The restriction of basic freedoms has become the global norm

Imagine inviting your ten closest friends to dinner but only four of them show up. The other six can’t make it because they’ve either been arrested for criticising the government during a protest, are caught up in a protracted legal battle to clear their name after a smear campaign or have gone into hiding because of anonymous threats to their life on social media.

This fictional scenario may seem far-fetched, but in fact it represents reality in the world today. While some in the Global North may still think that erosion of basic civic freedoms is a problem for countries elsewhere, research released this week by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that the restriction of basic freedoms has become the global norm.

In 2018, governments in nearly six in ten countries are backsliding on hard-won commitments on basic rights, in particular freedoms of speech, assembly and association. Just 4 percent of people now live in countries with proper respect for these freedoms, which together define the extent of what is known as ‘civic space’. This dismal statistic makes the continuing activism by the other 96 percent all the more admirable.

Some of these statistics might sound abstract, but in practice they mean most people in the world today take big risks if they choose to get involved in peaceful activism, especially the kind of activism that directly challenges those in power, advances social causes or promotes human rights. 

This doesn’t even take into account the one billion people living in countries with somewhat better but still limited civic space conditions. These include countries like Chile, the USA and France, where in recent months human rights monitors have documented cases of protesters being beaten and detained, journalists being attacked and civil society organisations providing humanitarian support being pilloried by political leaders.

The scale of the problem is undeniable, and, it’s no longer something that we can allow world leaders to sweep under the carpet. Leaders in particular must be called out on the use of censorship and on attacks against journalists, the two most common civic space violations we have witnessed through our work since 2016.

As daunting as the overall picture is, civil society is far from finished. Civil society leaders, motivated in most cases by passion instead of profit, are some of the most resilient people in the world. As a result of their bravery, struggles for justice and social progress continue to achieve change, often with the odds stacked against them.

From people calling for the protection of land rights in Guatemala, to youth movements pushing for democratic reform in the DRC, civil society battles for a better world continue to be fought on all continents, scoring important victories.

In recent months for example, decades of struggle in both Ethiopia and Malaysia have provoked changes in leadership which have improved civic space, while Ecuador, The Gambia and Canada have also made recent advances in improving civic freedoms.

These examples show that popular pressure matters and that governments, no matter how hard they try, can never fully suppress peaceful activism. Given the challenges faced in the world today, this activism is more important than ever.

It is no surprise the countries which fare better on our civic space scale also tend to be more prosperous and less unequal. Protecting civic space is not just important because it allows people to have a say in how their communities and countries are run – it can also provide the framework for creative solutions to be found to some of our planet’s most pressing challenges: entrenched conflict, climate change, rising inequality, to name just three.

In a few days’ time, it will be seventy years since the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is a moment for all of us to pause and reflect on the world we want to see in the next seventy years. To ensure a bright future for our children and grandchildren, an open and vibrant civic space must be safeguarded.

Cathal Gilbert is head of civic space research for CIVICUS and coordinator of the CIVICUS Monitor, a research collaboration tracking civic space in 196 countries. Previously, Cathal worked on human rights and civil society projects for Freedom House and the European Union in Southern and East Africa.

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