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“anti-rights groups”

Hope, with a pinch of anger – Collective insights on how to respond to rise of anti-rights groups

23rd February 2022 by Miriam Niehaus, Eva Gondor, Poonam Joshi

At the International Civic Forum in early December, one of the speakers, Israel Butler from Liberties, showed us, a group of some 50 civil society and donor representatives from across the world, how to adjust our framing and build a narrative that can shift the moveable middle of societies – persuading a wider public to support progressive approaches to build a more equitable and sustainable world and to reject the regressive agendas of ‘anti-rights’ civil society. A baking cake metaphor comes to mind as we learned about the different ingredients required to make a message not only stick but motivate people to take action. Very simplified, there’s a whole lot of hope (eggs, sugar, flour and milk combined), but also a pinch of anger (maybe that’s the baking soda?) needed to create powerful messages that will be heard instead of fear-based narratives spread by anti-rights actors. We will endeavour to implement this recipe in this blog with a list of five key takeaways that resonated with us at the forum.

But let’s take a step back: Since 2016, the International Civic Forum (ICF) has been an annual space for civil society representatives to come together across sub-sectors but also with representatives from business, philanthropy and media, to discuss responses to the clampdown on civil society rights and the operational environment for organised civil society. Usually, the focus is on the state as the aggressor. However, building on the 2019 CIVICUS report on civil society responses to anti-rights groups, we wanted to shift the focus to non-state actors – exploring how the distinct category of anti-rights groups impacts ‘progressive’ civil society and what can be done about it. This seemed especially timely as, particularly in countries of the Global North, anti-rights groups have managed to harness anti-vaccination sentiments, further gaining traction and feeding off the fear and frustration of populations as the pandemic is still in full swing. Therefore, the ICF 2021 centred on the issue of anti-rights groups on the rise and how ‘progressive’ civil society can jointly address this challenge.

The conversations at the ICF were incredibly rich, nuanced, and self-critical, with a wide range of speakers including the Carnegie Europe’s Richard Youngs, Inés Pousadela from CIVICUS, founder of new initiative Noor Naureen Shameem, and representatives of international and local civil society organisations from around the world. Many strategies were shared, but also gaps were identified where we lack experience or don’t yet have good, actionable ideas. These five takeaways stuck with us:

1. The strength of coming together.

Several groups, mainly LGBT+, women’s rights and migrants’ rights groups, have felt the brunt of anti-rights aggressions towards them. For them this is in no way a new phenomenon. During the discussions, it became more glaring how other civil society actors are attacked by anti-rights groups as well. Environmental activists are increasingly feeling anti-rights attacks. The example of aggressions against child advocates in international fora was particularly eye-opening. And while these are terrible developments, it means we have the opportunity for forging much greater alliances and benefitting from a pool of learning and creativity. We must build on the strength of our growing number of affected stakeholders.

2. Tap into unlocked solidarity.

We can strengthen our causes even more by tapping into unlocked solidarity, namely that of faith-based groups. Representatives from several civil society sub-sectors cited how faith-based organisations have supported them when they were attacked: they have helped build bridges with religious actors that have more moderate and sympathetic views and can defuse escalating conflict. However, this can be a complicated matter as sympathetic religious dignitaries in some cases take considerable risks by standing in solidarity. Therefore, nuanced and mindful tactics are key.

3. Hope is on our side.

Whereas most anti-rights actors run on a narrative of fear, ‘progressive’ actors develop aspirational narratives built on core human values. We highly recommend looking at the concept of hope-based communication to understand how messaging affects the brain on a neurological level and how we can make that knowledge work for us.

4. Frame our own narratives instead of accepting unhelpful dichotomies.

We need to be careful to not cement dichotomies put forward by anti-rights actors, or we might lose vital ground in that “moveable middle”. An example of where this comes in to play (and this will be old news to many) is LGBT+ or women’s rights advocates being portrayed as anti-family by anti-rights actors. Some LGBT+ actors have done wonderful work on ‘claiming back family’ and shifting the frame of family not to who it consists of, but what it can mean, namely love.

5. Never let a good crisis go to waste?

This seems certainly to be true for anti-rights actors. Imagine this: A virus threatens humanity. A logical response is to mobilise all forces of humans against the virus. That’s the battle line. But no, how about we as humans divide and help the virus conquer by scape-goating certain populations (remember the attacks against people of Chinese heritage in the U.S.)? This is just one example of how some anti-rights groups in some contexts have exploited the current pandemic (and the tactic may ring awfully familiar for LGBT+ groups in reference to HIV). ‘Progressive’ civil society needs to better understand how to take over the narrative in such crises, because while the current COVID-19 pandemic is still ravaging, the climate crisis is in equal swing.

Clearly, more conversation, strategising and action need to take place within civil society and with cross-sectoral likely and unlikely allies. We will further address this issue within the scope of the Solidarity Action Network (SANE). Is this a burning topic for you too? What do you do on this front? Who and what are you still missing and looking for to make your work on this fly? If this list of takeaways has made you hopeful but also angry enough to want to collaborate on the topic, let us know about it!

Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.

Poonam Joshi


Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS)

Poonam Joshi is Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS). Prior to this Poonam was the Executive Director of the Sigrid Rausing Trust. Poonam has worked on range of human rights issues as a lawyer, policy advisor and grant-maker, and has established and managed programmes to support civil society in the Middle East North Africa, South Asia, Central and Eastern Europe and Balkans.