Umbrella protests in Hong Kong
Umbrella protests in Hong Kong

Freedoms under threat: Why we need to tackle the root causes of closing civic space

We are entering an age of intersectional crises. Democratic institutions are being eroded through capture by illiberal actors, undue corporate influence and money in politics.

Technology gives states the ability to engage in the mass surveillance of civic participation and activism. Unprecedented concentrations of power and wealth, corruption, and vested financial interests are deepening inequality and preventing action to address global crises. As a result, the climate and ecological crisis may be irreversible by 2030.

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated these trends, but it has also created unprecedented openings for progressive thinkers and activists to advance their missions, as governments and the public look for new ideas and solutions. Mutual aid is flourishing globally, as is public support for values of solidarity and compassion. Alternative economic ideas, from localising production to universal basic income and the Global Green New Deal, are entering the mainstream. The Black Lives Matters movement has triggered protests globally demanding we re-think security and protection for human rights.

The movements, organisations, journalists, artists, and academics who could change the world for the better exist, but their ability to act is restricted by closing civic space.

Trends restricting civic space

Traditional approaches to defending civic space (including protection, litigation, and advocacy) have not been enough to halt a worldwide regression in civic space. The Funders Initiative for Civil Society conducted research on closing civic space and interviewed 150 movements, civil society organisations, journalists, and funders. The research stresses the need to focus on the root causes that drive closing space and threats to civic participation.

Our research identified three crucial common drivers:

  1. Securitisation: The use of counter terrorism and national security laws (including emergency laws) and discourse to restrict and criminalise assembly, expression, and association.
  2. Socio-cultural and political threats to democracy: Transnationally co-ordinated far right and religious actors who seek to weaken the rule of law, erode democratic pluralism, re-impose “traditional” values, and wage aggressive anti-rights and anti-gender campaigns.
  3. The concentration and abuse of economic power: Unprecedented accumulations of power and wealth in corporate hands is providing economic actors with undue influence on politics. These forces are preventing regulation that would protect human rights, and enable the legal and physical harassment of actors who oppose their interests.

Many of the gravest violations will take place at the intersections of these drivers. Keeping civic space open in an era of crises requires civil society to take urgent action to both disrupt and reform the drivers of closing civic space, and philanthropy to support this at scale.

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Covid-19 emergency laws threaten civic space

Counter terrorism and national security laws and discourse are set to be the main driver of closing civic space this decade. Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, governments were already misusing security powers accrued post-9/11 to stifle protest and dissent. Counter terrorist financing regulations are already disrupting flows of funding to humanitarian and development actors in conflict-affected areas.

Following WHO’s declaration of a pandemic on 30 January 2020, 122 countries introduced emergency measures to restrict freedom of assembly – many adapting and using laws introduced post-9/11. The scale of the public health emergency warranted unprecedented measures, but there is evidence some governments are using these powers unlawfully to curtail dissent.

The promise of tech solutions to health problems – facial recognition technology, tracing apps and drones – could usher in a new era of bio surveillance with chilling effects on protest and expression. Humanitarian and development organisations will be pressured into collecting and sharing data about vulnerable groups.

Yet Covid-19 also marks a societal shift in understanding the risks facing humanity in the next 10 years. The emergence of a virus as opposed to a human enemy as an existential threat opens ways to re-think how we assess threats to security. It allows us to view civic engagement, right to information, restoring trust in democratic institutions, limiting ecological degradation and investment in public health as more effective approaches to safeguarding security.

Time for collective action

A robust response to these common threats requires a collaborative effort from human rights, development, humanitarian, and environment funders. In Autumn 2020 FICS will publish guidance for funders on how to defend and expand civic space together and at scale.

Bond is setting up a new working group that brings together NGOs for joint advocacy towards the UK government on rights, governance, and civic space issues. Find out more about the new Bond Civic Space Group with this launch webinar.