Backsliding on civic space in democracies

An open civic space is a key ingredient of a successful and rights respecting democracy. Sadly, there’s a gaping hole between principle and practice. Español  

Mandeep Tiwana
20 April 2017

Courage is Contagious. Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013 Melbourne, Australia. FLickr/John Englart. Some rights reserved.

It’s no secret that democracy is facing a global stress test. Divisive politicians are creating a chasm between the majoritarian impulses of electoral democracy and the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy. The former emphasises a simplistic ‘winner takes all’ mentality to advance partisan political agendas while the latter accommodates dissent and minority voices through checks and balances. Notably, civil society activists and organisations speaking truth to power and seeking inclusion in decision making are facing severe hurdles as civic space appears to be backsliding in several democratic countries.

Described as ‘a set of universally-accepted rules, which allow people to organise, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance, and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them,’ an open civic space is a key ingredient of a successful and rights respecting democracy. Sadly, there’s a gaping hole between principle and practice.  Amnesty International’s annual report offers a bleak picture of people’s basic freedoms in jeopardy while Human Rights Watch laments that the dangerous rise in populism is spurring a global attack on human rights values in its 2017 World Report. The CIVICUS Monitor , an online participatory research platform concludes that in less than 26 of the over 195 countries covered is there open and free civic space.

With a view to shining a spotlight on corrosive developments to suppress civil society voices in consolidated democracies, CIVICUS and several sister groups hosted an event at the UN Human Rights Council this March. Activists from Brazil, India, Poland and South Africa shared their perspectives, arriving at the conclusion that founding values and constitutions obliged their states to support civil society voices not undermine them. They were joined by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders whose latest report points out that rights defenders are facing unprecedented attacks intended to undermine the ‘legitimacy, credibility and sincerity of their commitment’ as populist, nationalist and fundamentalist movements of all kinds multiply.

Poland is the home of the Community of Democracies , an intergovernmental body dedicated to strengthening democratic institutions and defending civil society. It has recently faced a barrage of public protests against undemocratic actions of decision makers. These include an ill-fated anti-abortion bill to prevent women from having any control over their bodies and moves to limit access of journalists to parliament buildings. Strong civil society pressure appears to have defeated these measures for now but officials say that they intend to create a ‘department’ to oversee and centralise public funding to civil society organisations. Many interpret this as a move to encourage conservative pro-government NGOs and punish others. There are also concerns about recent vilification of human rights groups in the state-owned media as acting against ‘Polish interests.’

Brazil proudly hosted the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development resulting in the adoption of  ‘green economy principles’ obliging states to work with and create an enabling environment for civil society.  Ironically, Global Witness has described Brazil as the most dangerous country to be an environmental activist. Brazil’s government needs to do much more to address the issue of large agricultural concerns and extractive industries attacking environmental, land and indigenous people’s rights defenders. With the recent change in leadership involving the controversial impeachment of the last president, many in Brazilian civil society are also worried about anti-people actions such as the arbitrary imposition of austerity measures to cap spending on education and social programmes which were pushed without much public debate followed by proposed weakening of labour rights that would disproportionately affect impoverished communities.  

India’s diverse and historically vibrant civil society has long been a source of the country’s soft power internationally. However, increasingly intolerant strains dominating its current politics are creating a new set of challenges for the country. Several civil society groups particularly those uncovering human rights violations and/or seeking to advance the rights of religious, ethnic and excluded minorities are reporting victimisation through bureaucratic harassment and frivolous court cases. Over 20,000 civil society organisations have had their permission to receive international funding cancelled since 2014 when the current government came to power. Such acts are weakening India’s democracy and its constitutional commitment to social justice derived from its freedom struggle values.

South Africa’s progressive constitution sets the tone for an enabling legal environment for civil society. Its 1997 Non-Profit Organisations Act is often cited as an example of enabling legislation. But civil society groups in the country, particularly those exposing high level corruption and governance failures, are anxious about impending moves to replace it with a law that allows for enhanced bureaucratic control over their activities including constraints on international funding. There are also serious concerns about violent policing of public protests. Many activists are asking themselves what can be done to recapture the spirit of the 1994 democratic transition when government and civil society worked together to find solutions to vexing national problems.

Admittedly, the issue of backsliding on civic space extends far beyond the above countries. It’s an ongoing global phenomenon being experienced in several democracies. In Hungary, the ruling party has sought to control international funding for civil society. In the Philippines, the president has threatened to kill human rights activists. Several states in the United States have proposed laws to weaken the right to peaceful protest. 

Consolidated democracies by their very nature have a greater responsibility to uphold the international human rights framework that guarantees civic space. The UN’s special expert on human rights defenders has urged states to adopt a three-pronged approach: refrain from violating rights, intervene to protect the rights of defenders/civil society from others who violate them, and create an enabling environment for defenders/civil society to carry out their activities.

Contestations on political and economic issues are inevitable in any democracy. Civil society activists and organisations don’t expect decision makers to always agree with them but they do expect states to respect their right to disagree. 

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