Civil society is central to inclusive development


A free and vibrant civil society is vital to ensuring inclusive and sustainable development, says a group of prominent UN human rights experts.

By a group of UN human rights experts*

As the launch of the post-2015 development agenda approaches, we call on UN member States to ensure that the new global goals are firmly grounded in international human rights norms and standards, including the principle of participation, and that they acknowledge the importance of a free and vibrant civil society for effective implementation.

In the midst of the global debate on the next set of development goals, targets and indicators, we emphasise that civil society plays an undeniably central role in the implementation of the development agenda. Civil society is integral in helping governments find innovative solutions to complex developmental problems while oftentimes providing necessary public services. A vibrant civil society also ensures that the voices of the vulnerable and marginalised are meaningfully included in the development initiatives that will affect their aspirations and well-being. But in order to undertake this role, civil society must be free to operate.

Civic space is shrinking worldwide, and there is therefore, a need to explicitly recognise the importance of a free and vibrant civil society. In recent times there has been a noticeable rise in attacks on civil society actors, a proliferation of laws that limit freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, growing restrictions on associations’ ability to access resources, an increase in bureaucratic harassment of civil society, politically motivated prosecutions of human rights defenders, violent dispersal of peaceful demonstrations and a surge in illicit surveillance of activists. We are gravely concerned at a spike in the number of reports documenting physical assaults and killings of in particular environmental right defenders, social workers, women's rights activists and other members of civil society promoting the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is essential that the principle of partnership with civil society as well as the space for civil society to freely operate are at the heart of the post-2015 framework. As the UN Secretary-General unequivocally stated in his report 'The Road to Dignity by 2030', participatory democracy, free, safe and peaceful societies are both enablers and outcomes of development. 

A human-rights based approach to the post-2015 goals requires a set of indicators measuring the extent to which enabling environments for civil society exist. We call upon member States to include such indicators as an indivisible component of the post-2015 framework. In this regard, we refer to OHCHR’s work on human rights indicators, including on developing indicators to measure the right to freedom of expression and the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. These freedoms are essential to the realisation of the entire new development agenda and are integral to Goal 16, on the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development and its target 16.10, to ensure public access to information and communication for all. OHCHR’s work and the various multi-stakeholder and civil society initiatives to measure civic space and civil society participation should become an integral part of the discussions on indicators.

Civil society organizations can also play a critical role in collecting data on the most vulnerable or marginalised populations groups, often excluded from traditional statistical surveys conducted by national statistical offices. In conformity with international statistical standards, collaborations between national statistical offices and civil society organisations should be strengthened.

We take note of the Secretary-General’s call that all 'financing streams need to be optimized towards sustainable development, and coordinated for the greatest impact.' We take this encouraging message to mean that in the post-2015 framework there will no longer be any room for restrictions on civil society or associations to seek, receive and utilise resources so that they too may operate freely to fulfil their work. The shared post-2015 goals also entail and presuppose civil society's ability to freely associate and cooperate worldwide, without any obstacles that hinder financial and material cooperation by and support for civil society across borders.

When States convene in May 2015 to discuss a monitoring and review framework for the post-2015 development agenda, we urge that a prominent focus of the conversation be a people-centered sustainable development agenda that enables individuals, particularly those from the most marginalised communities, to participate freely in monitoring and review mechanisms. All civil society organisations, regardless of their status at the national and international level, should be regarded as equal partners and entitled to participate States should recognise the need to support efforts of developing the capacity of organisations representing the most marginalised groups, to enable them to influence on an equal basis. The promise that no one be left behind cannot be met without full and free civil society participation throughout the post-2015 process, from negotiation of the goals, targets and indicators to the monitoring and review of measures to achieve them.

Public participation in development and accountability will remain elusive without an active civil society of empowered women and men, young and old, who can exercise their rights in an enabling, supportive environment.


(*)The UN human rights experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights, is the general name of the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms of the Human Rights Council that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. This piece was issued in the name of:

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  • Freedom of expression, association and assembly
  • Human rights defenders
  • NGOs
  • Reprisals and intimidation
  • United Nations
  • Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council