United Nations Guidance Note: Protection and Promotion of Civic Space (September 2020) [EN/AR/RU/ZH]


1. Introduction and purpose

“We the peoples of the United Nations determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war […], to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained, and to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.”
– Preamble, Charter of the United Nations

As the Charter of the United Nations celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary, the present Guidance Note seeks to shed light on how best do justice to its promise of “We the peoples”. As the drafters of the Charter and of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly recognized, development, peace and security, and respect for human rights are interdependent, and achieving them requires meaningful, inclusive and safe public and civil society participation. Meaningful participation in turn requires open civic space: an environment that brings a diversity of voices into debates, and safe channels and a vibrant media landscape that allow for peaceful disagreement and dissent.

The Guidance Note was prepared pursuant to the Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights, launched before the Human Rights Council in February 2020. The Call to Action reaffirms the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the pursuit of fundamental rights and freedoms is at the heart of the work of the United Nations, and makes public participation and civic space a priority area. The Note aims at guiding the leadership and staff working in United Nations entities, including the Secretariat, United Nations agencies, funds and programmes (collectively referred to as the “United Nations system”), in accordance with their relevant mandates in protecting and promoting civic space and ensuring increased consistency across the system. It is anchored in international law, in existing policies under the United Nations pillars of development, peace and security and human rights, and in its humanitarian work.

The Note outlines key steps that United Nations entities can take individually or jointly to strengthen civic space engagement, taking into consideration the role, capacities and programming approach of each one. The Note is based on substantive contributions from United Nations entities and civil society, and highlights good practices for advancing civic space and engaging civil society.

Participatory approaches to decision-making and policy discussions help to forge a positive dynamic relationship between people and their governments, where peaceful protests and grievances can be addressed and settled by responsive and accountable administrations: this significantly reduces the risk of fragility, crisis and violence, thereby making societies safer and more resilient and policymaking more effective and legitimate. Conversely, the absence of dialogue is likely to exacerbate social and political tensions. Repeated attempts to restrict civic space, and excluding individuals and groups from expressing their views, assembling freely, creating associations and participating in decision-making are often a prelude to a general deterioration in the political situation and to further human rights violations, and therefore a clear early warning sign. Engaging people also makes for more legitimate and effective decisions, more widely supported and more likely to be successfully implemented.