Ireland’s three-year membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council, from 2013 - 2015, presents an opportunity to make an enhanced contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights. Ireland is committed to defending the universality of human rights, and one of our key priorities is the promotion and protection of space for civil society to operate, free from harassment and intimidation. Civil society actors have come under increasing pressure in many parts of the world in recent years. In some countries, dialogue with civil society remains limited, and the space for civil society engagement is narrow or shrinking. Restrictive legislation and repressive practices in some countries have led to stigmatisation, harassment, and even criminalisation of civil society actors. As part of our commitment to the protection of civil society space, Ireland took the lead, with the support of a cross-regional group of member states consisting of Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone, and Tunisia, on a new draft resolution entitled ‘Civil society space; creating and maintaining, in law and in practice a safe and enabling environment’ at the 24th session of the Human Rights Council which took place in September 2013.
The creation and maintenance of space for civil society is inextricably linked to the ability of individuals to exercise their fundamental right to the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, opinion and expression. This resolution addresses, for the first time at the Human Rights Council, the issue of civil society space as a human rights concern, underlining the importance of the contribution of civil society in so many aspects of our lives, and calling on States to create and maintain, in law and practice, a safe and enabling environment in which civil society can operate effectively. The draft resolution was the subject of difficult and politically sensitive negotiations. Ireland successfully defended the draft resolution against several hostile amendments, paving the way for it to be adopted by the Council without a vote.
On foot of the resolution, a panel discussion was held on 11 March 2014 during the 25th session of the Human Rights Council, on the challenges facing states in their efforts to ensure space for civil society, and lessons learnt and good practices in this regard. The Permanent Mission of Ireland to the United Nations in Geneva worked closely with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on the preparations for this event.
The panel discussion was addressed via video message by the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Ms Flavia Pansieri, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, also delivered opening remarks, which was followed by an interactive discussion moderated by Ms. Hina Jilani, a prominent human rights lawyer and pro-democracy campaigner. The panellists were: Ms. Safak Pavey, member of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities; Mr. Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression; Ms. Deeyah Khan, film, music and arts producer; and Mr. Mokhtar Trifi, Honorary President, Tunisian League for Human Rights.
In addition to the panellists, many states, national human rights institutions, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies intervened during the discussion to highlight their diverse experiences in the promotion and protection of civil society space.
Ireland delivered a national statement during the interactive debate which emphasised that protecting civil society space entails the fulfilment of the rights of peaceful assembly, association, opinion and expression, online and offline, which in turn facilitate the enjoyment of other human rights. It is the primary responsibility of states to promote and protect these rights and to be accountable to their citizens. The statement also noted that governments should see civil society as an asset, not a threat. It expressed deep concern that in some countries, certain provisions, such as those relating to national security, public morals, defamation, funding and regulation of the internet, have led to the harassment, stigmatisation and criminalisation of civil society actors.
The statement also emphasised that ethical, religious or cultural values should not be used as a justification for putting in place national legislation which undermines the universality of human rights, and that national legislation should be consistent with international human rights law and should facilitate civil society to operate in a safe and enabling environment. Ireland also highlighted that the engagement and inclusive participation of civil society can cultivate democracy, enhance the promotion and protection of human rights, prevent violations and abuses, and foster social and economic development.
As mandated by the resolution on civil society space, OHCHR will now prepare a summary report of the panel discussion which will be presented to the Human Rights Council at its 27th session in September 2014. Building on this report, Ireland intends to work with its partners to lead a further resolution on civil society space at the Human Rights Council. We will also continue, through our development cooperation programme, to use our voice, influence and partnerships to protect and promote the ability of civil society organisations to operate.