Civil society under pressure around the world
Many come from countries where freedom of expression or assembly is by no means a matter of course. They are familiar with repression and intimidation campaigns and have to face the prospect of being jailed or killed every day because they work for social redistribution, free and fair elections or access to land. Some come from countries where those in power rule not for the people but against them, from countries at war or under an arbitrary regime. Their rights, their desire for democratic participation, freedom, justice and integrity are trampled on. Your courage to fight and defend it needs our solidarity.
Fundamental rights around the world in reverse trend
It is nothing new that critical and emancipatory actors from civil society are intimidated, imprisoned, exiled or assassinated. Many people around the world are denied basic human rights, such as freedom of assembly, association and expression, as enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet these fundamental rights are a prerequisite for allow political participation. Even if this is not a new trend: the scope for action of emancipatory civil society actors is once again being restricted in a more massive way than it was 20 years ago. we are seeing howsome of the gains made in democratization in Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America (third wave of democratization) after the end of the Cold War will be reversed. Participation and participation rights are literally charged.
The CIVICUS network, which has been using Civil Society Monitor to measure the reach of civil society action in 197 countries for years, claims that only 3.1 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with unrestricted access. to the engagement of civil society (open civic space). The Reporters Without Borders organization measures the level of press freedom and compares the situation of journalists and the media in 180 countries and regions. They are continually deteriorating globally. In Russia it has been de facto abolished since the war of aggression against Ukraine. Journalists on every continent fear being killed for their work. For them, Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world.
dismantling of democracy
Increasingly, democratically elected politicians and parties are also deliberately pushing the dismantling of democracy, human rights and the rule of law by undermining democratic institutions, attacking independent media and the judiciary, and inciting hatred against minorities, LGBTIQ+ or migrants. Hungary under Orban, Brazil under Bolsonaro, the United States under Trump, and the current government in Israel serve as examples of this worrying trend.
Despite all these intimidation attempts and risks, protests against arbitrariness, inequality, climate catastrophe and environmental destruction, corruption and oppression have increased rather than decreased in recent decades. There are growing local protests against dams, illegal logging and land grabbing, and the social and environmental impacts of mining and other large infrastructure projects. In the digital age, this local protest can be linked even more quickly to international public and political networks and is therefore visible. The political and economic elites in many countries obviously want to stop this. They see their development models and their profits threatened. Governments and often conformist media use the argument that there is no interference in internal affairs when external actors connect politically and financially with local environmental and social activists and organizations. Democratically elected governments also use this line of argument to delegitimize protests against land grabs, oil pipelines or coal mining and smear them as controlled from abroad.
Repression has many faces
Throughout the world, governments and economic actors fear for their privileges and their political and economic power. Dozens of governments in Africa, West Asia and North Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe manifest their power through brutality: spying and intimidation, draconian prison terms, torture, and outright police or military violence. It is not uncommon for secret services or militias to take families of critics and members of the opposition into clan custody in order to silence them.
Right-wing groups, private and sub-state actors are heavily involved in online hate, targeted disinformation campaigns, reprisals and even assassinations, including security services, drug cartels, militias and mafia structures. . The way in which governments around the world restrict and control the freedom of action of civil society actors is similar. They learn from each other, copy each other’s methods of oppression, and therefore proceed according to a “playbook.”
Digitization and social networks are a double-edged sword. Just as they open up new opportunities for progressive actors to connect and mobilize, they also offer authoritarian systems unimaginable possibilities for surveillance and control. Manipulating the public, influencing elections, unleashing shit storms: a veritable disinformation industry has been built for this purpose in recent years, targeting individuals or democratic institutions.
Laws and bureaucracy as weapons
Resistance is not always suppressed with blood. Even if quite a few states continue to show their iron fist, the repression is increasingly hidden behind a democratic facade. The weapon here consists of a complete set of legal and administrative measures.The so-called NGO laws are the most prominent control instrument of organized civil society. It is legitimate to regulate the relations between the State and civil society and between national and foreign non-governmental organizations (association law, status of non-profit entity, obligation to inform, transparency of cash flows, etc.). The question is, however, whether these rules guarantee fundamental rights and independence or restrict them. A large number of countries, whether autocratic or democratic, have amended or re-enacted NGO laws in recent years that violate precisely these principles and are primarily aimed at insulating or controlling domestic organizations from foreign money flows. Most of them prohibit acting against “public order and security” or “national interests” or violating “social moral concepts”. This is mainly aimed at women’s rights and LGBTIQ. The legal texts are formulated in a vague and deliberately open way, which is why they offer a sufficient margin for interpretation and, therefore, political arbitrariness.
It is important to look at the legislation as a whole to capture all the dimensions that restrict the action and functioning of critical civil societies. Well over 150 of the so-called anti-terrorism laws are not only directed against terrorists, but in many cases also against the critical and democratic opposition and civil society accused of terrorism. Media and defamation laws , registration and licensing requirements make critical action by civil society impossible.According to the latest figures from the International Center for Non-For-Profit-Law, 82 countries have proposed or introduced more than 237 laws affecting civil society activity in the last five years. Of these, the vast majority (84 percent) of these legal initiatives are restrictive in nature.
Where laws and legal systems no longer have anything to do with the rule of law and the legitimate interest in transparency, but are used as a weapon to weed out critics and prevent them from exercising their legal rights, activists speak out today from “lawfare”, based on war, that is, war.
The repression and the new laws aim to silence any critical voice that is raised against the government’s action. However, civil society participation is still allowed if it is apolitical and, for example, government tasks in the social and environmental sectors continue to be assumed without claiming democratic participation or addressing the structural causes of poverty and inequality. Depoliticized NGOs, created specifically by governments, are desired. They are also allowed to accept foreign money, albeit under government control. The division between good and bad or anti-state NGOs and social movements by governments and the media has been in full swing for a long time.
For a new solidarity
Despite all the massive deterioration and repressive restrictions on emancipatory political action described, the various local, national, and international struggles and protests for social and ecological rights, for sexual self-determination, freedom, and resistance to arbitrariness and corruption and the greater exploitation of the planet are encouraging. Freedom of opinion, organization and assembly are prerequisites and the essence of any democracy. Its limitation should challenge all democratic governments to cooperate more globally. It requires our action at all levels. In all multilateral forums inclusion and participation must be guaranteed, exclusion and repression must be on the agenda. The World Assembly, as we organized it in Frankfurt, is such a place
Barbara Unmüßig was on the board of directors of the Heinrich Böll Foundation until March 2022 and is co-organizing the World Assembly.
Layla Al-Zubaidi is Deputy Director for International Cooperation at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.
Download : Friday’s Special Global Assembly (PDF)