The Future of Civic Space: Towards a Re-solidarisation and Re-politisation of Civil Society

Barbara Unmüßig

Civil society space is under attack worldwide. In her welcoming speech to the Global Perspectives Conference, Barbara Unmüßig urged 160 representatives of civil society organisations from around the globe to stand in solidarity with each other and to put the issue of shrinking and closing spaces back on the political agenda.

With all of us here today a very diverse set of civil society actors from around the world are represented. We have in common that we all work to defend and promote the rights of people, that we raise our voices, that we support others who do, and unfortunately also that we are all facing shrinking and closing spaces to operate in.

Across the globe, active citizenship is under attack and the space for civil society is closing—not just in countries with repressive or autocratic governments, but also in democracies. Governments increasingly fear for their privilege and power, since protests against arbitrary governance, corruption and oppression have increased over the last decades. Carnegie documented that since 2010 major protests occurred in over 60 countries. Protests are on the rise in all regions and all political contexts – but remain driven by very local concerns: Socio-economic grievances, environmental crises and especially political demands for good and democratic governance, all cause people to speak up and demand change, often as part of demonstrations, but also outside of the “Square”.

We here at this conference are by and large representing the organised and institutionalised civil society. But we must reach out to all people, who are taking a stand to claim their democratic rights. We should form wider cross-sectoral alliances to reach beyond our own bubble. There are human rights defenders, lawyers, environmental activists, bloggers – everyone who understands themselves to be part of a critical and independent civil society – who increasingly connect and engage with each other on a global scale.

New technologies also add a new dimension to citizen engagement: On the one hand the internet and social media allow civic actors to connect, communicate and organise on a whole new scale. Local activists gain access to unprecedented international networks and attention to their grievances.

Governments cite all sorts of reasons for their draconian steps

On the other hand, online space is also increasingly becoming the arena for surveillance, control and interference by governments. They cut off networks of communication and support. This is a dimension we need to be much more aware off and extent our capabilities to support each other in dealing with problems of cyber security.

Spaces of civil society are being shrunk and closed off to an extent unheard of in the last 25 years. In 2015 alone, NGO laws and other restrictive measures were adopted in 64 countries and we can safely assume that civil society is under pressure in at least 80% of all countries. No method seems to be off limits: restrictive laws, red tape, smear campaigns, censorship, defamation, and outright open and violent repression by intelligence agencies and the police.

Governments of course cite all sorts of reasons for their draconian steps to protect their economic and political power: Terrorism and security concerns used to be at the top of the list, but are now rivalled by a reaffirmation of national sovereignty. We must find clear and decisive arguments to counter these narratives. We cannot let our fundamental human rights fall victim to national and security agendas.

A major tactic against supposed “foreign interference” is to cut off the financial life line of local NGOs and other civil society organisations. Laws that restrict, prohibit or vilify the provision of funding to NGOs from abroad are the most prominent instrument used to hinder the work of critical civil society. These efforts are not only a strategy to cut off the local from international support, but also part of a global trend to reject inalienable rights, such as human rights, as universal principles that governments have to uphold and defend.

We must speak up

In light of the universal trend to close civic space, there are tough choices to be made by all of us: what do we do in the face of oppression and closing and shrinking spaces? Do we give in? How do we use the space that is left to us to operate in? Do we restrict our work to topics and agendas that don’t get us into trouble? When faced with the dilemma of shutting down completely or not working politically anymore – essentially self-censoring – what do we do? I cannot blame those who surrender to the extraordinary challenges they are facing. We ourselves had to make the tough decision to close our office in Ethiopia, and our work in Egypt and other regions is increasingly more difficult to conduct.

The global developments tell us that in future we will have to keep fighting to defend and regain our rights. Governments will try to divide us into “good” and “bad” guys to drive us apart. We cannot allow that to happen, because ending solidarity with each other only weakens us. We need to stand in solidarity with each other and act together to reclaim our fundamental rights.

We mustn’t make the mistake of believing that by self-censoring and compromising on which rights or democratic values we openly defend and work towards we can protect ourselves. Of course we all need to make smart choices in our daily work on how to be most effective and most importantly be safe. But if we allow de-politisation and de-solidarisation to take over, we lose our legitimacy as actors of civil society.

As NGOs and civil society organisations we continue to be called upon in multilateral political processes – such as the Climate negotiations, or the Agenda 2030 – to be key watchdogs and drivers for the implementation of internationally agreed standards. I believe that we must use and fulfil this role as a watchdog and speak up – hold our governments accountable, spur public debate and also keep offering alternatives to the status quo. And we must also work to put the issue of shrinking spaces itself on the political agenda: Fighting the shrinking of civil spaces is about reclaiming rights – human rights and civil rights. These are inalienable rights, they are binding international law, they are common ethical standards and we must keep reminding governments of that.

The Civic Charter that will be launched here today is exactly about this – it is about reclaiming our right to freedom of expression, organisation and assembly and to demand of governments that they uphold spaces where an independent civil society can work without hindrance. In the meantime, while governments are closing in on critical and active civic activities, we need to show solidarity with each other and put the effort to regain our spaces back on the political agenda.

This speech was held on October 26th 2016 in Berlin.
Find more information in our dossier "Squeezed – Spaces for Civil Society".