Mandeep Tiwana is Chief Programmes Officer for the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS
– At CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance working to strengthen citizen participation, we receive bad news of attacks on compatriots every day.
In the past few years, with nauseating regularity, we’ve heard from colleagues who’ve been arbitrarily imprisoned, had their organisations’ starved of resources or have had their life’s work to create just, inclusive and sustainable societies ridiculed by crafty politicians.
Sadly, others — such as Caruna Galizia, a Maltese journalist who investigated corruption in high places and Santiago Maldonado, an Argentine activist who supported the land rights of the Mapuche indigenous community — were assassinated earlier this year.
Attacks on peaceful activists and restrictions on their organisations have become so brazen and so commonplace that we are calling the current emergency the ‘new normal’ in a race to the bottom.
In this ‘new normal’ there are striking similarities in tactics used to prevent civil society colleagues from carrying out their work. Tactics include travel bans and control oriented laws that allow pervasive government interference in civil society activities and funding.
The nerve centres of the global crackdown on civil society might be located in Addis Ababa, Beijing, Cairo, Istanbul or Moscow but the impacts of resurgent right-wing ideologies, elite collusion and old school authoritarianism are being felt across the Global South and the North, including in countries with proud democratic traditions such as India and the United States.
By CIVICUS’ estimates, only two percent of the globe’s population of some 7.5 billion people can now claim to live in countries where the freedoms to speak out against injustice, organise and protest peacefully are adequately protected.
The rising spate of restrictions over the years has promoted deep introspection among civil society leaders and others interested in healthy and vibrant civil societies as a means to good governance and peace in our lifetimes. We’ve identified five strategies which may be worth considering to address the present set of problems of constrained space.
First, civil society leaders and their supporters need to proactively challenge the misinformation propagated by those who attack civil society through stronger, clearer and more popular messaging on the value of civil society whether in contributing to the economy, keeping a check on corruption or creating better social relations.
It is important the public are able to see that their rights closely linked to those of civil society, that the country gains when civil society flourishes, and that civil society space and respect for constitutional norms by those who hold power are closely linked.
Second, collecting comparable and accumulated data on violations of civil society rights is critical. Guarantees on civil society participation and enabling environments are enshrined in most constitutions, national policies, and international aid and development agreements.
Open data tools can help track whether space is worsening or improving in different contexts over time, and also trigger early alerts to act in cases where space can demonstrably be seen to be deteriorating. Better data on rights violations, including threats and violence against human rights defenders, can support effective advocacy to realise rights in the courts, national institutions or in international bodies.
Third, dedicated focus on demonstrable and impeccable internal accountability protocols can help counter unwarranted criticism of civil society and build resistance against externally imposed measures to restrict activities.
Building communities of practice centered around values and investing in efforts to strengthen roots in stakeholder communities can enable civil society organisations (CSOs) to demonstrate clearly that they are acting independently and working for the public good.
Fourth, there is a pressing need for civil society champions in academia, the media and among business leaders. Building relationships with academia and the media is key in times of constrained action as those who attack civil society often resort to emotive spurious allegations of ‘foreign’ influence and erosion ‘cultural’ values that well respected academics and media commentators can help unravel.
Further, civil society leaders need to explore avenues to influence corporate behaviour by offering reputational reward for companies that respect human rights and reputational risk for those complicit in attacks on civil society.
Lastly, and importantly, standing together helps. The issue of civil society space is a cross-cutting one, which ultimately impacts everyone in civil society from those engaged in service delivery to those exposing abuses by the very powerful.
Moreover, investment in civil society resilience strategies, solidarity actions and coalitions to ride out waves of restrictions is critical as is the development of broad-based alliances that connect different parts of civil society, including classic NGOs, social movements, bloggers, trade unions, youth groups, artistic platforms, professional associations and others. We are being attacked together, and so we must mobilise and fight back together.
This article is part of a series about the activists and communities of the Pacific who are responding to the effects of climate change. Leaders from climate and social justice movements from around the world are currently meeting in Suva, Fiji, through 8 December for International Civil Society Week.