Moral and strategic victory for defending civil society

Democracy Digest

The new rapporteur will likely address such issues as freedom of assembly in Iran.

Democracy and human rights advocates are welcoming the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) decision to establish the first-ever Special Rapporteur on freedom of association and assembly. The resolution demands that member states respect the rights of individuals and civil society groups to freely organize and peacefully demonstrate. 
The rapporteur’s office will hold member states accountable for encroachments on the freedom to organize and assemble by monitoring the exercise or denial of these basic democratic rights, identifying best practices, and exposing violations and abuses.

The initiative is an important step forward in the battle to defend civil society against state repression, said Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

The special rapporteur will not only be able to focus attention on specific abuses, and thereby help to mobilize political support to correct them. But the very act of carrying out the rapporteur’s mission will help define the norms that governments must respect, he said. This raises the possibility that these norms will eventually be codified into international standards that will help protect and empower civil society.

China, Russia, Cuba, Libya and Pakistan were the only members of the 47-member council that declined to support the move, claiming that it would duplicate the work of other UN experts, including the International Labor Organization, the UN agency that monitors labor rights.

The resolution was sponsored by a diverse group of states, including the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lithuania, the Maldives, Mexico and Nigeria.

The decision is both a moral and pragmatic victory, writes Samantha Power, the US National Security Council’s senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights.

She welcomed the move as a testament to the universality of rights acted upon every day by citizens around the world who mobilize on behalf of good government, more inclusive politics, cleaner air, media freedom, and the full stable of human rights.

Civil society groups and human rights defenders will welcome the decision as a significant step in defending the political space that has been under attack from authoritarian regimes in the ongoing backlash against democracy.

At a recent meeting in Vilnius, activists highlighted the problem of legislation being used extensively to reduce the space within which human rights organizations and defenders can operate.

Some activists have complained that President Obama’s laudable rhetoric has not been matched by policy, in part due to what some observers considered the administration’s excessive concern to distance itself from the Freedom Agenda of George W. Bush.

But democracy advocates will be encouraged that the administration has now started to highlight the defense of civil society as a practical focus for its approach to promoting democracy.

The arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble; by organizations outside of government that insisted upon democratic change; and by free media that held the powerful accountable, President Obama said in his recent address to the UN General Assembly, citing the anti-apartheid movement, Polish Solidarity, Argentina’s mothers of the disappeared, and the US civil rights movement.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the need to defend civil society in a landmark speech in Krakow this summer, insisting that human progress depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions.

The UN Human Rights Council needs to do more to protect civil society, she told the Community of Democracies, noting that freedom of association is the only freedom defined in the United Nations declaration of human rights that does not enjoy specific attention from the UN human rights machinery, an omission that now rectified by yesterday’s decision.

Democracy activists have been scornful of the legitimacy of a body comprising serial human rights abusers.

So the UNHRC’s resolution will lend some credibility to a body that has been criticized for its disproportionate focus on Israel while refusing to address more egregious abuses in other states, including such council members as Libya, China, Cuba and Saudi Arabia.

Members of the Obama administration believe the move will vindicate the decision to engage rather than boycott the controversial body.

That is exactly the type of issue that the United States had committed to bring to the top of the human rights council agenda, said U.S. Ambassador Eileen Donahoe. We take that as a mark of great success for this body to have come to a consensus agreement on this matter.

The rapporteur will be expected to address such issues as opposition protests in Iran, the right to demonstrate in Russia, and women dissidents right to march in Cuba, she said.

Egyptian security forces this week forced the closure of an NGO conference which planned to discuss threats to freedom of association.

The Mubarak regime has clearly demonstrated that despite government claims to the contrary, freedom of association is not a right that is respected in the country, said Paula Schriefer, acting executive director at Freedom House, the human rights watchdog.

The authoritarian resurgence has forced civil society groups onto the defensive, requiring democracy advocates to re-state the case for fundamental rights.

Freedom of association is crucial for building democracies that deliver for all segments of the population, according to Greg Lebedev and John Sweeney, chairmen respectively of the Center for International Private Enterprise and the Solidarity Center, both core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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