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Police clash with protesters at an anti-austerity rally in 2011.

Civic space in 2021: The good, the bad and the ugly

15 December 2021

While there have been some glimmers of hope, it's fair to say that 2021 has been a tough year for those campaigning for human rights and civic space in the UK and globally.  

FWe review the good, the bad and finally, the downright ugly developments that took place this year, before looking at opportunities for change in 2022.  

The good

In a welcome move, the Integrated Review, published by the UK government in March 2021, made clear commitments to support open societies, globally, and to work with local civil society and human rights defenders to protect universal human rights. It was great to see this in a high-level document, particularly one setting out the governments vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the actions they will take.

On the domestic front, we celebrated the inspiring and influential campaigning that took place during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic in our Campaigning During Coronavirus report. The paper details how 10 campaigns shaped the UK’s response to the virus for the better, from the furlough scheme to global vaccine sharing, and contains lots of useful learning and insights about how to overcome the current challenges facing campaigners and make your campaign a success.   
In June 2021, G7 leaders committed to protect civic space for the first time at the UK-led summit in Carbis Bay. Bond was instrumental in pushing for this to be included in the text of the Open Societies Statement, which we described as “a clear and welcome declaration of intent from leading democracies”. 

We also saw the OECD Development Assistance Committee take a positive step by issuing their Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in July 2021, the first international standard on how donors can support civil society amid growing restrictions on civic space globally. It makes practical recommendations, which civil society can use to encourage donors to strengthen their approach to protecting and promoting civic space, and to hold them accountable. 

In a video address to the Summit for Democracies, which kicks off a year of action on corruption, authoritarianism and human rights, the Prime Minister recognised that is has “never [been] more vital to strengthen democracy at home and stand up for our principles abroad”. We could not agree with him more. In the run up, Bond convened a series of roundtables where representatives from government and civil society exchanged views and recommendations on how we can strengthen democracy in the UK and globally. 

The bad

Despite the promising words, the UK’s commitments to further democracy and human rights on the international stage have been undermined by plans to restrict the right to freedom of assembly here in the UK – a move criticised by three UN Special Rapporteurs, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 350 civil society organisations, over 700 legal academics, and former Police Chiefs

The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which was introduced to the Commons in March 2021, will not only make it harder for people to protest, but also strengthens stop and search powers and curtails the rights of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Bond has worked with allies from across UK civil society throughout 2021 to push for amendments to the Bill though landing timely media coverage and briefing parliamentarians and will continue to advocate for reform as it completes its final stages next year. 

If this wasn’t enough, in July 2021, the government introduced the Elections Bill, which will further discourage campaigners from speaking out ahead of elections. Worryingly, the Bill tightens third party campaigning rules by introducing a new, lower spending threshold. If it becomes law, charities will need to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend over £10,000 on certain public campaigning actions in the 12 months prior to an election, including staff costs and spending incurred by any coalitions or partners that they work with on these activities. 

The Elections Bill also includes controversial plans to introduce Voter IDs and contains proposals which would undermine the independence of the Electoral Commission, who regulate elections and spending by political parties. Bond is again working with partners from across UK civil society to ensure the impact of the Bill is understood by MP and the sector, as well as working to mitigate the worst impacts of the Bill.

Plans to restrict protest rights and curb participation in public debate ahead of elections resulted in the UK being placed on the notorious and well respected CIVICUS Monitor Watchlist in September 2021. The Watchlist draws attention to countries that have seen a rapid and serious decline in civic freedoms. CIVICUS cited proposed changes to the Human Rights Act and the Judicial Review and Courts Bill as reasons why the UK was placed on the Watchlist because they “threaten fundamental rights and democratic checks and balances, which aim to hold the government accountable”. 

We were disappointed that the Foreign Secretary did not mention human rights or civil society in her first major foreign policy speech earlier this month. In the Chatham House address, the Liz Truss explained that her focus will be on building a “network of liberty”, which uses economic, technology and security partnerships as “tools of liberation”.

While we welcomed her focus on humanity, dignity and agency as well as her recognition that “the power of people” is “the greatest transformative force on earth”, the Secretary of State must go further and ensure that UK foreign policy is firmly anchored in human rights and civic freedoms if it is to succeed in promoting democracy globally. 

The ugly

The right to protest came under further attack when the Home Office added further restrictions to the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill in the wake of the Insulate Britain protests. These draconian measures would give the authorities new powers to ban named individuals from attending, facilitating or encouraging protests. If this piece of legislation passes, protesters could be jailed for up to 51 weeks for holding on or attaching themselves to another person, object or land. Police will also be able to stop and search, without suspicion, anyone who happens to be in an area where they believe a protest will take place. If you resist, you could again be jailed for up to 51 weeks.  

All is not lost. In January 2022, peers have an opportunity to block these amendments. Bond will be working with our friends from across UK civil society to make the case for why these proposals must be stopped to protect our democracy. 

And the future?

The outlook may appear gloomy, but there are real opportunities for progress in 2022, especially if the sector and its allies come together and push for change. 

On the domestic front, Bond will continue to work with a broad cross section of civil society organisations and our supporters in parliament and the media to protect both the NGO and domestic sectors right to campaign and protest and push for vital reforms to the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – both of which are yet to become law. 

We are also calling on the UK to join Finland, Romania and Portugal in becoming one of the first countries to invite the OECD to undertake a Civic Space Scan of the UK in 2022, and to take forward any recommendations that emerge from the process. 

We are looking forward to the publication of the International Development Strategy in early 2022, which we hope will put commitments made in the Integrated Review and at the G7 Summit into practice, and out how the UK will deliver the OECD DAC Recommendations on Enabling Civil Society. The strategy is a chance for the UK to detail how it will support civil society and human rights defenders as development partners and make it easier for them to access funding that is direct, sustainable and flexible. 

There is also an opportunity for the government to develop and publish a cross-government strategy on civic space in 2022, which expands on how the UK will support the institution of civil society globally and protect and promote civic freedoms through its diplomatic network as well as its economic, technology and security partnerships. Bond will work with our members and global civil society organisations to push for this strategy and share our learning with other countries also looking to pursue a more strategic approach to the protection of civic freedoms and human rights. 

About the author

Rowan Popplewell
Bond

Rowan is Bond's policy manager focusing on civic space and the operating environment. She supports organisations from across the development and environment sector to respond to restrictions on advocacy and campaigning in the UK.

Rosemary Forest
Bond

Rosemary is a policy and advocacy adviser at Bond