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Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society

The Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society (WGEPCS) fosters collaboration among states, civil society and international organizations to counter, through concrete initiatives, the growing global trend towards constraining civil society organizations and restricting the space in which they can operate through legal means. Since its inception in 2009, the Group, chaired by Canada, has been working to support the essential role that civil society organizations play in a well-functioning democratic society. The Group engages in quiet diplomacy, advocacy and technical assistance activities to prevent the adoption of restrictive laws that target civil society and to foster the development of those enabling laws that allow civil society to thrive. The Group has been effective in coordinating diplomatic actions to counter legislation that excessively restricts civil society, and its work has contributed to restrictive draft laws in several countries having been shelved or amended to remove their more problematic elements. On March 11, 2014, the Working Group held a special workshop on civic space and law

Background
Objectives and areas of work
Working methods
Membership and participation
Additional information
Frequently asked questions

Background

An active, pluralistic civil society is an essential ingredient of a vibrant democratic political system. Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) are the primary vehicles through which people organize themselves to promote shared objectives and values and to convey their interests. They serve as an essential conduit and mediator between individuals and their governments, and a vehicle through which citizens can hold their leaders to account and find a voice in the decisions that affect their lives. CSOs also serve as an important service delivery mechanism, and often provide assistance to the most vulnerable and marginalized in society. 

Despite the critical role they play, CSOs have faced a mounting backlash and a shrinking of the space in which they can operate in many parts of the world. In addition to tactics of repression observed in authoritarian contexts, a number of states are introducing restrictive laws that undermine civil society's independence, restrict its access to funding, limit its activities and ability to organize, or impose onerous registration and reporting requirements on the sector. Such restrictive laws reject the principles of civic participation and the belief that citizens should be able to have a say in the decisions that affect them. Owing to the nature of their work, democracy and human rights organizations are often the principal targets of such restrictive laws.

For additional background on the Working Group and legal threats to civil society, please refer to our Frequently Aksed Questions

Objectives and areas of work

The Working Group seeks to achiveve its objectives through the following three concrete areas of work:

Diplomacy: The Group engages in quiet diplomatic initiatives to enhance information sharing and coordination amongst Working Group members (and other state and civil society partners) to counteract restrictive legislation; and to build and reinforce international norms in support of an enabling civil society environment at multilateral fora, including United Nations bodies. The WGEPCS also engages with relevant UN experts on issues of relevance to the group's mandate in support of civil society. 

One of the Working Group's diplomatic tools is its "Call for Action", which serves as an early warning mechanism to promote international information sharing, engagement and coordination in stimulating a diplomatic response by the international community when draft legislation arises that has the potential to significantly reduce the space in which civil society can operate. Concretely, the Call for Action involves a message sent by the WGEPCS's chair to members and to the International Contact Group (a targeted list of focal points in MFA's, aid agencies, as well as regional and multilateral organizations) in order to:
  • Promote information sharing, engagement and coordination amongst stakeholders;
  • Stimulate diplomatic response (or contribute to a more coordinated and sustained diplomatic response, if diplomatic missions are already active on the issues); and 
  • Encourage the government considering the adoption of the restrictive law to either repeal it in its entirety, or to amend restrictive elements that run contrary to international human rights law and commitments.
Coordinated diplomatic efforts initiated in part by "Calls for Action" have contributed to the restrictive laws in a number of countries being put on ice and significant amendments being made to others to address their more problematic elements. Additional information on the Call for Action mechanism can be found on the Frequently Asked Questions section.

Technical Assistance: The Working Group can provide technical assistance (e.g.: legal and constitutional drafting expertise) to governments interested in ensuring that their laws create a positive, enabling environment for civil society.

Awareness Campaigns: The Working Group seeks opportunities to raise the issue of restrictive legislation at regional and multilateral fora, including at the Community of Democracies, the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly, and the OECD-DAC High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, amongst others, through civil society-focused events and outreach. It also contributes to the building of international norms and values concerning enabling legal environments, including through support for civil society-related resolution at multilateral fora and the work of relevant UN Special Rapporteurs. 

Working methods

The Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society holds regular teleconferences approximately every six weeks, and face-to-face meetings once or twice per year. Meetings and teleconferences are typically held at the working level and are intended to be informal and goal-oriented in nature, with a view of producing concrete deliverables. Participating members are asked to designate one or two persons to act as a focal point to participate in group meetings and calls, thereby providing continuity to discussions. Meeting and call participation is typically limited to participating members, though academic and/or practitioner expertise can be brought in on a case-by-base basis if the WGEPCS's members agree.

The Chair of the Working Group is responsible for organizing conference calls and face-to-face meetings, coordinating with other CD organs (including reporting back to the Governing Council), preparing and distributing necessary documents and ensuring that processes yield tangible deliverables.  

Membership and participation

The Working Group's membership comprises thirteen governments (Botswana, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Tanzania and the United States), four civil society organizations with an expertise in laws governing civil society (Article 19, CIVICUS, the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law and the World Movement for Democracy), and three advisory organizations (UNDP, the UK Charity Commission and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association). Canada has chaired the group since ints inception, in 2009. Countries and organizations with an interest in the issue of restrictions to civil society that are not members of the core group can be added to the International Contact Group mailing list. 

Membership Criteria

Criteria applicable to Member States:
  • Demostrate an ongoing commitment to democratic values and principles: Member-States of the Working Group must, at a minimum, conduct free and fair elections that meet domestic and international standards and reflect the political will of their citizens, and should demonstrate an ongoing commitment to the democratic values and principles outlined by the Warsaw Declaration. States should also be invited to attend the Community of Democracies Ministerial Conferences and other meetings as full participants.
  • Encourage the development and maintenance of domestic civil society and human rights environments: Member-States of the Working Group must encourage the development and maintenance of their domestic civil society and human rights environments, including through the adoption of laws and regulations that serve to enable and protect civil society organizations and human rights defenders, including online. 
Criteria Applicable to Civil Society Members:
  • Possess expertise on issues of civil society restrictions and be focused on the promotion of an enabling environment for civil society: Civil society members of the groups should focus a significant portion of their work on the promotion of an enabling environment for civil society around the world. Civil society members should also have on-the-ground (and/or online) scope in this area. Specific areas of expertise may include freedom of expression and opinion, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association and other human rights-related fields. 
The Working Group will seek to maintain geographic balance in its membership with a view to ensuring that the group is globally representative and well-attuned to regional contexts. 

All Group's members are expected to actively participate in and contribute to the Group's activities. This includes substantive participation in regular teleconferences and face-to-face meetings of the Group, as well as making active contributions to the Group's work through:

  • Volunteering to lead on specific initiatives identified by the WGEPCS for action, including conducting follow-up and coordinations activities in the field on specific diplomatic initiatives (i.e.: "Calls for Action") through diplomatic posts;
  • Disseminating WGEPCS information, including "Calls for Action", through overseas network and missions in the field with a view to enhancing awareness and coordinated engagement on the ground;
  • Sharing information and feedback gathered from the field with the WGEPCS, including on specific country situations;
  • Putting forward new ideas/initiatives on ways in which the WGEPCS can further strengthen its work in support of civil society; and
  • Contributing resources (human and/or financial), as appropriate, in support of the WGEPCS initiatives (i.e.: technical assistance).
For further information about Working Group membership, including on how your organization or state can be involved with its work, please refer to our Frequently Asked Questions

 Additional information  

For further details and clarifications or to be added to the Contact Group list, read the Frequently Asked Questions or contact the Coordinator of the Working Group at the Permanent Secretariat of the Community of Democracies, Mr. Francesco Lembo, or the Chair of the Working Group, Mr. Jeremy Bryan.
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