Miriam Niehaus

8 November, 2016

Brochure_CoverOver the recent weeks we have read about the increasingly harsh realities civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists experience. Peaceful demonstrators face arbitrary arrests, CSOs are vilified, and political activists are disappeared and murdered. While this trend presents itself in a variety of heinous examples – most recently the response of authorities to the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota (USA) – it is glaringly obvious that we are in this battle together globally. We, as civil society activists, must stand together in our struggles.

Since 17 October, citizens all over the world have been holding launch events for the Civic Charter – a much-needed tool that offers precisely this opportunity to connect and amplify our struggles. The document empowers us to stand together more united than ever and, in turn, stronger in the face of growing restrictions and threats to our inherent rights. MORE

Veronika Mora

2 October, 2016

In April 2014, just two days after the general election which brought the repeated victory of the right-conservative government of Fidesz, the head of the Prime Minister’s Office announced that he would initiate the re-negotiation of how funding is provided by EEA countries – Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein – to Hungarian civil society organisations (CSOs). This signaled the start of a series of unprecedented governmental attacks and harassment of independent civic groups, especially those engaged in human rights, anti-corruption, women’s and LBGT rights.

Hungary My foundation, Ökotars Alapitvany, as the head of the grantmaking consortium which managed the EEA/Norwegian NGO Programme in Hungary found itself in the centre of the conflict, which started at first as a media smear campaign orchestrated by the government. High ranking officials, e.g. deputy state secretaries, accused us as being politically biased, oppositional “cheating nobodies”. However, this was soon followed by official inspections: in late May, the Prime Minister’s Office had announced publicly that the so-called Governmental Control Office (GCO) were to audit the use of the EEA/Norwegian funding – over which, according to lawyers, they clearly had no jurisdiction. It was also quite characteristic of the whole process that we learnt everything from government-friendly media first – official notifications came only after information had been broadcast widely. Although they never answered our repeated requests to clarify the legal basis of the audit, we were forced to cooperate due to the GCO’s wide ranging sanctioning powers. We also found that documents not previously in the public domain, but handed over to GCO by us during the course of the audit, somehow quickly found their way into government-friendly media – always in a damning context. MORE

Burkhard Gnärig

27 September, 2016

Global Perspectives conference 2016The last time we discussed the issue of shrinking civic space was in March – April when we described the increasing challenges civil society activists around the world are facing when making their voices heard. We ended our series of blogs with a report about the Civic Charter – the Global Framework for People’s Participation which will “serve as an international reference point for civil society to allocate our rights within the complexity of international law.” We asked readers to contribute to shaping the Civic Charter by raising the issues they felt were most relevant in the fight for civic rights. Meanwhile, several extensive global consultations have been concluded and the final text has been approved. The Civic Charter will be launched nationally in the week of 17 October and globally one week later on 26 October at our Global Perspectives conference in Berlin. MORE

Nilda Bullain

6 April, 2016

The vicious spirit is out of the box.  By now we – those of us who read this blog – all recognise that countries will not stop imposing restrictions on civil society in the foreseeable future; to the contrary, those restrictions are growing by the year.  Just in 2015, over 30 countries proposed or passed 45 laws to constrain civil society organisations (CSOs) and rights of CSOs and activists have been violated in over 100 countries.

But what is this ‘vicious spirit’ and who let it out? 18_WhatCanWeDo_resize Who’s to blame?  Is it the newly budding populist and authoritarian leaders of this century?  Or the masses of voters who elect such leaders and agree with their worldviews, including those on civil society?  Democracies that weaken under the threats of terrorism, war and humanitarian crisis?

It is all of those and more; the phenomenon of shrinking civic space is complex and its root causes are difficult to tackle. As the problem has grown, more and more players became aware and got on board to address it: over the past couple of years, several dozen CSOs, donors, networks and international organisations launched ‘civic space’ projects, strategies and initiatives at the country, regional and global levels.  Yet the negative trend remains.  What are we doing wrong? MORE

Mandeep Tiwana

29 March, 2016

A vibrant and empowered civil society is an essential component of a functioning and accountable state. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called civil society, the “oxygen of democracy” and applauded the sector’s role as a “catalyst for social progress and economic growth.” Yet, there is ample evidence to show that civil society space is rapidly shrinking.

Just in the month of March 2016: environmental and land rights activists have been assassinated in Honduras and South Africa; a prominent woman human rights defender has been arbitrarily detained along-with her 15 month old son for demanding democratic rights in Bahrain; an activist opposing the proposed construction of a hydropower dam in Cambodia has received a suspended sentence; staff of several CSOs have been judicially harassed in Egypt to prevent them from receiving vital funding from international sources; and a draft law placing arbitrary conditions on the formation of CSOs in Jordan has come to light.

Students'_mass_protest_in_Taiwan_to_end_occupation_of_legislatureLast year, CIVICUS reported substantial threats to core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in 96 countries. Our preliminary findings for this year put the number at over hundred countries.  These trends spanning both democratic and authoritarian states heighten the urgency to inform public opinion about how attacks on civil society activists and organisations are chipping away at citizen rights and undermining participatory democracy. Effective mobilisations to influence hearts and minds of the global public will be key to reversing negative trends. MORE

Burkhard Gnärig

22 March, 2016

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.