Freedom of Association

“We human beings want to get together with others, live together, eat together, laugh together, cry together, play music together, dance together, work together, and act collectively to improve our lives.”

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the 2011 ICNL Global Forum

The right to freedom of association enables individuals to come together to pursue shared interests and achieve common goals – to act collectively to improve their lives. It protects registered and unregistered groups alike, including civil society organizations, cooperatives, religious associations, political parties, trade unions, and online associations. Whether they seek to form a large advocacy organization or an informal group for hobby enthusiasts, individuals exercise this right by forming groups.

The laws governing associations and other groups should enable, rather than impede, freedom of association. Through engagement with local organizations, governments, and the international community, ICNL promotes this right and helps build environments in which people can collaborate to improve their lives.

Key Themes

Advancing Legal Reform

ICNL works with our partners to advance enabling legal reform and push back against restrictive measures. We support our partners with analysis, expertise, and technical assistance on a diverse range of issues affecting freedom of association. From Tunisia to Myanmar to Ethiopia to Peru, ICNL helps local partners enact legislation that widens the space for individuals and groups to exercise their right to freedom of association.

Defending Civil Society, Second Edition

This 2012 report provides examples of the legal barriers that governments use to constrain civic space and articulates international legal principles to protect civil society.

Guidelines for Laws Affecting Civic Organizations

This seminal text offers guidance for creating and amending domestic laws to regulate civil society organizations, establishing the framework for such laws in internationally recognized rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

The Role of Legal Reform in Supporting Civil Society

This primer from ICNL, commissioned by the United Nations Development Program, provides an overview of the legal environment for civil society and a general orientation to the reform of civil society law. Available in French and English.

Access to Resources

According to Maina Kiai, the former United Nations special rapporteur of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, freedom of association is the ability “to form and join an association [and] seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial – from domestic, foreign, and international sources.” As part of the Civic Space Initiative, ICNL and our partners track and respond to legal and regulatory threats that could impede civil society’s access to resources and provide organizations with the tools they need to advocate for sustainable resources.

Associations Access to Financial Resources

In this 2013 report, the UN special rapporteur discusses the international legal framework governing civil society’s ability to access financial resources and analyzes several common government justifications for restricting such access.

General Principles on Civil Society's Right to Funding

This set of principles, issued by UN Special Rapporteur Kiai and the Community of Democracies, summarizes key aspects of civil society’s right to receive international funding.

Human Rights Defenders Briefing Papers: Right to Access Funding

This paper from the International Service for Human Rights examines the right of human rights defenders to access cross-border funding.

Cross-Border Funding

Access to funding is vital to civil society, and the ability to cooperate and receive support across borders further strengthens the sector. ICNL works around the world to protect and foster cross-border philanthropy and international development cooperation. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Domestic Fundraising

Domestic fundraising is a vital source of funding for many civil society organizations. New tools and technologies have dramatically increased funding sources, mobilized local resources, and improved civil society’s financial sustainability. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Freedom of Association Online

The internet is both a tool and a space for exercising freedom of association. While the digital age has created new opportunities, it has also brought new challenges. Through our support of the UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule’s 2019 work on freedom of association in the digital age and our work on emerging technology on civic space, ICNL is working with our partners to understand better and address the challenges and opportunities facing freedom of association online.

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION IN THE DIGITAL AGE

In this 2019 report, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association discusses the opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

Technology & Civic Space

Online technologies are reshaping civic space by providing new ways to exercise the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and expression — as well as new methods for governments and private actors to restrict those rights. Explore resources on this topic by a variety of international experts on this page.

Association and Assembly in the Digital Age

This 2011 article from the International Journal for Not-For-Profit Law explores the connection between new technologies and the fundamental rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly.

Challenges for Vulnerable Populations

Vulnerable populations, such as women, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities, and sexual minorities, face unique barriers to exercising their right to freedom of association. Governments may refuse to register or curtail the activities of organizations serving these groups, or the groups may find it difficult to operate in the local regulatory environment. Exploring this requires a specialized focus and INCL works with partners around the world to help protect the right to freedom of association of vulnerable populations.

The Impact of the Closing of Civic Space on HIV Response in East Africa

Civil society organizations have helped propel the global response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. However, their activities could slow down or stop altogether if the space for advocacy is tightened or closed. In this 2018 report, ICNL presents in-depth research and analysis on the ways in which the closing of civic space is affecting HIV responses in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda.

Assembly & Association for At-Risk Groups

This 2014 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association addresses legislation and practices that discriminate against certain groups and deprive them of these fundamental rights.

Research on Violations of Environmental Groups’ Civic Freedoms

The 2016 issue of ICNL’s Global Trends in NGO Law presents research on the approaches that governments commonly use to undermine the ability of environmental activists to exercise their rights to assembly, association, and expression. Their techniques include the use and abuse of existing laws, restrictive new legislation, and extra-legal strategies, such as public vilification and violence.

Identifying & Addressing Challenges Facing LGBTI Groups

ICNL’s 2015 Global Forum included a session on legal constraints on the ability of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex groups to fully exercise their right to freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression. The session identified successful strategies that LGBTI groups use to function and flourish. ICNL dedicated this 2016 issue of the Global Trends in NGO Law to discussing the challenges, successes, and lessons learned by organizations working in this space.

Guidelines & Best Practices

OSCE Guidelines on Freedom of Association

These 2015 guidelines from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe offer a practical toolkit for drafting legislation that promotes the establishment of associations, enables their operations and activities, and facilitates achievement of their goals.

BEST PRACTICES IN PROMOTING THE RIGHTS TO FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY & ASSOCIATION

This 2012 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association surveys the legal and institutional frameworks needed to comply with the spirit and the letter of human rights.

GUIDELINES ON FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION AND ASSEMBLY IN AFRICA

These guidelines, released in 2017 by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, provide practical advice on protecting the right to freedoms of association and assembly, based on international law and best practices.

Reports & Articles

THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS & FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

This 2018 report from the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association examines the relationship between the exercise of those rights and implementation of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Civic Freedoms in the Middle East & North Africa

This 2018 in-depth study assesses the effect of formal and informal restrictions on the right to freedom of association in Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia. The report is available in English and Arabic.

Politics, Power, and Accountability: Addressing Civil Society Organizations' Right to Freedom of Association

This 2014 article from ICNL’s International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law argues that civil society and government are interdependent, with governments expected to provide a legal and regulatory framework that allows civil society to function independently and keep governments accountable to their citizens.

Safeguarding Civil Society in Politically Complex Environments

This 2007 article from ICNL’s International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law describes strategies and tools for protecting the right to freedom of association in politically complex environments.

The Associational Counter-Revolution

This article co-authored by ICNL’s president and vice president summarizes the actions that countries around the world have taken to constrain civil society.

Legal Instruments

All Freedom of Association Resources