Theoretically, the idea of civil society is rooted in the need, as far as the sixteenth and seventh centuries, to address concerns regarding relations between individuals, the state and society as well as between the private and public.  Essentially, it is a platform for “active citizenry” and the concern for public affairs. In the contemporary world, some scholars like Benjamin R Barber note that the term civil society generally describes voluntary associations of international and national entities including non-governmental organizations, humanitarian agencies, labour/trade unions, religious groups, social movements, media and academia. From this list, it is note-worthy that due to the need to separate its work from the State processes, the current structure of CSOs has facilitated the prominence of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) within the broader civil society. In the practical world, the word NGOs is almost synonymous with CSOs. Yet, even within NGOs, there is a category specifically characterised as human rights organisations (HROs). According to the International Council on Human Rights Policy, this category includes international organisations, various human rights agencies of the UN, national human rights institutions and  committees of Parliament, on top of departments in government structures. It also includes trade unions, development agencies, institutional donors, local NGOs along with indigenous groups. In practice nevertheless, ICHRP notes that organisations which deliberately put human rights as their core focus either individually or in concert with others could more specifically be referred to as HROs. However, ICHRP is still cognisant of the fact that narrowing the definition is not helpful because even HROs are broader due to the various themes within human rights work.

Regardless of the above classifications, the role of civil society in promoting human rights accountability is well established in the human rights field. The UN Charter (1945) for example permitted the Economic and Social Council to consult international and national NGOs on matters of its competence. Even the World Conference on Human Rights (1993) equally brought various human rights NGOs to push for their advocacy issues.  Today, this can be corroborated by the UN Human Rights Treaty System reporting procedure which incorporates the input of civil society, mainly through “shadow reports”. UNDP observes that the advent of civil society at international and local levels has increased awareness and enhanced opportunities for documentation of human rights implementation. Similarly, the Limburg Principles acknowledge that NGOs can be instrumental in promoting the implementation of the ICESCR. In the same vein, General Comment 5 recognises the role of civil society groups like “NGOs, academic institutions, professional associations, youth groups and independent human rights institutions” in autonomously monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). The Convention further notes that NGOs can play a pivotal role in ensuring widespread debate of various aspects of the Convention. Some regional human rights texts like the Aarhus Convention acknowledge and strengthen the role of civil society which contributes to greater transparency. Bantekas and Oette in their book, International Human Rights Law and Practice posit that civil society has a dual mandate of promoting human rights as well as enabling the exercise of rights. Specifically, they note that HROs are presumed to act in good faith and public interest. Peter J. Spiro identified the roles of human rights NGOs to include information dissemination, surveillance, consultations and reporting human rights problems to relevant bodies. The above analysis shows the practical grounding of civil society’s work in promoting human rights implementation.

Over the years, another group within civil society has emerged, namely; human rights defenders. This, according to the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders (1998) includes NGOs, groups, individuals and associations. The Declaration recognises the role and “valuable work” of these groups in safeguarding rights and freedoms. It invites, among others, NGOs to “intensify their efforts” to promote human rights. The Declaration recognises the primary duty of states in human rights implementation as well as the responsibility of human rights defenders and the broader civil society to support the realisation of rights. Overall, the Declaration is generally designed to support and explain the obligations of States toward human rights defenders. These include guaranteeing their right to receive funding, participate in advocacy and trial observation and complaints. Generally, states should guarantee all factors that provide a favourable environment for the groups to flourish in a State. The Declaration underpins government’s obligation to cooperate and coordinate efforts of rights defenders. Similarly, General Comment 5 implores states to provide a conducive situation for CSOs to support the realisation of the rights in the CRC, singly or jointly especially because NGOs immensely contributed to the Convention’s drafting.

In terms of human rights accountability, under the human rights treaty monitoring system — a global mechanism for monitoring State compliance with human rights, NGOs participate in drafting country reports, even when admittedly, this is not uniform a practice. UNDP observes that with the rise of civil society, it became possible to locally and globally analyse human rights situations using “new approaches”. It opines that civil society has generally been successful at tracking human rights implementation using indicators by examining whether they are reflected in government’s laws, policies and practices. Demonstrably, in the context of human rights implementation, civil society lends its intellectual and technical expertise to the design of rights, development of indicators and ultimately, monitoring of State compliance to ensure realisation of rights. Through their various advocacy and service delivery interventions, CSOs also directly contribute to the implementation of rights.

A human rights awareness session by Legal Hub Uganda, an access to justice organisation in Uganda

Nonetheless, civil society’s role in tracking human rights is not without blemish.  For example, the increased “NGOization” of civil society has to some extent replaced citizen agency. Bantekas and Oette point out the legitimacy concerns of NGO work based on their questionable democratic credentials because, as Julie Mertus in an article on the role of NGOs (Mertus, 1999) argues, there is no “parliament of civil society” or an “electoral process” for their constituency (grassroots) to consent to decisions made on their behalf. Additionally, most NGOs practically account to their donors yet ideally, the ‘beneficiaries’ should also have a say on their work and because of this, it is most times difficult to assess the impact of NGOs’ work. The authors also highlight the increased elitism and professionalisation of the platform as opposed to pursuing genuine societal concerns. NGOs are also accused of being pious and always claiming high moral ground on some issues at the expense of the grassroots people. Scholars like Nicola Banks, et al critique the NGO funding mechanism which largely relies on foreign donations most of which has strings attached including advancing some foreign political interests. Many NGOs are also riddled with corruption allegations which compromises their credibility to promote transparency and accountability for human rights as well as attract funding. ICHRP also notes that HROs are vulnerable to various tactics deployed by undemocratic States to curtail their work. Some of tricks include bureaucratic registration requirements, travel bans, shutdowns, intimidation, funding restrictions, and in worst cases physical attacks that result in death, among others. This greatly undermines their ability to hold states accountable. Internally, Bantekas and Oette shine a light on the power imbalance between global and local CSO groups. The issue merits attention because the global south-global north divide especially in terms of resources has given the international organisations an upper hand in shaping affairs even in local situations which national actors are well-placed to handle. The dominance of international organisations has relegated the national or local actors to the backwaters of most societal issues as the global ‘partner’ take lead.

That notwithstanding, it is important to focus more attention on the strengths and positive contribution that civil society brings to human implementation as opposed to their weaknesses. The inherent conceptual and practical flaws in the operations of civil society as a whole does not water down its significant role in not just designing and implementing rights but also holding states accountable to implement their human rights obligations.

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