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.
Last 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.
The erosion of space is being felt not only by advocacy organisations and human rights activists on the frontline. Several anti-poverty and development focused organisations are also starting to worry about their political space to influence and work with decision makers. Moreover, attacks are emanating not just from unaccountable governments but also from criminal elements linked to unscrupulous commercial enterprises as well as from religious and ideological fundamentalist groups seeking to upend the collective progress achieved by civil society in advancing human rights and social justice norms.
Thus, the quest to roll back negative trends is indeed an urgent one. In October 2015, CIVICUS and Human Rights Watch co-hosted a two-day meeting with over 40 leaders from several international and regional civil society groups to engage in strategic reflection to overcome the rising challenge of closing civil society space, and identify opportunities for future collaborations. Key points emerging from this dialogue were also taken up at the 2015 Global Perspectives conference. They include the need for civil society to work together, to develop a positive narrative around the contributions of civil society to national life, inform the general public about the nature, causes and extent of restrictions being faced by civil society activists and organisations, and to broaden the conversation on civil society space restrictions beyond advocacy groups and those working on civil and political freedoms.
In this light, CIVICUS is seeking to develop an integrated campaign to supplement on-going actions to resist attacks on civil society, share information about various initiatives, and pool energies and resources towards common objectives.
A key part of this campaign would be to engender greater co-ordination and solidarity between civil society players when one of our own is unjustly targeted for their legitimate work. Essentially, this would mean improving the way we work together and creating a network of solidarity among interested parties that would be able to rapidly respond to emerging threats. It is encouraging to see the International Civil Society Centre take the lead on developing a Civic Charter which can play an important role in the struggle to reclaim civil society space.
Success of such an endeavour will in part hinge on developing counter-narratives to the on-going stigmatisation and vilification of civil society by authoritarian leaders and fundamentalist groups. Individuals and organisations seeking social and political transformation have alternatively been described as national security risks, foreign agents, western stooges, anarchists and even as immoral sociopaths. Thus, a seminal step would be to make a wholesome effort to inform public opinion about the various contributions of civil society from spurring good governance to meaningful employment generation. This could help spur robust public mobilisations when civil society actors are targeted and also deter would be offenders.
Notably, it would help to identify a few game changing ideas for collective advocacy such as: reversal of regressive CSO legislation in target countries which could have a domino effect in their neighbourhoods and beyond; adoption of progressive institutional frameworks for civil society-government engagement by supportive states which could encourage others to follow suit; or getting eminent persons such as Nobel Laureates to collectively demand the release of unjustly imprisoned civil society activists.
CIVICUS is currently seeking inputs on how to frame a campaign on civic space. Please contact Zubair Sayed, head of campaigns and communication at firstname.lastname@example.org