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 53rd Session of the UN Human Rights Council 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 53rd session. In the year of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and of the 25th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the Human Rights Council should adopt an ambitious Civil Society Space resolution, which acknowledges the positive role of civil society, stresses the preventative mandate of the Council and strengthen States’ monitoring and reporting responsabilities on civic space violations. Moreover, it is our position that the Council should reaffirm its commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights by renewing the mandates of the Special Rapporteur (SR) on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions and of the Working Group (WG) on Business and Human Rights. On country situations, the Council should strengthen its action on Eritrea and continue its scrutiny on Belarus. On Sudan, the Council should urgently listen to request of civil society and establish an investigative mechanism.
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. 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. In Zimbabwe, the repression of civic space continues unabated with the government imposing increasing restrictions targeting civil society.
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.
Civil Society Space
Civil society space can be understood as ‘’the environment that enables people and groups – or ‘civic space actors’ – to participate meaningfully in the political, economic, social and cultural life in their societies.’’1 A vibrant and healthy civic space requires an open, secure and safe environment that is free from all acts of intimidation, harassment and reprisals. A space where civil society actors - including human rights defenders, women advocates, children, young people, members of minorities and indigenous people, trade unionists, journalists and lawyers - are not targeted because of the work they do, but, on the contrary, are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance, and, in doing so, to influence the political and social structures around them. A safe and enabling civil society space represents, therefore, the bedrock of any open and democratic society based on good governance and the rule of law.
Civic space, however, is increasingly restricted throughout the world with more people than ever before living in countries where state and non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, injure and kill people for exercising their fundamental rights.
Despite these mounting challenges, activists and civil society organisations continue to be agents of positive change. Civil society victories are documented even in countries with very repressive environments, showing that while challenges persist, civil society action continues to be a powerful and effective means of defending rights and advocating for their realisation.
We call on States to adopt a resolution that:
- Acknowledges the positive role of civil society actors and stresses once again the States’ primary responsibility to protect and promote an open and enabling civic space, where activists and human rights defenders are able to work without hindrance and without risking their lives.
- Stresses once again2 and strengthens the Human Rights Council preventative mandate and considers violations of civic space as the first early warning signs on which the Council should take action in order to avert further escalation of the crisis.
- Acknowledges that civil society participation in UN mechanisms is crucial. To this end, the resolution should condemn the practice of reprisals and address the role of UN Member States and of the UN as a whole in protecting civil society actors against cases of reprisals.
- Recognises civil society’s pivotal role in meeting UNSDGs and clearly states that attacks on civil society and civic freedoms are threatening adequate progress being made on meeting UN SDGs. They are weakening action to tackle, among other issues, economic inequalities, gender imbalances, corruption and environmental degradation.
- Asks the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to develop a report elaborating, through a wide consultative process, a methodology for monitoring civic The development of this methodology, and hopefully in the long run of indicators and benchmarks, could be a useful tool for civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists, as well as UN agencies and Member States to highlight civic space violations and restrictions, detect deterioration in civic space conditions as well as improvements of these conditions.
Belarus (Rated as ‘CLOSED’ by the CIVICUS Monitor)3
The repression of Belarusian civil society 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. Since 2021, about 1,180 CSOs have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation. 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:
- Renew the mandate of the SR on the human rights situation in
- 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.
- Use the interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur 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
Eritrea (Rated as ‘CLOSED’ by the CIVICUS Monitor)
Eritrea – a Human Rights Council member - poses a real challenge to the UN system and the international community. Its continued failure to fully cooperate with the Special Rapporteur’s mandate and implement the recommendations of human rights bodies calls the credibility and integrity of the entire UN human rights system into question.
CIVICUS continues to document unlawful and arbitrary killings, forced disappearance; torture; and arbitrary detention, all perpetrated by the government and with complete impunity. There remains conscription of Eritreans into the military or civil services, forced labour, sexual violence, and restrictions to free expression, peaceful assembly, and freedom of religion and belief. The Eritrean government has failed to put in place any institutional or legal frameworks to uphold minimum human rights standards and fundamental freedoms. These restrictions have left Eritreans largely unable to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association and peaceful assembly. Eritrean military have been credibly accused of being responsible for grave violations in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, some of which may amount to crimes under international law.
In 2022, the Human Rights Council incorporated the Special Rapporteur’s ‘benchmarks for progress in improving the situation of human rights.4 To date, none has been met and human rights violations continue unabated. At this session, the Council must go beyond the mere usual procedural resolution extending the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and adopt a resolution which clearly spells out and condemns violations Eritrean authorities commit at home and abroad.
See joint letter here.
We call on States to:
- Extend the mandate of the SR on Eritrea for a further period of one
- Urge Eritrea to cooperate fully with the SR by granting him access to the country, in accordance with its obligations as a Council Member.
- Condemn the ongoing human rights violations committed by Eritrean authorities at home and abroad and the context of complete impunity that prevails.
- Adopt a resolution that welcomes the benchmarks for progress in improving the situation of human rights and associated indicators and recommendations, as well as recommendations formulated by other UN and African human rights bodies and mechanisms and call on Eritrea to develop an implementation plan to meet the benchmarks for progress, in consultation with the Special Rapporteur and OHCHR.
- Adopt a resolution requesting the High Commisioner (HC) and the SR to present updates on human rights concerns in Eritrea and on accountability options for serious violations at the Council’s 55th session in an enhanced interactive dialogue that also includes the participation of civil society and requesting the Special Rapporteur to present a comprehensive written report at the Council’s 56th session and to the General Assembly at its 78th
Sudan (Rated as ‘REPRESSED’ by the CIVICUS Monitor)
The recent outbreak of the conflict has further deteriorated the already dire human rights situation in Sudan characterised by the most complete impunity for grave human rights violations and abuses, some of which amounting to crimes against humanity. Sudandese people have been forced to flee the country to escape extreme violence, poverty and lack of any basic goods and services, but thousands of them are stuck at the borders of neighbouring countries. Children continue to die because of malnutrition and starvation. Authorities continue the brutal and relentless crackdown on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression. Numerous human rights defenders have been abducted, arbitrarily arrested and held in incommunicado detention. Women in particular are bearing the brunt of this violence with attacks on women human rights defenders and women groups continuously on the rise as the violence in conflict areas escalates. The situation for women and girls, which was already extremely critical since the 25 October 2021 coup, has further worsened with widespread sexual and gender-based violence, including rape and the threat of rape in relation to protests and conflict-related sexual violence in Sudan’s conflict areas.
We call on States to:
- Establish an international investigative mechanism with the aim of thoroughly investigating alleged human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law committed by all parties in Sudan since the 25 October 2021.
- Urge Sudanese neighbouring countries, especially Egypt, Uganda, Chad and Ethiopia, to temporarily waive entry visa requirements and recognise prima facie the refugee status to Sudanese people fleeing the country.
Country situations that require the Human Rights Council’s attention
India (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 the ID with the SR on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association, the ID with the SR on Freedom of Expression and other relevant IDs to highlight the increasing crackdown on civic space and 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
- Ask the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare and publish a stand-alone report on the human rights situation in India, with concrete recommendations for improvement.
- Call on the Indian government to provide the Office of the High Commissioner meaningful access to Jammu and Kashmir to prepare and issue an update to the OHCHR reports issued in 2018 and 2019. This is critical given the lack of follow-up on the recommendation made in the reports to establish a commission of inquiry, the failure of the National Human Rights Commission to intervene robustly, and the challenges faced by civil society in documenting the situation.
Philippines (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.
- Ask the government of the Philippines to stop the targeting of activists and human rights defenders, including through intimidation, vilification and ‘red-tagging’.
- Urge the government of the Philippines to stop using the excuse of anti-terrorism and national security interests to crackdown on civic space and civil society organisations.
- Consider the establishment an independent investigative mechanism to address human rights violations and abuses to further accountability and justice.
Peru (Rated as ‘OBSTRUCTED’ by the CIVICUS Monitor)
Peru was 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. As stated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Peruvian police have repeatedly resorted to excessive force against those protesting, and they should be investigated as possible executions and massacres. 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 clearly states 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.
- Use the ID with the SR on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association and other relevant IDs to urge the government of Peru to halt the use of excessive force against protesters and ensure accountability for grave human rights violations committed in the context of protests.
Zimbabwe (Rated as ‘REPRESSED’ by the CIVICUS Monitor)
Due to the relentless severe and rapid decline in civic freedoms, Zimbabwe was confirmed on the CIVICUS’ Watchlist. As Zimbabwe gears up for general elections in August 2023, civic space is under severe attack with increasing restrictions targeting civil society and opposition groups ahead of the elections. Restrictive amendments to CSO law, public vilification of CSOs and foreign diplomatic missions, raids on CSO activities and suspension of CSO registration have become commonplace.
The Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, as highlighted by several UN experts, 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. The Bill, which is only 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. Of great concern is also the draconian bill recently passed by the lower house criminalising acts that damage "the sovereignty and national interest". In the most extreme cases, violators run the risk of up to 20 years in prison. If confirmed by the Senate, this bill will then need to be approved by President Mnangagwa.
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 ID with the SR on Freedom of Peaceful Assembly, the ID with the SR on Freedom of Expression and other relevant debates to call on the Government of Zimbabwe to refrain from using restrictive laws to clampdown on civic space and immediately and unconditionally release activists and human rights defenders arbitrairly detained.
- Highlight the situation while taking into account the operative paragraph 5f of GA resolution 60/251, which mandates that the UN Human Rights Council to work ''through dialogue and cooperation, towards the prevention of human rights violations'', to avert a further escalation of the crisis.
- Urge the President to reject the PVO Amendment Bill and the draconian bill banning criticism of government.
2 UNGARES 60/251, 5(f) and HRCRES 45/31.
3 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.