Global Assault On Our Basic Freedoms Signposts A Dangerous Return To The Past

04/04/2017 06:56 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2017

Ask yourself these four questions. Can I criticize my head of state on Twitter? Can I join a human rights group to campaign for change? Can I take part in a peaceful protest outside government buildings? And can I do all of these things while knowing that my government will not just protect me but will actually enable my right to organize, speak out and take action on issues that matter to me?

If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then congratulations. You are in the very lucky, and sadly very tiny, minority of people who live in the 26 countries which, today, have “open” civic space.

Findings just released by CIVICUS, show that a mere three percent of people live in countries where the state properly protects, fulfills and enables the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Back in 1948, countries created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a powerful statement that the world would never return to the closed societies of the early 20th century. The kinds of repressive societies which had provided fertile breeding ground for dictatorship and warmongering. Almost 70 years later I wonder what the signatories of this ambitious declaration would make of the world today.

Alas, in 2017, in a staggering 106 countries, states are seriously denying their people the enjoyment of a vibrant and open civic space ― most often by arresting and detaining human rights defenders, using excessive force during protests or failing to protect journalists from violence and intimidation.

Such violations are usually justified on the flimsy pretext of ensuring ‘national security,’ ‘public morals’ or ‘public order.’ In many cases, perpetrators of these crimes get off scot free, while civil society is left with its leaders languishing in prison, protest routes barricaded and flow of funds cut off.

We know this is really happening because leaders want to hold onto power, prevent criticism or elevate the interests of a powerful elite groups over the majority of the population.

For over 3.5 billion people in countries in the “closed” and “repressed” categories on the CIVICUS Monitor, the consequences of these restrictions can be earth-shattering. In countries like North Korea, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia, it is next to impossible for activists to conduct human rights advocacy or peacefully oppose the state without the very real risk of attack, imprisonment or death.

While conditions are much better for civil society in most of Europe, the Americas and Oceania, serious limitations in the form of restrictive NGO laws, creeping censorship on social media or all-pervasive surveillance by the state are eating away at the rights many of us have taken for granted.

Data on the CIVICUS Monitor also shows us that many powerful, established democracies ― the likes of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, France and Australia ― appear in our “narrowed” category, meaning that citizens in those countries are not fully free to challenge power. Consequently, those democracies cannot function as they should.

Deprived of a vibrant civil society, the democratic balance tips in favor of unaccountable, often hidden, elites who set the agenda. That is bad news for the creation of stable and just societies.

Yet, our analysis also shows that civic space is not just worth protecting in and of itself. The CIVICUS Monitor also shows that civic space matters for development, for democracy and for reducing inequality ― on average, countries towards the better end of our civic space scale also rate highly on human development, equality and electoral democracy indices.

Put simply ― countries with more open civic space are more developed, less unequal and have freer and fairer elections.

In 2017, we are facing no shortage of grand challenges ― humanitarian crises on scales unseen since World War II, rising global temperatures, spiraling economic inequality, the spread of populist politics. We simply cannot hope to solve these global problems if states continue to suffocate the one thing that can provide lasting solutions ― people’s innate sense of creativity, resilience and justice, qualities which emerge time and time again when civil society is set free to play its role in a democratic society.

I have been writing for some time now about the growing threats to civic space. With the release of these data from the CIVICUS Monitor, for the first time we can now visualize the full scale of the crisis facing us. We can no longer hide from the sense that the problem is “over there.” We are all involved, we are all affected.

An energetic global response is needed to combat this crisis. Civil society itself must lead this response and a lot is already happening. For a start, countless civil society organizations have already done an exceptional job of making sure that the reality of closing civic space is on the international community’s radar. We see the fruits of this labour in the recent development of strong new international standards to protect civic space as well as investigations into acute restrictions undertaken by multilateral bodies, like the UN Human Rights Council and its continental equivalents at the African and American levels.

Today, CIVICUS is also launching our new Watch List advocacy tool, which allows our partners and us to highlight a short list of countries of immediate concern, so that swift action can be taken to reverse rapid declines in respect for civic space. On the Watch List today are Cameroon, Macedonia, Myanmar, Turkey and the USA.

These are important steps, but of course they are only part of the solution ― a solution which involves all of us who believe in a future free from tyranny taking a stand and becoming active in our communities, local organizations and public debates. There is no denying that this is a pivotal moment in our history and we must all work hard to make sure civil society plays a key role in our future.

CONVERSATIONS