Realising the promise of SDG 16 to promote and protect civic space

By Deirdre De Burca, Forus

Many in the human rights community are sceptical about what they regard as the weak potential of the SDGs to advance a universal human rights agenda. (See foreword by former Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston of a recent report on Goal 16 and civic space produced by my organisation Forus,)

Such ambivalence towards the 2030 Agenda has meant that some human rights activists and practitioners overlook or disregard the role that SDG 16 could play in promoting civil and political rights globally. Current research shows that civil society, in over half of the countries of the world, is facing serious and growing restrictions on its freedom to engage, express itself and be heard. With increased surveillance, persecution and even violence against civil society, many CSOs have come under attack, particularly those advocating on behalf of excluded groups and minorities, for democratic rights and in defence of the environment. Human rights defenders in Africa, Latin America and Asia and in other parts of the world have been targeted and attacked. 212 environmental and land rights defenders alone were killed during 2019, and 219 human rights defenders are estimated to have been killed or died in detention in 2016. Technology advances have also brought increased surveillance on civil society and have created new risks for the civic space.

The freedom to exercise civil and political rights is also extremely important for civil society as it struggles to fulfill the role it has been mandated by the 2030 Agenda. The multi-stakeholder model of implementation, monitoring and review which is central to this Agenda requires civil society to have access to adequate civic space, and an enabling environment in which to operate if it is to make an effective contribution. The recent Forus report, Realising the potential of SDG 16 to promote and protect civic space, highlights how SDG 16 can provide important leverage for civil society everywhere in its efforts to create and defend the civic space, and to be more effective in monitoring and implementing the 2030 Agenda.

The effective implementation of SDG 16 will have profound implications for civic space in countries across the world. This goal broadly focuses on issues of governance and aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. A specific target of SDG 16, Target 16.10, commits UN member states to “Ensure access to public information and protect fundamental freedoms”. These freedoms, which include basic rights to associate and assemble peacefully and to express views and opinions, are themselves fundamental human rights protected under international human rights law, and are essential to the creation and maintenance of the civic space.

And yet despite the clear aim of Target 16.10 to protect fundamental freedoms, the two global-level indicators which have been adopted to date by the international community to assess progress with this target do not adequately measure the extent to which these freedoms – particularly freedom of association, expression and assembly – are being protected. Indicator 16.10.1 while very relevant to the issue of civic space covers “the number of verified cases of killing, kidnapping, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture of journalists, associated media personnel, trade unionists and human rights advocates in the previous 12 months”. Indicator 16.10.2 covers “the number of countries that adopt and implement constitutional, statutory and / or policy guarantees for public access to information”.

But these global-level indicators, which are “outcome indicators” focus primarily on violations of the rights to bodily integrity and life and do not directly measure the extent to which fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression are being protected in day-to-day civic life as citizens attempt to engage with issues which impact on their communities and wider societies. In particular, Indicator 16.10.1 (verified cases of kidnapping imprisonment, kidnapping and murder of activists) needs to be complemented by the development and adoption at global level of other relevant structural and process-related civic space indicators. (For  example, a possible  structural civic space indicator could be :  “the existence and coverage of domestic laws protecting the rights to freedom of association, assembly & expression, including judicial review of any decision taken by the state to restrict it” and a possible process-oriented civic space indicator could be : “the proportion of received complaints on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly invested and adjudicated by courts or other competent national mechanisms in the last 12 months”. See more about such indicators on pg 73 of the recent Forus Goal 16 & Civic Space report). These indicators could subsequently be adopted at national level where specific gaps in the civic space have been identified.

This failure to monitor and measure the extent to which citizens are free to participate in the civic life of their societies a significant omission where SDG 16 is concerned,  The civic space case studies contained within the recent Forus Goal 16 report highlight the many restrictions civil society currently faces in different parts of the world where the exercise of rights to association, assembly and expression is concerned (see pg 62 of Forus report). These restrictions will negatively impact on the capacity of civil society in those countries to contribute to the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda. The fundamental freedoms referred to by SDG 16 are essential to the creation of a healthy, functioning civic space, and to enabling civil society to effectively contribute to monitoring and implementing the 2030 Agenda, and they should be continuously monitored and measured.

There is an urgent need for the international community to extend the scope of SDG 16 civic space indicators which are currently limited to an outcome indicator measuring the extent to which activists, human rights defenders and others have been kidnapped, imprisoned or murdered. Additional global indicators must be developed, linked to Target 16.10, which measure the extent to which citizens can exercise their rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression in their communities and societies, in accordance with international human rights standards and national human rights laws.  Given that the OHCHR, together with UNESCO and the ILO, is the official custodian for Target 16.10.1, the human rights community, wider civil society and other key stakeholders seeking to influence the development of the indicators and of data collection need to engage with these organisations and participate in that process.

Following the launch of the Goal 16 report at the UN High Level Political Forum in 2020, Forus and its partners intend to collaborate with interested civil society networks and other groups on a new global advocacy campaign. This campaign will call for a wider range of civic space indicators to be adopted by UN member states as official Goal 16 indicators and to become part of national, regional and global Goal 16 review processes of the 2030 Agenda. The involvement of human rights activists and practitioners in this global advocacy campaign, and in the wider monitoring and review of SDG 16 implementation, will be crucial for several reasons.

Firstly, the potential contribution of the human rights community to a global campaign calling for the adoption of a wider range of global civic space indicators linked to SDG 16 would be critical. Human rights practitioners could bring their considerable specialized knowledge, advocacy capacities and political influence to bear on the campaign. Secondly, in relation to the significant data gap that has developed where Goal 16-related civic space and wider governance monitoring systems are concerned, the human rights community could help to address this issue. There is a growing and unfulfilled need for official statistics linked not just to the measurement of civic space but also to the measurement of governance in its fullest sense (eg inclusion, civic participation, rule of law, access to information).  At the end of the first four- year cycle of the implementation of the 2030 Agenda (2016-2019), very few countries and statistical offices have successfully produced governance data to report on progress with SDG 16. There has been a clear failure to use data and information produced for other relevant reporting processes, particularly the kind of useful information which has been produced for human rights reporting mechanisms, to report on progress with SDG 16 implementation. If human rights advocates were more involved in the 2030 Agenda review mechanisms, their specialised expertise relating to the Universal Periodic Review and other human rights treaty reporting processes could be used to advocate more effectively for proper measurement of and reporting on the implementation of SDG 16.

Secondly, human rights advocates could also add their voice and their ability to influence those of Civil Society Organization networks such as Forus, which are calling for SDG 16 of the 2030 Agenda to be reviewed annually by the UN HLPF, instead of every few years as it happens at present. A precedent exists with SDG 17 which is reviewed annually by the HLPF. If Goal 16 were subject to annual review, reporting governments would be obliged to report to the UN HLPF each year on progress with SDG 16 implementation in their countries. This would serve not just to keep the issues of civic space, the exercise of fundamental freedoms and the promotion of human rights high on the international political agenda on an ongoing basis, but also the wider issues of governance, justice, peace, and security.

In conclusion, the combined energy, commitment and specialised knowledge of the human rights community could bring a considerable impetus to current efforts to realise the critically important promise of SDG 16 to promote and protect civic space. Human rights advocates and practitioners should join forces with civil society movements and other interested stakeholders to launch a broad global advocacy campaign for a wider range of civic space indicators to be adopted as part of official Goal 16 global, regional and national review processes.  Please contact me on if you wish to discuss this proposal further!

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