Just a few years ago, it felt like the dawn of a new era of citizen participation. There were uprisings across the Arab World, the Occupy movement, the radical impact of digital campaigning: it was an inspiring and optimistic time. But for those of us exposed to the challenges facing civil society day in day out, the new dawn has given way to dark clouds. A systematic, global crackdown on civic space is testing our resolve and ingenuity, demanding that we construct a radically new approach to tackling critical threats.
The latest evidence from the CIVICUS Monitor, a tool that tracks conditions for citizen action around the world, shows serious systemic problems affecting civic space in 109 countries. And the trajectory is against us. Even in the last twelve months, attacks on core civic freedoms have become more brazen, occurring in countries where they have rarely been seen before. Threats to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression are no longer the preserve of fragile states and autocracies; their emergence in mature democracies a worrying indicator of their ubiquity.
Harassment without end
Today’s top ten violations of civic freedoms around the world reads something like this: detention of activists, attacks on journalists, censorship, prevention of protests or their disruption, the use of excessive force, harassment or intimidation and bureaucratic and legislative restrictions affecting civic space and the work of CSOs.
So diffuse has this crackdown become, that the examples from almost any context across our network are numerous. In Iran, dozens of environmental activists have been detained since the beginning of the year, many in solitary confinement and without access to legal counsel, on unsubstantiated allegations of spying. Since the widespread protests of late 2017, over 150 students remain in detention while authorities pressure their families to publicly denounce them and their actions. In Guatemala, the environment for human rights defenders is becoming increasingly hostile. Against a backdrop of restrictive legislation, intimidation and political attempts to curtail their work, since January, 18 activists have been killed and at least 135 subject to attacks, many during protests over the displacement of vulnerable communities from their ancestral lands.
China as a global pacemaker
In China, a country viewed as a model of political stability and economic success by many others in the global south, the range of civil society violations is particularly comprehensive. A series of restrictive new national security and anti-terrorism laws has led to a sustained escalation in the detention of ‘dissidents’. The latest National Intelligence Law grants authorities sweeping powers to monitor and investigate foreign and domestic individuals and institutions, while the Law on the Management of Overseas NGO Activities allows police to control CSO funding sources, staffing and activities. The government’s relentless pursuit of its critics has led to the mass arrests of lawyers and activists, the shutdown of websites promoting peaceful dialogue and the regular deployment of security forces to stymie legitimate peaceful protest. With so many other countries seeking to emulate the China model, the fact that the country’s perceived success is predicated on an ever-deepening denial of the Chinese people’s most basic rights presents a real threat to civic space in other parts of the global south.
But, despite this reality, the narrative of civil society continues to be, not one of disempowerment, but one of resolute resistance. In the last year alone, we have seen citizens in country after country mobilising in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, to fight for social justice, human rights and progressive values, to demand proper services, to speak out against corruption, election fraud and constitutional rigging; citizens finding common cause in a shared, sustained determination to catalyse positive change.
And our victories have been many. But it’s going to take more than daily acts of resistance. Turning the tide on closing civic space is going to require the formulation of compelling, viable alternatives to the repressive power structures and dismal models of governance that spring from and uphold our current broken systems: it will require civil society to formulate a positive vision for another, better world.
If we are to construct such a vision, civil society actors will need to connect locally, nationally and internationally, linking online activism with offline action, finding common cause, forming and working in progressive alliances. We will need to refuse to concede our beleaguered international arena, in the knowledge that today’s problems cannot be solved with narrow nationalist solutions, but will require a progressive, people-centred multilateralism. We will need to rebuild the democratic institutions that are being undermined by the resurgence of personal rule; channel the voices of excluded groups and local communities into governance arenas that have come to be dominated by government-private sector partnerships; advocate for a strong, independent media based on a shared interest in transparency and accountability; and campaign tirelessly for an open internet and a digital world in which our democratic rights are protected and upheld.
In all of these individual, interconnected struggles, it is incumbent on us not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Our overarching challenge is not a technical, short term one of pushing back against attacks, but a longer term, political one of re-imagining a more participatory, substantive democracy for a radically changed world.
Dr. Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is Secretary General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance and a member of the newly-launched United Nations High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation. At the end of the year he moves to Oxfam UK as the new CEO.