Call for Applications: Civic Space Litigation Surgery
25-27 September, Abuja, Nigeria

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Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Open Society Justice Initiative are calling for applications from lawyers and/or members of civil society organizations based in West Africa to participate in a forthcoming litigation surgery on the protection of civic space. The litigation surgery will be held in Abuja, Nigeria from September 25 - 27, 2019. All applicants are required to submit a current or potential case involving the protection of civic space for discussion and workshopping. 

The application deadline is 11 August 2019. To apply, please complete the online application form available HERE and send all required documents.


Globally, non-state actors are undergoing many challenges. Several rights-based issues that had been considered settled or works in progress are either being upended or deteriorating. From the rise of nationalism in the global north and the strengthening/resurgence of hitherto moribund, right wing movements in different parts of the world, the landscape is getting murkier by the day.  New restrictive laws that curtail civic space include those governing NGO registration, funding & fiscal obligations, criminalizing online expression, slamming prohibitive tax policies and charges on access to/utilization of social media, targeted attacks on journalists and media practitioners, bloggers, human rights defenders and anyone who is considered as being critical of the ruling class. Not only is the list of infractions endless, it is also increasing by the day, as the promoters of such violations become emboldened, including through overt and covert support they receive from those in power. Similarly, existing norms and standards on human rights promotion and protection are being challenged and attacked by States. These attempts at rolling back the gains of the human rights movement are in some instances being justified by explanations of the “war on terror” and “countering violent extremism” or the various “counter insurgency campaigns”, taking place in different parts of the globe, with Africa being an critical place where these issues are fully alive, including being an important partner in the ongoing global effort at combating terrorism. 

Additionally, many States continue to constrict civic space, by amongst other things, preventing non-state actors from being able to effectively play their role of being watchdogs in the public space, advocating against various forms of rights abuses, occurring at the local, national, sub-regional, continental and global level. States have also starved important public institutions, such as National Human Rights Institutions or the judicial systems, of resources and deliberately weakened them by purposely electing officials who are either weak or are allies of the state. 

It is against this background that the proposed strategic litigation surgery is aimed at considering key issues implicated in protecting civic space, particularly the protection of freedom of expression, the right to peaceful protest, assembly and association. This litigation surgery looks to support and strengthen either existing or proposed cases that are focused on defending these rights.

Objectives of the litigation surgery: 

  • To identify high-impact cases to submit before the African human rights system (i.e. the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the ECOWAS Court of Justice) to address key areas in the protection of civic space. 
  • To strengthen the case and its strategies through confidential exchanges with participants and experienced litigants in the African and Inter-American Human Rights Systems, on strategies/insights for enhancing the identified cases and receiving additional feedback and cross-regional advice on litigation and advocacy. 
  • To identify resources, partnerships, and ongoing support needed to facilitate the filing of cases and accompanying advocacy strategies that could be considered useful to the cases. 
  • To further broaden the knowledge and understanding of participants on key issues implicated in the effort to ensure greater protection of issues related to securing civic space at the local, national and sub-regional levels. 

Criteria for participant eligibility: 

  • The litigation surgery is open to lawyers and/or members of civil society organizations working in any member state of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cabo Verde, Ivory Coast, Côte d'Ivoire, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Togo. Applicants must possess a demonstrated commitment to addressing threats to civic space in their home country through sub-regional and regional human rights litigation. Lawyers currently employed by a government institution or political party are not eligible.
  • The participants must be involved in, or considering, litigating a case or cases that address the suppression of civic space involving a violation of the rights to freedoms of expression, the right to peaceful protest, assembly, and/or association. With their application, they must submit a case that they are litigating or intend to litigate before existing human rights protection mechanisms at the sub-regional or regional levels or the national court system, which could be discussed and workshopped during the litigation surgery. 
  • The following non-exhaustive list of themes are a guide for the types of cases that could be submitted with the application: 
    • Suppression of peaceful protests -- e.g. through excessive use of force against protesters; criminalization of protesters and organizers; legal frameworks that either prevent, restrict and/or chill protest rights generally; 
    • Burdensome regulatory restrictions on civil society organizations -- e.g. constraints on access to foreign funding and foreign partnerships; obstacles in registering or maintaining registration; restrictive tax laws;
  • Suppression of the media and access to information -- e.g. misuse of criminal defamation laws; restricted access to the internet and social media; abuse of cyber-crimes laws; other violations that produce a chilling effect on the freedom of expression, media freedom, citizen journalism, or access to information; 
  • Abuse of laws or policies in the context of countering terrorism -- e.g. misuse of broad counter-terrorism laws to criminalize and/or chill legitimate activities of civic actors; 
  • Impunity for threats, violence, and arbitrary detention against human rights defenders, activists, journalists, media practitioners, bloggers, social media users and other civic actors. 
  • While all civic space cases will be considered, we encourage cases that touch on an intersectionality of issues and/or address untested or developing areas of human rights jurisprudence at the national, sub-regional or regional levels respectively, including: 
    • Cases that highlight the role of multinational corporations in the suppression of civic space;
    • Cases that link the suppression of civic space to economic, social, and cultural rights, including in particular environmental rights; 
    • Cases that demonstrate how the suppression of civic space uniquely affects women, sexual minorities, persons with disabilities, or refugees and internally displaced persons;
    • Cases that address the link between the suppression of civic space and corruption.

Other important details: The working languages for the litigation surgery will be English and French. There will be simultaneous interpretation between the two languages available to all participants. The organizers will cover the cost of airfare, visas, local transportation, accommodation, and a reasonable per diem for expenses not otherwise covered for up to about 8 selected participants. 

Please be sure to apply by 11 August 2019 using the link provided HERE. If you have any questions regarding the litigation surgery or the application process, please email advocacy@rfkhumanrights.org.

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights was founded in 1968 to carry on the unfinished work of Bobby Kennedy in partnership with the leaders of social movements in the United States and around the world. Our advocacy and litigation team is currently litigating over three-dozen high-impact cases before the Inter- American, African, and United Nations human rights systems with a focus on protecting civic space and fostering civic participation.

Open Society Justice Initiative  uses law to protect and empower people around the world, supporting the values and work of the Open Society Foundations. Through litigation, advocacy, research, and technical assistance, we strive to secure legal remedies for human rights abuses, and promote effective enforcement of the rule of law. Our efforts range across the human rights spectrum but our focus areas include accountability for international crimes, racial discrimination and statelessness, criminal justice reform, abuses related to national security and counterterrorism, the promotion of freedom of information and expression, and combating natural resource–related corruption. Since 2003, we have represented individuals before domestic and international courts, in cases that have sought not only to vindicate individual claims, but to establish and strengthen the law’s protection for all. We also document violations, propose solutions, engage policymakers and offer assistance drawing on our global legal experience.