Protecting and expanding civil society space nationally and internationally

Grafik Sprayer

An analysis carried out by CIVICUS indicates that in far too many countries and in all global regions the conditions for civil society work and activities has worsened. Some of the solutions to this problem could be taken by civil society itself.

In many ways 2015 marked a watershed for civil society. Two major global compacts affecting the lives and livelihoods of billions of people were reached: the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Both these agreements are more ambitious, inclusive and grounded in human rights discourse than previous commitments. That they are is a consequence of civil society advocacy, and a testament to civil society’s participation and influence in global governance. These new commitments demonstrate that civil society can play a significant role in global governance, and almost all intergovernmental bodies express some kind of commitment to work with civil society. However, positive achievements contrast with the reality that civil society is being squeezed: one or more of the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were seriously restricted in 109 countries around the world in 2015

Our analysis at CIVICUS indicates that in far too many countries and in all global regions, the space for civil society to carry out its work has worsened appreciably in recent years. The sources and methods of restriction are manifold, with attacks emanating from political leaders, government agencies, criminal elements linked to private entities, extremists and terrorists. Commonly used methods of restriction include legislation that seeks to constrain how civil society can organise, what it can act on, how it must account for itself and how it can be funded; biased judicial proceedings that prevent activists and organisations from carrying out their mandates; the vilification of civil society members through verbal attacks amounting to hate speech; the imposition of travel restrictions on civil society activists; arbitrary detention; and physical attacks and assassinations.

While the trends are pervasive and affect a large swathe of civil society, not all parts of civil society are being attacked or restricted in equal measure. In many instances attacks are being used to divide civil society and isolate particular organisations and activists. Restrictions are felt most strongly when civil society questions the power of political and economic elites, exposes corruption and strives to realise human rights. Sadly, human rights defenders are becoming increasingly vulnerable to inflammatory rhetoric around national security, stability and cultural values when they unearth abuses by security forces or seek to advance the rights of minorities or disadvantaged populations. Spikes in attacks on civil society are also experienced around elections, particularly in countries where long-standing leaders and parties maintain an iron grip on power.

The international system: an important arena for civil society

In times when civil society faces challenging situations at home, the international system provides an important arena in which civil society can articulate concerns about national level failures of governance. We argued in our 2014 State of Civil Society Report that one hope civil society invests in international institutions is that they may offer a source of protection and support for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded. And to some extent, international governance institutions play this role: the UN Human Rights Council and regional human rights bodies, such as those in Africa and the Americas, are valued by civil society as arenas in which important issues of civil society rights can be raised and international support can be won.

Although civil society assesses that international processes could be improved, the UN has helped propagate global norms that can then be applied to, and become the focus for, civil society advocacy at the national level. Already in 2016, the UN Human Rights Council has passed resolutions on the protection of defenders of economic, social and cultural rights, a safe and enabling environment for civil society and the protection and promotion of human rights on the internet. Moreover, with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda by the UN General Assembly, the concept that there should be space for civil society to function has been firmly entrenched in the development sphere. Target 10 of Goal 16 promises to ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements, while Target 17 of Goal 17 affirms the need to encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships, building on the experience and resourcing strategies of partnerships.

Making participation in global governance meaningful: a continuing challenge

Although, international affirmations of civil society rights offer an important source of solidarity and support for civil society activists under threat, challenges remain with the implementation of progressive measures on the ground. The international system remains heavily state-centric, allowing narrowly defined national interests to prevail over civil society voices. For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists, a CSO that campaigns for press freedom and defends the rights of journalists, faced a long and bruising struggle to gain recognition by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), a key requirement for CSOs that seek to engage with the UN system. While finally granted in 2016, the process was unfairly obstructed for several years by governments opposed to its work in defence of human rights, denying CPJ key opportunities to engage internationally. In another example, several states blocked the participation of LGBTI activists in the July 2016 AIDS Summit in South Africa, preventing these crucial voices from participating in a debate on an issue of huge importance. 

In 2014, CIVICUS undertook a score card assessment of the engagement of intergovernmental organisations with civil society, which revealed considerable discontent with present levels and methods of engagement. Consultations with civil society were assessed to be largely superficial, often appearing to be box-ticking exercises. Many civil society respondents felt that, while they were routinely called on to help implement programmes, they were not given sufficient scope to shape policy. They lamented that governments were consistently able to override civil society inputs, to the extent that it was hard to show real influence having resulted from international institutions’ engagement with civil society.

International institutions were deemed to be too selective in choosing who they engage with and were urged to improve their outreach to allow exposure to a wider, more diverse range of civil society. At the same time, larger and better resourced international civil society organisations were criticised for sometimes acting as gatekeepers of their privileged access to international institutions. They were accused of being preoccupied with retaining their status rather than broadening civil society participation. The fact that many international institutions are based in global north countries with discriminatory visa regimes makes it harder for global south civil society to participate in international decision-making.

Civil society spaces in global governance processes: the need to democratise

Our analysis concluded that international governance suffers from a double democratic deficit: at the national level, the subversion of democracy by elites excludes people’s voices and shrinks civil society space, while at the international level, governments that fail to respect their citizens’ rights assert narrow interests, and restrict civil society access to the international governance system.

The following responses are needed to protect and expand space for civil society at the international and national levels.

Some of these are responses that civil society itself should take. First, in a world where the local is deeply affected by the global, influencing global governance institutions should be seen as a key priority for civil society. Stronger civil society engagement demands enhanced knowledge about global-decision making, through information sharing and peer learning among civil society of different types and capacities that are working at different levels. Progressive measures on civil society space and participation adopted internationally then need to be communicated and implemented at the national level.

Second, civil society needs to work together to make concerted efforts to push back against restrictions. Organisations working on different issues, such as internet freedom, democratic reform, women’s rights, LGBTI rights and environmental, land and indigenous people’s rights, need to work together, as do those in the global south and global north. Larger and better resourced organisations with an established presence in key intergovernmental bodies should take the initiative to democratise the space they hold by sharing their access and resources with others.

Third, there is a need for stronger, clearer and more popular messaging on why civil society matters, why civil society space is important, and what can be done to defend it. In doing so, civil society needs to avoid perpetuating narratives of disempowerment, emphasise the positive contribution of civil society and identify the value that is added by participation.

Intergovernmental organisations also need to step up and challenge some of the barriers against entry that civil society faces. They need actively to encourage the international engagement of a more diverse civil society, and develop outreach strategies and provide resources to make this participation a reality. Standards for civil society engagement should be brought up to at least the levels of access that transnational corporations enjoy.

Finally, more accurate and frequent monitoring and reporting of trends in civil society space are needed. Contemporary open data tools can help to track and report whether civil society space is worsening or improving in different contexts, and trigger early alerts to drive prompt action. In response, in October 2016, CIVICUS launches the CIVICUS Monitor, an interactive online platform to provide up to date analysis on civil society freedoms in every country. Watch this space.

This article is part of our dossier "Squeezed – Spaces for Civil Society".