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Political violence, civic space and human rights defence in the era of populism and authoritarianism

Academics and international donors alike have only recently considered targeted political violence as an integral part of global democratic decline and populist politics. There is much they could do.

Adekan mural, 2015. All rights reserved.

Thirteen human rights defenders were detained in Turkey on November 16 and Yiğit Aksakoğlu, an activist working on children rights, was imprisoned related to charges against Anadolu Kültür, a cultural association founded by philanthropist Osman Kavala. Kavala himself has been in prison for more than a year without an indictment. This is not the first time human rights defenders and civil society representatives have been put behind bars in Turkey. This time, however, political violence has reached new heights; even peaceful resistance and civil disobedience are now criminalised by the security forces.

Selective targeting of activists and pre-trial detentions are pernicious strategies to restrict civic space. Turkey is not alone in this practice. In recent years, human rights defenders suffer from unprecedented psychological, economic and social harm worldwide. If they refuse to back down, they also suffer physical harm. According to Frontline Defenders, 300 activists were murdered last year. Physical attacks, killings and forced disappearances mainly target rights-defenders demanding environmental protection and labour rights or activist journalists revealing corruption and abuse of power.

Monitoring organisations are concerned that targeting human rights defenders reached ‘crisis’ levels in 2017. Around 3.2 billion people live in countries with repressed or totally closed civic space, due to a degrading political will to protect freedoms of expression, assembly and association. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders,

This is not random violence. I have become convinced that the incidents in question are not isolated acts but concerted attacks against those who try to embody the ideal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

While most of the political violence takes place in consolidated long-term authoritarian systems, it is a part of a global trend of the worldwide rise of right-wing populism and democratic decline. The trend also affects human rights defence and civil society in Europe. But researchers and experts who work on the rise of populism and democratic decline do not talk about it sufficiently.

Europe is not immune

It might come as a surprise that civic space is not immune from direct and indirect political violence in Europe and the US. CIVICUS consider that civil society in the United States, France, UK, Spain and Austria has ‘narrowed’ largely due to the rise in support for extremist and far-right political views and extreme security measures and anti-terrorism laws.

Several new European democracies often use legislative power, i.e. restrictions on foreign funding or security and anti-terrorism laws, and politicised judiciary to discourage or even criminalise rights-based activism concerning issues directly related to political, social and economic rights of ‘out-groups’ such as minorities, migrants and refugees.

The gravity of the situation varies; restrictions are qualitatively different in democracies of western Europe from those in the semi-authoritarian regimes for example in Hungary, Turkey and Poland, and the intensity of political violence is much less in a semi-authoritarian regime than a consolidated autocracy like China. Yet, the global trend affects all types of governments, and core treaties that burden states to protect fundamental political and civil rights are being undermined by even the long-term advocates of these treaties.

Targeted political violence

The assault against civic space and human rights defenders has been high on the agenda of human rights organisations for at least a decade. They have been seeking ways to adapt to political violence and reopen the closed spaces in several countries.  

However, academics and international donors have started to consider targeted political violence as an integral part of the global democratic decline and populist politics only lately. The institutional dimensions of democratic decline and populist political discourse still receive disproportionate attention.

Researchers have invested a great deal in agreeing on what populism means and whether certain parties are populist or not, and analysing populists’ electoral success, manifestoes and discourse. The scholarly interest in populism and the authoritarian surge does not mean that the accumulated knowledge is channelled properly towards debating its real-time effects on societies and counter-strategies. Instead, researchers have been stuck with analysing populism and authoritarianism at the macro-level – election results, institutions, high-level political discourse, societal discontent inferred from some aggregated data from polls and electoral surveys –  they miss how it affects the everyday life of societies. The scholarly interest in populism and the authoritarian surge does not mean that the accumulated knowledge is channelled properly towards debating its real-time effects on societies and counter-strategies.

In addition, the bulk of the international donor community’s efforts is focused on improving institutions through electoral monitoring, the rule of law reform and fight against corruption. Despite extravagant resources spent on these areas, improvements remain meagre because the recipient governments are reluctant to carry out political reforms and also because the EU and the US, providers of most of the aid in these areas, only half-heartedly pressured these governments and have turned a blind eye when they used electoral majorities and captured parliaments, constitutional courts and civil society as a smokescreen to entrench their power.

Overall, the repercussions of democratic backsliding and right-wing populist pressure on civic participation have long been underestimated or treated as a side-product of political and institutional capture outside the circle of human rights groups.

It is high time to appreciate that democracy is no single uniform body. It has several political, civic, economic and cultural dimensions and its decline should be studied by disaggregating it to its parts and developing responses in each field.

What we know about populism and authoritarianism should be reconsidered in relation to human rights defence

Populist politics relies foremost on Manichean dichotomies and divisions between the people and the elite, insiders and outsiders, friends and enemies. Populism deepens existing polarisations and invents new ones in societies contaminated by it.

The rhetoric of exclusion exhausts the listeners’ attention so that complex socio-economic problems from healthcare and pensions to public transportation can be reduced to a simple answer of ‘oust the outsider, and we will restore the wonderful past and continue living like ‘before’’.

The success of slogans and simple answers for complex problems lie deep in legitimate feelings of social and economic insecurity and disenfranchisement, but also the pumped-up fear of ‘the foreigner’, which has brought electoral success to right-wing populist parties in so many countries. The politics of exclusion is inherently exclusionary, discriminatory and against participatory democracy.

Research also shows that this is not the end of the story. When mainstream parties adopt politics of fear and polarisation, they surrender public opinion to be formed by populist discourse and the misdirection of those widespread feelings of insecurity and disenfranchisement. Mondon and Winter argue right-wing populism is normalised even where right-wing populists have been unable to attain significant electoral success, by granting media platform to extremist ideas, making electoral alliances with such parties and also irresponsibly framing questions on pressing issues through the language of right-wing populism in academic or public debates.

The story continues even further. Wherever right-wing populist parties and semi-authoritarian regimes achieve political power through elections, they are not satisfied with electoral wins and monopolisation of the parliaments and the executive. They seek to shape and influence the civic space where ideas flourish, where society debates and engages in intellectual and cultural production, where majoritarian democracy and discriminatory authoritarian practices are challenged.

Turkey and Hungary are both good examples. The moment they turn to the civic space, they take the first step towards entrenching themselves securely in power by manufacturing societal consent through both conviction and fear. But just where the story gets interesting, researchers’ interest in populism and authoritarianism pretty much stops.

Human rights activism as a target

It should be more clearly emphasised that the climate of outrage and politics of exclusion surrounding the language of the media and the party system in many countries normalise and encourage political violence targeting human rights activism.

Activists by dint of their work campaign for the rights of disadvantaged groups, who populist discourse perceives as outsiders. In many countries, while authoritarian values, Islamophobia, antisemitism, white racism are creeping back into mainstream politics, human rights defenders are the only remaining actors brave enough to speak the truth to the face of power and campaign for the rights of refugees and migrants, ethnic and religious minorities and other disadvantaged groups.

When the political discourse and the media directly or indirectly present migrants or other outgroups as a burden on economies and societies, they continuously produce consent for their social, economic and political discrimination as ‘the new normal’.

In this political and social environment, working to improve their rights becomes a nuisance and gets demonised. This is often a starting strategy to prepare the ground for legal and legislative action that directly or indirectly restricts the civic space, the fundamental freedoms of assembling, associating and the expression of views. In turn, it gradually deprives societies at large of alternative channels of participation and the right to information and erodes the participatory quality of democracy.

The repression of civic spaces and human rights defenders is a convenient strategy for right-wing populist and authoritarian rulers to ensure that public spheres are flooded with the dominant narratives of crisis and antagonism.

Moreover, pre-emptive measures, pre-trial detentions and daily harrassment online intimidate not only activists but also millions in Turkey and beyond. Such actions deter even critical citizens from making claims outside the officially sanctioned venues. In the end, political violence targeting civic space and human rights activism affects the everyday life of societies more directly than the capture and control of formal institutions.

How do we proceed from this impasse?

The response is not to shy away from human rights activism. It is not demanding more of it from lawyers and NGOs either (the latter have already been criticised for being unaccountable and serving the neoliberal agenda). It is about directly experiencing it as citizens and even more as humans.

In other words, human rights defence does not only concern the lawyers and professional NGOs who engage in it; and it is not limited to revolutionary public square protests. Today, human rights defenders across the world should be ‘ordinary citizens’ acting within their personal and professional domains.

In the short term in many countries, the winner in this battle seems to be those conducting the populist and authoritarian assault. Paradoxically, however, where political institutions have been historically monopolised or captured, citizens have usually turned to activism to reclaim freedom of expression and the right to information.

The paradox of political violence is that sooner or later, it fuels popular movements, as long as citizens have preserved an autonomous and diffused civic space outside the realm of contemporary power relations and politics so that alternatives to current political discourse and authority can emerge.

Turkey’s diffuse horizontal networks offer clues

In Turkey and many other countries where human rights defence has become a perilous struggle, the trend has been evolving in this direction. Revolutionary protests might have been forcefully oppressed in its public squares and might not be feasible given the repression in many countries. However, despite widespread political violence, activism and civic space is alive and kicking, and its nature is changing in promising ways in semi-authoritarian and democratic systems alike. Given the lack of effective access to the political field or means to change high-level political discourse, civic space becomes an arena for concerned individuals to carve out pockets of participation locally or initiate change on specific issues. Despite the risk of political violence and physical harm, when the political system is captured or unresponsive, people turn to grassroots contention.

What we witness is an apparent shift in the nature of civic activism with the emergence of local, issue-based and peaceful social movements and loose networks. My field research on the shrinking space under political violence focuses on Turkey, but I believe it offers clues for other contexts where a polarising populist discourse dominates the political agenda.

Since the 2013 Gezi demonstrations, Turkey has witnessed a multiplication of unregistered, movement-type diffuse activist networks. A younger generation seeking horizontal and direct participation has brought new vibrancy to the gendered and professionalised NGO-driven civic space. The new activists are what Pippa Norris calls ‘critical citizens’ or ‘dissatisfied democrats’ who cling to democratic values but remain dissatisfied with democracy since it has been reduced to voting and therefore, produces majoritarian and discriminatory outcomes.

Readers familiar with the Turkish context might raise eyebrows, and they are right to think activists are unable to engage in open dissent and must keep a low profile at the verge of invisibility to circumvent political violence. The statement by one activist I interviewed a few months ago captures the feeling of these groups well:

Street activism is not an option. Public squares are closed these days. Are we wary about the situation? Yes, for a long time. I had to relocate consecutively for several nights during the recent arrests with a group of fellow activists. It is not to escape from detention. They find you if they want to get you. We at least wished that the police would not detain us at home [in front of our families]. We live with this yes. Organising protests is an action that we abstain from, but we try not to lose our grassroots links.

However, under the current circumstances in Turkey, activists are interested in ‘the long-term fight’. They challenge patriarchal and authoritarian social values in available public spheres. They do not shy away from asserting their identities, secular or Islamic. They seek to establish democratic forums inside their networks and reject hierarchical structures and leadership that dominates even the traditional civil society sector and replace them with horizontal deliberation and consensual decision-making.

They are open to cooperation and inclusion of various groups, but selective in participating in protests and appearing in the media. Yet, contentious action in the form of peaceful demonstrations, neighbourhood assemblies, public information campaigns and press statements is widely practised. But, the focus of their contentious action is not disrupting the government or everyday life or necessarily achieving quantifiable goals, but raising awareness on issues such as women, environment, construction and resource extraction projects, urban infrastructure, animal rights and labour rights. These issues are often considered secondary to high politics or extremely local.

They also actively search for ways to establish solidarity. To give one example, one pro-labour activist group told me they do not only demonstrate when hundreds of workers are laid off or forced to work under harsh conditions, but they also seek to organise events to raise additional subsistence for them. Last but not least, they do not believe they need formal institutions to succeed and are keen to keep their independence from political parties and often from international donors.

Challenging ‘audience democracy’ worldwide

Similar trends are observed around the world since the 2008 financial crisis. People who were not a part of a movement or organisation before come together to raise their voice against extremism, denial of social and economic rights, gender-based violence and destruction of their livelihoods. The shift from professional NGOs to citizen-oriented activism challenges the populist and (semi)authoritarian regimes. Their power lies in the fact that they challenge ‘audience democracy’ driven by the manipulated public opinion and personalised politics that populism has generated. In its place, they promote ‘advocacy democracy’ informed by local and issue-based deliberation to shape preferences in the long-term and foster civic participation.

While engaging in human rights activism with various social and economic focal points, citizen activists experiment with a different form of democracy and discover ways to make use of these beyond voting. If researchers are concerned about the global trend of the authoritarian backlash, the lack of trust in democracy and extreme social polarisation as causes and consequences of right-wing populism, these loose networks of citizen participation could spark the process of re-legitimising and re-inventing democracy.

There is room for hope, history tells. Democratic social and political change has always originated from these peaceful, localised and issue-based community organisations and networks of long-term resistance, not from NGOs with managerial boards and lucrative grants from international donors.

What can the international community do?

The international donor community is not unaware of the changing terrain of activism or political violence, as a recent report by Eldén and Levin argues. ‘Flexible aid’ to activist networks and organisations working in populist and (semi)authoritarian regimes has become the new buzzword of the donor community. However, frank conversations with donors start and end with the same question these days: what do you think you should be doing to counter political violence targeting civic space and human rights defenders in country X? When asked about concrete strategies, they still falter.

Many countries have been the test beds for ‘democracy aid’ and ‘civil society support programmes’ in the past. What we know is that international support is crucial for ensuring the resilience of the civic space and activism under extreme pressure. Support to find and finance legal aid and ability to survive financially are the two most important areas in which international donors make a real contribution. But, they have also failed in the past because international donors expected too much ‘professionalism’ from beneficiaries and ignore the idiosyncrasies of each case by implementing ‘one size fits all’ models.

First, on the side of the international community, it is time for realism. It takes both contextual knowledge and courage. Donors should be realistic about what to expect in the short-term in each case. It is likely that miracles will not happen anywhere. It is also wrong to assume all movements, and citizen groups will eventually institutionalise themselves as a political alternative (by forming a party or a formal advocacy NGO). Professionalisation also risks turning citizens movements into career movements for a few people. 

Second, international donors should be selective about their most likely ‘audience’ and start focusing on such groups first, instead of trying to address the entire public blindly. In dozens of countries where authoritarianism and right-wing populism are on the rise, a person in their mid-30s has only witnessed single-party rule or one dominant party as a voter.

Even millennials in Europe have grown up without knowing an alternative to the senior male-dominated political party system. Today’s youth is already much more vocal compared to their parents in terms of demanding agency, fighting patriarchy and questioning blind nationalism and patriotism imposed by our current party systems.

To maintain this critical corpus in societies, international donors can prioritise activist groups working with youth and on youth issues. They should not only fund one-off activities at seminar halls; but music, arts, film and sports through which young people choose to express themselves. If the fight is staged on many fronts, then the effects of repression and censorship will be alleviated as well.

Unfortunately, these are still very rarely tried methods by the international donor community. Funding cultural production as a way of challenging undemocratic practices does not rank among the top foreign policy priorities, compared to massive official development assistance channelled through governments and large project contracts granted to NGOs that are not connected to the grassroots. Funding cultural production as a way of challenging undemocratic practices does not rank among the top foreign policy priorities.

Third, another lesson that donors should have learned by now is that flexible and core support is crucial. The bulk of the aid is still tied to professional monitoring and specific outcomes. The donor community forces partners on the ground to push for unattainable goals and tick boxes on the paper for reporting purposes.

Several activist groups and small organisations I have interviewed in Turkey mentioned that they do not need massive financial resources, but seed support to be able to rent decent premises for organisational meetings and planning of activities, and to be able to establish alliances with similar networks and movements abroad to learn from each other. Without improving donor support in these two areas, their impact will remain local and issue-based.

It is also essential to avoid funding government-controlled civil society – surprisingly, it happens more often than you might think due to the incapacity of the donor to assess whether funded groups work towards participation and democracy or entrench repressive government rule, Instead, work with trustworthy local partners and let them decide the priorities that arise in the current context in each case. Loose activist networks are the ones that often have an influence on the ground in the shortest term possible. Donors should seek ways to get to know groups ‘at the frontline’ and accept that what is possible this year in one country, might not be achievable next year given the very unpredictable and discretionary nature of political violence targeting human rights defence.

Finally, while the US and the EU champion the majority of civil society support programs, they also undermine their effects. EU member states or American and European companies keep striking political deals on arms sales and trade agreements with repressive governments. Most of the time, the information technologies that provide the surveillance apparatus to track activists online are copyrighted in the US and Europe. The international community – governments, private donors and business – should be honest about the extent to which they are complicit in tolerating political violence out of political and economic interests. International support has no chance of success or gaining credibility without a political commitment.

Political violence continues targeting human rights defenders and civic spaces. But it is not the time for weakness and desperation because what has been achieved so far was not given for free, and it is currently slipping away. Civic space has not given up and is filled with voices of ordinary citizens. It will become eventually more resilient as citizens take up human rights defence in larger numbers. Researchers and experts who focus on examining and reporting the negative consequences of populist appeal and semi-authoritarian regimes at the formal institutional level should scale-up their efforts to investigate the societal repercussions and connect more with promising social movements and the cause of human rights defenders.  

About the author

Bilge Yabanci received her PhD degree from the University of Bath, UK based on a doctoral dissertation on the social and political dynamics and the emerging forms of local resistance against the EU-driven democratisation and conflict resolution process in Kosovo and northern Cyprus. She is affiliated with Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome and London-based Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey.

Her current research interests include populism and ruling populist parties, the relationship between authoritarian consolidation and civil society, and democratic reversal in Turkey. Her recent peer-reviewed work ‘Populism as the problem child of democracy’ on government-dependent trade unions and women’s organizations under the AKP rule appeared in the Journal of Southeast European and Black Sea studies.


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