States must act to protect the voice of their people


It is the right time to act to safeguard the strategic importance and role played by civil society in the protection and promotion of human rights, says Janet Love of South Africa’s Legal Resources Centre

By Janet Love, National Director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC)

The South African experience has clearly shown that the development of a fully democratic and equal society cannot be achieved by government alone, or even by enshrining human rights into law. Not only did civil society play an important role in the demise of apartheid and South Africa’s transition to democracy, but today civil society continues to work tirelessly to protect our hard-won democracy.

It is crucial that the resolution on the protection of civil society space currently being debated at the UN Human Rights Council reflects the vital role of civil society in advocating and agitating for change, and condemns the imposition - in law or practice - of restrictions on this work.

The role of civil society in promoting democracy, accountability and the rule of law is frequently under attack by States throughout the world. Community-based organisations and other formations that represent the most vulnerable members of society have to consider the possibility of reprisals, sometimes violent, before they act. Without intervention, the space in which human rights defenders operate will increasingly become unsafe.

The Legal Resources Centre (LRC) strongly supports and welcomes the presentation of the draft resolution on the protection of civil society space at the current session of the Human Rights Council. The draft resolution is a much-needed acknowledgement of the importance of strengthening and supporting civil society as a key component of democratic participation. It also represents a timely opportunity for States to reaffirm the strategic importance and role played by civil society in the protection and promotion of human rights.

Through civil society, and in particular the work of non-profit organisations, the State is able to implement programmes which are vital to the development and well-being of the most marginalised people and communities. One example from South Africa relates to home-based care, in which civil society has taken on a critical role in the fight against the HIV/ AIDS pandemic. Civil society also plays a key role in enabling processes of consultation with larger communities and an expansion of community participation required by various policies and legislation, such as municipal planning processes and the development of water catchment management structures.

Organised civil society plays a critical role in building participatory democracy, in promoting a culture of human rights and in facilitating socio-economic development for millions of poor and disadvantaged people.

However, civil society’s role in nation-building also stems from its critical voice when it manifests popular sentiment in the form of social movements and when individuals and organisations question and expose fundamental breaches of law and policy; when whistle-blowers expose corruption and assist in apprehending those responsible for the rot that would set in without such challenges. Civil society acts as a voice for the marginalised and vulnerable people when their basic human rights are threatened or taken away.

When the voice of civil society disappears, so too does the voice of the people.

Now more than ever, it is essential that States allow civil society organisations the freedom to do their work. The Human Rights Council’s recent report on the promotion and protection of civil society space has highlighted some disturbing global trends, which must be reversed if human rights and basic freedoms are to be upheld. The report revealed reductions in the independence and resources of non-governmental organisations, including through increasingly restrictive legislation. It is imperative that this is not allowed to continue.

Civil society in all its forms acts as the microphone through which the disadvantaged individual can seek to hold government to account. It is therefore crucial that civil society actors are able to undertake their work independently and free from the fear of intimidation or retaliation. Civil society must not be silenced, bound up in legalistic red-tape or have to operate in fear for speaking out on behalf of the people.

The creation and ongoing maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society is vital to ensure that States can uphold their existing obligations under international human rights law and to secure robust equality and accountability at all levels of society. We urge States to support the draft resolution, to reflect upon their current legislation and practices to strengthen civil society and to recognise the importance of inclusive, transparent and accountable practices for democracy and development.

Janet Love is the National Director of the Legal Resources Centre (LRC), South Africa’s largest public interest, human rights law clinic. She can be contacted at

Since its establishment in 1979, the LRC has been at the forefront of civil society efforts to build a fully democratic society wherein the rights, responsibilities and principles enshrined in the South African Constitution, as well as under international human rights law, are upheld. The LRC believes that this Constitution is a living and transformative document and that civil society plays a very important role in ensuring that rights have meaning. The LRC has seen, first hand, that appropriate consultation with and support for civil society by the State can bring about genuine engagement with democracy and promote respect for human rights.

For more information on this issue, contact ISHR’s Michael Ineichen on


  • Africa
  • Human rights defenders
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • South Africa