Strengthening Civil Society: “UNmute” Working Group Meets in New York and Online

Updated: Oct 10


an image is shown of the meeting, with a zoom call on a large screen at the end of the wall, and people surrounding a long table in front of it
UNmute Civil Society Coalition Meeting

NEW YORK- Members of the UNmute Civil Society Coalition, including the governments of Denmark and Costa Rica, held an online and in-person discussion at the Baha’i International Community’s (BIC) offices in New York as a side event to this year’s United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Following recommendations launched by the working group a year ago, and now submitted to the UN Secretary-General for consideration, the gathering discussed ways to strengthen civil society’s participation at the UN, online and in person, as well as the need for the digital space to be equitable, rights-based and accessible to all.

Appointing a civil society envoy to the United Nations and creating an annual “Civil Society Action Day” were two recommendations considered by government officials, diplomats, tech sector observers and others from around the world during the event.

The event moderator, Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programs Officer at Civicus, described the event as a “program of action” to harness technology for the sake of civil society participation at the United Nations “and beyond.”

Using technology to include civil society—a primary theme of the meeting—also defined the meeting format. Two cameras moved around the room, where about 20 people were gathered, to stream the event to more than 250 people online.

Daniel Perell, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations, said that hosting such hybrid gatherings, while they required additional investment and effort, ensured “civil society participation online and in person,” and that civil society groups were “the leaven enabling many advances at the local, national and global levels.”

Flemming Møller Mortensen, Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation, said in his introductory remarks that the Covid-19 pandemic had further diminished the civic space, but that creating a space for civil society was important as it can “help bring us all closer to the decisions that impact our lives.”

“There’s an urgent need for ensuring that no one is excluded or sidelined … civil society needs to be unmuted in order to be included,” Mortensen added.

Ambassador Christian Guillermet-Fernández, Costa Rice’s Vice-Minister for Multilateral Affairs, added that “civil society represents … the ears and eyes of the ground, the watchdogs of public and private action.”

Many at the event also called on others to acknowledge inequalities and to learn from best practices from the field. Pekka Haavisto, Finland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, noted that the digital divide inhibited some grassroots activists from participating in online civil society spaces.

Highlighting the need for new solutions to include all civil society groups, Åsa Regner, the UN Women Deputy Executive Director, noted that in preparing for the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, some groups felt they had less access to UN-level talks through the online format. But she added that certain groups that had never been able to participate—because of the costs of attending in-person events—were now able to participate in online discussions, extending the possibility for new forms of diverse civil society participation.

Christina Koulias, a senior manager at the UN Global Compact, said that the way major tech sector companies treat civil society “set the tone” for other non-state actors. Koulias added that tech companies should pay attention to the civic space—possibly through a public commission—to address concerns and to support civil society.

Julia Sánchez, Secretary-General for ActionAid International, said that it was “refreshing” to connect in a space with like minded partners, but that in the wider civic space many difficulties remained. Sánchez called on the UN to “protect” the civil society space and for UN Member States to increase the presence of civil society in multilateral forums.

More information is available here regarding the UNmute civil society campaign.

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