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Protestors in Santiago, Chile.

Civil society and civic space

Civil society actors are agents of change. They are critical to building open societies, defending human rights and ending global poverty.  

Yet pressure is increasing on civil society in many countries around the world, from restrictions on protest rights, to internet shutdowns and the detention and harassment of activists. 

Bond works to promote and protect civic space in the UK and globally. With our members and allies, we seek to create an enabling environment for civil society actors so that they, and the people and communities they work with, can campaign for social change and participate meaningfully in public debate and decision-making.  

What is civic space? 

Civic space is the environment in which civil society exists, and the rights and freedoms it needs to operate. This includes the rights to freedom of assembly and association, to freedom of expression and opinion, access to information and the right to participation.  

According the United Nations, “A vibrant civic space requires an open, secure and safe environment that is free from all acts of intimidation, harassment and reprisals, whether online or offline.” 

What is civil society? 

Civil society is where people come together to take collective action or advance shared interests. This could be through informal means, such as online activism, public gatherings, protest movements and social networks, or more formal structures like organisations and coalitions.  

It includes registered charities, trade unions and labour organisations, media institutions and journalists, human rights defenders and whistle-blowers, disabled peoples’ organisations and community groups, protest networks and movements, as well as clubs and associations. 

Civic space around the world 

Concerted action to protect civic space, promote transparency and support civil society globally has never been more needed. Activists and organisations were already under pressure from authoritarianism, corruption, securitisation, discrimination and mis/disinformation before Covid-19.  

The pandemic has exacerbated the situation in many countries, resulting in greater restrictions on basic rights and freedoms.  This is having a profound impact on development outcomes in many countries and is undermining global progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The UK must play its part in protecting civic space and strengthening civil society globally. We want the UK government to use its position at the United Nations and the G7 to push for stronger international norms and standards and to put pressure on states who restrict civic space.  

We also want the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to work in partnership with civil society and human rights defenders, providing them with more direct, sustainable and flexible funding as well as greater diplomatic support and access to emergency protection.  

Civic space in the UK 

Civic space is under pressure in the UK and is rated as narrowed by the CIVICUS Monitor. There is a risk that the UK’s ambition to promote civic space globally will be undermined by its domestic actions.   

A difficult and at times hostile political environment in the UK, as well as restrictive legal and regulatory requirements, such as the Lobbying Act or Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, makes it harder for civil society to deliver change for the people and issues they care about. Plans to further restrict the right to protest and the growing “culture war” will make it tougher still. 

Find out more about our work on civil society and civic space and how to get involved 

The Bond Civic Space Group coordinates and facilitates advocacy on civic space, as well as being a space where Bond members can share practical learning and advice on working with civil society in places where civic space is under pressure. 

The Civil Society Voice network an informal network of organisations that works to protect and promote the right to campaign in the UK. The network acts as a space for sharing information and coordinating collective action on restrictions to the right to campaign. If you would like to find out more or join the network – please contact Rosemary Forest at [email protected].  

We have also written and helped with many blogs and resources on the subject. 

Civic Space in 2021: the good, the bad and the ugly - We review the good, the bad and finally, the downright ugly developments that took place this year for for those campaigning for human rights and civic space in the UK and globally, before looking at opportunities for change in 2022. 

Can the Summit for Democracy Deliver? - Three experts share their hopes for the summit.

How changes to election rules could impact your campaigning - The government is looking to make further changes to the rules governing elections, which could have a big impact on charity campaigning. The Elections Bill will make an already complicated and burdensome area of law even more confusing for NGOs. 

Why the Police Bill matters to the international development sector - This blog outlines the damaging impact the Police Bill could have on UK NGOs ability to campaign freely

Reforming the global counter-terrorism architecture 20 years on from 9/11 - On the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, a look at UN Security Council Resolution 1373 and the damaging impact it has had on humanitarian response, development and peacebuilding, and what needs to change over the next 20 years. 

G7 commits to protect civic space - The Open Societies Statement, published alongside the final G7 communique, is a clear and welcome declaration of intent from leading democracies. But what we need now is action. 

Campaigning During Coronavirus: lessons from UK civil society - This report looks in detail at a selection of impactful campaigns launched during the first year of the pandemic, examining how they shaped responses to Covid-19 in the UK for the better. The second part of the report looks at the political and operating environment within which these campaigns took place and makes the case for a new framework that better protects the right to campaign in the UK.  

Promoting open societies abroad while restricting rights at home in the UK - The UK government is prioritising efforts to promote open societies globally, but it needs to demonstrate that it is an exception to this trend if it is to have any legitimacy championing human rights and transparency around the world.

The UK curbs the right to protest, as global civic space is under attack - The right to protest is under threat globally and the UK, for whom open societies is purportedly a foreign and development priority, should be leading by example. 

The UK can and must do more to defend the human rights defenders - The UK government must do more to protect human rights defenders and civil society activists who are at risk as the global civic space continues to erode.