Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Civil society and the clampdown on freedoms

The space for effective action is narrowing for civil society organisations, and many groups fear repercussions when they challenge the government. Español

Chus Álvarez
12 January 2018

Demonstrators protest against the incumbent Guatemalan president Jimmy Morales in September 2017. Jesús Alfonso/dpa/pa images. All rights reserved.

A quick scan of news headlines reflects the repression of civic space of late, all over the globe: What's behind the Bolivian government's attack on NGOs?; 'Spain's freedom of speech repression is no joke'; Egypt's NGO law aims to 'erase civil society'; Colombia: peaceful protesters attacked by riot police;Tunisia cracks down on NGOs, Guatemalan activist's murder sparks alarm over human rights crisis.

Over the last 15 years, dictatorships and parliamentary democracies alike have passed laws to narrow the space for social participation and freedom of expression or assembly. In addition to restrictive legislation, they’ve also increased their use of other types of repressive government tactics, including intimidation, criminal penalties, harassment and excessive bureaucratic burdens. These actions have a clear objective: to suppress the defence and promotion of human rights.

While the murder of activists and civilians grabs headlines, the more discreet limitations states place on civil society organisations can be just as damaging.

In its State of Civil Society Report 2017, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation (CIVICUS) argues that the restriction of civic space has become the norm rather than the exception. The violent repression of civil society and the subsequent setbacks on human rights have taken place alongside the rise of another equally disturbing phenomenon – the justification of these tactics through the use of fear speech. U.S. President Donald Trump is the best-known example, but equally toxic are the discourses of Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.

The human rights situation in Latin America is particularly dire, and is characterised by the repression of social protest and the restriction of fundamental freedoms in various ways: multinational companies appropriating land and natural resources with violence; the attacks against those who defend human rights and the reprisals they suffer; and the lack of access to justice and the impunity that accompanies all of these actions. As Oxfam says in its 2016 report, The Risks of Defending Human Rights, “the role of states in maintaining this situation … prove(s) that states’ fundamental function is being distorted in favour of special economic and political interests and discriminatory and exclusive practices”.

Another important feature of this scenario is the rise in anti-feminist and anti-LGBTI rhetoric. Conservative and sexist powerholders are pushing political and media strategies to attack rights and freedoms under what they call the fight against ‘gender ideology’. Brazil and Peru are just one example of the strong backlash against feminist gains in the region; both countries have encountered a strong opposition to the inclusion of issues related to gender and sex education in education curricula.

Avenues for change in a challenging context

While the murder of activists and civilians grabs headlines, the more discreet limitations states place on civil society organisations (CSOs) can be just as damaging. In order to address human rights abuses and violations, CSOs and activists need to be able to hold up a mirror to the government and demand accountability.

Demanding accountability from the state and exercising constructive criticism through civil society are pillars of the Assessment of the Implementation of Anti-Trafficking Legislation, an on-going study carried out since 2015 by the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) in Bolivia, Colombia and Guatemala. Over the past two years CSOs working with GAATW have identified the main areas of intervention demanded by these states’ anti-trafficking legislation and requested official information on what activities have been carried out to date, to analyse compliance by the state.

How has the state reacted?

Although access to public information, including budgets, is a legally recognised right in all three countries, a number of institutions refused to give any information, or failed to reply at all. This lack of political will at the state level to fulfil their obligations was further reinforced by weak national information collection systems, whose efficiency is compromised by everything from a lack of human and economic resources, to high turnover of project leaders, to inadequate classification and recording of information. 

To make matters worse, what few recommendations our affiliated CSOs have been able to make on the basis of our assessment have been either ignored or punished. In Guatemala, for example, the child anti-trafficking organisation ECPAT had its managerial role in a regional development project rescinded following its criticism of the government’s approach to trafficking to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Meanwhile, the Bolivian government – which considers the assessment to be against the government – has simply rejected the report out of hand. The sense of risk and the fear of reprisals is strong among any CSO daring to speak out against the state, and indeed many rule out any initiative that challenges the government for that very reason.

However, despite these challenges, civil society remains able to make small, strategic differences through their engagement with government institutions, and they are able to do so in ways that remind states that an active civil society can be a valuable asset rather than a threat. In Guatemala, for example, the Law against Sexual Violence, Exploitation and Trafficking in Persons was prepared by the government in conjunction with civil society organisations. And in Colombia, following advocacy efforts from CSOs and academics, the legal requirement for trafficked persons to file a criminal complaint in order to be able to access assistance was removed from the legislation in 2016.

Likewise, the GAATW assessment sets a baseline that will allow governments and CSOs to efficiently monitor the implementation of the anti-trafficking laws and to track the progression of that implementation. At the same time, its conclusions and recommendations provide a starting point or set of guidelines for CSOs working in the field of anti-trafficking.

Take a stand

While small in scale, GAATW’s assessment of anti-trafficking legislation highlights the current limitations experienced by CSOs in the region and mirrors experiences of civil society organisations elsewhere in the world. Initiatives of this type offer a tool for strengthening CSOs, reinforcing both national and regional alliances, and consolidating the presence of civil society alongside government bodies. 

In its report The State of the World's Human Rights, Amnesty International points out that global solidarity and popular mobilisation are key to protecting human rights and the people who defend those rights. As Amnesty’s secretary-general Salil Shetty says, “We cannot passively rely on governments to stand up for human rights, we the people have to take action”.

It is essential that civil society is organised and stands up to the clampdown on civil liberties and social participation that states are carrying out in the name of security and economic prosperity. Citizens have the responsibility to generate proposals to strengthen the role of institutions in the defence of human rights, and international organisations must contribute this effort by supporting and protecting civil society.

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