Posts with the tag
“civic space”

What does ‘solidarity’ around civic space mean in the light of the Indian response to COVID-19?

7th June 2021 by Deborah Doane

This blog post is written by Deborah Doane, who along with Sarah Pugh, authored the Solidarity Playbook, a collection of case studies and best practices on how organisations and coalitions have developed resilience and solidarity mechanisms to civic space restrictions and changing operating conditions for civil society.

The tragedy that is befalling India in real-time as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is also a consequence of a government intent on trying to destroy its own civil society, both through a crackdown on foreign funding, one of the typical tactics in closing civic space; and by suppressing dissent through whatever means possible.  

Foreign funding restrictions imposed in 2013 under the previous government were just the start of this severe assault on civil society that saw international civil society organisations (ICSOs) Amnesty and Greenpeace seriously targeted, with Amnesty ultimately withdrawing from the country, no longer able to function effectively.  

The intimidation that befell foreign ICSOs eventually impacted local CSOs too, as the crackdown on dissent accelerated. In the last six years, over 13,000 NGOs’ licenses were cancelled, as the government made a concerted effort to stem the flow of foreign funding.  

Much of the assault on civil society came to a head just prior to the pandemic, which saw strong and sustained protests against the new Citizenship Amendments Act (CAA) which put Muslims at a disadvantage and more vulnerable compared to Hindus in having to prove their Indian identity, perceived by many to be a direct assault on the secular underpinning of the Indian State.  

COVID-19 provided the perfect opportunity for the government to halt the protests altogether and dampen the voice of civil society even further. Protests were virtually outlawed, movement was restricted, and activists were silenced or arrested, whilst the government pressed ahead with even more restrictions on foreign funding coming into the country, even as late as last September, in the midst of the pandemic. As Vijayan MJ writes for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “The government converted a health crisis into a law-and-order issue, and democratic governance slid into a police raj.”   

Thus, it’s clear that civic space – and our response to it in global civil society – is at the heart of a solidaristic pandemic response in India. 

Even in the absence of foreign funding and in spite of imposed restrictions, local civil society actors have been heroic in their efforts providing much-needed emergency relief across the country.  Communities have stepped in, whilst rights-based groups moved from advocacy to relief mode quite swiftly in response to the rising disaster impacting migrant workers and many of India’s poorest. But local CSOs have also highlighted that because of the civil society crackdown, they have been entirely (and needlessly) hampered in their efforts. Indeed, they point out that without such restrictions – either on funding or on dissent, the COVID-19 crisis in India could have been far less severe. 

National organisations in India have been able to place some pressure on the government to try to at least delay some new foreign funding restrictions and registration requirements so that much-needed humanitarian relief funding can make its way more easily to smaller, responsive local CSOs. As of the time of writing, this is as yet unresolved.  

Internationally, pressure exerted from the now global People’s Vaccine campaign, involving many ICSOs, has been a tremendous effort to challenge patent protection which could make a massive difference for India. This is an obvious value-add role for ICSOs in the face of a pandemic, but it doesn’t speak to the issue of civic space per se. Given the layer upon layer of complexity, well documented by the likes of Arundhati Roy and others, it’s very easy to feel that anything ICSOs can do is all but meaningless.  

However, the case studies in the Solidarity Playbook have shown that there are multiple actions that ICSOs can take when it comes to civic space, ranging from quiet solidarity to more public, political solidarity. The risk for ICSOs in India has often been that speaking out can do more harm to their efforts – and to local actors – than good. But the countervailing risk is that remaining silent can also enable an already repressive regime to become even more repressive. So how can ICSOs navigate this complexity?  

Here, two key broader lessons from the Solidarity Playbook are relevant. First, that ‘civic space’ is a strategic opportunity to shift an organisational strategy. COVID-19 has demanded a real shake-up in how ICSOs are organised, as the freedom to travel and send expats from the north everywhere is virtually off the table. In most parts of the world where ICSOs are present, traditional business models have turned upside down. ICSOs are finally starting to ask themselves how to collaborate with partners differently and better, in light of the new normal. It’s not about ‘empowering’ or ‘capacity building’ anymore. Instead, it’s about recognising the power that communities have and identifying ways to create new forms of collaboration – and build solidarity alongside those on the ground.  

Where foreign funding is allowed, this can mean shifting to providing more funding mechanisms that enable communities to plan and allocate resources, something the #shiftthepower movement has long been advocating as a strategy to respond to closing civic space. COVID-19 only makes this more urgent. 

This is where the second lesson from the Solidarity Playbook becomes equally relevant. Whatever solidarity mechanism an ICSO adopts in the face of closing civic space, it must be negotiated with national and local civil societies – and the communities in which they are working. Speaking out through international advocacy or diplomacy may be the best course of action, as would prioritising international fundraising, but they may not be. How ICSOs collaborate equally with national and local partners, whilst helping to share any associated risk, is at the heart of what ‘solidarity’ really is. This will help in the long-run too – by strengthening local civil societies and local communities alike, and putting them in the driver’s seat.  

 “In India, the battle against the pandemic cannot be separated from the battle to regain democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and human rights,” Vijayan MJ goes onto say in his essay for the Carnegie Endowment. It’s difficult to watch the dual crises of closing civic space and a global pandemic. But it’s heartening to know that as ICSOs, it’s still possible to act deliberately and in solidarity as allies with those at the forefront of local responses, and that our efforts in the short-term can have a positive long-term impact too.  

Deborah Doane

Deborah Doane is a writer and consultant, who has worked across civil society for over twenty years as a leader, campaigner and analyst, covering human rights, development, environment and economic justice issues. Most recently, she was the Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society, and now works in a portfolio capacity with a range of clients in philanthropy and civil society. She is a partner of RightsCoLab a think tank where she works on the future of civil society. She blogs regularly for the Guardian on International Development and civil society issues.


Civic Space is shrinking. Here’s how we can protect fundamental rights

24th September 2020 by Deirdre de Burca

Current research shows that civil society in over half of the countries of the world is facing serious and growing restrictions on its freedom to engage, express itself and be heard. Activists and human rights defenders in formal and informal spaces are building new bridges of solidarity to move forward, but these are challenging times for our community.

With increased surveillance, persecution and even violence against activists, many civil society organisations have come under attack, particularly those advocating on behalf of excluded groups and minorities, for democratic rights and in defence of the environment.

Human rights defenders in Africa, Latin America and Asia, as well as in other parts of the world, have been targeted and attacked. 212 environmental and land rights defenders alone were killed during 2019, and 219 human rights defenders are estimated to have been killed or died in detention in 2016. Technology advances have brought increased surveillance on civil society and create new risks for civic space.

The civic space case studies contained within the recent Forus report “Realising the potential of Goal 16 to promote and protect civic space” highlight the many restrictions civil society currently faces in different parts of the world. From Nepal to Colombia, it has become increasingly difficult to exercise rights of association, assembly and expression.

Now the question is –  how can we protect fundamental freedoms, essential to the creation of  a healthy, functioning civic space, where people’s voices are being heard?

The recent Forus report, Realising the potential of SDG 16 to promote and protect civic space, highlights how a particular Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)can provide important leverage for civil society everywhere in its efforts to create and defend civic space, and to be more effective in monitoring and implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Many in the human rights community are sceptical about what they regard as the weak potential of the SDGs to advance a universal human rights agenda. In his foreword to the report on Goal 16 and civic space, the former Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, claims that despite almost 20 mentions of human rights in the text of the 2030 Agenda, no reference is made to any specific civil or political right.

Alston argues that human rights in general remain marginal and invisible in the agenda. He points to the behaviour of many governments who have side-lined or even rejected the inclusion of human rights in national SDG programming. He also refers to SDG reports by the UN and World Bank which he claims pay little or no attention to human rights, with the exception of the issue of gender.

Such ambivalence towards the 2030 Agenda has led some human rights activists and practitioners to overlook or disregard the role that SDG 16 could play in promoting civil and political rights globally. Here’s why SDG 16 could be effective in promoting and protecting civic space.

The effective implementation of SDG 16 can have profound implications for civic space in countries across the world. The goal broadly focuses on issues of governance and aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. A specific target of SDG 16, Target 16.10, commits UN member states to “Ensure access to public information and protect fundamental freedoms”.

These freedoms, which include basic rights to associate and assemble peacefully and to express views and opinions, are themselves fundamental human rights protected under international human rights law, and they are essential to the creation and maintenance of civic space.

And yet, the two global-level indicators which have been adopted to date by the international community, do not adequately assess progress in protecting and promoting fundamental freedoms.-In particular, because they do not directly measure the extent to which fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression are being protected in day-to-day civic life as citizens attempt to engage with issues which impact on their communities and wider societies.

This failure to monitor and measure the extent to which citizens are free to participate in the civic life is a significant omission where SDG 16 is concerned.

There is an urgent need for the international community to extend the scope of SDG 16 civic space indicators which are currently limited to an outcome indicator measuring the extent to which activists, human rights defenders and others have been kidnapped imprisoned or murdered. Additional global indicators must be developed which measure the extent to which citizens can exercise their rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression in their communities and societies, in accordance with international human rights standards and national human rights laws.

Following the launch of the Goal 16 report at the UN High Level Political Forum in 2020, Forus and its partners intend to collaborate with interested civil society networks and other groups on a new global advocacy campaign. This campaign will call for a wider range of  civic space indicators to be adopted by UN member states as official Goal 16 indicators and to become part of national regional and global review processes of the 2030 Agenda. For this we need human rights defenders.

The involvement of human rights activists and practitioners in this global advocacy campaign, and in the wider monitoring and review of SDG 16 implementation, will be crucial as it could bring its considerable technical expertise, advocacy capacities and political influence to bear on the process.  Let’s join forces to launch a broad dynamic strategy for fundamental freedoms to be promoted and protected.  Please contact me on Deirdre@forus-international.org if you wish to discuss this proposal further!

 

Deirdre de Burca

Forus Advocacy Co-ordinator

Forus International

Deirdre de Burca currently works as the Advocacy Co-ordinator with Forus (formerly known as the International Forum for National NGO platforms). Forus is a global network of 69 national development platforms and 6 regional coalitions. Deirdre previously worked as Director of Advocacy for World Vision's Brussels office. She was also a member of the EU Steering Committee of Concord's Beyond 2015 EU Taskforce which played an essential role in influencing the position of the EU and its Member States during the UN negotiations on Agenda 2030. Deirdre was one of the founding members of SDG Watch Europe - a broad alliance of European civil society organisations established in June 2015 and which works to ensure the full implementation of Agenda 2030/the SDGs by the EU and its Member States.


PM Turnbull: Civil society must be represented at the G20

29th March 2017 by Thomas Howie

Dear Prime Minister Turnbull,

We write to you as leaders of Australian civil society, appointed by the Australian Government to form the Civil 20 Secretariat during Australia’s G20 presidency in 2014. As you prepare to represent Australia in Hamburg, we wish to alert you to the dire reality facing civil society actors in many G20 member states and ask you to raise the issue of the shrinking space for civil society at the upcoming G20 Summit.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor more than 100 countries actively limit the space for, and in many cases violently repress, civil society. Peaceful and democratic civil society organisations – from grassroots movements to large international NGOs– and their staff face undue vilification, threats, arrests, frozen bank accounts, revoked licenses, blocked websites, coerced registrations with government bodies, and the closure of their offices. In many countries today, civil society activists fear for their lives, with many disappearing or murdered at the hands of government or government-supported forces.

Australia has a long and proud history of promoting the important role of strong and robust civil society in advancing social and economic development and securing human rights and social accountability around the world. Through its aid program, Australia has supported transformative civil society strengthening efforts in many developing countries and through ongoing bilateral human rights dialogues, Australian leaders have been steadfast in expressing concerns about the suppression of civil society in many of our neighbouring countries. As Australia continues its campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, we have no doubt that these issues will continue to be a high priority for your Government.

The G20 need a peaceful, organised, and protected civil society to help achieve the goals established through the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. The active engagement of people in all societies contributes to alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, achieving gender equality and countering the dangers of extremism and violence by working with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Repressing civil society creates an unstable economic and political environment and obstructs the transition towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world.

During the past year, civil society organisations from around the world have come together to create a Civic Charter, which clearly articulates the globally established obligations of states to secure civic rights for all people. We hope to see Australia and all other governments around the world acknowledge and fully implement the Civic Charter. As an important step in doing so, we ask you to implore your fellow G20 leaders to ensure that the issue of civil society participation features prominently on the G20 Agenda.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you or to provide further information on this important issue in advance of the Summit. Please don’t hesitate to contact Dermot O’Gorman: 0438 222 114 or dogorman@wwf.org.au to discuss.

Sincerely,

Dermot O’Gorman CEO
WWF-Australia

Marc Purcell CEO
Australian Council for International Development

Dr Cassandra Goldie CEO
Australian Council of Social Service

Tim Costello Chief Advocate
World Vision Australia

His Honour Judge Rauf Soulio
District Court of South Australia

Helen Szoke CEO
Oxfam Australia

Rev. Tara Curlewis Minister
Uniting Church of Australia

Sally Sinclair CEO
National Employment Services Association

Janelle Weissman Executive Director
UN Women National Committee Australia

Colonel Kelvin Alley
The Salvation Army

Greg Thompson Executive Director International
Transparency International Australia

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre


Angela Merkel: Put Civil Society on G20 Agenda

2nd March 2017 by Thomas Howie

Dear Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel,

As you prepare for the G20 Summit under your presidency, we urgently want to alert you to the dire reality of many civil society actors in the G20 member states and ask you to place this concern at the heart of the G20 Summit agenda.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor all G20 member states, except for Germany, narrow the space for civil society or even repress civil society violently. Peaceful and democratic civil society organisations – from grassroots movements to large international civil society organisations – and their staff face undue vilification, threats, arrests, frozen bank accounts, revoked licenses, blocked websites, coerced registrations with government bodies, and the closure of their offices. Civil society activists have to fear for their lives, with many disappearing and becoming victims of murder.

The perpetuation of this negative trend for civil society actors over the last years causes serious concern for civil society, enlightened governments, farsighted business, philanthropy and the media. As the global community is confronted with persistent poverty, growing inequality, violent extremism, and climate change, we are in dire need of the active engagement of civil society.

The G20 countries are dependent on peaceful organized civil society if they want to tackle the challenges you laid out and address the priorities you set out for this year’s G20 agenda: Organised Civil society plays an important role in communicating the needs of the people to the government and thus ensuring the usefulness and sustainability of political and economic measures. Civil society actors expose corruption and human rights violations and hold the state accountable – all of which are prerequisites for a just and peaceful society. Moreover, the active engagement of people in their societies contributes to alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, achieving gender equality and countering the dangers of radicalisation and violence by working with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Repressing democratic civil society makes for an unstable economic and political environment; and without the active and unrestrained engagement of
people around the globe, the transition towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world as laid down in the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement will not be possible.

During the past year, the International Civil Society Centre facilitated a global civil society process which created a Civic Charter. The Civic Charter contains national governments’ obligations to secure civic rights for all people, as enshrined in UN conventions and international law. We expect all governments worldwide to fully implement the Civic Charter.

As the host of this year’s G20 Summit, we ask you to remain true to the respect we know you hold for civil society: please make sure that the topic “Civil Society Participation” features prominently on the G20 Agenda and implore your fellow G20 leaders to guarantee all people the right to fully participate in shaping their societies.

Sincerely,

International Civil Society Centre – Burkhard Gnärig, Executive Director
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Heinrich Böll Stiftung – Barbara Unmüßig, President
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ADRA – Jonathan Duffy, President
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ActionAid – Adriano Campolina, CEO
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Care – Wolfgang Jamann, Secretary General/CEO
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BRAC – Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Chairperson
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Caritas – Michel Roy, Secretary General
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ChildFund Alliance – Meg Gardinier, Secretary General
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HelpAge Interational – Justin Derbyshire, Interim CEO
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IPPF – Tewodros Melesse, Director-General
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Islamic Relief – Naser Haghamed, CEO
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SOS Children’s Villages International – Norbert Meder, CEO
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Transparency International – Cobus de Swardt, Managing Director
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Terre des Hommes – Ignacio Packer, Secretary General
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VSO – Philip Goodwin, CEO
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World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts – Anita Tiessen, CEO
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World Vision – Kevin Jenkins, President/CEO
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World YWCA – Malayah Harper, General Secretary

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre