When the 19 member countries and the EU gathered in Hamburg for the G20 Summit one important topic was not on the agenda: from China to Mexico, Turkey to Russia, Saudi Arabia to India – the respect for fundamental human rights can no longer be taken for granted.
This also holds true for some EU member states such as Hungary or Poland. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are universal human rights enshrined in international law. They are the backbone of any democracy worth its name.
These rights are the precondition for a life in dignity. They are essential for shaping a sustainable future on this planet.
What we are currently witnessing is an unprecedented clamp down on civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, unionists, and dissenting political voices. Their space for action is under attack, it is shrinking. And in reality spaces are not just shrinking anymore, in most places civic spaces are closed.
According to the international civil society network CIVICUS, in only 26 of 195 countries an independent civil society can work without hindrance. That is a mere 3% of the global population – the restriction of civic space has become the norm rather than the exception. In the G20 countries Russia, China, Saudi Arabia or Turkey, the voices of those criticising the ruling government, corruption, political arbitrariness, environmental destruction or social injustice, are silenced. The toolbox is vast: from defamation, criminalisation, terrorism charges, red tape, surveillance and censorship of online and communication platforms, to outright violent repression.
In 2015 alone, 65 countries passed legislation that restricted the work of civil society organisations. These laws usually target the financing of CSO projects from foreign sources, massively restricting their often only sources of funding. Organisations with critical or dissenting voices are effectively silenced as they lose their basis for existence. Through the laws they are also defamed as ‘Western agents’ (Russia, Israel) and generally accused of working against the national interest. Governments often use the pretext of national security or safeguarding traditional values and culture to clamp down on civil society: Turkey and Russia prosecute homosexual and transgender people, questioning their human rights with the pretext of cultural norms.
But repression is not present only in authoritarian countries of the G20. In democratic countries such as Brazil, Mexico, India or Indonesia, activists and journalists who speak out against political arbitrariness, environmental destruction due to mining or infrastructure projects, face severe repercussions, as well. They are intimidated, threatened or even killed.
In India, women, indigenous people, Muslims or Christians are discriminated against. Organisations and activists defending human rights and the rights of minorities – who often enjoy international solidarity – are criminalised and slandered as national traitors.
In Mexico, twelve people – among them human rights defenders, journalists and staff of CSOs – were illegally spied on between January 2015 and July 2016.Mexico also has a shockingly high death rate from deliberate violence, second only to war-torn Syria.. Since 2006, approximately 185,000 people were killed in Mexico, among them 106 journalists since 2000.
Similar trends are evident when it comes to the global fight for natural resources. According to Global Witness, in 2015 185 environmental and land activists were killed in 16 countries – Brazil (also a member of the G20) being the deadliest with 50 activists dead.
With the shrinking and closing of civic spaces, governments intend to silence any voice or movement critical of political, social or environmental conditions, before they can gain momentum. What it comes down to is political and economic elites protecting and defending their privilege and power.
Civil society and political opposition are denied any demands for democratic participation and fundamental rights.
Yet, all G20 countries have signed the Declaration of Human Rights and are bound by international law. We have to demand that the G20 governments guarantee these rights, defend and protect them. It is their responsibility not to isolate trade and investment policies from issues of human rights and democratic participation. In this regard, even the democratic G20 countries have much work to do. Neoliberal austerity measures and large infrastructural investment projects have severe consequences. People have to be able to protest and raise objections against them. This is their right and a key pillar of democratic participation.
The severe repression of and restrictions on civil society should have featured prominently on the G20 agenda as civil society organisations demanded several times in the run-up to the summit. Paying general lip-service to political participation, as the German government did, is not enough. The German government is neglecting transparency and participation principles in a number of instances: they yet again have entered into negotiations of a trade agreement between the EU and Japan behind closed doors without any public debate. And the government continues to provide oppressive regimes with weapons and surveillance technology which are then used to clamp down on political opposition and activists. This is not what credibility and integrity looks like.