If citizens are to have strong opportunities to take part in the making of decisions that affect their lives, there needs to be space for civil society to function, flourish and play a full range of roles. The space for civil society – civic space – rests on the realisation of three fundamental rights: the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. If these three rights are respected, citizens can exercise dissent, propose solutions and contribute meaningfully to democratic governance.
The importance of civic space is recognised in international law, which compels governments to respect, facilitate and protect the three fundamental civil society rights. The role of civil society has also been recognised in a number of recent landmark international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, this survey of civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) offers compelling evidence that civil society rights are not being realised. On the positive side, core freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most LAC countries, and mechanisms for civil society participation are increasingly being institutionalised in the region. But against this, legal and administrative barriers to the creation, functioning, communication and resourcing of civil society organisations (CSOs) have either been maintained or recently introduced in numerous LAC countries. These constrain the freedom of association.
Alongside legal and administrative barriers, restrictions on the effective exercise of the freedom of association take various forms, including increased scrutiny and surveillance; moves to close CSOs forcibly; smear campaigns; arrests, imprisonment, and miscarriages of justice; and the intimidation and targeted assassination of activists and human rights defenders (HRDs). Such measures disproportionally affect the work of CSOs, HRDs and journalists that engage in advocacy, seek to hold governments to account, and work to expose poor governance and realise the rights of excluded people.
Many LAC countries have also witnessed an increase in the state’s coercive power to maintain public order, which impinges on the freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws have been passed or proposed in several countries that privilege the free circulation of traffic over the right of people to join together in public space to express dissent, and that allow for the more authoritarian policing of protests.
More often than not, protests have been violently suppressed. This has come in response to an upsurge of citizens’ protests in response to entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.Further, despite a continuing trend towards the adoption of legislation on the right to access information, conditions for the exercise of the freedom of expression have deteriorated in several LAC countries. Judicial persecution and violence against journalists, as well as against CSOs and activists using the media, are among the most troubling limitations on the freedom of expression. Related issues that impact on the space for expression include conflicts between governments and critical media, and increasing concentration of media ownership.
Finally, two pressing and connected issues further affect the quality of civic space in LAC: government corruption and the influence of predatory business interests. A key concern here is the existence in many LAC countries of extensive corruption networks that link business interests, public officials and elements of the security forces, particularly at the local level. These structures of corruption cause widespread violations of the human rights of communities affected by their activities, and of CSOs and activists that work to uphold the rights of those communities. Affected populations include those whose livelihoods and environments are threatened by the advance of extractive industries, agribusiness and large-scale construction projects.