Some months ago during a discussion about the role of CSOs I was asked whether it was OK for CSOs to threaten national security. I asked what the question meant and found out that it referred to Greenpeace challenging the Indian government on environmental destruction in the context of coal mining. I replied that I could not see how a handful of activists protesting peacefully could threaten the national security of a country as powerful as India. Shortly afterwards I found out that the very public fight against Greenpeace was only the tip of the iceberg.
At the end of April, India cancelled the registration of 8975 foreign-funded CSOs, which now have to re-apply to be allowed to receive funds from abroad. Meanwhile, they are running out of money and cannot maintain their activities, support their partners and pay their staff. The government has found a very effective way to intimidate and muzzle CSOs. During the last few weeks Greenpeace has won several court cases against the Indian government. But whatever the courts’ rulings are, the government finds new ways to hamper Greenpeace’s work. While Greenpeace is in the headlines, most other CSOs keep quiet hoping to eventually be allowed to receive foreign funding again. This may be a clever move in the short term but could be a very risky strategy in the long haul.
Another example of how civic activities are curtailed in India is the government’s prosecution of Teesta Setalvad and her husband Javed Anand, as well as the organisations they established– Sabrang Communications, Sabrang Trust, and Citizens for Justice and Peace. These organisations seek justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. As a response to their activities, the government has launched a large number of court cases against the organisations and their founders, trying to paralyse their work. A recent article by an Indian journalist comes to the conclusion: “So the issue is not just whether the Modi government will succeed in catching Teesta Setalvad and detaining her, but also whether there is any hope for dissent and justice when the state uses its power to crush those who question it.”
India is only one of far too many countries where civic liberties are being curtailed at the moment. CIVICUS keeps a record of the situation of civil society around the world and finds that in many countries the space for civic participation is shrinking. Russia and the dictatorships at its fringes are prominent examples. Many African, Asian and Latin American countries are on the list, but also some democracies in Western Europe and North America. As a result millions of citizens are deprived of some of their rights, and thousands of national and international CSOs are hampered in doing their work.
I recently asked a friend who runs a division in an international CSO what he thought we could do to protect the space for civic action. His answer: “Not very much. We need to try to come to terms with governments and hope that they let us continue to operate.” This seems to be the dominant policy for many CSOs. But is this good enough? As far as I am concerned: clearly not! Most of the social, environmental and political progress we have made over the past centuries came from citizen action challenging the status quo which was usually defended by the ruling government: abolishing slavery, granting women the right to vote, establishing environmental standards, bringing down the Berlin Wall, etc.
As we reach the limits of the resources our planet provides, and of the pollution it can absorb, we need a fundamental shift in the way we go about development globally. Such a shift will only be possible based on citizens’ engagement in fair, equitable and sustainable development worldwide. If CSOs are serious about achieving their missions they need to get together and defend citizens’ space for participation. And if governments are serious about the Sustainable Development Goals they want to adopt at the UN General Assembly in September, they need to ensure a space for civil society to push for and support sustainable development around the world.
Update (March 2016): If you’re a senior leader at an international or national CSO please join us for the Global Perspectives Conference, 26-28 October in Berlin. The main theme of this year’s event will be shrinking civic space.