High Commissioner calls for safety and access to the UN for civil society


In his inaugural address to the Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasised the important role of human right defenders, the need to protect civil society space and the imperitive of ending reprisals.

(Geneva) - In his inaugural address to the Council, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasised the role of human right defenders, pointing out that they are prepared to risk their lives in defence of others or to end injustice and therefore ‘we must do everything we can to protect them and celebrate them’. He called for action to guarantee access for civil society actors to the United Nations’ mechanisms and to tackle the scourge of reprisals referred to in the latest report of the Secretary-General.

Vital role of civil society

The new High Commissioner strongly encouraged the Council to strengthen engagement with civil society and stressed that the valuable work done by the Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and the Council itself could have never been possible without the support and contributions of civil society.

‘We must acknowledge the value of civic contribution, build the capacity of marginalised voices, ensure a place at the table for civil society actors, and safeguard their activities,’ he said, adding that restrictions to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are stopping progress by preventing the spread of information and ideas intended to help the Council and States to take the right decisions regarding human rights developments.

Several States - including Austria, France, the UK and Italy on behalf of EU - joined the High Commissioner in recognising the importance of ensuring a safe environment for civil society to engage without fear of reprisals. The Ambassadors of Uruguay and Botswana, along with their Swiss counterpart, all expressed support for combating the issue of reprisals, with Botswana underlining the necessity that the General Assembly soon take note of Human Rights Council Resolution 24/24 in order to allow for its effective implementation to tackle the issue.

Ireland spoke out for civil society space at the Council itself, Ambassador Patricia O'Brien said that ’to shut down debate in this Chamber goes against one of the fundamental reasons for our presence here,’ adding that NGOs must be allowed to take the floor and make statements, whether or not States agree with their opinions. In a similar vein, Nigeria supported and encouraged the High Commissioner to continue to acknowledge and appreciate the work of human rights defenders and reminded Member States in the room that ‘human rights defenders are also human rights advocates and we trust that Room XX is meant for human rights advocates no less’. Indonesia recalled a proverb saying that ‘only together can we go far’, whilst the US said that the ‘shrinking space of civil society in many nations limits discussion and debate’.

Threats to civil society space within the Human Rights Council

Unfortunately, these statements of intent were immediately put to the test when Egypt called a procedural point of order to censor the intervention of ISHR’s Michael Ineichen, who referred to the recent repression of civil society in that country.

The Council's long standing practice is that speakers can refer to country situations under any of the Council's General Debates to contextualise their statements. Under Item 2, this implies countries that are referred to in reports of the High Commissioner or where the situation is an example or illustrative of a theme or issues discussed by the High Commissioner.  If NGO space is to be safeguarded during this Council session, where a resolution on civil society space will be tabled, the Council's President and Vice-Presidents must uphold this rule in a more principled way. 

It is also imperative the States be better prepared to safeguard NGO participation and that a greater diversity of States be prepared to take the floor on such issues rather than having to always rely on the likes of the US, UK, France, Ireland and the Netherlands.

Country situations and need to combat impunity

Violations and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa headed the list of national concerns outlined by the High Commissioner in his update to the Council. He stated that the resolution of the conflicts in Iraq and Syria should be a priority for the international community, with protection of the most vulnerable - children, women and some religious and ethnic groups – requiring urgent attention.

High Commissioner Zeid urged all parties of the conflicts in Gaza, Libya and Ukraine to end violations and ensure compliance with international humanitarian law. He also raised concerns regarding the situation in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

One challenge which he chose to highlight was impunity and reiterated that those responsible for crimes against humanity must be held accountable if it is to be ensured that such crimes will not be committed again. ‘Impunity can only lead to further conflict and abuses, as revenge festers and the wrong lessons are learned,’ he said. He stressed that it is not too early for the international community to assess the roots of recent crises and listed some of the factors which had accelerated the conflicts and hindered the development of ‘tolerant and moderate civil society movements’: patterns of violations, corruption, discriminatory political systems, a lack of promotion and protection of economic and social rights and civil and political rights, and the violent oppression of civil society actors.

Combating discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity

In addition, the High Commissioner shared his concerns about serious acts of discrimination in many regions. He affirmed that ‘discrimination and inequalities of all kinds prevent people from achieving their full potential’ whilst noting that the Sustainable Development Goals, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals in one year, must aim to eliminate such inequalities and include a human rights perspective in doing so.

In their responses to the High Commissioner's update, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay announced that they will submit a resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity similar to the one which was approved in 2011. They stated that their efforts aim to make visible, and help overcome, existing problems and flaws in laws and in practice around the world.  


Marta Kolasinska is a Human Rights Advocate at the International Service for Human Rights

Photo: The High Commissioner addresses the Human Rights Council, UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré 


  • Middle East and North Africa
  • Human rights defenders
  • LGBT rights
  • NGOs
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Central African Republic
  • Egypt
  • Libya
  • North Korea
  • South Sudan
  • Sri Lanka
  • Ukraine