In the thick of it: a UN resolution to protect and promote civil society space
By Sam Dipnall
I’ve just returned from a wonderful experience contributing to the brilliant team at the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) in Geneva, Switzerland.
The 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in June proved a fantastically engaging and challenging crescendo to my internship, with ample scope to really get into the thick of human rights advocacy.
Last year’s Global Intern here, Joel Lazar, provided a great insight into the vastness, scale, and intensity demanded by the Council’s incredibly dense programme of work when it convenes in March, June and September each year. This, my final piece, tries to complement that perspective and shed some light on a single, but significant, aspect of ISHR’s advocacy I was involved in – the new UN resolution on civil society space.
Just a few starting point concepts
When the UN Human Rights Council adopts a ‘resolution’ it issues a strong pronouncement on the human rights matter contained within it. It is also a statement expressing of the political will of its constituent 47 Member States. Resolutions can range in type, be they procedural: concerning appointing or renewing of special procedures mandate holders; country-specific: responding to reports of grave human rights violations, or even; thematic: to protect and develop human rights and freedoms – as is the case with the civil society space resolution, just one of many considered as part of the 32nd session I attended.
Resolutions are normally adopted by the Council through consensus. However, if contentious, a State can call for the Council to take a vote on its adoption. States voting ‘yes’, endorse the content of that resolution, whereas States who vote ‘no’ clearly do not. Its also open to States to elect not take a position and vote ‘abstention.’ States are not bound to incorporate Council resolutions into their domestic law, and retain their sovereignty to choose their own policy direction. That said, resolutions remain a very significant international statement by the peak UN human rights institution, directing States attention towards current human rights issues of global concern, as well as the core values, issues and problems for States to address.
This practical guide is a great resource to learn more about UN resolutions.
Civil society space: towards a new UN resolution
Earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report containing practical recommendations on the essential ingredients for the creation of a safe and enabling environment for the healthy contribution of civil society. It said,
“Civil society engagement can be viewed as a threshold issue: if space exists for civil society to engage, there is a greater likelihood that all rights will be better protected. Conversely, the closing of civil society space, and threats and reprisals against civil society activists, are early warning signs of instability. Over time, policies that delegitimize, isolate and repress people calling for different approaches or legitimately claiming their rights can exacerbate frustrations and lead to instability or even conflict.”
The report laid the groundwork for a revitalised resolution at the upcoming Council session to internationally promulgate better practices to protect and enhance civil society space. In June, a cross regional core group of five States took up that call. Chile, Ireland, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia proposed a draft resolution building on the previous 2014 resolution. This draft offered high-level principles as well as detailed operative elements, to drive home the importance of States taking steps to better protect civil society space, not shut it down.
To give you a better feel for what I’m talking about, take a look at this paragraph below taken from the text of the resolution. It reads,
“5. Emphasizes the importance of civil society space for empowering persons belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups, as well as persons espousing minority or dissenting views or beliefs, and in that regard calls upon States to ensure that legislation, policies and practices do not undermine the enjoyment by such persons of their human rights or the activities of civil society in defending their rights;”
When I first read this passage, it reminded me of Michael Kirby’s comments about dissent, albeit in a judicial context. He observed that ‘[a] dissent, expressing disagreement over the outcome of a case, is an appeal to the future.’ He also later reflected on the wider nature and utility of judicial dissent in our legal system,
“… amongst its greatest strengths is the role it gives to judges to state their honest opinions. As citizens, we can agree or disagree with those opinions. But we must vigilantly protect, and cherish, these open procedures. And that includes the expression of disagreement, where it exists.”
In that moment, a contextualising spark linking the resolution to our own Australian legal landscape really drove home for me the cascading long-term effect that this international instrument could contribute towards ensuring that all people across the globe, can take up civil society space to voice disagreement, and to legitimately ask for changes and improvement from their governments.
Above: Calm before and after. Some informal negotiation spaces at the UN.
Getting involved: successful UN advocacy in action
Before States would decide on the fate of this resolution in Room XX of the Council chamber, its text would be honed via what is known as the ‘informal negotiation’ process. Like some UN nomenclature, this term probably belies its true nature. Chaired by the core group of States, the informal process is in facts a highly formalised, and rigorous diplomatic event. It involves States delegations publicly discussing issue-by-issue, and at times, line-by-line the resolution’s content. Here, civil society organisations can also advance their perspectives and ideas as well.
Over five consecutive working days, many States and several civil society organisations, including ISHR, contributed to this informal negotiation of the civil society space resolution. This was a heavily contested arena at times, with the debate drilling down into the precise terminology and substance of the text. This led to some States voicing their disapproval for the text as a whole, and later signaling an intention to table amendments and call for a vote.
Concerned that any proposed amendments could remove key components and substantially weaken the text’s substance, ISHR prepared an open letter to the 47 Member States of the Council. The letter explained the strengths of the text as tabled, and spelt out diminishing effect the proposed amendments could have, if supported. With much outreach and effort, a diverse coalition of 246 civil society organisations from over 90 countries spanning all global regions, co-signed this letter in solidarity.
In the final days (and nights) of the 32nd session of the Council, the resolution on civil society space was indeed challenged and a vote was called on. After much debate and comment, the resolution … passed with 31 States voting ‘yes’, 7 States voting ‘no’, and 9 ‘abstentions.’ Importantly, the majority of States also rejected all of the 13 amendments tabled and individually voted on.
The result of the vote is below, and if you want to know more about the impact of this achievement, ISHR explains it best.
Conclusion: the next journey awaits
Advocating for human rights abroad will grant you new perspectives and ideas. That was the message my friends, family and colleagues imparted on me when I left Melbourne back in February this year. They were right. What I didn’t anticipate was the profound amplifying effect that interacting with the UN Human Rights Council can have. For me, it proved to be a deeply enriching insight what’s actually going on in the world of human rights, almost everywhere across the globe, with first hand accounts, reports and information from the widest range of participants.
More significantly my internship unveiled for me the potential of the Council to be a highly effective learning institution for States and civil society alike, to both contribute and draw from, and ultimately, improve their own human rights future. But for this for happen, the oft-stated clarion call to international action rings true. That is, all participants, regardless of status, role or title cannot simply just show up at the Palais des Nations and expect good things to happen. It does take meaningful and long-term commitment to engagement, demonstrated implementation at home, and reporting back to share human rights achievements with the global community.
I’d like to express my gratitude towards the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, its supporters and funders of the Global Internship Program, and ISHR for this great experience. I also want to extend special thanks to former Global Intern, and long lost cousin, Kylie Pearce for her kindness and support she offered during my time in Geneva. Finally, my thanks my family for their endless support and belief in my ability.
Best wishes everyone.