On June 23 this year, Willy Kimani, a Kenyan human rights lawyer, went missing and was found dead one week later. In early July, Kem Ley, a Cambodian political analyst and grassroots organizer was shot dead in Phnom Penh. That same month, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, an indigenous activist in Honduras, was found dead in a rubbish dump in Marcala. All killings are widely believed to be politically motivated assassinations, and are just three cases in a global string of violence against civil society activists. These assassinations represent just one aspect of the worrying trend that sees the space for civic participation and activism increasingly under threat.
At the same time, civil society is also facing severe institutional backlash: The CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2016 lists “serious threats to one or more civic freedoms in over 100 countries.” Governments from across the globe are borrowing various strategies from each other to restrict people’s inherent right to participate in shaping their societies.
One popular strategy to attack civic space is to defame civil society (nongovernmental) organizations (CSOs) and prominent activists as “foreign agents.” With nationalism and xenophobia on the rise around the world, many governments are denouncing civic movements, organizations, and activists by claiming that their work undermines national sovereignty. One example is a Russian law labeling CSOs that receive funds from abroad as foreign agents, thereby institutionalizing the vilification and criminalization of civil society actors. Another government strategy is to evoke the national security narrative, particularly the threats of violent extremism and terrorism. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, activists who spoke out against President Kabila were jailed on the basis of plotting “terrorist activities” after they had organized peaceful protests. Several countries—including Cambodia, Egypt, Tajikistan, India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—restrict foreign contributions to CSOs, arguing that it is necessary to fight terrorism.
It is evident that the global environment in which civil society operates is deteriorating rapidly. And this comes at a time when we need the power of civil society more than ever: The global community faces persistent poverty, growing inequality, and violent extremism, as well as climate change and other planetary boundaries. History shows that most of the social, environmental, and political progress made in the past—including abolishing slavery, granting women the right to vote, and establishing environmental standards—resulted from people’s actions challenging the status quo. Without the active and unrestrained engagement of people around the globe, the transition toward a just, equitable, and sustainable world as laid out in the Sustainable Development Goals will not be possible.
So what can organized civil society do to effectively win back space for civic participation? A growing number of CSOs are under threat—and many of their staff and beneficiaries are at the frontlines of this struggle—but so far the civil society sector’s collective response has been disappointing. CSOs largely fend for themselves, waiting in vain for the support and solidarity of others, and often can’t mobilize significant local or global support.
In this context, 160 leaders from CSOs (both grassroots and large international structures), philanthropy, and governmental donors came together in Berlin last October to explore “The Future of Civic Space” in a 2.5-day, solution-oriented conference held by the International Civil Society Centre. Discussions highlighted two strategies that can have substantial impact in the larger struggle for civic participation.
First, conference participants called for a new narrative on the value of civil society to reach ordinary people and join forces with them. Partly due to the professionalization of CSOs in recent decades, the sector has in large parts lost touch with the realities of its constituency or beneficiaries, and uses jargon-filled language that is difficult for the public to decode. Civil society can win back spaces for civic participation only if we join forces with each other—including activists, movements, and CSOs, small and large. For this to be possible, CSOs need to get much better at: 1) putting people, not log-frames, at the center of their work, and 2) speaking in a language everyone, not just monitoring and evaluation specialists, can understand.
One tool that can play an important role in redirecting our language, refocusing on people first, and bringing together individual activists and CSOs across the wide spectrum of civil society is the “Civic Charter—The Global Framework for People’s Participation.” This two-page document re-affirms, in simple language, the rights of people to participate in shaping their societies. From peaceful assembly to the duty of public accountability, it frames our rights and makes the case for standing together in solidarity when these rights are threatened. The charter emerged from a year-long consultative process with dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals worldwide. Now open for sign-on, organizations and individuals are already using it for joint action, advocacy, public education, and awareness building.
A second strategy is to reach beyond the civil society sector in tackling the threats to civic space. In many countries, economic interests drive rights restrictions. Since economic arguments will almost always win over social arguments, it would be pragmatic for us to make the business case for civic space, and start roping in sympathetic and progressive businesses. Large parts of the civil society sector are highly skeptical of cooperation with businesses—and often rightly so. However, in the context of increasingly curtailed citizen rights, it is vital to build a large alliance and forge unlikely partnerships. Several organizations are starting to work specifically on this topic. The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, for example, suggests that we start by “naming and faming” progressive companies. And the Charities Aid Foundation, in collaboration with the London School of Economics and Political Science, recently published a report that examines how some companies are protecting civic space and what motivates companies to play this role.
It’s evident that there is increasing pressure, as well as energy, in the civil society sector to fight for civic rights. But CSOs need overcome sector-internal silos, work across sectors, and reach the common citizen before they can become a force with which to reckon.