Expand civic space, UN urges govt

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk

THE United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk has implored the Zanu PF government to respect, protect and expand civic space to ensure that citizens are free to express themselves.

Türk made the call in a statement highlighting offline and online violations of civic space for human rights defenders. This was part of the UN monthly spotlights for the 75th year of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“We all want to help shape our futures, our communities and our countries, but it is not possible when we do not have space to speak (out) and debate different viewpoints safely,” Türk said.

“Civic space is a human rights issue, it is a peace issue and it is a development issue. It is key for sustainable and resilient societies, yet it is under increasing pressure from undue restrictions and repressive laws.”

Zimbabwe is one of the countries red-flagged by the UN as experiencing closure in civic and democratic space under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s rule.

Mnangagwa’s government is on the verge of passing into law the controversial Private Voluntary Organisations (PVOs) Amendment Bill which has been viewed as a tool to silence non-governmental organisations known for calling the government to order over the country’s deteriorating human rights situation.

Türk said the country was experiencing threats and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, online bullying and harassment, crackdown on peaceful assembly and internet shutdowns.

“States must step up efforts to protect and expand civic space as the precondition for people to be able to sustainably enjoy all other entitlements enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, from access to healthcare and clean water and quality education to social protection and labour rights,” Türk said.

“Civil society is a key enabler of trust between governments and the populations they serve, and is often the bridge between the two. For governments to reduce barriers to public participation, they must protect this space, for the benefit of all — both online and offline. As crucial decisions about our lives are increasingly made online, with private companies playing an outsized role, having an open, safe digital public square has never been more important.

“Yet we see States struggling, and often failing, to protect online civic space and those who use it, swinging between a laissez-faire approach that has allowed violence and dangerous hate speech to go unchecked, and overbroad regulations used as a cudgel against those exercising their free speech rights, including journalists and human rights defenders.”

Türk described civic space as the best indicator of a State’s commitment to upholding the noble aspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a State’s willingness to recognise violations when they occur.

“It is about the key question of whose voices we hear in decision-making — and ultimately, whose rights will be respected,” he said.

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