A high-level panel discussed the challenge that repression imposed to achieve stability represents for human rights and fundamental freedoms at the 8th annual Trygve Lie Symposium on “Civil Society under Pressure and the Role of the International Community.” The event took place at IPI on September 30th, during the opening of the United Nations General Assembly.
Børge Brende, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Norway, lamented the shrinking space for civil society. “It is high time we recognize the notion that suppressing civil society contributes to stability is both flawed and dangerous,” he said. “If recent history has taught us anything, it is that political crisis and human rights violations are part of the same story.”
He also emphasized that the promotion and protection of human rights was the responsibility of all member states of the UN. “We must continually remind each other and ourselves that human rights are as fundamental as they are universal,” he said. “And we must avoid falling into the trap of using conflicts and political crisis as an excuse to limit the space for civil society.”
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, emphasized that despite the importance of having an active civil society for the protection of human rights and the rule of law, many governments are extremely reluctant to hear criticism. “It would surprise you how governments with mature institutions, democratic governments, are just as nervous, just as prone to reject outside critics, as the most repressive regimes,” he said.
He recounted one such experience, stating, “Over the summer, my staff and I went through about 80 country-specific files,” he said. “We looked at the internal situation of about 80, maybe more, and we came to the conclusion that hitherto, we had always listed by the September session all those countries where we saw the democratic space shrinking, the pressure on civil society enormous.” The repression of civil society is so widespread, “that now there are too many countries to list,” he said.
Salil Shetty, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, drew upon his personal experience in civil society advocacy as he urged the panel to take a broader view of human rights defenders. “Think of the full range of abused,” he said. “In addition to restrictive laws, a whole set of mechanisms are being used to restrict freedoms.” Among them, he said, were cutting off or limiting funding for civil society organizations, attacks on peaceful protestors, mass surveillance, and the targeting of environmental defenders by the mining and extractives industry.
He also highlighted a problem with the mindset that political rights can be seen as extraneous while growth is prioritized. “The same governments who stand up for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not ready to accept that economic/social rights, cannot happen on a sustained basis without civil/political rights,” he said. “We are still in that old debate, where people think development stuff first, and then we will sort this out, so we have a conceptual problem.”
Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, winner of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, said that in many outwardly peaceable societies the space for civil society is not just shrinking, it does not exist. The international community often does not pay attention to abuse in such contexts, because it is unexpected in societies perceived as democratic. “The question we need to ask ourselves, from which perspective, which lens is it? Democracy from the Western lens or from the local lens?” she asked.
Highlighting her point that there is more complexity to societies outwardly deemed democratic, she said, “If you go to some countries in Africa today, where we think there is democracy, civil society have been co-opted as tools for the government or people are leaving!”
Mr. Brende reflected on the accusation that human rights are a Western construct. “We have to handle this very carefully,” he said. “Human rights are fundamental values, are universal rights. [It] has nothing to do with the West, these are universal rights, so this kind of discussion of these ‘traditional’ values is becoming more and more an excuse.”
The panelists concluded that a bleak picture had been outlined, but Mr. Shetty disagreed. “It’s bleak if you look at governments,” he said. “Fortunately, the world is not made up of governments; it is made of human beings, of people—and there—there is a huge amount of hope.”
Reflecting on the viral #BringBackOurGirls campaign for Nigeria’s Chibok girls, who remain missing, Ms. Gbowee said, “I think this new emergence of the celebrity kind of thing, if it must happen, should be committed to the long haul. Not just, come, hashtag, trending, and then end.”
The Trygve Lie Symposium was co-hosted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway.
Ms. Lyse Doucet, BBC correspondent, moderated the conversation.