In 2015 Greenpeace India had all their assets frozen by the Indian Government and was accused of a slew of allegations related to funding they received from foreign donors. Suddenly, it became clear that the space for civil society to act as a healthy mediator was becoming less certain. This was true even in democracies around the world and for international civil society organisations (ICSOs), which typically enjoy a privileged status in many countries. The environment in India specifically had gotten so hostile that even colleagues from Plan International – a perceivably less politically outspoken organisation than Greenpeace – said it had trouble getting their staff visas to travel to India.
It was in this context that the International Civil Society Centre decided to move that year’s Global Perspectives conference from New Delhi to Bangkok and to convene a side meeting with those organisations already very active in the field of defending civic space. During this meeting, it was decided that the Centre would take up a coordinating role to develop a charter for civic participation. The vision was of a charter rooted in international law, yet newly invigorated by civil society to reaffirm and reassert the rights that we as civil society and as citizens claim for ourselves. It was to serve as a rallying point for civil society, a reference point to which anyone could link their local struggle and give a common definition to a worrying trend that was dubbed “shrinking civic space” amongst sector experts. It was to be a charter that would help to affirm and request solidarity for brave activist and organisations to stand together in our separate yet common causes.
However, coordinating the development of the charter – later called the Civic Charter – was not an easy task in the politically-charged environment of the professionalised civil society sector.
While organising the diverse Steering Group for this project and the three rounds of open consultation, we came up against a lot of opposition. Many felt the Centre was not the right actor for driving this project, which should be rooted in local struggles and those who feel threats to their right to participate most keenly. Obviously (and we openly admit), these are not the ICSOs we primarily work with. Yet, our owner organisations had pledged their support along with the many new allies and friends – mainly the wonderful members of the Steering Group – who worked hard to involve as broad a set of stakeholders in the consultations as possible.
And when we convened a final face-to-face meeting with activists and CSO professionals from around the world, suddenly the Civic Charter was filled with life. It articulated the struggles from Cambodia to Mexico and took a decisive and humbling new focus on citizen, or rather people’s, rights instead of putting the spotlight only on organised civil society.
The launch of the Civic Charter in October 2016 was then only the beginning.
In May 2017 we hosted a Civic Charter workshop in Arusha, Tanzania which brought together 25 activists from 13 countries to explore the possibilities for national campaigns based on the Civic Charter to promote civic rights. There is considerable strength in the Civic Charter’s ability to bring together civil society organisations and activists working on issues ranging from women’s rights to the environment to religious freedoms, because of its attention to basic civic freedoms that we all rely on. Rather than building a global campaign for civic space, we decided to organise this campaign from the bottom up, connecting grassroots activists across borders to create a movement based on solidarity and joint action.
So you may ask, “why go through all of the trouble of undergoing a multi-stakeholder process?” Isn’t it just easier to decide what to do and then do it?
The community that has grown out of the different stages of developing the Civic Charter says otherwise. There is power and value in the solidarity that is born out of collective movements. We witnessed this in Arusha as activists sat together under a cabana during the peak of the rainy season (and long after the formal “sessions” had ended) sharing protest songs from their countries and stories of resistance. We see it on our Facebook group when activists share strategies and encourage each other, and especially when we rally together to demand justice for members of our community who are harassed by police or imprisoned as a result of their brave activism.
These small acts of solidarity are the basis for “joint action,” a buzzword that is frequently used but less frequently mastered. As any good organiser knows, movement building is all about building relationships, and these relationships began through our (sometimes painstaking!) process of collective strategising.
This community couldn’t be more critical for civic rights activists. Just as governments are copying laws and tactics to stifle citizen dissent from one another, civil society must use the same strategy to stand together and learn together how to counter these attacks.