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Civil Society Defying Tough Times

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By Rchard Johnson | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

BRUSSELS (IDN) - The 27-nation European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Cathy Ashton, has expressed concern "about the efforts of some states to bar, constrict, or control the work of NGOs", and stressed that "a vibrant and independent civil society is an essential ingredient of effective and stable democracy".

In her foreword to a new report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, Ashton says: "In too many cases, the voices of civil society are being stifled and the space in which they can express their views is shrinking. This is happening through overt means of oppression such as the implementation of restrictive laws and the persecution of activists, as well by marginalising civil society in national and international decision-making processes."

The new report, The State of Civil Society 2013, points out that international development efforts are being undermined by the rising tide of legal restrictions, funding cuts and violence faced by civil society around the world. The report, released in Johannesburg, South Africa, on April 29, documents the experiences of activists and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) across the world.

The report concludes that the optimism within civil society of 2012 has evaporated: "The euphoria and positivity of the Arab Spring has been lost amid the chaos, corruption and clampdowns on civil society that have ensued in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia." It points out that conditions for civil society have become worse in many parts of the world over the last year.

The report highlights some key trends:

- A shocking 57% of the world’s population live in countries where basic civil liberties and political freedoms are curtailed.

- In fragile and conflict-ridden states, civil society groups speaking out against entrenched patriarchy and religious fundamentalism are increasingly becoming targets of armed groups.

- Communities that traditionally relied on rivers, forests and communal grazing grounds for their subsistence are faced with being displaced by big corporations – including extractive industries, construction firms and agri-businesses.

- With the lines between business and politics blurring, we are increasingly seeing civil society voices being relegated to the margins in discussions on the post-2015 agenda and other global matters. Organised civil society needs deep introspection and to realign itself with people’s needs and their voices, and to rebuild our legitimacy and trust with our people.

The report refers in particular to:

- Attacks on activists continue, including the killing of 75 trade unionists around the world (with Latin American countries such as Colombia of most concern) and some 800 cases of attacks against writers documented in 108 countries.

- Imprisonment of activists for criticising official policies in countries such as Bahrain, Cambodia and Ethiopia.

- Reprisals on activists from Bahrain and Sri Lanka who took part in the Human Rights Council session in Geneva on their return home.

- Regressive laws restricting civil society that place new barriers to the right to peaceful assembly in Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Canada, Malaysia and Russia, and that give the state power to declare a civil society organisation unlawful in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

- Restrictions on foreign funding of civil society organisations in countries such as Bangladesh and Russia.

- Funding cuts to civil society organisations that support international development in many donor countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

- New restrictions on gay rights activists in many countries in countries such as Lithuania, Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.

Enabling environment

The CIVICUS report argues that new post-2015 international development goals should include an aim of improving the "enabling environment" for civil society, so that other goals of poverty reduction, conflict prevention and inequality are not undermined.

Drawing on some 50 expert contributions from around the world, the report also finds that while civil society is increasingly using social media to mobilise citizen action and scrutinise governments, restrictions on websites and social media are increasingly being used as tools to keep citizens in the dark. Around a third of all internet users globally have experienced some kind of national-level restriction on their freedom to communicate, with over 45 states, most notably China, having imposed restrictions of some kind.

Amidst the challenges facing civil society, the report highlights good practices worldwide and reasons for optimism. Civil society continues to benefit from relatively high levels of public trust, consistently scoring higher in major surveys than governments, companies or the media. Besides, civil society organisations are finding innovative ways of tackling intractable social problems.

"Our report catalogues a litany of threats to civil society, from outright violence against civic leaders to legal restrictions on civil society organisations to dramatic funding cuts," says CIVICUS Secretary General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, adding: “As we head towards new global development goals, if more is not done to promote an enabling environment for civil society, efforts to reduce poverty, tackle inequality and resolve conflict will be fatally undermined.”

His optimism draws from the fact that new technologies are making it easier to access information, connect with other like-minded people, and mobilise large numbers of people. "But restrictions on websites and social media are increasingly being used as tools to keep citizens in the dark and prevent them from scrutinising corruption," he avers.

In his foreword to the report, Jay Naidoo, activist and former South African Minister, writes: “Today, as we stand at the edge of a precipice, we see a growing ferment in the world. It is this alienation and disconnect between leaders and citizens that has led people to taking to the streets; from the historic Arab Spring to fierce student battles for free education in Chile and Quebec, to the anti-corruption battles in India and the deadly struggle for a decent wage of the Marikana mineworkers in South Africa.” [IDN-InDepthNews – April 29, 2013]

Image credit: University of Bologna

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