Boris Johnson at G7 Summit

G7 commits to protect civic space

World leaders gathering in Cornwall last weekend for the G7 summit committed to protect civic space.

They recognised the importance of working in partnership with civil society and human rights defenders in promoting human rights and civic freedoms. The Open Societies Statement, published alongside the final communique, is a clear and welcome declaration of intent from leading democracies.

But what we need now is action.

What did the Open Societies Statement say?

Covid-19 has had a profound impact on rights and freedoms globally, with the pandemic strengthening trends like increasing restrictions on public assemblies, greater limits on freedom of expression and the spread of disinformation.

The statement, signed by leaders of the G7 nations and the presidents of India, Singapore, South Africa and South Korea, recognised these trends, singling out “rising authoritarianism”, “politically motivated internet shutdowns” and “human rights violations and abuses” as threats to democracy.

The leaders reaffirmed the values that unite them, including human rights, democracy and the right to associate, organise and assemble peacefully, as well as free expression online and offline, and the importance of civic space.

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They committed to “strengthen open societies globally by protecting civic space and media freedom, promoting freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association” and agreed to “continue to exchange information and coordinate effective responses to shared threats to human rights, democracy and the rule of law”.

There was also an important reference to tackling all forms of discrimination including racism.

In the G7 communique itself, leaders strongly criticised the human rights violations and the restriction of civic space in Russia, Belarus and Myanmar, and leaders expressed support for “the growth of peaceful, just and inclusive societies by ensuring safe and vibrant civic spaces.”

Strong words need decisive action

The question now, is how? Words are important, but it is actions that really matter, and the statement was light on how they hoped to achieve these goals.

There are practical steps that wealthy democracies like the G7 can take to support civil society globally. They can ensure that activists have access to prevention and protection mechanisms such as additional security for activists and their families. Providing organisations under pressure with sufficient and flexible funding will enable them to respond to restrictions and keep their employees and volunteers safe from harm. Undertaking bilateral diplomacy can pressure states who restrict civil society to change course.

Democracies must also tackle the growing problem of internet shutdowns, where states throttle or block online access. In May, G7 Foreign Ministers explicitly condemned this practice and made a clear commitment to work with likeminded countries and civil society to respond. Disappointingly, The Open Societies Statement did not go as far, which, perhaps, was due to the presence of India, a nation that has shut down the internet more than any other.

Another area of concern insufficiently addressed by G7 leaders is the use of digital surveillance technologies, such as phone tracking, to spy on activists, the sale of which should be banned until human rights compliant frameworks are in place.

The urgency of action

The need for remedies such as these is urgent. Last year, 331 human rights defenders were killed and 145 countries have placed new restrictions on public assemblies since March 2020. A vibrant and diverse civil society is crucial to democracy, but activists cannot encourage active citizenship or support transparency and accountability if they cannot meet, organise or speak freely.

The Open Societies Statement demonstrates that G7 nations are aware of this, but the question remains whether they have the will or resources to deliver lasting change.

G7 Foreign Ministers are due to meet again later this summer, Bond and the Civil Society 7 hopes that they will seize this opportunity to decide how to implement the commitments made in Carbis Bay and protect civil society globally.