights norms agreed upon through the multilateral platform.

    First, they deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples by distorting human rights principles.

    Second, they appear to abide by the UN’s calls, views and recommendations on paper and they flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements that they signed to make it appear that they comply with international human rights instruments, but instead use their being part of the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity.

    Third, they use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing a wide array of human rights violations.

    All these need to change if the UN is to strive to continue to be a relevant institution. We are aware of several campaigns by civil society to reform the UN and remedy these problems, but without a concerted, multi-pronged civil society approach and action, and more importantly, the commitment of states to right these wrongs, a crisis may soon grip the UN.

    What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how do you navigate them?

    We face challenges related to all the above-mentioned tactics used by the Government of the Philippines and others.

    When governments deliberately ignore the UN’s calls, views and recommendations and continue committing human rights violations and crimes against their peoples and distorting human rights principles, we conduct more intense lobbying, advocacy and campaigning to leverage domestic and international pressure.

    When governments appear to abide by the UN’s, calls, views and recommendations on paper but flaunt the numerous covenants and agreements they have signed to make it seem that they are complying with international human rights instruments, while doing exactly the opposite, we work to expose them through lobbying, advocacy and campaigning.

    When governments use the UN as licence for their warmongering and commission of crimes against humanity, we strengthen international solidarity links and coordination among civil society and grassroots people’s organisations.

    When governments use the UN to sanitise their image before the international community while still committing human rights violations, we continue to expose them.

    Civic space in the Philippines is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Karapatan through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@karapatan and@TinayPalabay on Twitter

     

  • #UN75: ‘Human rights are at the centre of multilateral diplomacy’

     

    NicoAgostini2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to Nicolas Agostini, Representative to the United Nations of DefendDefenders, an organisation that promotes the work and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the East and Horn of Africa – Burundi, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Somalia/Somaliland, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. DefendDefenders provides emergency and legal support, protection grants and relocation programmes; helps build capacity in security and protection, digital safety, advocacy and communication, monitoring and reporting, human rights education and mental health and wellbeing; connects HRDs and civil society organisations (CSOs); raises awareness through research and analysis; and advocates for the protection of HRDs at the regional and international levels. A regional NGO, it is based in Kampala, Uganda and has a permanent office in Geneva, Switzerland.

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    In its first 75 years of existence, the UN has secured a great deal of achievements in the fields of peace, security and development. When it comes to its third pillar, human rights, I would say that the UN’s greatest success is the international community’s acceptance, at both the ideological and practical and policy levels, that human rights are not within the sphere of domestic affairs.

    With the UN, the promotion and protection of human rights – or indeed their violation – became a legitimate matter of international and multilateral concern. Today, states cannot simply use ‘sovereignty’ to disregard criticism over their human rights record. Some unconvincingly attempt to claim that human rights advocacy amounts to ‘interference’ in their internal affairs, but all, even the most closed, feel compelled to defend their human rights record and claim that they respect human rights (dictatorships usually add ‘fully’).

    In other words, sovereignty cannot be used as a veil to prevent the international community from looking at the way a government treats its own people. This is immensely significant when you look back at history: states used to refuse to look at what was going on inside other states; they did so only when their own nationals or coreligionists were abused.

    Now of course, selective invocation of human rights still exists: why does Country A raise human rights issues in Country B (its adversary) while remaining silent on exactly the same issues in Country C (its strategic ally)? However, unlike in past centuries, Country B will reply and will usually try to reverse the narrative (by saying ‘we respect human rights’) and to raise human rights issues in Country A (and, for good measure, in Country C).

    Governments like to claim that ‘pressure does not work’ and ‘naming and shaming’ does not bring about any results. A number of them praise ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance and capacity-building’. Yet they spend time responding to criticism. They invest in the UN human rights system. They engage with the Human Rights Council and with the General Assembly’s Third Committee. They go through the Universal Periodic Review every four and a half years. They engage with special procedures (the ‘eyes and ears’ of the Council) and act on their communications – even when they do not publicly acknowledge so. They constantly interact with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Most states ratified a large number of human rights instruments and are therefore subjected to periodic reviews by treaty bodies. Finally, states systematically reply to HRDs and CSOs that conduct investigations and advocacy, either openly and constructively, or, sadly, by exercising reprisals against them.

    Further, it often goes overlooked that ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘technical assistance’ actually include substantial human rights elements. In 2019, DefendDefenders published a thorough analysis of the UN Human Rights Council’s ‘item 10’ resolutions on advisory services, which showed that human rights scrutiny is part and parcel of item 10, contrary to received wisdom and the narrative propagated by authoritarian states.

    Multilateral human rights diplomacy has spilled over to, or has been accompanied by, bilateral human rights diplomacy. Human rights are included in the conduct of foreign affairs, from multilateral arenas to bilateral human rights dialogues. Further, provided they enjoy a degree of free expression, peaceful assembly and association, citizens demand human rights compliance from their governments not only at home but also with regard to the conduct of foreign policy. All of these aspects are – at least partly – human rights successes of the UN.

    Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In 2019, as an instance in which the UN made a difference, I could cite the fact that sitting members of the Human Rights Council were subjected to more, not less, scrutiny. In July 2019, for the first time, the Council adopted resolutions on the human rights situation in three of its sitting members – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea and the Philippines – during the same session. This showed that Council membership does not shield you from scrutiny, and that election to the Council does not amount to an endorsement of your human rights record. At the same time, states that until recently believed they were outside the reach of coordinated multilateral condemnation – notably China and Saudi Arabia – were subjected to scrutiny through joint oral and written statements.

    These developments were unimaginable prior to 1945. This remains true despite reason for concern in recent years, with increasingly direct attacks against multilateral institutions and the UN human rights system by authoritarians and populists.

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    Budget is always an issue for the UN’s human rights pillar. Compared to the peace and security and development pillars, it gets very little: the figure that is usually put forward is a mere three per cent of the overall UN budget.

    This means that UN secretariat staff – OHCHR and human rights advisers in peace missions – and UN human rights bodies and mechanisms must work on a shoestring – and they achieve much! But the UN’s financial neglect for its human rights pillar also means that the UN system as a whole is facing a lack of policy consistency. Whereas the idea that development, peace and security, and human rights are interdependent and mutually reinforcing has brought about policy initiatives such as Human Rights Up Front, decision-makers have been backtracking. In fact, the UN’s human rights pillar has faced mounting budget cuts, forcing a number of bodies to prepare for reduced numbers of sessions and meetings.

    Caving to pressure from China, Russia and the USA, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has since he assumed office betrayed efforts to mainstream human rights in all UN work. He has by and large buried Human Rights Up Front, and human rights components of peace operations are being eviscerated as a result of this pressure and budget cuts decided by members of the UN Security Council.

    How is civil society reacting to this?

    Civil society is pushing back at all levels, reminding the UN and states of their duties towards the human rights pillar. Civil society has relied on, and promoted, a human rights-based approach to issues of global concern, from migration to counter-terrorism to climate change.

    Civil society’s very existence and its dynamism are also important insofar as they highlight that the current form of the state – which still relies, essentially, on a ‘Westphalian’ concept of territorial sovereignty – is recent in the history of mankind, and that it is contingent and somewhat arbitrary. Societies, including the international society, could be organised differently.

    State representatives sometimes portray human rights advocacy CSOs as arrogant when the latter name and shame human rights abusers, but the existence of civil society and the role citizen movements play call for more modesty on the part of state officials. Governments – provided they result from free and fair elections – represent one form of legitimacy, but not the only form of legitimacy. Civil society was there before the Westphalian state, and it will probably be there after the latter is, as Michel Foucault would say, “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.”

    I believe these elements are important to keep in mind when discussing how civil society is pushing for change.

    What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and what have you achieved?

    For a regional human rights CSO like DefendDefenders, challenges are many. They include financial resources, a shrinking civic space in some of the countries we work on, impunity for human rights violations and abuses, and the very nature of our work. Human rights are, and will always be, about challenging power and imposing restrictions on those exercising it, to prevent abuse.

    We always focus on the quality and relevance of our work. We also build bridges with all stakeholders: governments (as human rights duty-bearers), international and regional institutions, fellow CSOs, communities, grassroots activists and individual HRDs, who in the East and Horn of Africa have been organising themselves in coalitions and networks.

    In December 2019, DefendDefenders was involved in the launch of the Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders Coalition, something that was unthinkable two years ago when civic space in the country was closed. Any opportunity must be seized to build stronger human rights protections.

    I will end with an anecdote. For years, Sudanese HRDs were insulted, intimidated, threatened, subject to surveillance, prevented from leaving their country and abused. In April 2019, through a peaceful revolution, Sudan’s people and civil society brought a 30-year dictatorship to an end. In July, Dr Nasredeen Abdulbari, an academic and HRD, was part of DefendDefenders’ delegation to the 41st session of the Human Rights Council. Together, we advocated for meaningful UN action on Sudan, put forward our proposals and met with stakeholders. Two months later, at the Council’s 42nd session, Dr Abdulbari led the Sudanese government’s delegation to Geneva. In the meantime, he had been appointed Minister of Justice and joined a transitional cabinet led by civil society figures and activists. This is certainly not the end of the story, but it shows that one should never lose hope.

    Get in touch with DefendDefenders through its website and Facebook page, or follow @DefendDefenders and @Nico_Agostinion Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘It is time for the UN to be bold again!’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to Caroline Vernaillen, Public Relations and Global Community-Building Officer with Democracy International, a global coalition pushing for more direct democracy as a means to improve our lives and the societies in which we live. Democracy International runs campaigns, organises knowledge-sharing events and supports democracy activists from all over the world. 

    caroline vernaillen

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    One of the greatest achievements of the UN has been the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that is, the formulation of the universal and inalienable rights that every person on this planet has. The Universal Declaration sets out the fundamental values of our society: freedom, equality, justice and solidarity – the very pillars of democracy – and of course the right to public participation. It is heart-breaking that these rights are still suppressed in many countries and that they have come under heavy attack again in recent years. We have a lot of work to do to turn them into a reality for every single human being on this planet.

    Over the past years, we have seen citizens around the world take to the streets, claiming their democratic rights. The UN has been consistent in speaking up on their behalf, ensuring that their human rights are guaranteed in a world where the space for civil society – civic space – is dramatically shrinking. Millions of young people around the world in recent years have been protesting for more effective measures against climate change. The global Youth for Climate movements have been given a prominent platform at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP25) and even the UN General Assembly, allowing them to present their demands to world leaders directly and address a global audience with increased authority.

    Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In the case of Hong Kong, where citizens have been protesting for their democratic rights since the spring of 2019, the UN Human Rights Council has repeatedly called for restraint and de-escalation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has publicly called for an investigation into the widely reported police violence against protesters and has defended the rights of Hong Kong citizens to participate in public affairs and to the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.

    At the end of the year, the International Criminal Court announced that it would launch an investigation into, among other things, violence by Israeli defence forces against Palestinian protesters in the West Bank and Gaza.

    In Syria, the UN General Assembly set up a mechanism to investigate the most serious crimes committed under international law, an investigation that is now operational. These instances send a strong message that the UN is prepared to defend people’s rights to public participation and that those who use violence against citizens will be held accountable.

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    The UN was set up as an intergovernmental organ, because at its inception the greatest threat to global peace and security were nation states waging war against each other. The world we live in today is very different. From our global financial architecture to conflicts increasingly spurred on by non-state actors to environmental challenges, everything has globalised. However, citizens at the moment do not have a way to influence decisions at the global level that could address these challenges. The UN is still the most important arena where these issues can be tackled, but there is no way for citizens to have direct influence on the issues that are being discussed and decided there. Citizens around the world worry about and feel the consequences of climate change, for example, but they do not get to set the agenda for international decision-making on the subject. They have to rely on the will and initiative of governments to take action, rather than being able to express what their own policy priorities are. This is not a new issue. The democratic deficit at the UN is well documented, and throughout the years many proposals for reform have been made, but few have been implemented.

    What are the ongoing civil society initiatives pushing for that kind of change?

    Together with our partners at Democracy Without Borders and CIVICUS, and with the support of a growing alliance of already over 100 civil society organisations (CSOs) worldwide, we just launched a campaign for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, dubbed We the Peoples. The campaign calls for an agenda-setting mechanism that would allow citizens around the world, once they have reached a certain threshold of support, to put issues on the agenda of either the UN General Assembly or the Security Council.

    This is not a new idea. Mechanisms like this exist in most democratic countries and there is one transnational example too. The European Union (EU) allows citizens who gather one million signatures of support in at least seven EU member states to propose legislation to the European Commission, which is obligated to respond to the proposal. In its eight years of existence, the European Citizens’ Initiative has already led to changes in water regulation and pesticide regulation in the EU. The tool certainly has flaws as well: for instance, there is no way for citizens to enforce follow-up on their initiative, as the Commission is not obligated to take action. But the European experience shows that tools like this are feasible, and they can work to empower citizens and involve them more in political decision-making, even at the transnational level.

    Another civil society initiative is the campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly, which advocates for stronger citizen representation at the UN level. This complementary body would allow elected representatives, including from the opposition and minorities, to have a voice at the UN. Currently UN member states are only represented by their executive branch of government.

    What challenges do you face in your own interactions with the UN system, and how would it be possible to overcome them?

    For CSOs it is quite hard to gain access to the UN system. We have found that individual mandate holders are often very willing to listen and are open to new ideas, but any institutional change is decided by member states. This constitutes a very high hurdle for CSOs, which often only operate in a handful of countries. Gathering up the necessary support from enough member states is an arduous and expensive process that very few CSOs can afford. In addition, there is a lot of institutional inertia at the UN, which works in favour of those governments that wish to keep civil society and citizens away.

    It is even more difficult for individual citizens to gain access to UN institutions. Our call for a UN World Citizens’ Initiative would give citizens the framework and the setting to address the UN directly and open into an interaction with them on a scale that has not existed yet in the history of the UN. Even though this is a tool that is not yet in place, organisations and individuals can join the campaign by visiting https://www.worldcitizensinitiative.org to strengthen the citizen and civil society-led solidarity behind the campaign, which, if implemented, will alleviate the UN’s democratic deficit and bolster citizens’ role in the UN. It is time for the UN to be bold again! 

    Get in touch with Democracy International through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@democracy_intl on Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access through accessible virtual platforms’

    Laura Obrien

    Following the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to Laura O’Brien, UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now, a civil society organisation that works to defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world. Through direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant-making, legal interventions and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age.

    To what extent is the UN’s founding Charter fit for the internet era?

    For years civil society has encouraged the UN to modernise its operations to maintain its relevance in the digital age. In 2020, the UN met this harsh reality. The international organisation was forced to take the majority of its operations online, all the while trying meaningfully to reach the global community and advance international cooperation amid a global health crisis, systemic racism, climate change and rising authoritarianism. Commemorating the UN’s 75th anniversary by revisiting its founding Charter – a document centred on inherent human dignity – could not have been more crucial.

    The UN Charter was drafted long before the internet even existed. Nonetheless, its global outlook remains consistent with the universal nature of the internet, which at its best enables borderless knowledge societies grounded in fundamental human rights, while also amplifying the need to reduce risks, not solely through sovereign means, but also through international cooperation. Guided by the principles of the UN Charter, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations rightfully commits to improving digital cooperation worldwide. Through this formal commitment, the UN finally paid heed to the transformative impact digital technologies have on our daily lives, paving a path – or, as better captured by the UN Secretary-General, a ‘roadmap’ – to steer us through the promises and perils of the digital age.

    While world leaders recognised the need to listen to ‘the people’ – as captured in the preamble of the UN Charter – civil society continues to remind those leaders to listen more actively. With missions rooted in extending and defending the fundamental human rights of all individuals, civil society remains an essential force to advance stakeholder accountability and ensure transparency in often opaque multilateral processes.

    What challenges have you faced in your interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?

    I stepped into my public-facing role as UN Advocacy Officer at Access Now a few months before the COVID-19 lockdown here in New York. As such, I was a new voice navigating the challenges civil society was facing at that time: how do we ensure that civil society partners, in all their diversity, are meaningfully involved in UN discussions as the UN transitions its operations online? At that time, we feared that the exceptional measures used to fight the pandemic could be cited to restrict civil society access and opportunities for participation within UN fora. So we mobilised. Several civil society organisations, CIVICUS included, worked together to provide principles and recommendations to the UN to ensure civil society inclusion in UN discussions during the pandemic and beyond. This helped us work together to present a united position on the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and to remind the UN to put adequate protections in place to ensure accessible online platforms and sufficient safeguards to protect the security of those participating virtually.

    What things are currently not working and would need to change? In what ways is civil society working towards that kind of change?

    2020 was a humbling year of critical self-reflection both on an individual and collective level. Now, more than ever, the world is realising that the state-centric model will not propel us into a hopeful future. Problems in one part of the world have consequences worldwide. The decisions we make now, particularly regarding digital technologies, will impact on future generations to come. As the world recovers from the events of 2020, we need world leaders to build off the lessons learned and continue to engage in critical reflection. Solving global challenges requires interdisciplinary action that respects and protects rights-holders who come from diverse and intersectional backgrounds. We simply cannot continue to operate or tackle these issues top-down. Indeed, threats like disinformation often originate at the top.

    Civil society worldwide is mobilising to spearhead global campaigns to raise awareness of the issues we face today, and their impact on future generations, while advocating for accountability across national, regional and international forums. From condemning internet shutdowns – #KeepItOn – to questioning the implementation of digital identity programmes worldwide – #WhyID – we are working to report, monitor and measure, and provide rights-respecting policy recommendations based on our diverse interactions with those most at risk.

    Looking more broadly at the global multilateral system today, what do you think are its main weaknesses, and what lessons can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The global multilateral system needs to stop operating and addressing global issues in silos. This requires not only better networked multilateralism – across the UN system in both New York and Geneva, and including regional organisations and financial institutions, among others – but also that global issues be addressed from a more interdisciplinary perspective. For instance, research suggests that over 90 per cent of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are connected to international human rights and labour. Protecting human rights is therefore necessary to reach the SDGs. Why then do international actors continue to raise the SDGs only in tandem with discussions around development and not human rights?

    Many lessons can be drawn from the pandemic to advance more inclusive international cooperation. In 2020 the UN was made acutely aware of the benefits of internet connectivity, reaching more diverse voices worldwide. People normally unable physically to access UN platforms based in Geneva and New York – due to a myriad of barriers – were now able to contribute meaningfully to UN discussions online. Yet simultaneously, online operations also made the UN formally acknowledge the severe impact for the approximately 4 billion people who continue to remain disconnected from the internet. Those individuals may suffer network discrimination, experience various barriers due to digital divides and inadequate digital literacy resources, or remain disconnected through targeted internet shutdowns.

    Moving forward, the UN should continue to provide access to UN discussions through accessible virtual platforms. Just as the UN is built to facilitate state-to-state interactions, the world would benefit from similarly secure and open venues for civil society to connect. Unfortunately, too many communities remain marginalised and vulnerable. People often face reprisals for raising their voices and telling their stories across borders. We strive to create this open civil forum at RightsCon – the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age – and similar events. In July 2020, RightsCon Online brought together 7,681 participants from 157 countries across the world in a virtual summit. The organisers overcame affordability and access barriers by launching a Connectivity Fund to provide direct financial support for participants to connect and engage online. These convenings should be considered integral to internet governance, but also to achieving the three pillars of the UN – development, human rights and peace and security – in the digital age. When carried out inclusively and securely, online participation presents an opportunity to widen the number and diversity of those engaging with the platform and removes barriers and resource constraints linked to travel. 

    Overall, the international community must lean into the lessons of 2020. We must work in solidarity to advance open, inclusive and meaningful international cooperation in order to achieve a prosperous future for all.

    Get in touch with Access Now through itswebpage orFacebook profile, and follow@accessnow and@lo_brie on Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic showed that multilateral institutions are essential’

    To mark the 75th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations (UN), CIVICUS is having conversations with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks to the UN advocacy lead of an international civil society organisation (CSO), who responded on conditionof anonymity, about the opportunities and challenges faced by CSOs engaging with various UN bodies.

    UN photo

    In which ways do you think the UN has made a positive difference?

    The UN has made many positive differences over its 75 years, and it’s making a difference now. From my perspective, a significant recent reaffirmation of the UN’s importance, which is a kind of inverse reflection of recent failures or shortcomings, is that the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) has quickly responded to the human security aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    One of my longstanding critiques of the UN has been its lack of public leadership at the top. It’s been the approach of the current UNSG, who’s chosen backdoor diplomacy over outspoken advocacy. I won’t deny he’s in a difficult situation, but nonetheless he hasn't been forthright enough in holding major states to account for human rights violations.

    I think the pandemic changed things in a way we hadn’t seen in a long time. The UNSG finally did what he should have been doing as a general rule, which is to say that this is not about politics or having to tiptoe around the sensitivities of certain member states – this is about telling the world that the only way we will overcome this crisis is by coming together, and that this requires an immediate suspension of hostilities globally. That is aspirational and idealistic, but it’s also technically correct. 

    Also the World Health Organization (WHO), despite obvious challenges, essentially showed what it’s there for and its relevance to the general public. Of course the UN Security Council (UNSC) let the UNSG down as a political body, but still the pandemic showed that UN agencies and multilateral institutions more generally are essential and that we need them, both in the context of a public health crisis and to organise a global response to any global crisis.

    The obvious long-term success of the UN has been to build multilateralism and establish an international rules-based framework for human rights, sustainable development and the protection of civilians. The framework is there, and the challenge is its implementation. Not only are we currently not seeing implementation, but we are also seeing a steady erosion of these international norms and standards, which has taken place over the past few years. China and Russia are becoming more active in conflicts around the world, either directly or indirectly, and have become emboldened in eviscerating the UN or remoulding institutions to serve their visions, while those states that would traditionally protect and even champion these norms are either less willing or less empowered to do so. The UN made much progress over six or seven decades in building this framework, but now it’s under severe stress.

    How have you engaged with the UN, and what challenges have you encountered?

    Our work focuses on protecting civilians in armed conflicts, so our UN engagement is almost entirely in relation to the UNSC, and UN agencies with a focus on security and peacebuilding. We tend to engage with the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the General Assembly (UNGA), mostly when we identify that the UNSC is completely paralysed, which unfortunately is happening increasingly often. But in previous roles I have worked across a wide range of UN agencies, including the UNHRC, the UNGA and other agencies that work on climate change and education, so I’m aware of the comparative opportunities available for civil society engagement.

    The means of civil society engagement with the UNSC are much more informal than those with the UNHRC. And I think there are quite a few advantages to not having formal processes for civil society engagement, because the absence of a formal process can result in more effective engagement. At the UNHRC, there is an agenda item and 500 CSOs queue up to give a two-minute statement, which no policy-maker listens to, and you end up with this process of artificial participation that is not very productive. With the UNSC, many CSOs don’t see where the opportunities lie; they think it’s not for them. This means there are fewer CSOs looking for an entry point, so it’s a less crowded field.

    Working at the UNSC requires you to build direct relationships with the states that are on the UNSC. You don’t maintain a high public profile. You build relations with the missions, and through that process you often end up having more direct and meaningful influence. So the absence of a formal process can often result in more effective CSO engagement. True, it may also be more difficult, although it varies depending on the composition of the UNSC when it comes to the elected members. Some of them don’t have a long history of engagement with civil society, are not very interested in listening, or have very little capacity. But there’s always some states that prioritise civil society engagement and recognise that the only way the UNSC has legitimacy is by reflecting the experiences and perspectives of those directly affected. I would emphasise that one of the successes of the UNSC in the past 20 years has been to open up space for civil society briefers, particularly on women, peace and security issues. Fewer speakers means they tend to have more weight: you get the 15 UNSC members to listen to this one person whose time is unlimited and who is very focused on the protection of civilians or other issues. In terms of public participation, that is a sign of progress.

    Of course, there’s also the fact that we have to engage with the five permanent UNSC members whether we like it or not, because they are there to stay and they have the veto. And in that respect the situation is currently very bad. From our perspective, the current US administration is not on the right side of things and is not consistently championing accountability for war crimes. France and the UK are inconsistent across countries, and China and Russia are at least consistent in their positions, but for all the wrong reasons. China is opening up to international engagement with civil society, which I think is part of a wider strategy. Five or six years ago, China wouldn’t think it needed to engage with civil society and appeared not to recognise the legitimacy of international human rights CSOs, but now its ambassadors have started agreeing to meet with civil society groups collectively. It may be a public relations exercise, or China may have gained enough confidence to confront international CSOs directly. It’s a clear shift in its foreign policy. Russia, to its credit, has long done the same, and sees value in engagement to some extent, although the dynamic can be a difficult, adversarial one.

    How have you managed these challenges?

    Collective advocacy often works best with the UNSC. When civil society can form quick coalitions of humanitarian organisations, human rights organisations, local partners, faith leaders and youth representatives and present a few key asks that are consistent across these groups, it builds credibility with UNSC members and increases the chances that it will act promptly. There are about 30 CSOs that work consistently on the UNSC. They have different priorities and a variety of messages, so they certainly engage individually as well. But the message is more powerful when it’s expressed collectively. For instance, if something goes wrong in Yemen and the UK is the penholder it is way more powerful when 12 organisations engage the UK on the same points collectively than the 12 organisations complaining individually. 

    What things are currently not working and would need to change?

    The one thing that needs to be reformed fundamentally, which is the very core of the UN and has been a problem since day one, is the veto. The UNSC is clearly not fit for purpose in this regard; its composition and balance of power doesn’t reflect the world we now live in. There is no reason why France or the UK should have a veto – or any state for that matter. The inherent problem of the UN is that it was built as part of an agreement amongst the winning powers after the Second World War that they would hold the reins of power, and there is no way to dismantle that without their collective agreement. That is not going to happen with China, Russia, the USA or even the UK. France, to its credit, is at least openly supportive of voluntary processes to check misuse of the veto.

    I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, and I wouldn’t if I were speaking about other things, such as progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But the UNSC is power politics in its purest form and no amount of citizen participation will change it. The only way to circumvent the veto would be to dismantle the UN and start from scratch – unless somehow we found ourselves in a parallel world in which these five countries were led by enlightened leaders who at the same time realised they should give up that power for the sake of humanity. But that couldn’t be farther from our current reality, when the veto power is actually being misused, by China, Russia and the USA, as a weapon to discredit the UN.

    Apart from this unsurmountable problem, other things have been changing for good. For instance, we are now seeing climate change and security on the UNSC agenda. While China, Russia and the USA seek to block use of the very words ‘climate change’, Germany, Niger and a number of other states went on to create an informal working group on climate change, although to place the issue on the UNSC agenda, they agreed to call it ‘environmental degradation’ instead. This obviously should have happened decades ago, but at least it’s happening now and it’s progress.

    What lessons for international cooperation can be drawn from the COVID-19 pandemic? What should change so we will be better prepared when the next crisis strikes?

    During the pandemic, civil society supported and coordinated engagement towards an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire. The initial statement by the UNSG was highly ambitious to the point of being unrealistic, but he was absolutely right both in terms of what should happen in the world and in taking that leadership and not consulting first with Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, or anybody else. It was courageous and correct. It momentarily reinvigorated the role of the UNSG and the UN as a whole.

    While the UN institutional response from the top down was good, the UNSC was an absolute failure. China and the USA and engaged in hostile and juvenile behaviour at a time when the world’s future rested on the UN being effective.

    On the other hand, the UNGA responded reasonably well, taking the initiative despite not being able to meet physically. In early April it passed a resolution calling for international cooperation and multilateralism in the fight against COVID-19. Mexico was also very strategic in pushing a resolution on international cooperation to ensure global access to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to face COVID-19, adopted by consensus in late April. In view of the challenges that the UNGA experienced, however, I think one procedural lesson learned was the need for the UN be better prepared to work virtually in the event of another crisis.

    An assessment of the performance of other multilateral institutions like the WHO lies outside my area of expertise, but we all read about the allegations that it wasn’t sufficiently aggressive with China early on. This is currently under independent review, which suggests as least that basic checks and balances are in place.

     

  • #UN75: ‘The Human Rights Council has made a positive difference in addressing human rights violations’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to Rosanna Ocampo, UN Advocacy Senior Programme Officer with the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), a network comprising 81 members in 21 countries across Asia that works to promote and protect human rights through collaboration and cooperation among human rights organisations and defenders in Asia and beyond.

    Rosanna Ocampo

    Would you say there were instances during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    In 2019, the work of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) made some positive differences in addressing human rights situations in various places, including in Asia. For example, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Myanmar presented its final report to the HRC. The report noted that there were “reasonable grounds to conclude that the evidence that infers genocidal intent on the part of the State, identified in its last report, has strengthened.” This contributed to the application filed by the Government of Gambia at the International Court of Justice, which in January 2020 made a unanimous decision ordering Myanmar to protect the Rohingya people from genocide. On the basis of the FFM’s reports, the Court also ruled that there was prima facie evidence of violations of the Genocide Convention by Myanmar. This is a clear demonstration of the complementary roles played by different UN organs and agencies.

    Other recent steps toward justice and accountability in Myanmar have included the operationalisation of the Independent Investigative Mechanism on Myanmar, which will collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of serious international crimes and violations, and will prepare case files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings. Another is the publication of the report on the involvement of the UN in Myanmar since 2011 to establish whether everything possible was done to prevent or mitigate the crisis. We hope that states will follow up on this work by pursuing criminal accountability, including through the UN Security Council referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.

    In 2019 the HRC also adopted its first resolution on the Philippines in response to the thousands of deaths resulting from the government's so-called 'war on drugs' and threats to civil society space. The resolution requested the High Commissioner “to prepare a comprehensive written report on the human rights situation in the Philippines and to present it to the Human Rights Council at its forty-fourth session,” which is to be held in June 2020. We see this as an important first step toward credible investigations and accountability, and hope that the HRC will follow up on the recommendations of the report. As the Philippines is a member of the HRC, the resolution on the Philippines also shows that Council membership shouldn't be a shield from scrutiny and that members are expected to uphold human rights standards both domestically and internationally.

    What things are currently not working and would need to change?

    There still remain many instances in which the lack of political will, or the political and economic interests of states, get in the way of situations being adequately addressed at the HRC, including situations of grave concern and issues relating to civil society space. For example, the way the resolutions on Cambodia have played out in the past couple of years haven't reflected the reality of the situation in the country. More should have been done than just renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Cambodia. It would have been good for the HRC to mandate additional monitoring and reporting by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on civic and democratic space in the country, and recommend steps for the Government of Cambodia to take to restore fundamental freedoms.

    What obstacles does civil society face in interacting with the UN, and what can be done about it?

    Discussions on improving the efficiency of the HRC and problems related to the budget of the UN all affect civil society participation at the UN, including at the HRC. There are still some states that are using this opportunity to try to restrict civil society space at the UN and limit civil society participation in debates. Working together with other like-minded civil society organisations, we continue to advocate with states to ensure that civil society is not disproportionately affected by changes in the work of the HRC and ensure that human rights defenders can continue to play a part in the discussions that affect them.

    Get in touch with FORUM-ASIA through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@forum_asia on Twitter.

     

  • #UN75: ‘The system is slow and not at all agile’

    yolette etienne2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead. CIVICUS speaks with Yolette Etienne, Action Aid Country Director in Haiti.

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history? Can you mention an instance during 2019 in which the UN made a positive difference?

    Among the greatest successes of the UN we could highlight the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948; support for decolonisation processes in Africa and Asia; participation in peace agreements; the deployment of peacekeeping operations, with some reservations; the drafting of nuclear and conventional arms control treaties; the establishment of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court; and the establishment of the Commission on the Status of Women and the creation of UN Women for the promotion of equality. Their existence, although perhaps not their impact, has been a success.

    In connection with these, we should also note the existence of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Generally speaking, there have been many initiatives bringing about transformations and recognising the right to development, introduced mainly before the 1990s, as was the case of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

    From 2019, we must emphasise the positive character of the strong position taken by the UN to alert the world to the crisis of climate and nature.

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    There are too many UN humanitarian agencies and they consume too much money – around 60 per cent of the overall humanitarian budget. Another dysfunctional entity of the UN is the Security Council, which is paralysed because of its permanent members’ veto power.

    There were indeed efforts by the World Humanitarian Summit to tackle the global reform of the humanitarian system under former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but it did not really have the support of the big players. I do not really know of any civil society initiatives in this direction, but it would be nice to see civil society movements tackle these two situations.

    What challenges have you encountered in your interactions with the UN system?

    It's the same general remark when it comes to heaviness and slowness. The system is slow and not at all agile. The simplest partnership requires a lot of energy to keep agencies engaged, not to mention the crippling bureaucracy.

    Get in touch with Action Aid Haiti through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow @ActionAid on Twitter. 

     

  • #UN75: ‘There is often a lack of transparency on how civil society’s inputs are reflected in UN work’

    2020 marks 75 years since the founding of the United Nations (UN). CIVICUS is speaking with civil society activists, advocates and practitioners about the roles the UN has played so far, the successes it has achieved and the challenges ahead.

    CIVICUS speaks to John Romano, Coordinator of the Transparency, Accountability and Participation (TAP) Network, a broad network of civil society organisations that works to ensure that open, inclusive, accountable and effective governance and peaceful societies are at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and that civil society actors are recognised and mobilised as indispensable partners in the design, implementation of and accountability for sustainable development policies. The TAP Network engages specifically around Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which seeks to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

     john romano

     

    Overall, what would you say have been the greatest successes of the UN in its 75-year history?

    Overall, I think that the UN has remained a steady, positive influence on maintaining a relative state of peace around the world since its inception, and it provides for a useful venue for addressing international issues in a concerted way. In many ways, the UN has succeeded in its first objective of saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war, and objectively I think it has played an influential role in this achievement to date.

    The establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was also another crowning achievement of the UN, as well as the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda.

    The meeting of the UN’s High Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, which was held in July 2019 under the theme ‘Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality’, and included an in-depth review of SDG 16, and the SDG Summit, held in September, were two highlights of 2019. They helped to mobilise a wide range of stakeholders to explore ways to help advance the SDGs on a scale that hadn’t been seen since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda in 2015.

    What things are currently not working and need to change?

    There are many things the UN can do better, and in many ways this is no fault of the UN itself, but instead represents a failure of its member states and reflects on the state of multilateralism today. The UN is often very good at being responsive to crises and big international issues that represent immediate threats faced by the international community. However, it severely lacks more proactive and preventative measures to help make sure that efforts are being made to ensure that some of these crises or issues do not arise in the first place.

    There are also many governance-related issues that the UN should tackle to improve its effectiveness in ensuring that international issues are addressed in ways that prevent conflicts of interest, and shield decisions from being co-opted due to an imbalance of decision-making structures or representation.

    I’ve only noted two initiatives focused on issues around multilateralism and pushing for that kind of change lately: the UN2020 Initiative, a civil society coalition calling for government leaders and civil society to come together on occasion of the UN’s 75th anniversary and work to come up with concrete proposals to revitalise the organisation, and the Alliance for Multilateralism, a government-led network seeking to strengthen a rules-based multilateral order that has the UN at its centre. Launched by the French and German foreign ministers, this informal network seeks “to protect and preserve international norms, agreements and institutions that are under pressure or in peril; to pursue a more proactive agenda in policy areas that lack effective governance and where new challenges require collective action; and to advance reforms, without compromising on key principles and values, in order to make multilateral institutions and the global political and economic order more inclusive and effective in delivering tangible results to citizens around the world.”

    What challenges have you faced in your own interactions with the UN system, and how did you manage them?

    There are many challenges related to how inclusive the UN itself is to the engagement of civil society and citizens. Currently, participation in UN processes is extremely limited throughout many important processes that civil society engages with, including around the SDGs. Entry points into many processes are scarce, but when opportunities for engagement arise, there is often an overall lack of transparency and clarity on how civil society’s inputs and engagement are reflected in the work of the UN and different processes. This can be very frustrating for many groups that work around the UN, and often getting any inputs reflected depends entirely on who you know, which inherently presents a bias towards larger organisations. The resulting lack of diversity sometimes also prevents new ideas from being injected into these spaces.

    We have found ways to work around this by partnering with governments and UN missions, to have them champion our ideas, bringing them as their inputs into various processes. Given that the UN is responsive to its member states, finding governments to push your points and issues is a way to help ensure that these inputs are taken up. However, this type of engagement really is often limited to larger organisations that have the capacity to engage with UN missions, and particularly those that are based in New York. This in itself presents a clear bias in terms of who can engage and does not allow for a more broad and inclusive set of actors to contribute.

    Get in touch with the TAP Network through itswebsite andFacebook page, and follow@TAPNetwork2030 on Twitter.

     

  • 14 États membres élus au Conseil des droits de l'homme des Nations Unies

    Le 17 octobre, 14 nouveaux États membres ont été élus au Conseil des droits de l'homme, comprenant 47 États membres, pour le mandat 2020-2022.

    Parmi eux, onze États ont été classés comme ayant un espace civique "rétréci" ou pire par le Monitor CIVICUS, une plate-forme qui suit l'état des libertés de la société civile dans le monde entier. 

    Dans le groupe régional Amérique latine et Caraïbes, le Brésil et le Venezuela, respectivement considérés comme "obstrué" et "réprimé", ont été élus lors d'un scrutin tripartite avec le Costa Rica, qui est considéré comme "ouvert". Nous regrettons que les États n'aient pas saisi l'occasion offerte par la candidature tardive du Costa Rica pour renforcer le Conseil des droits de l'homme, ce qui ne peut se faire que par une adhésion déterminée à coopérer avec ses mécanismes et à défendre ses objectifs et valeurs.

    Depuis l'arrivée au pouvoir de l'actuel gouvernement brésilien en 2018, le pays a connu une augmentation de la rhétorique violente et, au cours de l'année écoulée, une réduction de la protection des droits humains et une remise en cause des mécanismes du Conseil des droits de l'homme. Cela est bien loin du comportement que tout membre du Conseil devrait adopter, et nous sommes particulièrement préoccupés par la réélection du Brésil étant donné son influence dans la région et au-delà.

    Il y a tout juste un mois, un rapport présenté à la 42ème session du Conseil des droits de l'homme par le Haut Commissaire des Nations Unies aux droits de l'homme faisait état de violations graves des droits humains par le gouvernement vénézuélien, notamment des arrestations arbitraires, des tortures et des exécutions extrajudiciaires. Néanmoins, 105 États membres de l'Assemblée générale des Nations Unies ont voté pour l'adhésion du Venezuela au Conseil. L'élection du Brésil et du Venezuela par les États membres de l'ONU aux dépens du Costa Rica mine gravement les engagements du Conseil des droits de l'homme.

    La Namibie ("rétréci"), la Libye ("fermé"), la Mauritanie ("réprimé") et le Soudan ("fermé") ont remporté les quatre sièges disponibles pour le groupe Afrique. Le Bénin s'est également présenté aux élections. Nous exhortons le gouvernement de transition du Soudan à prendre des mesures pour que les auteurs de violations des droits humains commises dans le passé répondent pleinement de leurs actes et à saisir cette occasion pour jouer un rôle plus constructif au sein de la communauté internationale en tant que défenseur des droits humains, étant donné sa position stratégique dans la Corne de l'Afrique. Les graves violations des droits humains qui continuent d'être commises en Libye la rendent inapte à l'adhésion et nous demandons instamment au Conseil des droits de l'homme d'indiquer clairement que l'adhésion ne l'empêche pas d'être soumise à un examen international permanent.

    L'Arménie ("obstrué") et la Pologne ("rétréci") ont remporté les deux sièges disponibles du Groupe des États d'Europe orientale, élus au détriment de la République de Moldavie ("obstrué"). Dans le Groupe Asie-Pacifique, l'Indonésie ("obstrué"), le Japon ("rétréci"), les Îles Marshall ("ouvert") et la République de Corée ("rétréci") ont remporté les quatre sièges disponibles au détriment de l'Irak, qui s'était également présentée aux élections. Nous exhortons ces nouveaux États membres à profiter de leur élection au Conseil des droits de l'homme pour renforcer leur engagement en faveur des droits humains et de l'espace civique.

    L'Allemagne ("ouvert") et les Pays-Bas ("ouvert") occupent les sièges restants du Groupe des États d'Europe occidentale et des autres Groupes, sans opposition.

    L'élection d'un si grand nombre d'États dont le bilan en matière de libertés civiques est déplorable signifie que l'engagement de la société civile au Conseil lui-même est encore plus vital, pour que les gens puissent se faire entendre au niveau international, ce qui leur est refusé au niveau national. Nous demandons instamment au Conseil des droits de l'homme de protéger et de renforcer la place de la société civile au sein de toutes les institutions multilatérales.
     
    CIVICUS se réjouit de travailler avec les délégations à Genève qui partagent notre vision et celle de nos membres, des droits humains universels. Nous continuerons à travailler avec la société civile dans chaque État membre pour renforcer l'espace civique sur le terrain et pour demander des comptes aux États qui cherchent à réprimer la voix de la société civile.

     

  • 14 member states elected to UN Human Rights Council

    Last week (17 October), 14 new member states were elected to the 47-member state Human Rights Council for the 2020-2022 term.

    Among them were 11 states with a rating of ‘narrowed’ or worse by the Civic Space Monitor, a platform which tracks the state of civil society freedoms worldwide.

    In the Latin America and Caribbean regional group, Brazil and Venezuela, respectively rated as obstructed and repressed, were elected in a three-way contest with Costa Rica, which is rated as open. We regret that states did not take the opportunity presented by Costa Rica’s late-stage candidacy to build a stronger Human Rights Council, which can only be achieved through a membership committed to cooperating with its mechanisms and upholding its aims and values.

    Since the current administration of Brazil came to power in 2018, the country has seen an increase in violent rhetoric and, over the last year, a curtailment of human rights protections and undermining of Human Rights Council mechanisms. This falls far short of the behavior which any member of the Council should demonstrate, and we are particularly concerned by Brazil’s reelection given its influence in the region and beyond. 

    Just one month ago, a report presented at the 42nd Session of the Human Rights Council by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights detailed serious human rights violations by the Venezuelan government, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions. Nevertheless, 105 states at the UN General Assembly states voted for Venezuela to join the Council. The election of Brazil and Venezuela by UN member states at the expense of Costa Rica’s membership severely undermines the commitments of the Human Rights Council.
     
    Namibia (narrowed), Libya (closed), Mauritania (repressed) and Sudan (closed) won the four seats available to the Africa group. Benin also stood for election. We urge the transitional government of Sudan to take steps towards ensuring full accountability for past human rights violations, and to use this opportunity to play a more constructive role in the international community as an advocate for human rights given its strategic position in the Horn of Africa. The ongoing serious human rights violations in Libya makes it unfit for membership and we urge the Human Rights Council to make clear that membership does not preclude it from continued international scrutiny.

    Armenia (obstructed) and Poland (narrowed) took the two open Eastern European Group seats, elected over the Republic of Moldova (obstructed). In the Asia-Pacific Group, Indonesia (obstructed), Japan (narrowed), Marshall Islands (open) and Republic of Korea (narrowed) won the four available seats over Iraq, which had also stood for election. We urge these new members states to use their election to the Human Rights Council as an opportunity to strengthen their commitments to human rights and civic space.

    Germany (open) and the Netherlands (open) take the remaining Western European and Others Group seats, having stood unopposed. 

    The election of so many states with poor civic freedoms records means that civil society engagement at the Council itself is even more vital in order for people to be given a voice at the international level that is denied to them at the national level, and we urge the Human Rights Council to protect and enhance space for civil society within all multilateral institutions.
     
    CIVICUS looks forward to working with the delegations in Geneva which share our vision, and that of our members, for universal human rights. We will continue to work with civil society in every member state to strengthen civic space on the ground, and to hold to account states which seek to repress the voices of civil society.

     

  • 5 countries on civic space watchlist presented to UN Human Rights Council

    Statement at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council
    Watch us deliver our statement below:

     

    Dear Madame President,

    Research findings by the CIVICUS Monitor show a serious and rapid decline in respect for civic freedoms in IndiaLebanonIraq, Nicaragua, and Guinea(countries on current civic space watchlist)

    In India, protests against a discriminatory citizenship law have been met with excessive force and deadly violence by the authorities, with at least 50 killed, and hundreds injured. There has been no independent and impartial investigation into the police violence. Hundreds have also been detained on spurious charges, including human rights defenders.

    In Lebanon, peaceful protests have been subjected to severe and unwarranted violence by the authorities. About a thousand protestors have been arrested or detained while many have experienced torture or ill-treatment while in detention.

    In Iraq, activists and journalists have been abducted, arbitrarily arrested and murdered in order to prevent them from participating in or covering demonstrations that broke out in October 2019.  Since the outset of the protests, hundreds of protestors have been killed at the hands of security forces.

    In Nicaragua, we are seriously concerned by the lack of political will to stop the repression of fundamental civic freedoms and to address the current human rights crisis. We call on this council to support a strong resolution on Nicaragua as the situation continues to worsen.

    In Guinea, mass protests which begun in October 2019 against government plans to replace the Constitution, have been met with excessive force. The killing of protesters and bystanders has been met with almost complete impunity. 

    Such restrictions on civic space are often a precursor for further human rights abuses and we call on the members and observers of this Council to act now to prevent further deterioration.

    Civic space ratings by CIVICUS Monitor
    Open Narrowed Obstructed  Repressed Closed

     


    See our wider advocacy priorities and programme of activities at the 43rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council

     

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