The world is facing a democratic crisis through unprecedented restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly which constitute a global emergency says global civil society alliance, CIVICUS’ 2017 report.
The 2017 State of Civil Society Report highlights that around the world it is becoming increasingly dangerous to challenge power, and to do so risks reprisals. In several countries, right-wing populist and neo-fascist leaders have gained prominence by winning elections or commanding enough support to push their ideas into the mainstream. Their politics and worldview are fundamentally opposed to civil society seeking to promote human rights, social cohesion and progressive internationalism.
Key points from the report, include:
- Increasing attacks on civil society activists and organisations from repressive state apparatuses, extremist forces and criminal elements linked to businesses;
- Just 3% of the world’s population lives in countries with ‘open’ civic space;
- Recent political shifts indicate genuine anger from citizens about the impact of globalisation on their lives that have been harnessed by right wing populists; and
- The challenge for civil society is not to dismiss that anger and but to build an alternative movement of hope, not fear that is respectful of human rights.
The report notes that to the new right-wing populists, the international sphere is a dangerous source of progressive values that challenges their narrow notions of sovereignty. International institutions and the human rights values they represent are deemed intrusive. The Paris Agreement on climate change, for example, has been painted as obstructive to economic growth and put at risk by the current attitude of the US government. The leaders of Israel, the Philippines and the US have attacked the UN. The governments of Burundi and South Africa have in the last year threatened to pull out of the International Criminal Court. Nowhere is the failure of multilateralism more apparent as in the Syrian crisis which has cost half a million lives and displaced half the country’s population, raising the spectre of impunity for war crimes being normalised.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres characterized the current disregard for human rights, fuelled by rising populism and extremism, as a “disease that is spreading”. In the Philippines over 7000 people have been killed as a result of violence encouraged by President Rodrigo Duterte. In Turkey, following an attempted coup, there are now sweeping restrictions on fundamental freedoms and civil society – some 195 media outlets have been shut down, 80 journalists have been imprisoned along with thousands of academics and others deemed as dissidents.
CIVIC SPACE UNDER ATTACK
A consistent pattern is emerging of attacks on civil society organisations (CSOs) and activists engaged in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms. Restrictive measures range from detentions, arrests and extrajudicial killings of activists to disenabling legislation to squeeze the funding and the functioning of CSOs as being experienced in Egypt. In Ethiopia, more than 600 people have died in violent suppression of protests against economic and political marginalisation. Ethiopia’s civic space is rated as closed by the CIVICUS Monitor, a new online platform that tracks civic space in every country.
Some states, including in parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe, are now introducing laws to make it harder to hold protests. An example is Poland’s anti-terrorism law, passed in June 2016. It gives the state enhanced powers to ban public assemblies, along with increased surveillance and internet control powers. In Venezuela, protests are being met with brute force by government forces.
Another significant trend has emerged over the past year: freedom of expression is being applied selectively. Dissent that serves right-wing populist agendas is encouraged; that which does not is to be dismissed or repressed. Increasingly, dissent is seen as a political act rather than a normal part of a functioning democracy. Methods range from attacks on journalists and activists to the shutting down of entire Internet or mobile phone networks, as experienced in Cameroon’s Anglophone region in the first quarter of 2017. These restrictive measures often increase during politically sensitive times, such as elections. The CIVICUS Monitor records 101 attacks on journalists, between June 2016 and March 2017. In some countries, such as Bangladesh and Pakistan, both extremist forces and an authoritarian state present a threat to freedom of expression.
The report notes that the right to express democratic dissent needs to be asserted in many countries.
A MOVEMENT OF HOPE NOT FEAR
But the democracy of the street is alive and well. Around the world, whenever new leaders have come to power on polarizing right-wing populist platforms they have been met with major demonstrations - none have been bigger than those that mobilised as Sister Marches in the USA and around the world, against the politics of President Donald Trump. In South Korea, protests were intrinsic to the campaign that forced former president Park Guen-hye from office on corruption charges. From Romania to Brazil and South Africa, protests have been a key method for citizens to express dissatisfaction with governance dysfunction and corruption.
The report calls on civil society to make the case for a new, progressive internationalism that has human rights at its heart, challenges exclusion and injustice while supporting an active citizenry.
Civil society must also mount a new challenge to current practices of economic globalisation which further privileges elites, and the failures of political systems to give ordinary citizens voice. The response needs to understand the anger that people feel about their lives and livelihoods while being careful not to appease racism, sexism and xenophobia. A positive message of hope rather than fear is needed. This requires building broad-based alliances that connect classic CSOs with protest movements, journalists, trade unions, youth groups, social enterprises and artists.
Notes to Editors
The full State of Civil Society Report 2017 can be found here.
About CIVICUS’ 2017 State of Civil Society Report
Each year the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report examines the major events that involve and affect civil society around the world. Part one of our report reviews the past year, focusing on the space for civil society and the impact of a resurgence of right-wing populist politics; the right to express dissent; protest movements; and civil society’s international-level actions. Part two of the report has the special theme of ‘civil society and the private sector’.
Our report is of, from and for civil society, drawing from a wide range of interviews with people close to the major stories of the day, a survey of members of our network of national and regional civil society coordination and membership bodies - the Affinity Group of National Associations (AGNA) - and 27 specially-commissioned guest articles on different aspects of the theme of civil society and the private sector. Most of our inputs come from civil society, but we also sought the views of people working in government and the private sector.
Our report also draws from CIVICUS’ ongoing programme of research and analysis into the conditions for civil society. In particular, it presents findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, our new online platform that tracks the space for civil society - civic space - in every country, and the Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA), a civil society-led analysis of legal, regulatory and policy environments.
For further information or to request interviews with CIVICUS staff or contributors please contact