In his address last week before the UN General Assembly, President Obama issued an unprecedented appeal to heads of state around the world to promote open society and open government. He noted that the "arc of human progress has been shaped by individuals with the freedom to assemble" and called civil society the "conscience of our community." At a time when governments have grown savvy at using legal and administrative curbs to impede the work of civil society organizations, he also urged world leaders to “embrace and effectively monitor norms” that advance the rights of non-governmental groups.
Today, in Geneva, in a landmark achievement for human rights, a diverse group of countries – large and small, rich and poor, north and south, east and west – came together to create the first-ever Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association. This new position will collect critical information about how these rights are exercised, identify best practices that promote and protect these rights, and help hold governments accountable for their restrictions on civil society activity. The geographic diversity of the 62 countries that co-sponsored this resolution – including original co-sponsors the Czech Republic, Indonesia, Lithuania, the Maldives, Mexico and Nigeria – are but the latest testament to the universality of the right to assemble – a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and acted upon every day by citizens around the world who mobilize on behalf of good government, more inclusive politics, cleaner air, media freedom, and the full stable of human rights. Most notably, many of these cosponsors were nations that emerged from tyranny in the second half of the last century. Together this group conveyed our shared belief, in President Obama’s words, that “part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.”
Throughout history, when societies face tough economic times, we have seen democratic reforms deferred, decreased trust in government, persecution of minority groups, and a general shrinking of the democratic space. This time, though, a large and far-sighted group of countries have banded together to send a resounding message that the protection and advancement of civil society bring about the advancement of society as a whole. The Human Rights Council’s decision is both a moral and pragmatic victory. As Secretary Clinton said in Krakow this summer, “progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions.” Those who stood together today at the Human Rights Council took an important step to bring about that progress.
Samantha Power is Senior Director and Special Assistant for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights