As the COVID-19 pandemic upends societies and economies, most governments around the world have responded swiftly and decisively. Many have taken far-reaching decisions and adopted legislation granting them temporary powers to contain both the virus and its socioeconomic impact, and rightly so. Many countries, however, have experienced a dramatic shrinking of civic space, an increase in human rights violations, and draconian measures against civil society. Civic rights groups and human rights watchdogs in all regions have reported arrests of human rights activists, limitations to freedom of the press, severe restrictions on the right to digital privacy, and other incidents.

These worrying trends have given rise to a growing movement of global civil society organizations, with the support of a range of governments, coalescing around the need to protect the rights, and listen to the voices, of citizens and communities everywhere, especially during the current crisis. As the recent progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows, COVID-19 has knocked us further off track to meet the goals by 2030, and unless we secure the space for civil society, we can’t ensure an equitable recovery that helps make up lost ground.

Recognizing the risks, 460 global civil society organizations from 115 countries sounded the alarm recently in a joint declaration on the need for safeguarding global civic space. The document was released during this year’s United Nations High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF), the annual moment when countries report on their SDG progress. 61 governments pledged to ensure meaningful stakeholder participation.

Representatives from civil society groups from around the world, the Mission of Denmark to the UN, and the UN Foundation recently hosted a virtual discussion on the topic on the sidelines of HLPF. The discussion sought to give a clear voice to civil society and to strongly rally around the need for governments and UN partners to allow civil society to do its job. Here we’ve gathered some of the main points of speakers from three of the event co-hosts: Leah Mitaba, director, Zambia Council for Social Development; Martin Bille Hermann, permanent representative of Denmark to the United Nations; and Sofia Borges, senior vice president, UN Foundation.

How is global civic space under threat in the context of COVID-19?

Many of the measures put in place by governments reflect a legitimate commitment to contain the virus, but there are concerns that COVID-19 has been systematically invoked at times, unwarrantedly and illegitimately, to restrict the right to freedoms of expression, assembly, association, and other fundamental human rights. Leah Mitaba, whose group works to promote a vibrant and independent civil society in Zambia, worries that measures to censor public scrutiny undermine the possibility of an inclusive and effective recovery from the pandemic.

“In my country, we have seen worrying signs of these trends,” she said. “These include civil society being excluded from critical debates, including suggestions to amend the constitution, closing down peaceful and legitimate demonstrations, and an upsurge of arrests. This combined with the current digital nature of deliberations excluding many from taking part, especially in rural areas in the global South, is worrying indeed and we need to speak up.”

Among the leading government voices in the coalition to protect civic space is Denmark. During the event, its ambassador to the UN, Martin Bille Hermann, said that voices of civil society are being reduced in about half of all countries during the pandemic. “We need an active and vibrant civil society to hold us accountable,” he said, “not least during a period with extraordinary and temporary government legislation in place.”

Sofia Borges of the UN Foundation, and the former permanent representative of Timor-Leste, said the pandemic is laying bare deep global inequalities. “In the rush to resume business as usual, there is a danger of exclusion and marginalization,” she said. “We need to push back on the pushback and elevate voices from civil society, especially from the Global South, including finding ways to overcome the digital divide.”

Why is the voice of civil society critical in the implementation of the SDGs?

Without civil society, there would be no SDGs. The negotiation process for the 2030 Agenda (the framework that includes the SDGs) was unique in that it began with consultations across the world, on the ground. Those voices provided the basis for what eventually became the 17 SDGs. And this year, as the UN marks its 75th anniversary, Secretary-General António Guterres reminded the world that civil society groups were present at the signing of the UN Charter in San Francisco in June 1945. In remarks to commemorate that day, he underlined the organization’s commitment to honoring the integral role of civil society:

“You are indispensable partners in forging peace, pushing for climate action, advancing gender equality, [and] delivering lifesaving humanitarian aid,” he said. “[T]he world’s framework for shared progress — the Sustainable Development Goals — is unthinkable without you.”

One of the UN’s founding documents, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has inspired more than 80 human rights treaties, also ensures that human rights lie at the heart of SDG Agenda, through the SDGs’ clarion call to leave no one behind. For Denmark’s UN ambassador, Hermann, that reflects both logic and obligation.

“There is no doubt that when we take a human rights-based approach to development, the outcomes are more sustainable, powerful, and effective,” he said at the recent event. “But civil society’s ability to fulfil the role envisaged for it by Agenda 2030 will depend on the extent to which adequate civic space is available to it at local, national, regional, and global levels.”

Mitaba agreed. “The SDGs were created as a progressive and dynamic set of criteria for measuring global human development,” she said. “We still have so much to do to make them become real and alive on the ground, but we will never get there without a vibrant and critical civil society to hold those in power accountable.”

What can and should the UN and Member States do to safeguard and strengthen civic space?

While more than 60 countries signed the pledge during the High-level Political Forum to protect civic space by ensuring civil society participation, there is good reason to rethink how to include the voice of civil society at the UN level in a more profound way going forward.

“We need to safeguard human rights and civic space globally and we need the UN and Member States to support this,” Mitaba urged, “both in terms of setting and upholding global standards and norms but also in getting civil society the tools to do their job on the ground.”

Civic space is shrinking at the same time that countries are turning inward. Global cooperation is under attack just when the world needs more of it to help tackle shared problems such as COVID-19. For Hermann, the pandemic, and questions over the future role of the UN, and how to revitalize global cooperation offer an opportunity. “We — UN Member States and the UN System — need civil society to speak up when something is wrong, and to help us take up the right discussions at the right times,” he said.

“It is critical that we ensure adequate access for civil society to meaningfully take part in the discussions in the UN. This goes beyond ‘unmuting’ civil society partners to actively engaging them, and not just around the UN summits.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to affect the work of the UN in the long term. It’s both an enormous shared challenge and an opportunity. “We must use this opportunity to build a more sustainable and future-proof solution for inclusion of civil society in UN negotiation processes,” Borges said. “We must now more than ever commit to leaving no one behind.”

Thure Krarup is executive director of sustainable development initiatives at the UN Foundation.