UN Secretary-General: Safeguarding civil society space is vital to promote international peace and security


The UN Secretary-General should prioritise the protection of human rights defenders and civil society space in the UN’s efforts to promote international peace and security, ISHR has said at a meeting between Ban Ki-moon and civil society leaders in Geneva.

(Geneva) – The UN Secretary-General should prioritise the protection of human rights defenders and civil society space in the UN’s efforts to promote international peace and security, ISHR has said at a meeting between Ban Ki-moon and civil society leaders in Geneva.

The meeting, coordinated by ISHR, took place in parallel with the 31st session of the UN Human Rights Council, with the participation of Amnesty International, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Conectas, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, FORUM-ASIA and Human Rights Watch.

In the course of the meeting, NGOs expressed appreciation for the Secretary-General’s recognition of the importance of independent civil society in promoting and contributing to the protection and realisation of rights at the national and international levels. They encouraged the Secretary-General and his successor to continue to make public statements in this regard, showing solidarity with human rights defenders, increasing public awareness and support for their work, and even assisting to secure the release of defenders from arbitrary detention in some cases.

Reversing global crackdown on human rights defenders must be an international priority and concern

ISHR and others expressed concern, however, that despite such interventions, space for civil society is closing at the national and international levels.

‘We are witnessing a global crackdown on human rights defenders, involving physical attacks, reprisals and a proliferation of legal and administrative measures which restrict and criminalise their work,’ said ISHR Director Phil Lynch.

‘Reversing these trends must be a high-level priority for the Secretary-General and, given the importance of civil society to human rights, security and development, should be seen as a question of international peace and security,’ Mr Lynch said.

In the course of the meeting, ISHR made four key proposals to the Secretary-General in this regard.

Combating reprisals

First, while recognising the progress in some bodies and the complex politics in others, ISHR expressed dismay at the failure of the UN as a whole to meet its moral and legal duty to take all necessary steps to prevent, address and follow up on cases of intimidation and reprisals against those who provide information, evidence, testimony, reports or otherwise cooperate with the UN. Whether by reference to Human Rights Council Resolution 24/24 or by exercising his ‘good offices’, the Secretary-General should appoint or designate a high-level focal point or representative to combat reprisals without further delay.

‘The continuing failure to appoint a focal point undermines the institutional authority of the Human Rights Council and fails those who risk their livelihoods and even lives by cooperating with the UN. Meeting the moral and legal duty to respond to reprisals should be part of the Secretary-General’s legacy. Reprisals must not be allowed to continue to worsen under his watch,’ Mr Lynch said.

Protecting freedom of expression and association at the UN

Second, ISHR called attention to the fact that many processes for NGO access to and participation in UN meetings lack transparency, and systematically discriminate against human rights NGOs, particularly those focused on women’s rights, LGBTI rights and minority rights. The practice of the ECOSOC NGO Committee, the gateway for many NGOs to full participation in the UN, has been criticised by member States, NGOs and the UN’s own independent experts alike.

‘It is imperative that the UN uphold the basic rights to freedom of expression and association in its own practices and processes. The ECOSOC NGO Committee should faithfully fulfill its mandate in accordance with international human rights principles and should be pushed and supported by the Secretariat in this regard,’ Mr Lynch said.

Putting the global crackdown on human rights defenders on the UN Security Council Agenda

Third, ISHR referred to Article 99 of the UN Charter, which mandates the Secretary-General to ‘bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which, in his or her opinion, may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security’. This important but under-utilised provision, designed to provide early warning, promote prevention, and overcome political paralysis, could be relied upon, formally or informally, to put the issue of the global crackdown on defenders on the agenda of the Security Council or to convene a special meeting of the Council on the topic.

Invoking Article 99 would, in ISHR’s view, be an appropriate and useful way for the Secretary-General to address the global crackdown on civil society, with its implications for peace, security and development. It would also serve to use the final period of his term to re-enliven Article 99 and create an important precedent for his successor.

Promoting sustainable development by protecting defenders

Fourth, ISHR raised that human rights defenders have a vital role to play in promoting, contributing to, and monitoring implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. The monitoring of those Goals could also contribute to the protection of defenders. This could be achieved through the elaboration of SDG indicators on the situation, recognition and protection of defenders. In this regard, ISHR welcomes and urges the retention, under Goal 16 on access to justice and accountable institutions, of proposed indicator 16.10.1 (relating to the ‘Number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months’).

ISHR also considers that human rights defender indicators should be elaborated for Goal 5 on gender equality and Goal 10 on reduced inequality.

Further situations and issues of concern

In addition to the matters raised by ISHR above, NGO colleagues raised a number of other matters for the Secretary-General’s attention, including the need to institutionalise the UN’s ‘Rights Up Front’ initiative (which aims to prevent violations by making human rights a core element of all UN activities), and the need to address the widespread human rights violations associated with global drug policies.

Additionally, NGOs urged a focus on country situations, including:

  • Burundi, with a need to address the deteriorating situation and the State's flagrant failure to comply with Human Rights Council membership criteria
  • South Sudan, where the UN Human Rights Council should appoint a Special Rapporteur to investigate, promote accountability for, and contribute to prevention of grave human rights violations
  • Myanmar and Sri Lanka, with a need for the UN and Member States to ensure continued monitoring and accountability to secure progress in States at a critical stage of transition
  • Egypt, with a view to reversing the crackdown on human rights defenders, promoting accountability for abuses, and ensuring that the imperative of countering violent extremism is no longer used as a subterfuge for civil society repression and the dismantling of democratic freedoms.


  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Middle East and North Africa
  • ECOSOC Committee on NGOs
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Burundi
  • Egypt
  • Myanmar
  • South Sudan
  • Sri Lanka