Habitat III: New Urban Agenda and the importance of civil society

Close on the heels of the UN adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015 the HABITAT III conference offers the international community a timely opportunity to revisit and revision its commitments to putting human rights at the heart of sustainable urban development. The global context is adverse, marked by growing inequity, rising levels of homelessness and landlessness, forced migration, environmental degradation and climate change.

Supporters of the opposition leader Julius Maada Bio protest against vote fraud in Freetown, Sierra Leone in November 2012
Teaser Image Caption
Protests against vote fraud in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone


The ambitious targets set out in the SDGs and COP 21, cannot be met by governments alone. Over the last decade civil society groups have campaigned to secure recognition of their vital role, not just as vehicles for service delivery, but as equal partners, watch dogs and innovators.

The broadening of the Sustainable Development Goals to encompass targets around rule of law, access to justice, transparency and good governance, and a range of social and economic rights, only serve to underline the importance of civil society, and in particular human rights actors to the international development process, both as influencers and implementers.

Recognition of the value and importance of civil society is threaded through the latest draft of the New Urban Agenda, which envisages close collaboration between local government and civil society as being essential to the success of its implementation.

Without civil society no New Urban Agenda

However, the encompassing of human rights into the international development agenda and the timing of HABITAT III come at a point where human rights activists have never been under greater attack. The growing pace of legal restrictions, criminalization, harassment and attacks on human rights activists globally, begs the question whether the ambitious SDGS goals can truly become a reality without greater protection for the human rights and development actors responsible for amplifying the voices of the marginalised, tackling the causes of discrimination, and promoting equal rights.

The potential impact of what has been termed “the closing space for civil society”, could have serious implications for the success of the New Urban Agenda, if the civil society actors it designates as critical partners, find they are increasingly unable to operate without restrictions or threats while working across a range of highly contested and politically sensitive issues.

The closing space for civil society: manifestations and drivers

While human rights activism has never been without risk, the last five years has witnessed an escalation in the use of violence, criminalization and harassment of human rights activists. In the first eleven months of 2015, Frontline Defenders documented the killings of 156 human rights defenders in twenty-five countries, including democracies such as India, Brazil and Mexico.

Alongside the use of physical violence, governments are responding to the increased visibility and impact of human rights activism by finding increasingly inventive and subtle strategies to undermine and stifle activism in ways less likely to invoke international scrutiny and condemnation.

In 2015, the CIVICUS Civil Society Watch Report showed that at least 96 countries had restricted the ability of human rights defenders to carry out their work, through restrictions on their freedom of expression, the right to protest peacefully and their right to associate.

The greatest number of restrictions related to freedom of association alone, with more than 100 laws proposed or enacted by governments since 2012 aimed at restricting the registration, operation, and most notably funding of NGOs, in a context where the majority of human rights defenders globally have little support from funders in their own countries.

Violence and fines - Governments treat activists as enemies

Restrictive laws have often been accompanied by smear attacks, with human rights defenders branded by governments, media and in some cases the private sector as anti-national, anti – development, foreign agents and in some cases as a threat to national security.

Research by international civil society organisations has found that the activists most likely to bear the brunt of legislative and physical attacks are those working on the issues of transparency, accountability and governance, those defending local communities from land grabs and environmental degradation, as well as activists promoting the rights of minority groups facing discrimination or persecution.

So what explains this rash of restrictive measures, which have been likened to a contagion spreading from country to country? Experts have attributed the trend to a number of complex factors. Autocratic leaders have been unnerved by the power of popular protest in the Former Soviet Union and most recently across the Middle East and North Africa, and increasingly view civil society actors as ‘the political opposition in waiting’ rather than as independent and impartial actors.

Civil society is under pressure not only in autocratic states

In the last three years Russia’s President Putin, Egypt’s General Sisi and Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev have all used NGO laws to criminalise and defame defenders, in contexts where the political opposition is so decimated that only civil society is left to hold a mirror up to the authorities.

Democracies also have been affected by a global loss of democratic momentum. Sierra Leone and India provide recent examples of governments seeking to silence anyone trying to challenge their economic or political agendas or interests. In March 2015, the Sierra Leonean government proposed an NGO law to silence NGO transparency and accountability groups.

They only wanted to know why the government couldn’t explain what had happened to a third of the funds spent on the Ebola crisis. Three months later, India, the world’s largest democracy, tightened up its rules to restrict funds to any groups that challenge the country’s ‘economic interests’.

This move comes after the government engaged in thirteen months of aggressive smear attacks against environmental and human rights activists due to their opposition to the proposed mass displacement of indigenous communities by large scale infrastructure and energy projects.

The phenomenon of the closing space has garnered a great deal of international attention, and condemnation, in particular from the US administration and a number of European Union member states. However, the reality is that words have rarely been followed with any kind of punitive action, and many of the most repressive governments continue to trade with or receive billions in development and military aid from western governments, as the economic, security and geo-political interests of the latter trump the importance of an enabling environment for civil society.

Implications of the closing space for the New Urban Agenda

Many of the governments playing a key role in the HABITAT III process have been accused of restricting the enabling environment for human rights defenders in their countries. In Ecuador, host to HABITAT III, environmental, indigenous and climate change activists have reported increasing interference by the central government in their activities, and harassment.

In Turkey, the 2013 Gezi Park protests, demonstrated how the heavy handed response of the authorities in Istanbul transformed a local land dispute into a wave of anti-government protests across the country, which in turn were met with police brutality and injuries to over 8000 protestors. Over the last year, the ruling AKP, has used the pretext of the deterioration in the security situation in Turkey to silence any source of perceived opposition or dissent, and attacks on activists including arrests, detention and violent attacks have escalated.

Brazil, another major regional player, has been accused in recent years of using the pretext of the Olympic games to clear thousands of residents from the favelas in Rio, and of fast tracking anti-terror legislation with a view to being able to use this to silence land and housing rights activists.

India also provides numerous examples of human rights defenders struggling to defend housing and land rights who have been targeted by the state and subjected to violence, defamation, arbitrary arrests, and illegal detention.

The stories from Quito, Istanbul, Rio and Orissa are being replicated globally in numerous other cities including Nairobi, Karachi, Mumbai, Mexico City and Cape Town, as the urban poor and land and housing rights activists increasingly find themselves viewed as a barrier to development, for seeking to challenge corruption, homelessness and forced evictions, police brutality, and the systematic denial of the rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized.

Positive cases of cooperation give hope

Does this mean that co-operation and collaboration between government and civil society in the advent of the closing space for civil society is no longer feasible? Civil society groups involved primarily in service delivery are likely to find that there will continue to be opportunities to work closely with local authorities, particularly on non-contentious issues such as repair, re-building or extending basic services.

In our experience at the Fund for Global Human Rights, advocacy and campaigning organisations can also develop constructive working relationships and co-operation with local government and statutory agencies. Women’s rights organisations across Morocco have spent years investing in relationships with local government and police to improve the state response to domestic violence.

Labour rights activists in Delhi have presented solid waste management solutions that would enable the Delhi government to simultaneously safeguard the environment and the livelihoods of waste-pickers. Even in a context as repressive as Egypt, housing rights activists have experienced success in working with local government to restore historical monuments with community participation.

These examples, which currently represent the exception rather than the norm, demonstrate the contribution civil society has to make in even the most challenging of contexts, and the economic, social and political benefits to local government of being able to harness the expertise and energy of communities and activists to find practical solutions to complex human rights problems.

For this to happen on the scale required by SDG 11 and the New Urban Agenda, local governments will need to find ways to not only build trust, but to actively support an enabling environment for their partners in civil society.

This article is part of our dossier Habitat III - Sustainable Urban Development