NEW YORK, March 15 (IPS) – On March 29 and 30, the US government, in partnership with Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia, will host the second virtual Summit for Democracy. Several elected leaders and government representatives will gather to highlight successes in advancing democratic principles.
This global online collection aims to “show how democracies deliver for their citizens and are best equipped to meet the world’s most pressing challenges”. Yet evidence collected by civil society researchers indicates that all is not well with the state of democracy worldwide. The civil space, a key ingredient of democracy, is increasingly contested.
Pundits have long argued that democracy is not just about majority rule and nominally free elections. The essence of democracy lies in something deeper: the ability of people – especially the excluded – to organize, participate and communicate without hindrance to influence society, politics and the economy.
The civic space is supported by the three fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, with the state having the responsibility to defend and protect these freedoms.
Nevertheless, as revealed by 2022 People power under attack report from CIVICUS Monitora collaboration of over 20 research organizations worldwide, states themselves are the greatest violators of civil liberties.
Among the most common violations recorded globally are harassment and threats against activists, journalists and civil society organizations to discourage them from their human rights work; arbitrary detentions of protesters as punishment for speaking out against those in power; and restrictive laws designed to prevent people from mobilizing and exercising their basic civil liberties.
Shockingly, two billion people – 28 percent of the world’s population – live in the 27 countries where civil space is completely closed off, where the mere expression of democratic dissent can mean imprisonment, exile or death.
Those countries categorized as “closed” on CIVICUS Monitor include powerful authoritarian states such as China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as one-party or one-family dictatorships such as Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria and Turkmenistan and more.
However, the problem extends beyond autocracies. Worryingly, there has been a noticeable decline in civil space in democracies. In the UK is Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 gives police unprecedented powers to restrict protests on the grounds of preventing serious “distress, annoyance, nuisance or loss of amenity”.
A deeply draconian the bill on public order Further limiting protests in response to civil disobedience activities by climate and environmental activists is also on the cards. As a result, the country has been downgraded to the “obstructed” category on the CIVICUS Monitor.
The civil space in India, which calls itself the world’s largest democracy, is under attack, with continued threats to independent media, think tanks and civil society groups opposing serious human rights abuses and high-level corruption.
Tactics include raids on office premises organizations on weak foundations and denial of permission to access international funding. Prominent victims are the BBC, the Center for Policy Research and Oxfam India.
Tunisia, where democracy until recently began to take root, is now experiencing a sharp decline due to haughty acts of President Kais Saied, who has assumed emergency powers, undermined the independence of the judiciary and misused law enforcement machinery to persecute critics.
India and Tunisia are now both in the second lowest category, “oppressed”, on the CIVICUS Monitor.
Despite continued civil space barriers, people are speaking out: CIVICUS Monitor recorded significant protests in over 130 countries in 2022. The rising cost of food and fuel has sparked mobilizations even in authoritarian contexts.
Protests originally fueled by people’s economic pain have tended to quickly grow into mass mobilizations against regressive economic policies, corruption of political leaders, and systemic injustice.
Women have often been at the forefront of protests, as seen in Iran, where a courageous mobilization to demand rights has seen thousands of protesters ruthlessly persecuted through mass incarceration, police brutality and targeted executions.
The gendered nature of oppression against women and LGBTQI+ protesters seeking equal rights remains an unfortunately persistent reality.
But amid civic space regressions, some successes spurred by civil society action have also come. In Honduras there was a group of water and environmental rights activists called the Guapinol Defenders released in February 2022 after two and a half years of detention following a concerted global campaign demanding an end to their unjust imprisonment.
In Sri Lanka, mass protests led to departure in July 2022 by the corrupt authoritarian President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presided over widespread economic mismanagement and civic space restrictions; but since then, the old guard has reasserted its control over government, resuming repressive tactics to undermine constitutional guarantees, pointing to the need for continuous vigilance over civil space.
Some countries have seen significant improvements in civic spaces following elections and political changes, including Chile and the United States. Both countries have moved from the category “obstructed” to “restricted” on the CIVICUS Monitor.
In Chile, initiatives by President Gabriel Boric’s government to provide reparations for human rights violations and establish a framework to protect activists and journalists have contributed to an improvement in civil liberties.
In the US, new policies from the Biden administration to strengthen police accountability, workplace organizing and humanitarian aid, as well as the adoption of a less adversarial stance towards independent news outlets, are key reasons for the upgrade.
Yet civil space remains contested globally. Our research shows that only 3.2 percent of the world’s population lives in the 38 countries classified as “open,” where states actively enable and protect the enjoyment of civic space.
The scale of global challenges in civil space is enormous, and the price civil space advocates pay can be high. In January, human rights lawyer and democracy activist, Thulani Maseko, was gunned down in his home in Eswatini. His killers continue to roam free.
The need to protect civic space is great. Many of us in civil society hope that this month’s Democracy Summit will help build international resolve to recognize civil space challenges and catalyze action to end impunity.
Mandeep S. Tiwana is program director at the global civil society alliance CIVICUS. The People Power Under Attack 2022 report compiles findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, which assesses civic space conditions in 197 countries and territories into five categories: open, narrowing, blocked, constricted and closed.
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