Ensuring civil society’s right to participation: Letter to the United Nations

On 30 April 2020, the Civil Society Organisations who are members of the Latin American and Caribbean Group at the UN (ONG-LAC) wrote a letter to Ambassador Elisabeth Tichy-Fissleberer, President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Ms Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The letter outlined the ONG-LAC’s opinions, from a Latin American perspective, on the continuation of the important work of the UN Human Rights System via virtual mechanisms due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the necessity to ensure civil society’s right to participate in this context.

The text of the letter is copied below in English, for the Spanish and English PDF version please click on the button above (Spanish is first and English below).

The members of the ONG-LAC group, as well as other organisations that collaborate with this network, wish to thank the High Commissioner and the Human Rights Council for undertaking every effort to ensure the full functioning of the UN Human Rights System, including via the use of virtual mechanisms. We understand that the Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner are currently considering this option as a viable means to continue their important work despite the constraints imposed by the current situation.

We believe that one of the potential benefits of these virtual mechanisms would be a broader participation of civil society from different countries that also interact with the UN Human Rights System. However, drawing from our experience as organisations working in Latin America and the Caribbean, we wish to draw your attention to certain aspects that require careful consideration regarding the risks that the virtualisation of international space of governance may entail.  We hereby share several concrete recommendations in order to ensure that the HRC and the OHCHR continue to function through virtual meetings in accordance with their respective mandates, guaranteeing civil society’s effective participation in particular, and especially by enabling the participation of the sectors most affected by human rights violations in these contexts as well the organisations that support them. In the framework of this discussion, we would like to acknowledge the existing inputs from civil society organisations, in particular the insights contained in the “Survey on civil participation in times of COVID-19” compiled by ISHR and shared with the HRC Presidency.

In many communities and regions of the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean, people do not have Internet access or they must leave their homes in order to reach an internet spot, which is impossible to do in these times of confinement. Moreover, in many places in the internet connection is scarce or unstable, whilst this may allow for basic use such as sending and receiving emails, it is impossible to follow a meeting for an extended period of time This situation does not only affect participation within the meeting itself, but it also limits the prior preparation between organisations with the ECOSOC status and the grass-roots organisations they support and for whom they serve as a communication channel with the UN system. Accessibility to virtual spaces and discussion can also be hindered by language barriers and time-zones differences.

Furthermore, many civil society organisations are operating in oppressive regions or contexts, under the close scrutiny of States and other actors. These settings imply considerable digital risks that can compromise the security of information, communication and thus, the safety of the persons or civil society organisations involved. The lack of full internet access further exacerbates this vulnerability.

It is crucial to clarify what HRC and OHCHR rules of procedure will be applied for virtual debates, including the status of the decisions and agreement that will be made during these sessions.

Among other aspects, the following measures should also be adopted:

  • Set deadlines with sufficient advance notice for meetings: many people do not have the time or means to have internet access on a daily basis, therefore meetings should be arranged well in advance, upon consultation with civil society organisations and with the necessary background documentation readily available.
  • Time choice of the meetings: people will be based in different time zones, it is therefore important to convene the meetings at times that will best ensure representative and effective participation of civil society from different regions of the world.
  • Clarity and transparency in the prior establishment of the norms that will regulate the meeting, within a reasonable timeframe: details on the registration process for people to participate what is the data protection and privacy policy applied by the digital platform; how will the participants be identified on the digital platform; how does one request the permission to speak and how will the list of speakers be defined; what is the speaking time for each intervention; will comments or questions be made in parallel via the chatroom; if so, will these contributions be documented as part of the meeting’s deliberations; will it be possible to use presentations or videoclips. Likewise, the technical requirements needed in order to participate in the meeting must be indicated with sufficient advance notice.
  • Spanish translation of background documentation: online communication can hinder the understanding of information which is why we believe that it is fundamental that background documents or drafts to be discussed in the meetings are translated well in advance and sent with the meeting notice, as early as possible.
  • Guarantee sessions with simultaneous interpretation: the meeting notice should provide detailed instructions on how to access the debate in different languages. In some cases and for some events, an assessment should be made as to whether it may be more worthwhile to organise regional meetings. For Latin America and the Caribbean region, this would imply that the meeting may be held in Spanish and would be easier to arrange at a more relevant time for the participants.
  • A basic minimum of interventions must be guaranteed for different sectors of civil society: civil society and with sufficient speaking time, thus ensuring that their voices and messages as well as diverse views are included in the meetings. The restriction of civil society intervention to just some organisation that generally already have a strong and well-established relationship with the UN Human Rights System may exclude diverging voices whose opinions are important to be included in order to assure the democratic process.
  • Written contributions: due to the time constraints of the sessions, especially the informal meetings for which a formal contribution system does not exist, it is important to allow for participants to send their inputs on the topic in writing, without limiting their contributions to what is shared in the duration of the online session. These contributions must be taken into account during the discussions.
  • Human Rights Defenders: it is essential to guarantee safe participation mechanisms for human rights defenders that do not endanger their physical or online security, or expose them to intimidation and reprisals by State and non-State actors. This includes: measures that enable a prompt follow-up to cases of reprisals; States must make public commitments to refrain from perpetrating acts  of  reprisals  or  impede  connections  to  virtual  meetings; Participation modalities that mitigate the risks concerning the identification of participants and the use of videocameras.
  • Internet access availability: in order to not exclude groups that are most affected by the digital divide, it is crucial for the HRC and OHCHR to consider measure to ensure that adequate access to Internet is provided. These include: the use of free-of-charge or low-cost technologies, with low data usage, safe and compatible with mobile phones; the use of regional and/or country offices as safe participation spaces; technical and financial support for civil society groups; and cooperation with the private sector in order to provide essential technologies and low-consumption videoconferencing services, securely and free-of-charge.
  • Data protection and privacy: it is vital that existing safeguards be implemented and transparently communicated to guarantee the participants’ right to privacy and the protection of their data, in line with sound human rights standards.

To conclude, we would like to emphasise that we consider that virtual meetings cannot indefinitely replace face-to-face meetings and we therefore wish to reiterate that the accommodation of these sessions into the digital form must remain an exceptional measure. We do acknowledge the importance of building on the benefits provided by this format in the future, especially direct and remote participation through the use of videoconferencing. However, it is essential for face-to-face meeting not to be discarded in the HRC’s efficiency process, and that the modalities currently undertaken on the basis of exceptional circumstances do not set a precedent that could jeopardise the effective, diverse and safe participation of civil society.

The member organisation of the ONG-LAC coalition as well as others that collaborate with this network would like to thank you for your attention to this letter and remain at your disposal to solve any queries or further explain the aforementioned recommendations.


Grupo ONG LAC:

  1. Conselho Indigenista Missionário – CIMI
  2. Dominicans for Justice and Peace
  3. FIAN Internacional
  4. Franciscans International
  5. Instituto Internacional sobre Raza, Igualdad y Derechos Humanos (Raza e Igualdad)
  6. International Service for Human Rights (ISHR)
  7. Organización Mundial contra la Tortura (OMCT)
  8. Peace Brigades International (PBI)
  9. Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos (RIDH Suiza)

Organisations endorsing the letter:

  1. ABColombia
  2. Ação Franciscana de Ecologia e Solidariedade – AFES
  3. Asesoría a Programas y Proyectos de Desarrollo – ASPRODE
  4. Asociación B’elejeb’ Tz’i’
  5. Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (Argentina)
  6. Asociación para una Ciudadanía Participativa (ACI PARTICIPA)
  7. Capitulo Chile, Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos Europa Bruselas
  8. Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL)
  9. Centro de Alternativas al Desarrollo – Colombia
  10. Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña “Tlachinollan”
  11. Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Francisco de Vitoria, O.P, A.C
  12. Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Matías de Córdova (Chiapas, México)
  13. Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS)
  14. Centro para los Derechos Civiles y Políticos (CCPR)
  15. Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL)
  16. Comisión Colombiana de Juristas
  17. Comisión de Justicia, Paz e Integridad de la Creación
  18. Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
  19. Comisión Permanente de Derechos Humanos de Nicaragua (CPDH)
  20. Conectas Direitos Humanos
  21. Corporación para la Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos Reiniciar
  22. (REINCIAR)
  23. Espacio de Cooperación para la Paz
  24. Feminista independiente
  25. FIAN Colombia
  26. FMSI Marista Bolivia
  27. Fondo de Acción Urgente para América Latina y el Caribe – FAU-AL
  28. Forum Syd
  29. Fundación de Estudios para la Aplicación del Derecho -FESPAD-
  30. Guatemalanetz Bern
  31. Grupo de trabajo Suiza Colombia
  32. Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres-GGM
  33. Iniciativa Mesoamericana de Mujeres Defensoras de Derechos Humanos
  34. Indepaz
  35. JPIC Familia Franciscana de Guatemala
  36. JPIC México
  37. JPIC OF El Salvador
  38. Justicia Paz e Integridad de la Creación de la Familia Franciscana de Honduras
  39. kolko e.V. – Menschenrechte für Kolumbien
  40. Mesart
  41. Movimiento Franciscano Justicia y Paz de Bolivia
  42. Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas Tz’ununija’, Guatemala
  43. Oidhaco – Oficina Internacional de los Derechos Humanos – Acción Colombia
  44. Oxfam Colombia
  45. Pax Christi International
  46. Paz con Dignidad
  47. Penca de Sábila de Medellín – Colombia
  48. Pensamiento y Acción Social – PAS
  49. Plataforma Internacional contra la Impunidad
  50. Plataforma Suiza Colombia
  51. Project on Organising Development Education and Research (PODER)
  52. Radio Seybo
  53. Red de Guatemala Berna
  54. Red de la No Violencia contra las Mujeres-REDNOVI
  55. Red Franciscana de Atención a Migrantes – Honduras
  56. Red Franciscana para las Migraciones (Casa Peregrina del Migrante Santo Hermano
  57. Pedro, Guatemala)
  58. Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos Europa Bruselas
  59. Red Nacional de Organismos Civiles de Derechos Humanos “Todos los Derechos para
  60. Todas y Todos”
  61. Red Nacional para la Defensa de la Soberanía Alimentaria en Guatemala REDSAG
  62. Red por los Derechos de la Infancia en México
  63. Representante Red Internacional de Derechos Humanos RIDH en Nicaragua y América
  64. Central
  65. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights
  66. Servicios y Asesoría para la Paz A.C.
  67. Serviço Interfranciscano de Justiça, Paz e Ecologia – SINFRAJUPE
  68. Soldepaz Pachakuti
  69. Terra de Direitos
  70. Terre des Hommes Suisse
  71. Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala
  72. Usuarios Digitales