Closing of Civil Space: trends, drivers, and what donors can do about it

In the summary of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law of May 2018, the topic “Effective donor Responses to the challenge of the closure of civic spaces” was discussed. It can be observed that of the legal initiatives, proposed or promulgated, which restrict the freedoms of association or meeting, 47% restrict the training, registration, or functioning of OSC; 28% restrict OCS’s ability to receive international funding; and another 25% restricts peaceful assembly.

Within the new trends that have been observed, we can find:

  • Digital Restrictions: Indonesia, Pakistan, and Tanzania, for example, have adopted cybercrime laws and other regulations that allow the monitor of electronic communications without restrictions.
  • Restrictions related to transparency: (1) burdensome requirements to inform and disclose private information (for example in Bulgaria, Panama, and Uganda); (2) obligatory disclosure of private assets of OSC directors and/or officials (for example, Ukraine and India); (3) limiting public promotion by categorizing OSC as lobbyists or political activists (for example, in the UK and Ireland); (4) disclosure of private and international funders (for example, in Hungary and Mexico); y (5) disproportionate penalties related to non-compliance with the requirements of information and disclosure (for example, in Egypt and Russia).
  • Denying OSC access to multilateral platforms: The OSC and defenders of human rights are subject to increasing threats, intimidation, and reprisal when they try to speak in multilateral platforms.
  • Discrediting the voice of OSC in multilateral platforms: NGO’s organized by the government participate in multilateral platforms like the UN Human Rights Council. They defend countries’ policies, try to delegitimize the voices of genuine civil society, and use up time, space, and other limited resources.
  • Prevent freedom of movement: This consists of preventing civil society representatives from traveling abroad.
  • Narrowing the space and capacity for International NGOs: For example, through restrictions on spending, the NGO’s mission, or registration.
  • Stigmatizing donors: For example, the Hungarian government has been carrying out a campaign aimed at the Open Society Foundation and the Central European University, as well as its founder, George Soros.

The origins of civil space repression date back to the start of the current millennium. Throughout the 1990’s, the OSC enjoyed a largely positive reputation in the international community. The OSC made important contributions to health, education, culture, economic development, and a series of other beneficial objectives for the public. As a reflection of this, in September of 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration. There, it was emphasized the importance of human rights and the value of “non-governmental organizations and civil society in general”.

The specific driving force that restricts the space or capacity for civil society varies from one country to another, in accordance with the government and the political leaders and how they act with a variety of motivations. At the same time, one can identify various driving forces that have resulted in global repression against civil society:

  • The dramatic growth and the demonstrated power of civil society and civil society organizations during the 1990’s;
  • The growing priority given to anti-terrorism and national security by all the governments in the world;
  • A change in the relations of global power, that have reduced the influence of Western governments and traditional multilateral institutions and have given rise to challenges for the liberal democratic model;
  • The growing collusion between political elites and economics in order to protect their interests without any oversight or criticism,
  • The increase of ideological and religious extremism that result in increasingly hostile environments for the defenders of vulnerable groups, including those that represent women, LGBTQIA, minorities, and others.

Over the past few years, various countries have faced an increase in intolerant political populism. These populist movements can be seen as a signal for a bigger reduction of civic space, even in established democracies. This can encourage authoritarian governments to further restrict civil society.

As we are likely to be at the cusp of a new wave of restrictions on civil society, the commitment of donor governments, as credible and principles-based voices on issues of civic space, is more important than ever.

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