New York

23 September 2013

Secretary-General's remarks at High-Level Event on Supporting Civil Society [delivered by the Deputy Secretary-General]

Thank you for this initiative which touches on so much of the work that brings world leaders to the United Nations this week.  I am pleased to be here to deliver this message on behalf of the Secretary-General.

We are living in turbulent times.   

The relationship between leaders and those they govern is changing.  There are new demands, new technology and new expectations.

But one act, one approach, remains at the heart of this bond:  listening.

If leaders do not listen to their people, they will hear from them – in the streets, the squares, or, as we see far too often, on the battlefield. 

There is a better way.

More participation.  More democracy.  More engagement and openness. 
That means maximum space for civil society.

Free and independent civil society is a foundation for healthy, responsive governance. 

Civil society is crucial for advancing human rights by raising awareness, and ringing the alarm about abuse, inequality, or creeping authoritarianism. 

Indeed, civil society is central to advancing the work of the United Nations across our agenda, not only for human rights but also for peace and security, as well as development. 

Civil society has never been more important or needed.

That is why the growing pressures and restrictions facing civil society in country after country are so deeply troubling.  Legislation is being introduced targeting civil society and sometimes making it practically impossible for them to operate. 

We are seeing a rise in laws that restrict the activities of human rights defenders.

We are seeing new ways to impede their work – through   over-reaching anti-terrorism and national security legislation; measures relating to public morals, or defamation; laws requiring registration and funding of associations; and new rules regulating Internet access.

The assault on human rights defenders and other civil society groups through the law has been matched with outright attacks. 

Smear campaigns.  Travel bans.  Harassment and intimidation.  Illegal detentions.  Torture.  Even death. 

Reprisals and intimidation against individuals cooperating with the United Nations is unacceptable – not only because they help us do the work mandated by the Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – but because they also aim to discourage others from working with us.

We must take action at every level to strengthen the voices of democracy.

Leaders and others in positions of influence and authority must publicly and systematically condemn acts of reprisal and intimidation. I welcome ongoing discussions to ensure a strong UN system-wide response to reprisals. 

There should be impartial investigations to bring perpetrators to justice, and remedies for victims.

And, of course, we must reinforce the indispensable role of United Nations Special Rapporteurs in defendingand protecting all aspects of human rights, including the rights to freedom of association and assembly.

People and civil society groups often risk their lives to improve the lives of others. 

They speak out even when knowing they could be silenced forever. 

They highlight problems that others ignore or might not even know exist.

They seek out like-minded people across the world even as they are left at times to feel all alone.

They protect our rights.  They deserve their rights. 

All of us have a responsibility to respect fundamental human rights and protect those who advocate for them. 

When that does not happen, all of us have an obligation to stand up and speak out.

Let us do that today and every day.