When individual citizens with shared interests join together to voice their concerns, democracies work better. Civil society contributions to well-functioning governments are widely recognized among those who study these issues.
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu once described the role of this social sector as “at the core of human nature. We human beings want to get together with others … and act collectively to make our lives better.”
Tutu’s words were quoted in an extensive report on this topic in 2012, Defending Civil Society. The World Movement for Democracy published the report in its role as an organization dedicated to keeping democracies healthy and vibrant.
Though government attempts to suppress civil society activities somewhere in the world are reported frequently, Defending Civil Society establishes that citizen organizations have fundamental rights in international law.
The Right to Entry (Freedom of Association)
(1) International law protects the right of individuals to form, join and participate in civil society organizations, such as trade unions, associations and other types of civil society organizations (CSOs), to pursue a broad range of legal objectives.
(2) Individuals are not required to form a legal entity in order to enjoy the freedom of association.
(3) International law protects the right of individuals to form a CSO as a legal entity. Whatever system is put in place to extend a form of legal recognition must be accessible, with clear, speedy, apolitical and inexpensive procedures.
The Right to Operate Free from Unwarranted State Interference
(1) Once established, CSOs have the right to operate free from unwarranted state intrusion or interference in their affairs. International law creates a presumption against any regulation or restriction that interferes in recognized rights.
(a) Interference can only be justified where it is prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
(b) Laws and regulations governing CSOs should be implemented and enforced in a fair, apolitical, objective, transparent and consistent manner.
(2) Civil society representatives, individually and through their organizations, are protected against unwarranted interference with their privacy.
The Right to Free Expression
(1) Civil society representatives, individually and through their organizations, enjoy the right to freedom of expression. CSOs are protected in their ability to speak critically about government law or policy, and to speak favorably about human rights and fundamental freedoms.
(2) Interference with freedom of expression can only be justified where it is provided by law and necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, or for the protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals.
The Right to Communication and Cooperation
(1) Civil society representatives have the right to communicate and seek cooperation with counterparts, the business community, international organizations and governments, both within and outside their home countries. Communications may occur through any media, across any border.
The Right to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
(1) Civil society representatives, individually and through their organizations, enjoy the right to freedom of peaceful assembly.
(2) The law should affirm a presumption in favor of holding assemblies. Those seeking to assemble should not be required to obtain permission to do so.
(a) Where advance notification is required, notification rules should not be onerous.
(b) The law should allow for spontaneous assembly, as an exception to the notification requirement, where the giving of notice is impracticable.
(3) The law should allow for simultaneous assemblies or counter-demonstrations, while recognizing the governmental responsibility to protect peaceful assemblies and participants in them.
(4) Interference with freedom of assembly can only be justified when it is in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals, or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The Right to Seek and Secure Resources
(1) Within broad parameters, CSOs have the right to seek and secure funding from legal sources, including individuals, businesses, civil society, international organizations and intergovernmental organizations, as well as local, national and foreign governments.
State Duty to Protect
(1) The state has a duty to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the obligation to protect the rights of civil society.
(2) The state duty should also ensure that the legislative framework relating to fundamental freedoms and civil society enables their activities and fully recognizes their rights.
View Defending Civil Society in full.
The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author or interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.