The Shrinking Space for Civil Society at the United Nations

Civil Society's Space at the United Nations is Shrinking

Like all NGOs, OutRight’s interventions at the General Assembly depend on civil society access to the UN. This entails physical access into United Nations (UN) buildings to engage with the various human rights mechanisms of the UN, including the UN Economic and Social Council, and even to special debates organized by the President of the General Assembly. OutRight utilizes its UN ECOSOC status every day to advocate for the protection and promotion of the human rights of LGBTI people within the UN system.

Over the past 12 months, access to UN headquarters for NGOs such as OutRight has come under attack. From the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in March to UNGA High-Level Week last week, restrictions on physical access to UN headquarters and limits on meaningful participation in decision-making processes are hindering meaningful civil society engagement. For example, during the CSW, human rights defenders were, for the first time, forced to leave the UN building at six o’clock in the evening while important negotiation processes were still taking place. "Security" was the excuse used.

Shrinking civil society space at the UN is symptomatic of increasing threats to civic participation in democratic spaces across the world. Restrictions on the registration of civil society organizations, limits on access to funding for human rights organizations, and the intimidation and even arrests of human rights defenders are all strategies used by governments today.1

At the UN, multiple reports to the Human Rights Council describe intimidation, harassment, and arrests of civil society activists across the globe.2 According to the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), “[S]pace for civil society is not optional. International human rights law places an obligation on States to respect rights and freedoms that are indispensable for civil society to develop and operate...Vibrant civil society participation in the United Nations human rights system is indispensable to the effective protection and promotion of human rights.’3

Without a free and vibrant civil society, there is no democracy, human rights, security or national development. Civil society is an indispensable requirement of the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals which “Encourages and promotes effective public, te and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships” (SDG 17.17).4,5

While high-level leaders of the UN offer rhetorical support for civil society participation, access to the UN has become more restricted for than ever for OutRight and our allies.6 Thankfully, NGOs are organizing and galvanizing political leadership. Newly appointed UNGA President, Miroslav Lajcak, offered some hope of support on civil society inclusion, using his maiden speech and his Twitter account to announce that, “@UN was created for people - esp. Those not sitting in this call today. It’s the task of the #UNGA to make sure their voices are heard.”

OutRight has recently called for reform to the system to ensure that civil society can meaningfully engage with UN processes and that human rights defenders working at the international level be protected from reprisals. The message of OutRight’s platform for reform is clear: The UN must uphold the rights of all people and protect spaces for civil society participation in order to advance fundamental human rights and development.


1 Tiersky, Alex, and Emily Renard. Closing Space: Restrictions on Civil Society Around the World and U.S. Responses. Congressional Research Service, 6 Apr. 2016,
2 Cooperation with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights. Human Rights Council. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 17 August 2015,
3 Practical recommendations for the creation and maintenance of a safe and enabling environment for civil society, based on good practices and lessons learned. Human Rights Council. Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 11 Apr. 2016,
4 “SDGs: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” United Nations, United Nations,
5 Ibid 3
6 “Requesting a United Nations Grounds Pass in New York for NGOs in Consultative Status with ECOSOC.” Welcome to csonet.Org,


Rashima Kwatra has experience working on international issues as they relate to the human rights of marginalized communities, with a specialization in sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics (SOGISC). Her engagement on SOGISC issues has encapsulated communications, policy, advocacy, and strategic philanthropy to further the global lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) human rights agenda. Prior to joining OutRight Rashima worked on the SOGISC program teams at Human Rights Watch, Wellspring Advisors, LLC., and for the United Nations Development Programme’s ‘Being LGBTI in Asia’ initiative. She holds a Masters of Public Administration from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs as well as a Bachelors of Arts from the George Washington University. She is from Bangkok, Thailand.