By Our Representative
The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi touched New York, September 26, an important development which missed everyone’s attention took place. While the UN Human Rights Council urged all member-states to adopt a resolution for ushering in a pluralistic civil society, India decided to dissociate itself from any such move. The resolution got more than 66 co-sponsors, and it asks the UN High Commissioner to prepare “a compilation of practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society.”
Seeking to uphold Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, the resolution said “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources.” ARTICLE 19, a UK-based international charitable company has advocated for the resolution, said, “We are deeply concern that some states, including India and South Africa, made strong statements in opposition to the resolution. While they did not call a vote on the resolution, they officially disassociated themselves from consensus.”
Founded by American businessman and philanthropist J. Roderick MacArthur, ARTICLE 19 was set up in 1980s to defend the right to freedom of expression and is known to and promote laws and policies that protect free expression, holding abusers and governments to account, and advocate for legal reforms. It defends victims by monitoring and analysing abuses, publicising the plight of individuals under attack, providing security training and security measures for journalists and human rights defenders, and litigating on their behalf.
ARTICLE 19 executive director Thomas Hughes noted, “This resolution sends an important signal to States that it is their responsibility to bring their laws and practices into compliance with international human rights standards, including on freedom of expression, to protect civil society space.” He added, however, “We are perplexed that supposedly democratic States, like India and South Africa, have taken issue with this basic principle.”
The resolution was tabled by Ireland, with a core group of Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia. Hughes said, “This resolution is a vital and timely response to the shrinking of civil society space that we see globally. We welcome that the Council rejected attempts to weaken this text, thus reaffirming that a pluralistic civil society is critical to strengthen democracy and development, provide essential services, and promoting and protecting human rights.”
According to an ARTICLE 19 report, “During discussions, the delegation from Brazil emphasized that civil society space online is crucial. The Sierra Leone delegation gave a personal account of how ‘instrumental’ civil society has been to building peace in the country. Similarly, the delegation from Chile stressed that its transition from a military dictatorship to a vibrant democracy.”
The practical recommendations, which will be presented at the 32nd Session of the Council, will assist States in identifying how to address the implementation gap on the protection and promotion of rights essential to the maintenance of civil society space, principally freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and public participation.
Crucial points of principle based on states’ existing obligations under international human rights law which became part of the resolution included:
- The ability of people to collectively solicit, receive and utilise resources is a key component of the right to freedom of association;
- National-security and counter-terrorism legislation, and provisions on funding should not be abused to hinder the work or safety of civil society;
- Civil society space is particularly important for persons belonging to minority and marginalised or otherwise disadvantaged groups, as well as for persons espousing minority or dissenting views and beliefs;
- The real and effective participation of people in decision-making processes should be secured, including at the domestic level in the development, implementation or review of legislation, but also at the regional and international levels.
Several countries came with what are called “hostile amendments”, including Bahrain, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Russia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. At the same time, more than 40 organisations wrote to UN states to reject the amendments, since they would seriously weaken the resolution. While India did not become part of the group which supported “hostile amendments”, ARTICLE 19 said, “We urge all states to act on this resolution to reverse the concerning global trend where civil society space is shrinking.”