Volker Türk issued a clarion call to protect and expand civil space, arguing that it is the only way to enable all of us “to play a role in political, economic and social life, at all levels, from local to globally.”

Hate speech remains unchecked

He said that with more and more decision-making migrating online, “with private companies playing an outsized role, it has never been more important to have an open, secure digital public square”.

And yet states struggle and “often fail” to protect online space for the common good, “alternating between a laissez-faire approach that has allowed violence and dangerous hate speech to go uncheckedand overall regulations used as a cuddle against those exercising their freedom of expression, including journalists and human rights defenders,” he added.

Invest in multilingual markets

He called on major companies to step up and increase investment in preventing and responding to online harm, particularly in the non-English language environment, stressing that “doing business anywhere requires you to be able to do it securely, in line with Guiding principles for business and human rights.”

The UN rights chief said civil spaces were key to human rights, to peace, development and to “sustainable and resilient societies”, but were under increasing pressure from undue restrictions and laws.

This includes crackdowns on peaceful assembly, internet shutdowns and online bullying and harassment.

Expand space as a “prerequisite”

“States must intensify efforts to protect and expand civil space as a prerequisite for people to be able to sustainably enjoy all other rights found in The Universal Declaration of Human Rightsfrom access to health care and clean water and high-quality education to social protection and labor rights,” Türk argued.

The pressure on civil space continues despite the inspiring engagement of civil society groups, he continued.

“Civil society is one a key that enables trust between governments and the populations they serve and is often the bridge between the two. For governments to reduce barriers to public participation, they must protect this space, for the benefit of all – both online and offline”.