Burkhard Gnärig

22 March, 2016

Civil Society – Let’s Join Forces to Defend our Rights

A few months ago I wrote the blog We Need to Defend Citizens’ Space for Participation in which I looked at India and other countries where civil society was under threat. Since then, no day has gone by without news about government actions restricting citizens’ space to participate in shaping and developing their own societies. Meanwhile, a number of deeply worrying developments have become blatantly obvious:

  • Shrinking civic space is a global 25phenomenon. Citizens on all continents, in developing and developed societies, are suffering from the curtailing of their rights. Recent political initiatives in countries such as Hungary, Poland and the UK show that no society can be certain to escape this trend.
  • Governments are learning from each other how best to keep “their” citizens under control – rather than being controlled by citizens as should be the case. For instance, the Russian strategy to oppress any civic dissent to the government’s policies has been, and is being, copied in many countries globally.
  • In a world of mounting competition for dwindling natural resources, persisting terrorism, and a rising number of refugees crossing national borders, more and more citizens are willing to accept restrictions to their rights as a price for securing their own safety and wellbeing. They follow their governments’ arguments that limitations to citizens’ rights – e.g. to free speech, peaceful assembly, political participation – are necessary to preserve political stability, maintain economic growth, control terrorism, secure national sovereignty, and keep foreigners out.
  • Centuries of experience with authoritarian regimes have shown that once citizens have lost any rights over their governments, it will take a long time of painful struggle to claim them back. Therefore, the large scale disempowerment of citizens world-wide is a scary development, which requires a concerted approach of all who are willing to defend civic rights.

Here are two ways in which the International Civil Society Centre is contributing to the fight for civic participation:

Developing a Civic Charter

A meeting of civil society activists organised by the Centre in Bangkok last November, tasked us with drafting a Civic Charter. It aims to provide a common global basis for civil society activists to defend civic rights. From a number of UN conventions and other international agreements, the Civic Charter will draw together the key provisions for civic participation in an easily understandable way. It hopes to serve as a global reference point for civil society to allocate their rights in the complexity of international law, and to provide a more effective basis for communications about, and advocacy for, appropriate terms for civic participation. The Civic Charter aims to be a basis for international solidarity with CSOs and activists who are suffering from infringements on their internationally agreed rights.

The development of the Civic Charter will draw on the results of a survey among civil society activists and the work of a Steering Group consisting of representatives of civil society organisations, and key stakeholders. A desk study will explore the most relevant provisions on civic space laid down in key UN documents and International Law, and an international meeting will finalise the Civic Charter text and outline the strategies on how to roll out the Civic Charter and use it as a basis for joint action.

 Bringing together key actors in the global fight for civic participation

The Charter will be launched during the Global Perspectives conference in Berlin on 26 – 28 October 2016. This conference will focus on shrinking space for civic participation. It will bring together the key global actors in the fight for civic participation. With this conference, we seek to advance international cooperation into a new stage of intensity and commitment towards the protection and enhancement of citizens’ rights to participate in shaping and developing their societies everywhere.


If you would like to suggest a theme for us to have CSO leaders address on the blog this year, or if you want to join us in protecting the space for civic participation. please put your suggestion in the comments section below or send an email to askok@icscentre.org!

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