A well-known global human rights activist working on the enabling space for civil society recently said to me: “to do this work, you need to prepare to be arrested.” Though I’m fairly comfortable with activism, having been a long-time campaigner – this came as a bit of a shock, especially as I work in a comfortable western environment. As it happened, shortly after we spoke, he was threatened with arrest in his own country.
My colleague’s response to the threat wasn’t what most would do. Rather than going undercover, he went into a press conference and said: “I’m here. Arrest me.” Fortunately, they have yet to do so.
While his individual response was one of bravery – or perhaps bravado – it begs the question: what should our collective response to this creeping authoritarianism really be? Civil society has often been the torch bearer for dissent – holding governments to account or promoting rights that the powerful don’t always agree with. It’s no wonder that civil society is a front-line target.
But the responses to closing space have varied widely across civil society, and different national contexts. Most, however, have had to adapt to the new restrictions in some way or other – either by tempering their activities, to make sure they don’t fall foul of new national laws; shrinking their programmes as foreign funding restrictions bite; or, in the worst-case scenarios, closing down altogether.
Many civil society actors operate under a consistent blanket of fear. Governments have successfully been able to exploit the fears that exist, dividing civil society groups along clear lines: those who will acquiesce and those who won’t.
Coordinated campaigns to defend civil society space are rare. Legal cases are often left to individual groups to battle. Solidarity in response to the threats is often fleeting. Some civil society actors seek (understandably) to protect their own interests – perhaps to maintain a presence in a repressive country, to protect their own staff, and continue to serve those most in need. At a workshop I attended with INGOs on closing space, one representative courageously acknowledged, “when one INGO gets kicked out, we all think – great, that’s more money for us.”
Perhaps this isn’t the norm, but it’s certainly something that happens. And it leaves those fighting against restrictions as the sacrificial lamb in the process. When a restrictive law is imposed, for example, and an INGO cautiously welcomes the law in order to maintain a presence, human rights organisations, or organisations that are perceived to be a threat, are often forced to disband, their individual staff members sometimes fleeing in fear.
One can’t necessarily draw a clear line of cause and effect between the actions of an organisation legitimately protecting their interests and staff by cooperating with the government, to the outcomes of a human rights group who falls foul of a government in an era of closing space. But there is almost certainly a correlation. Acquiescing to restrictive measures feeds the hand of the government and enables the culture of fear and intimidation to continue. It may be a human rights organisation today, but an environmental group or a seemingly benign humanitarian group could be next.
Our sector often talks the talk of solidarity – but often it fails to walk the walk. Competing resources, professionalisation and branding can all go against the intent of standing as one. What does ‘solidarity’ mean when it comes to the closing space trend? What if, in theory, we were all prepared to be arrested? Just writing these words makes me want to think again, as I watch colleagues in places like Turkey or Egypt suddenly being investigated or detained. Perhaps this isn’t the answer entirely. But there must be a better response to closing civil society space that sees us acting in solidarity across the sector, somewhere on the scale between submission and mass imprisonment.
Collective action against these threats clearly needs to be stepped up. Of course, it’s not a simple solution. Civil society, by its very nature, is diverse. Indeed, the healthiest civil society thrives on difference and the last thing we want is a homogenous civil society. But the one thing, I hope, that all of civil society can agree with: we need the space – the rights, the laws and the protections, that can enable us to operate freely. This is the point on which we need to build stronger solidarity, across a wider group of civil society actors.
Over the past few years, as civil society restrictions have intensified, we’ve sought to duck and dive, adapt and build resilience. Perhaps that’s step one. Our next step, however, is resistance. Collective resistance means acting in solidarity amongst those with whom we may even sometime disagree for the greater good. It means agreeing strategy amongst us and coordinating more effectively. It means putting aside our individual interests to protect and strengthen civil society as a whole. With the 10th anniversary of International Civil Society Centre, it seems a good time to take up the challenge.
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