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Standing with Civil Society at a Critical Juncture

President Obama convenes partners at the Clinton Global Initiative and calls on them to push back against growing attempts around the world to obstruct the legitimate and peaceful activity of civil society organizations.

Civil society — the collection of community groups, non-governmental organizations, labor unions, indigenous groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, and foundations — is one of the key pillars in any healthy democracy. A vibrant civil society drives change. It can lead the way in developing new approaches to social and economic problems that governments cannot address alone. In recognition of this critical role, President Obama launched Stand with Civil Society last year and reiterated this call to action today at the Clinton Global Initiative.

In the United States, civil society organizations (CSOs) have been at the forefront of virtually every major social change, including the fight for equal rights, improvements in health care for the most vulnerable, and the protection of the environment. And globally, citizens working together have shown that they can make tremendous humanitarian strides — such as the global campaign against anti-personnel landmines, which President Obama highlighted today.

Yet it is also true that around the world, governments and non-state actors are increasingly restricting the activity of civil society and maligning their efforts. Sometimes these tactics are overt, such as outlawing CSOs from engaging in certain types of activities, limiting the amount of funding they can receive from legitimate sources abroad, and even harassment and abuse. In many instances, however, these tactics are more subtle — for example, when governments erect administrative and procedural hurdles, such as barriers to the formation of CSOs or onerous registration requirements. 

On the margins of the U.N. General Assembly one year ago today, President Obama convened partners from government, civil society, regional and multilateral organizations and bodies, and the philanthropy community to launch Stand with Civil Society, a multiyear effort to support, defend, and sustain the work of civil society worldwide. At this event, President Obama challenged partners to: 1) improve policies that support the important work of civil society; 2) coordinate diplomatic action when restrictive laws are proposed or enacted; and 3) develop innovative approaches to support civil society’s work. 

Today, President Obama convened partners at the Clinton Global Initiative and called on them once again to push back against growing attempts around the world to obstruct the legitimate and peaceful activity of CSOs. Speaking before an audience of more than 800 leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector, he outlined progress the Administration has made over the past year and announced a series of new commitments.

First, President Obama referenced a new Presidential Memorandum that directs U.S. agencies engaged abroad to consult regularly with civil society; support civil society, even in the most restrictive environments; oppose undue restrictions on civil society's work; and facilitate greater collaboration and exchange between governments and civil society. Second, the President announced a groundbreaking initiative to establish Civil Society Innovation Centers in every sub-region to connect civil society organizations to each other, resources, tools, and knowledge. Finally, he announced new financial commitments to strengthen the response of the international community, as well as local organizations, to onerous restrictions on civil society's work. 

President Obama is joined by governments that share a commitment to the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Finland, Latvia, and Montenegro signed onto the Joint Statement on the Promotion and Protection of Civil Society, joining Australia, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Georgia, Ireland, Japan, Libya, Lithuania, Mexico, Mongolia, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom in their commitment to strengthen and defend civil society.

Shannon Green is the NSC Senior Director for Global Engagement. Steve Pomper is the NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights.