Lots of attention for civic space: three reports summarized

In what way do civil society organisations and activists defend, reclaim and enlarge their civic space?

June 26, Partos and The Broker launch the Trends Report ‘Activists, Artivists and Beyond – Inspiring Initiatives of Civic Power’ during the New Waves of Civic Power event in Dudok, The Hague.

This report, full of inspirational examples of civic power, is the newest report in addition to three civic space-related reports published in the last couple of months. The Spindle would like to summarize the key points of these reports. In what way do civil society organisations and activists defend, reclaim and enlarge their civic space?

1. Global civic activism in flux | Published: March 17, 2017 – By: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (Richard Youngs, A/O)- Summary source
Case studies from eight countries show how civic activism across the world is evolving and reveal crosscutting themes relevant to the future of civil society support.

Civil society around the world is in flux. New forms of civic activism have taken shape, ranging from protest movements to community-level forums and online campaigns by individual activists. Debate is growing over how much these new, dynamic forms of civic activism are displacing the influence wielded by traditional, professional, advocacy-based nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This report presents concise summaries of civil society developments in eight countries, namely: Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey and Ukraine. The final chapter draws out the main points of interest from the different countries, compares the cases, and reflects on the broader implications for global civil society.

Regarding the countries highlighted in the report, the following statements were made:

  • In Brazil, civic activism has taken on a range of innovative organizational forms, with many new initiatives focusing on local issues while others are caught up in the country’s deepening political polarization.
  • In Egypt, the government’s assault on civil society has prompted a move away from traditional NGOs as activists seek less visible forms of volunteerism and civic organization.
  • In India, new types of community-based activism have added dynamism to campaigns against economic inequalities, social injustice, and the illiberal policies of the current government.
  • In Kenya, activism increasingly combines informal networks and formal organizations to some effect, and these activists have in general distanced themselves from the political opposition.
  • In Thailand, civil society is divided between two competing political camps, while new types of creative activism are emerging in opposition to the country’s military regime.
  • In Tunisia, civic activism has helped maintain the momentum of political reform; new types of more contentious activism have emerged to counter traditional NGOs’ alignment with the country’s relatively consensus-based and now faltering transition.
  • In Turkey, the 2013 Gezi protests led to the creation of new community organizations as alternatives to formal NGOs; the government’s current assault on civil society is a serious challenge that compounds the shift toward nonpolitical and local forms of activism.
  • In Ukraine, a new spirit of volunteerism has grown since the 2014 Euromaidan revolt, while many prominent new activists have moved toward cooperating with the government.

Finally the report comes with the conclusion that civil society in the developing and post-Communist worlds is going through a period of great change and turbulence. These changes are far from finished, and further reshaping can be expected in the years ahead. Two types of analysis have dominated work on new forms of global civil society. At a macro level, there is a great deal of bird’s-eye examination of very general trends. In micro-level terms, many studies have focused on individual countries’ new social movements. The report attempted to bridge these two levels, by offering detailed grassroots summaries of activism, while at the same time relating these local perspectives to crosscutting themes that are crucial to understanding global civil society’s general trajectory. In this regard, five concluding observations can be extracted from the preceding country mappings.

  1. While there is a global wave of new protests and innovative citizen movements, many civic struggles are increasingly rooted in specific national issues.
  2. New and older forms of civic activism coexist and intertwine in a variety of ways.
  3. Some new activism is highly political and confrontational; some is very practical and pragmatic about trying to circumvent the shortcomings of mainstream politics.
  4. New civic activism includes groups espousing an increasingly wide range of ideological positions.

While the new activism has been effective on some specific issues, it is mostly struggling to hold at authoritarian and illiberal government responses.


2. Human rights defenders under threat | Published: May 16, 2017 – By: Amnesty International – Summary source
This report is part of Amnesty International’s global advocacy campaign Brave, launched to combat measures by authoritarian leaders and other actors (state and non-state) with power to threaten and attack human rights defenders (HRDs) and shrink the space in which civil society operates. It provides an overview of the dangers HRDs face and calls on those in power to take immediate measures to ensure that HRDs are recognized, protected, and equipped to conduct their work without fear of attack in a safe environment.

Risks for HRDs are widespread. In 2016, 281 people were killed globally for defending human rights, up from 156 in 2015. Among the emerging trends is the use of new (online) technologies and targeted surveillance to threaten and silence activists. These new trends add to the existing arsenal of tools of suppression, including killings and enforced disappearances, crackdowns on the right to peaceful protest, and misuse of criminal, civil, and administrative laws to persecute HRDs. Women HRDs (WHRDs) and LGBTI defenders are facing particular forms of gender-based violence and discrimination in addition to the attacks other defenders face. Young HRDs face specific risks and harm, since they tend to be at the bottom of many hierarchies and face age-based discrimination intersecting with other forms of oppression. As a result many young HRDs are discredited and silenced. Youth-led civil society groups and young people are often key agents of change and can make a significant contribution to human rights, but remain susceptible to undue restrictions and persecution.

The report explores the impacts that various kinds of restrictions have on civil society. For instance, information collected or communicated by HRDs and deemed to be sensitive or politically threatening is blocked by some states, undermining numerous human rights obligations. The proliferation of laws restricting the free flow and exchange of online information also limits civil society’s ability to communicate. In light of such dangers, the Brave campaign is urging states to recognize the legitimate work of HRDs, and to ensure their freedom and safety. Amnesty International demands that countries implement what they committed to when the United Nations (UN) in UN Declarations The online campaign focuses on the cases of individuals facing imminent danger because of their human rights work, lobbying governments and putting pressure on decision-makers to strengthen legal frameworks.

Amnesty International calls upon states to:

  1. Explicitly recognize the legitimacy of HRDs and publicly support their work, acknowledging their contribution to the advancement of human rights;
  2. Ensure a safe and enabling environment in which HRDS are effectively protected and where it is possible to defend and promote human rights without fear of punishment, reprisal, or intimidation;
  3. Facilitate and support programs to guarantee that HRDS have access to the necessary skills, tools, and training;
  4. Enable participatory approaches to ensure that HRDS are connected with each other, within the community in which they operate and have access to decision makers at the national, regional, and international levels in a secure manner.

Amnesty International urges companies to:

  1. Implement adequate human rights due diligence processes, as set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights;
  2. Refrain from making statements or expressing views that discredit, denigrate, or stigmatize HRDs;
  3. Conduct meaningful consultations and meetings with HRDs at critical phases of project planning and implementation, and disclose in a timely manner all relevant information about business projects, including potential impacts on human rights;
  4. Adopt a policy of zero-tolerance of acts of violence, threats or intimidation committed against HRDs opposing or expressing their views about the company’s projects; and
  5. Collaborate with the state authorities in the investigation of any attack, threat, or intimidation perpetrated against HRDs because of their work in opposing or expressing their views on a company’s projects.

Amnesty International urges international and regional human rights bodies to:

  1. Reaffirm the right of every person, individually or in association with others, to defend and promote human rights in accordance with the HRDs Declaration;
  2. Continue to make repeated public statements about the crucial role and legitimacy of the work carried out by HRDs;
  3. Monitor the implementation of states’ obligations in the protection of HRDs, including paying particular attention to WHRDs; and
  4. Formulate policies and strengthen mechanisms to prevent and address acts of intimidation or reprisals against HRDs who communicate and interact with international and regional mechanisms and ensure that the crucial information received from them does not place them at risk.


3. Civicus State of Civil Society Report 2017 | Published: June 06, 2017 – By: CIVICUS – Summary source
Each year the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report examines the major events that involve and affect civil society around the world. Part one of the report reviews the past year. Part two of the report has the special theme of civil society and the private sector.

In the year review , the focus is on the space for civil society and the impact of a resurgence of right-wing populist politics, the right to express dissent; protest movements; and civil society’s international-level actions. The following six trends were described:

  1. A global civic space emergency:
    Civil society faces unprecedented levels of restriction. Around the world, it is becoming increasingly dangerous to challenge power, and to do so risks reprisals. The CIVICUS Monitor finds that only three per cent of the world’s population live in countries where civic space is fully open. This means that the restriction of civic space has become the norm rather than the exception. It should now be considered a global emergency.
  1. A crisis in democracy:
    On top of existing challenges, civil society faces an alarming new threat. In multiple countries,  there were political upheavals that weakened democracy, fostered division and increased the potential for civil society to be attacked. In several countries, right-wing populist leaders came to prominence by winning elections or commanding enough support to push their ideas into the mainstream. The challenge for civil society is that when it tries to argue back, it risks being associated with conventional, elite and failed governance: part of the problem rather than the solution.
  1. Narrowing channels for dissent:
    The new battle of political ideas is being played out in the media, putting increased pressure on the freedom of expression. New and social media in particular are being used to spread so called ‘fake news’. The ability of the media to offer a diversity of views and civil society’s capacity to get its points across are impacted upon as a result.
  1. Citizens fighting back:
    The past year was marked by numerous mass protests. Wherever new leaders have sought power on polarising platforms, they have faced major protests. The democracy of the street is alive and well. CIVICUS research indicates that protest movements value international connections, but these are mostly lacking. It also suggests they need support in strategic planning, thinking and organizing.
  1. Troubled times for progressive internationalism:
    Right-wing populist leaders have little time for international institutions. They see them as limiting the sovereignty they want to exercise, and regard international human rights oversight as interfering. The challenge this suggests for civil society is one of owning the narrative, and promoting an alternative both to narrow nationalism and neoliberal economic globalization: to make the case for a new, progressive internationalism that has human rights at its heart, challenges exclusion and promotes social justice.
  1. Addressing the new democratic crisis:
    The response of civil society to the current crisis of democracy needs to be carefully considered. Citizens’ anger should not be dismissed simply because it is expressed in ways that civil society finds unpleasant. At the same time we must be careful not to appease racism, sexism and xenophobia; doing so risks normalizing these attitudes and opening up further opportunity for them to tilt the mainstream discourse. To do this, we need to form and work in progressive alliances, bringing together substantial masses of citizens and connecting classic CSOs, protest movements, journalists, etc. Together, we can outnumber regressive forces.

Secondly, the report discussed serious concerns over private sector practices that are leading to increased human rights abuses and attacks on fundamental freedoms. In times of democratic crisis, the growing influence of business over commercial, political and social spheres can play a key role in safeguarding civic freedoms says global civil society alliance. The report proposes, as a minimum starting point, a ‘first do no harm’ principle. But it asks the private sector to go beyond this and make an active commitment to work with civil society to uphold the rule of law, human rights and people’s rights to the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

The report highlights a global emergency on civic space as democracy is being undermined by right-wing populist and neo-fascist leaders even as the power of businesses continues to grow. Business, particularly transnational corporations, have a greater impact on all spheres of life than ever before. The CIVICUS State of Civil Society 2017 report further notes that:

  • There is a strong business case for protection of civic space, as social risk can add 10% on average to business operating costs, bribery which civil society helps prevent is estimated to account for around US$1 trillion a year.
  • There are ongoing concerns over harmful business practices resulting in attacks on rights defenders, land grabs, displacement and environmental harm;
  • Acknowledgement of the role of businesses in Agenda 2030 should not be seen an avenue for profit making by a few transnational corporations but rather as an opportunity for businesses to contribute to the well-being of communities.

The report finally points out that forces of globalization and neo-liberal economic orthodoxy are fuelling inequality, and sparking citizen anger. For civil society, it is a matter of urgency to pay attention to the private sector and find new ways of engaging with it.

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