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Recognizing that challenges to the work of civil society organisations exist in every part of the world and take a variety of forms, this event discussed the findings of recent reports on civil society space of the OHCHR and FRA.
Ambassador Michael Gaffey, the Permanent Representative of Ireland to the UN in Geneva, opened the event, underlining the crucial role of civil society organisations for a functioning democracy and an effective UN. Ireland is leading a resolution on civil society space during the ongoing session of the Human Rights Council, with strong support of the European Union.
Peggy Hicks, Director of the Research and Right to Development Division of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), presented the newly published OHCHR report on civil society engagement with international and regional organizations. She underlined the importance of access to information and the possibility of participation for civil society actors. She also highlighted numerous barriers to civil society participation in regional and international organisations, including reprisals against – often without sufficient response from States and the UN system itself. She informed that many UN organisations do not yet have a reprisals policy and that OHCHR is preparing a report on this specific issue. She plead for stronger, more consistent and effective action against reprisals, in particular within the UN system. Moreover, she recommended further cooperation between New York and Geneva on issues of restriction of civil society.
Michael O'Flaherty, Director of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), an independent body of the EU, presented the results of a recent FRA report on challenges facing civil society. He underlined some of the main challenges to civil society's work: disadvantageous changes in legislation or inadequate implementation of laws; hurdles to accessing financial resources and ensuring their sustainability; difficulties in accessing decision- makers and feeding into law and policymaking; and attacks on and harassment of human rights defenders, including negative discourse aimed at delegitimising and stigmatising civil society. Mr O'Flaherty underscored that the issue of civil society is now firmly on the agenda of the EU, for example in discussions and planning of the next EU budget. Some EU Member States have also reacted swiftly to the concerns addressed in their discussions with FRA, with some states correcting counter-terrorism laws to diminish unintended consequences.
Phil Lynch, Director of the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), regretted the increase in threats, harassment, attacks, killing, arbitrary detention, impunity and stigmatisation against civil society, and reprisals against civil society engaging with UN mechanisms. He underlined the worrying trend of also targeting families of civil society actors, their associates and their organisations. Patriotism, counter-terrorism, patriarchy, nationalism were highlighted as some of the key drivers of these developments. He added that counter-terrorism arguments are also used on international level to restrict accreditation, not only within individual states. Mr. Lynch recommended that the political cost of silencing civil society should be increased. Generally, he said, constructive reflection and the practice of self-criticism are to be strengthened. To conclude, he suggested the effective development and implementation of a "Human Rights Defenders Up Front" initiative.
Lopa Banerjee, Director of UN Women's Civil Society Division, underlined how civil society working on LGBTI and gender-related issues, women's rights and minorities are the ones facing the greatest challenges and informed that UN Women is currently developing a policy on women human rights defenders. She stressed that the power of fear is used to legitimise attacks on civil society and that the new narrative of de-legitimising civil society activism is based on an argument pretending to protect stability.