The UK joins 39 other countries rated ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor annual report on civic space People Power Under Attack.
This puts it in the same category as countries such as Poland, Hungary and South Africa. Alarmingly, civic freedoms in the UK, historically regarded as one of the most stable democracies, are now being continuously undermined.
What has led to the downgrade?
Today the UK joins 39 other countries rated ‘obstructed’ in the CIVICUS Monitor annual report on civic space People Power Under Attack. This puts it in the same category as countries such as Poland, Hungary and South Africa. Alarmingly, civic freedoms in the UK are now being continuously undermined. What has changed in the UK – historically regarded as one of the most stable democracies – to warrant this downgrade?
New powers that restrict the right to protest have led to the UK being downgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘obstructed’. Two pieces of legislation we’ve written about and have been advocating against- the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act and the Public Order Bill – give extensive new powers to police and the Home Secretary and feature heavily in the UK section of the report. In addition to the legislation, the report emphasises how climate and anti-racism protesters are being targeted by police, with legal observers experiencing high levels of intimidation, harassment and aggression.
The report also recognises that the decline in protest rights is occurring at the same time as broader restrictions and a narrative that delegitimises civil society action and ideas. This is evident both in the catalogue of new legislation that impacts the right to strike, participate in elections, or seek justice; as well as in the anti-protest rhetoric and vilification of protesters among some politicians and media.
Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s (SMK) annual campaigner survey published today confirms much of what is being observed by CIVICUS Monitor. The survey shows that 94 per cent of respondents feel there are threats to the freedom to organise, contribute to public debate, influence political decisions, or protest. Asked specifically about what threatens civic space; 94 per cent highlighted negative rhetoric towards campaigning from politicians and the media; as well as 92 per cent thinking recent and emerging legislation posed a threat.
How does this compare internationally?
2022 marked a significant clampdown on civic space not just in the UK but also internationally. The ratings declined in 15 countries and improved in just 10. The top civic rights violation was harassment of activists, journalists or civil society organisations with the intention of deterring them from continuing their work in defence of human rights.
The UK now joins other ‘obstructed’ countries including Poland, Hungary and South Africa. This matters because we’ve seen the slippery slope towards authoritarianism elsewhere. The types of legislation and rhetoric we are seeing in the UK now can lay the foundation for further restrictions in the future; clampdowns on charities and protesters can quickly become clampdowns on anyone who dares to think differently.
At a time when the right to protest is so clearly being violated around the world, the UK should be setting a positive example, rather than making it harder for people to protest. How can the UK call other world leaders out for undermining democracy and restricting civic space if we are doing the same thing here?
In reaction to the report, Stephanie Draper, CEO of Bond said:
“The downgrade reflects the worrying trends we are seeing in restrictions across civil society that are threatening our democracy.
The government should be setting a positive example to countries that have clamped down on civic space. The UK is becoming increasingly authoritarian and is among concerning company in the CIVICUS Monitor ratings as restrictive laws and dangerous rhetoric are creating a hostile environment towards civil society in the UK.
Decision makers across all political parties should be alarmed and make it a priority to protect our rights and freedoms.”
The UK needs to change direction
There are no quick fixes to remedy the state of civic space in the UK. But if this downward trend is to be reversed, the government needs to shelve the Public Order Bill, repeal measures on protest in the Policing Act and change the tone of their damaging narrative. about protesters and campaigners.
You can join the global launch of the People Power Under Attack today at noon today – register here.
Join our Civic Space working group!
Bond’s Civic Space working group seeks to coordinate and facilitate advocacy towards the UK Government on civil society space and related topics such as media freedom, human rights defenders, governance, and democracy. Members share and discuss the latest research and learning on these issues.Civic Space working group