Shrinking Space for Civil Society: 2021 Human Rights Day Statement

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On Human Rights Day, 10 December, Pax Christi International expresses its concern regarding shrinking space for civil society actors around the globe. Today we celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) while increasingly hear from members and partners globally that they face violations of their UDHR right to participate in public life (Article 21), requiring freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

Spaces for civil society to express views are essential for the functioning of democratic societies. The year 2021 has been difficult for civil society as they have faced restrictions to their work due to long-term trends regarding closing space for civil society and ongoing global pandemic. For example, new laws are weakening NGOs and the media; human rights defenders and environmental protectors are being criminalised; and the right to assembly by civil society is being limited under the pretext of pandemic measures. In extreme cases, civil society, activists, and journalists have been detained arbitrarily, tortured, and killed.

We highlight here two highly concerning cases of narrowing civic space of human rights and civil society organisations:

  • International Memorial, winner of the 2013 Pax Christi International Peace Award and a highly respected human rights organization in Russia, and its human rights center are in danger of being dissolved. The Russian Prosecutor General’s Office has filed a lawsuit seeking their dissolution based on fallacious violations of a law whose bias against freedom of expression and freedom of association has been repeatedly denounced by many since 2014.  This law governs the activities of non-commercial organisations receiving foreign funding, known as the “foreign agents” law.[1] It’s not first time that we hear that the Memorial movement has faced acts of harassment and obstacles to its work. 
  • Six Palestinian human rights organisations and civil society groups (Addameer, Al-Haq, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, the Bisan Center for Research and Development, and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees) have been designated by the Israeli Minister of Defense as terrorist organisations. Worryingly, this would allow the Israeli military to arrest their staff, shutter their offices, confiscate their assets, and prohibit their activities and human rights work.[2] 

On Human Rights Day, we call the international community to monitor civic space trends and the situation of human rights defenders while strongly denouncing situations where civic space of civil society is under attack. Also, to support policies and legislation for open and pluralistic civic space for civil society around the globe that guarantees freedom of expression as well as freedom of assembly and association, which are essential foundations for sustainable development and peace.

Photo: Tal King via Flickr (CC ND BY NC 2.0)

[1] In a letter to the Russian General Prosecutor of 30 November 2021 the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights urged the General Prosecutor to discontinue the proceedings against Memorial, see this link:

[2] Several UN human rights experts have condemned the designation on 25 October and stated that anti-terrorism legislation must not be used to unjustifiably undermine civil liberties or to curtail the legitimate work of human rights organizations, see this link: