Defending civil society space: A governance challenge for our times


Support for civil society space and participation both at the UN and on the ground is essential to advancing human rights, good governance and democracy, writes US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Keith Harper

By Ambassador Keith Harper, US Representative to the UN Human Rights Council

Human rights begin 'in small places, close to home'. Those words from Eleanor Roosevelt are every bit as true today in our modern digitally interconnected world as when originally written over a half-century ago. Throughout history, the personal engagement of individuals and communities - human rights defenders and organizations dedicated to the promotion of human rights - has been the driving force for progress on human rights and democratic governance. 

One of the greatest strengths of the Human Rights Council is its potential to empower civil society by promoting dialogue at multiple levels. The HRC’s three annual sessions provide human rights defenders from around the world with an unparalleled international platform to cast a spotlight on abuses. The Universal Periodic Review, a unique innovation of the Council, encourages governments to engage with civil society as part of the reporting process. At its best, the Council provides a lever for change, a place where human rights defenders come together to engage with governments, to speak with the media and find common ground for action on vitally important  issues.

Navi Pillay meets Keith HarperRecent history provides much evidence of the desire of citizens to have a greater say in shaping political outcomes. Making full use of the tools available at the HRC is now more critical than ever before. The Internet and advances in communications technology have brought people together in unprecedented fashion. Those nations who are serious about greater democratization and securing human rights see this digital revolution as providing effective new means to meeting these objectives. But make no mistake: authoritarian regimes perceive the enhanced mechanisms to exercise the rights of freedoms of expression and association as nothing short of an existential threat. They have reacted accordingly.  Even as the power of citizens has grown, a new raft of restrictions has been imposed on civil society in many places around the world. 

Civil society is a cornerstone of vibrant democracy, and we are deeply concerned at the constant attempt to shrink its space. The State Department’s annual human rights reports document a rise in physical threats and attacks against activists and human rights defenders, an increasingly hostile legislative environment, the criminalization of the work of NGOs, reprisals and harassment. Many countries have enacted restrictive regulations on the Internet and have handed down detentions and lengthy prison terms for journalists and bloggers. 

This backsliding has been felt at the Council as well. Many of the same States who impose restrictions on NGOs at home, also try to silence the voices of human rights defenders at the UN. Using discredited tactics like the 'No Action Motion', they seek to block Council debate on important issues. Worse, some human rights defenders have faced attacks, imprisonment, even threats to their lives, simply for trying to speak at the Council or provide evidence to its special rapporteurs.

'We must come together to intensify our efforts to support and defend civil society and to stem the rising tide of restrictions and reprisals.'

We must come together to intensify our efforts to support and defend civil society and to stem the rising tide of restrictions and reprisals. Governments and international institutions can best serve progress by fostering a supportive environment where civil society can work freely, independently and without fear of retaliation or intimidation. Specifically the role of governments should be to: (1) develop and promote laws, policies and practices that foster a supportive environment for civil society; (2) intensify multilateral pressure to promote and protect civil society, especially in parts of the world where governments see civil society as a threat; and (3) identify new and innovative ways of providing technical, financial and logistical support to civil society.

The Obama administration has made strengthening the position of civil society a cornerstone of our foreign policy. Last September the President convened foreign leaders and civil society representatives on the margins of UNGA to launch 'Stand with Civil Society', a multilateral initiative to push back on restrictions on civic space by focusing on enhancing norms on freedom of association and assembly, utilizing diplomatic response mechanisms, and providing innovative assistance to NGO partners on the ground. Other key initiatives include the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the Community of Democracies, and the Lifeline: Embattled CSOs Assistance Fund.

Here at the Human Rights Council, we are proud of our leading role in passage of the landmark 2010 resolution on Freedom of Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly and similar resolutions on Freedom of Expression. In 2012 and 2014 we worked with a cross-regional core group of partners to pass groundbreaking resolutions on Internet freedom which affirmed that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online. Council delegations have continued to work together on a series of important initiatives to keep the focus on the fundamental issues of civil society space, human rights defenders, political participation, the protection of journalists and ending reprisals. 

Civil society plays a vital role both within each state and within multilateral organizations. I have observed this both from the NGO side when representing Indian Nations and as a diplomat representing the United States at the UN. Indeed, it is not overstatement that nothing is more effective in promoting human rights than the empowerment of the individuals who are working to secure them. Advancing human rights in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to share ideas, speak freely, and to act peacefully on their convictions. Essential progress in our societies most naturally flows from the grassroots up. Because civil society is so vital, states have an obligation to expand its role, to open up additional space for full participation and to safeguard groups and individuals from reprisals. The United States will continue to make this a key priority.

Ambassador Keith Harper is the US Representative to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Prior to his appointment in June 2014, Ambassador Harper was a partner in a leading law firm. A member of the Cherokee Nation, he also served as Senior Staff Attorney with the Native American Rights Fund from 1995 to 2006.

Photo: US Ambassador Keith Harper meets UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (courtesy of US Mission Geneva).


  • North America
  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Universal Periodic Review
  • United States