As a global civil society alliance with a mandate to strengthen citizen action and civil society throughout the world, CIVICUS’ key priorities and recommendations ahead of the 52nd Session of the UN Human Rights Council (27 February to 4 April) relate to protecting fundamental freedoms and supporting civil society where they face grave risk.
There are a number of opportunities for the advancement of civic space and the protection of civil society at the upcoming 52nd session. Thematically, it is our position that the Council should reaffirm its commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights by renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders, freedom of opinion and expression, and on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. On country situations, the Council should continue its scrutiny and extend the mandate of its mechanisms on Nicaragua, South Sudan and Ukraine and of the Special Rapporteurs on the human rights situation in Myanmar and Iran while ensuring continued monitoring of the human rights situation in Belarus by the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR).
The Human Rights Council should also address the human rights situation of countries not on its agenda that require urgent action and prevent further violations. Sustained attacks against civic space and on the independence of the media and civil society in India have rendered the Council overdue on taking action. In the Philippines, human rights defenders and activists continue to be arbitrarily arrested and detained on fabricated charges. It is time for the Council to establish an independent investigative mechanism to address these violations and abuses to further accountability and justice. In Zimbabwe, the repression of civic space continues unabated with the government imposing increasing restrictions targeting civil society. Peru’s democracy is at a crossroads and the Human Rights Council should use its prevention mandate to avert a further escalation of the crisis.
The full participation of civil society remains a critical part of the Human Rights Council. CIVICUS encourages States to ensure consultation with national, regional and international civil society to enable them to fully participate in Council debates and negotiations.
Belarus (Civic space is rated as "CLOSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
The repression of Belarusian civil society following the disputed presidential elections in August 2020 continues relentlessly, with a wide range of tactics used by the authorities to intimidate and criminalise the work of civil society. Over the past year, the categorisation of civil society personnel, groups and organisations as 'extremist', in a bid to invalidate and criminalise their work, has become an increasingly common practice. Activists, journalists and independent media have been targeted with this classification, which subjects them to prosecution and being banned. As the government continues to accuse CSOs of extremist actions, it has leveraged legislative changes to issue liquidation orders. By May 2022, the number of liquidated CSOs reached 765. Of these, 448 were forcibly liquidated by the authorities and 317 decided to self-liquidate. Amendments to domestic law have been made over the last two years by the authorities in order to create new offences that criminalise civil society and its work. The new amendment to the Criminal Code, which recently entered into force, further closes the space for human rights activists and organisations, making it possible to prosecute people outside the country’s national borders.
We call on the States to:
- Support and adopt a strong resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus which can further investigate violations with a view to holding perpetrators to account.
- Renew OHCHR examination mandate and establish an independent investigative mechanism to complement and follow-up on the work of the existing OHCHR examination.
- Use the interactive dialogue with the High Commissioner to raise the relentless deterioration of civic space in the country and urge the Belarusian government to immediately and unconditionally release the members of Human Rights Center, ‘Viasna’ who are arbitrarily detained.
See joint NGO letter here.
Iran (Civic space is rated as "CLOSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
In February 2023, Iran was added to the CIVICUS’ Watchlist due to the Government's continued attempts to stifle civil society and any form of political dissent in the country. Thousands of Iranians have been judicially harassed, arbitrarily arrested and killed at the hands of the authorities solely for exercising their fundamental rights. Detainees are kept in overcrowded spaces, tortured, subjected to physical assaults, threats, and sexual harassment.
Although atrocities scaled up after the murder of Mahsa Amini, activists, human rights defenders and peaceful protesters have been the victims of State abuses for decades. Corporal punishments and other forms of ill-treatment and torture have been used as legal penalties. The death sentence continues to be widely used as a repression tool, including against boys and girls as young as 9 years old, and the authorities show no sign of stopping this horrific practice.
The establishment of a Fact-Finding Mission on Iran represented a fundamental step to investigate the human rights violations related to the protests that began on 16 September 2022, but the mandate of the Special Rapporteur remains a pivotal and complementary tool to ensure scrutiny of the wider range of human rights violations in the country.
We call on the States to:
- Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur to ensure continued scrutiny of the wide range of human rights violations in Iran.
- Use the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur to request the Iranian government to immediately and unconditionally release Nasrin Sotoudeh and the dozens of human rights defenders arbitrarily detained.
Myanmar (Civic space is rated as "REPRESSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
Attacks on civic space continued unabated in the second year of the coup. Since February 2021, the Myanmar military junta, which assumed power illegally, has arrested the civilian leaders of the national and state governments and unleashed a deadly crackdown against a mass ‘civil disobedience movement’ opposing their actions. Serious human rights violations documented in the first year of the coup have persisted, especially against the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression. They include the criminalisation, arbitrary arrest and prosecution of human rights defenders and activists, the ongoing use of torture and ill-treatment as well as meting out of death sentences and carrying out of arbitrary executions. Civil society has been virtually wiped out, politicians jailed while journalists continue to be targeted. The junta has also crackdown on online dissent and all forms of protests with demonstrators facing long jail sentences as retribution.
The five-point consensus agreement decided by ASEAN leaders in Jakarta in April 2021 has seen no tangible progress. The UN has continued to document and raise concerns – including in relation to crimes against humanity and war crimes – and numerous countries have imposed sanctions, but they have yet to have a major impact on halting the violations committed by the junta.
We call on States to:
- Renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and include in the text of the resolution language highlighting the misuse of counter-terrorism laws against activists, and the serious concerns over the new Registration of Associations Law.
- Use Interactive Dialogues with the High Commissioner and the Special Rapporteur to denounce and reject the proposed sham election by the junta to legitimise their rule and prolong the suffering of the people of Myanmar through de-facto military rule.
Nicaragua (Civic space is rated as "CLOSED" on the CIVICUS Monitor)
In Nicaragua, the crackdown on civic space and civil society continues relentlessly. In October and November 2022 alone, the Ministry of Interior ordered the removal of the legal status of 133 national civil society organisations (CSOs) and the cancellation of the operating registration of 65 foreign CSOs. Over 3000 organisations have been stripped of their legal status in Nicaragua in a concerted effort by the Nicaraguan government to eliminate all dissenting voices. In the November 2022 municipal elections, the Ortega government secured control of the 153 municipalities in an arbitrary and non-transparent process ‘’characterised by repression of dissenting voices and undue restrictions of political rights and civil liberties’’ .
More than 240 political prisoners, of which eight are women human rights defenders or their family members detained in the week preceding the election, are held in degrading conditions and receive cruel treatment in various prisons in the country. Due to various human rights violations, more than 150,000 Nicaraguans are living in exile without being able to return home.
In light of Nicaragua’s complete lack of engagement with regional and international mechanisms, the Group of Human Rights Experts (GHRE) and the monitoring mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights remain essential to investigate serious human rights violations in the country with a view to ensuring accountability and access to justice for victims.
We call on States to:
- Renew the Group of Expert’s mandate for two years and extend OHCHR’s reporting mandate Group of Experts and extend the monitoring mandate of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, paying special attention to the restrictions on civic space, the conditions of political prisoners and the situation of forcibly displaced families.
- Use the Interactive Dialogues with the GHRE and with the High Commissioner to raise concerns about the civic space environment in Nicaragua, particularly pertaining to undue restrictions to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
South Sudan (Civic space is rated as "CLOSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
There has been no recent improvement in the human rights situation in South Sudan and violations against human rights defenders and activists continue. Impunity and high levels of violence persist and have included a five-month-long attack by armed groups against civilians in Western Equatoria that killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands. Such violence continues to affect civilians, threaten the country’s stability and endanger prospects for sustained and lasting peace.
Civil society in the country faces intensifying repression and the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression are particularly targeted. Arbitrary arrest, intimidation and use of force against protesters has characterised the authorities’ response to peaceful protests. Over the last year, there have been reported recurring incidents of law enforcement officials violently dispersing protests and intimidating and arbitrarily arresting protesters. Authorities continue to criminalise CSOs and their activities. During the past year, cases of harassment, raids on media outlets and arbitrary arrests and detention of journalists by National Security Service (NSS) officials, often without charges, were reported. These practices, perpetrated by State and non-State actors, seem solely intended to disrupt media work and intimidate journalists.
The Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) is the only mechanism tasked with collecting and preserving evidence of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law with a view to ensuring accountability and addressing human rights issues in South Sudan from a holistic perspective. Its work remains vital as the conditions that prompted the Human Rights Council to establish the Commission, in 2016, have not significantly changed to warrant less scrutiny.
We call on States to:
- Continue the Human Rights Council's meaningful action on South Sudan by extending the CHRSS’s mandate in full for a period of two years to enable it to comprehensively report on the election and transition process.
See joint NGO letter here.
Human Rights Defenders
A report will be presented to the Human Rights Council session on the outstanding achievements made by human rights defenders. In the year of the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (‘Declaration’), the Special Rapporteur takes stock of the important contributions of human rights defenders towards more just, equal and accountable societies, often at the expense of their safety and security. Human rights defenders are victims of intimidation, harassment, persecution, arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial killings because of their work. As stated by the Special Rapporteur, too often the vital work of human rights defenders goes uncredited and unacknowledged and this reinforces the agenda of anti-right movements and governments who want to portray human rights defenders as being unpatriotic, traitors, criminals and even terrorists.
We call on States to:
- Acknowledge the importance of the role of human rights defenders and commit once again to their protection by renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and providing adequate funding to the mandate.
- Use the interactive dialogue to publicly acknowledge and celebrate the work carried out by human rights defenders and condemn any act of intimidation, harassment and violence against them, including by naming human rights defenders who are arbitrarily detained or at risk.
Country situations that require the Human Rights Council’s attention
India (Civic space is rated as "REPRESSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
The Indian government's crackdown on civic space continues unabated. The authorities continue to use the draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) to target CSOs, block foreign funding and investigate organisations that are critical of the government. Human rights defenders and journalists are subjected to judicial harassment and to detention on the basis of repressive security laws, including the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and sedition provisions. Several journalists have been killed and others physically attacked, intimidated or harassed for their work to expose human rights violations or corruption. Independent media organisations are harassed to intimidate them from exposing human rights abuses and high-level corruption. Human rights defenders have been targeted for surveillance by clients of the Pegasus surveillance spyware. The authorities have also harassed CSOs and journalists in Jammu and Kashmir. Some have been targeted by National Investigation Agency officials for 'secessionist and separatist' activities and detained under the draconian Public Safety Act (PSA) which permits administrative detention (detention without trial).
We call on States to:
- Use General Debates to highlight the increasing crackdown on civic space and the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders to denounce the patterns of violations against human rights defenders, including intimidation, criminalisation, judicial harassment, detention, threats, physical attacks and killings.
- Use these and other opportunities to request the immediate and unconditional release of Kashmiri activist Khurram Parvez and other human rights defenders and activists arbitrarily detained.
Peru (Civic space is rated as "OBSTRUCTED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
Peru was recently added to the CIVICUS’ Watchlist due to the serious violations of civic freedoms since the ousting and arrest of former President Pedro Castillo. This rapid turn of events has deepened Peru’s long-term institutional crisis and sparked protests in the country. At least 40 people have been killed in protests since December 2022. Peruvian police have repeatedly resorted to excessive force against those protesting, including by firing tear gas canisters from close range directly at the bodies of protesters. This response is far from isolated, it represents a recurrent issue in regard to the policing of demonstrations. Protests against fuel prices in 2022 were also met with excessive force. The country currently has a Police Protection Law in place which could shield officers from accountability for abuses. Journalists covering the demonstrations have also faced attacks from both law enforcement agents and protesters.
The situation of the press in Peru has noticeably deteriorated in the past years, in the context of extreme political polarisation, with, inter alia, attacks on journalists by government supporters, anti-rights groups and other non-state actors.
Human rights defenders in Peru continue to face violence, in particular Indigenous and environmental defenders. Recently, we also recorded a wave of attacks on human rights defenders and civil society groups by far-right collectives.
We call on States to:
- Highlight the situation while taking into account the operative paragraph 5f of GA resolution 60/251, which mandates that the UN Human Rights Council should use its prevention mandate to work ''through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations'' and to avert a further escalation of the crisis.
Philippines (Civic space is rated as "REPRESSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
After almost one year of the Marcos administration, the situation for civil society has not seen any improvement. On the contrary, the new administration has consolidated worrisome practices and trends targeting human rights defenders and civil society at large. Trends include systematic intimidation, attacks and vilification of civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists, increasing crackdown on media freedoms and the emerging prevalence of a pervasive culture of impunity. Crackdowns against activists and CSOs have often occurred under the guise of antiterrorism or national security interests. The widespread practice of ‘red-tagging’ - labeling activists as terrorists - often ends up with extrajudicial killings of activists and human rights defenders with impunity. At least 40 human rights defenders were killed between January 2020 and June 2021, with absolute impunity. Use of restrictive legal provisions to curb freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly remains a challenge.
The UN joint programme has been unable to fulfill its mandate, especially concerning strengthening domestic investigation and accountability mechanisms.
We call on States to:
- Present a resolution that, at a minimum, mandates the High Commissioner to conduct an assessment of the UN Joint Programme and present a report on ways forward.
Zimbabwe (Civic space is rated as "REPRESSED" by the CIVICUS Monitor)
In February 2023, Zimbabwe was listed for the second consecutive term on the CIVICUS’ Watchlist due to its severe and rapid decline in civic freedoms. As Zimbabwe gears up for general elections in July 2023, civic space is under severe attack with increasing restrictions targeting civil society and opposition groups ahead of the elections. Restrictive amendments to civil society organisations (CSO) law, public vilification of CSOs and foreign diplomatic missions, raids on CSO activities and suspension of CSO registration have become commonplace.
As highlighted by several UN experts, the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, is awaiting President Mnangagwa’s assent to become law seeks to subject CSOs to tighter restrictions and arm authorities with unfettered discretionary power to over-regulate and interfere in non-government organisations’ governance and operations, amongst other restrictions. The bill represents one of the greatest threats to freedom of association in Zimbabwe and is an attempt by the authorities to target civil society groups that have often raised concerns about violence related to elections. In response to concerns about the PVO amendment Bill, state-controlled media outlets launched an unwarranted and unsubstantiated propaganda and smear campaign by painting CSOs as conduits of foreign agents and criminal activities, amongst other narratives.
CSOs are also facing unrelenting harassment with authorities regularly disrupting their activities, for instance arresting and detaining staff. The political opposition has also not been spared, as the government embarks on a severe crackdown on opposition party members and their supporters, who face constant arrests, attempts at banning their rallies and attacks from supporters of the ruling party.
We call on States to:
- Use the General Debates to call on the Government of Zimbabwe to refrain from using restrictive laws to clampdown on civic space and urge the President to reject the PVO Amendment Bill.
- Use the Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on human rights defenders to urge the Government of Zimbabwe to immediately and unconditionally release Obert Masaurare, and other activists and human rights defenders arbitrarily detained.
 The CIVICUS Monitor tracks civic space worldwide, and assigns countries a rating on a scale ranging from open to closed. ‘Open’ countries are ones in which the State both enables and safeguards the enjoyment of civic space for all people. In ‘narrowed’ countries, while the State allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression, violations of these rights also take place. In ‘obstructed’ countries, civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights. ‘Repressed’ countries are ones in which civic space is significantly constrained. In ‘closed’ countries, there is complete closure - in law and in practice - of civic space.