Democracy Without Borders

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State of Civil Society Report 2020 high­lights need of UN reform

Aerobics session outside of UN Headquarters, calling on governments to "workout" the debt crises that threatens to derail the development agenda (15 July 2019). Image copyright: IISD/ENB-Kiara Worth. Used with kind permission.

The annual State of Civil Society Report from the international alliance of civil society organizations CIVICUS has produced results which are reminiscent of their preceding reports, as well as findings from other recent civil society and democracy focused reports that this blog has discussed.

The ninth edition of the report focuses on the main trends from 2019. With a view toward making progress in a post-pandemic world, the five-part 2020 report suggests five key areas for civil society engagement: promotion and defense of civic rights and democratic freedoms, rethinking how economies are structured, placing the needs of the most excluded people front and centre, renewing and rethinking international cooperation and international institutions as well as responding to the climate crisis.

Making silenced voices heard

Despite operating in a regressive environment, spearheaded by the further steady rise of right-wing politicians and anti-rights groups, the report highlights some forward steps taken with regard to women’s and LGBTQI rights. For example, the #MeToo movement, which encourages victims of sexual harassment and assault to speak out against their attackers, seemed to provide a genuine belief that the paradigm of victim-blaming across societies was shifting. Victims felt empowered to tell their stories and hold their attackers to account. This inspired similar movements throughout the world in places where women’s rights are significantly less developed and protected than in the west, such as Gambia and Afghanistan. 

The report also highlighted progress with regard to women’s representation and consideration in mainstream politics as well as grassroots movements. The report documents several examples of female-led organisations winning support and gaining significant influence over policies concerning women’s bodies such as sexual violence, abortion rights and “period” politics. 

The report documents some progress made for LGBTQI rights throughout the world. In Botswana and Angola, colonial-period laws that criminalized homosexuality were finally removed. Unsurprisingly, the report shows that ground-level, systemic change is required in order to move away from the current misogynistic, hetero-normative structures within societies which ultimately manifest in a lack of representation in politics as well as the types of harassment and violence against women and the LGBTQI community that is described in the report. 

Democratic freedoms and economic injustice

In a similar vein to recent years, the report documents a theme of heightened protest throughout the world such as in Algeria, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Puerto Rico, or Sudan. In 2019, right-wing populists and nationalists made some further gains, with harsh consequences for excluded groups and the civil society that defends their rights. In response, there has been a steady increase in public demonstrations led by organizations and citizens who seek to challenge democratic regression in their respective countries. Although many of the examples provided in the report, such as Bolivia and Benin and more, are technically states which operate democratically, a base-level analysis shows that there are serious issues concerning inclusion in decision-making processes, genuine political choice for electorates, state-controlled media and the spread of disinformation, electoral fraud and a lack of accountability for those in power. The report also highlights the fact that the world is becoming increasingly divided on the vast majority of political issues. One suggestion put forward to bridge the gap is for politicians and organizations to put more emphasis on trying to connect people from rural areas, where right-wing populism is on the rise, to urban areas where there can often be more diverse discussion and political activism. 

The report highlights that many of the 2019 protests such as in Chile or Lebanon had similar economic triggers. Relatively little changes in policy often produced a strong reaction “because it impacted disproportionately on people who were already poor or excluded or saw themselves at the wrong end of highly visible economic inequality, and their sense of insecurity was greatly increased as a result.” Anger at blatant and ongoing corruption was another powerful motivation in some of the protests, the report points out.

Climate Crisis Failures 

Arguably the most significant and controversial issues of 2019 were centred on the climate crisis which has continued to worsen to the point where irreversible damage may have been done. The report documents several examples of grassroots organizations taking climate-related issues into their own hands as their respective government responses have been futile, or in denial of the situation and the facts that have been laid down by experts. Although the report’s analysis of the recent response to the climate crisis by those who have the power to legislate has been bleak, it also shows that a brighter future may be around the corner. Millennials and Gen-Z have shown that the younger generations are generally more in tune with climate-related issues and understand the desperate situation that we face in the coming years. With their passion and leadership, epitomized by the exploits of Greta Thurnberg, a new era of listening to science and implementing inclusive, effective policies may not be too far off.  

75 years of the UN 

A large portion of the report considers the UN and the current challenges faced by the organization. Although the UN has had notable successes since its formation, the report highlights several concerns regarding the structure and organization of the UN and its ability to protect global human rights. 

One of the main issues with the structure of the organization highlighted by the report is that it has become, to some extent, paralysed by bureaucracy and centralization. In practice, this means that the UN is unable to respond to the ever-increasing need for humanitarian aid and human rights protection. Small organizations with a better understanding of what is happening on the ground are often shown a lack of engagement, or completely bypassed by UN-led organisations. Also, as UN decision-making still predominantly takes place within board rooms, rather than on the ground, those who are affected by the decision-making are often unable to contribute to strategic planning or the decision-making processes. 

As well as the described practical concerns, the UN is perhaps in its most fragile state in its history in the eyes of the public. The organization is being rejected by more and more populations of different countries as nationalism continues to grow throughout the world. The UN is often regarded by those on the right as an attack on national sovereignty by a faceless global elite. 

A UN Parliamentary Assembly and a World Citizens’ Initiative

How then can the UN adapt and be able to enforce the protocols that it creates, as well as increase its legitimacy in the eyes of the public? The report puts forward plenty of sensible suggestions. Notably, it highlights reform in the shape of a UN Parliamentary Assembly. The argument is made that incorporating this type of body would increase the accountability of the UN, as elected representatives would be able to provide oversight over the operations of the world organization, its staff, and officials. Also, this could boost the legitimacy of the organization in the eyes of the public, as they would have an active role in electing the people who represent them in the parliament in a similar way to how many domestic democracies operate. 

Finally, the report highlights the proposal of a UN World Citizens’ Initiative. Together with Democracy Without Borders and Democracy International, CIVICUS has launched a campaign promoting this new instrument, dubbed ‘We the Peoples’. The campaign calls for an agenda-setting mechanism that would allow citizens around the world, once they have reached a certain threshold of support, to put issues on the agenda of either the UN General Assembly or UN Security Council. The success that a similar instrument has had in the EU shows that this is something that could allow people to take an active involvement in global issues. 

Ryan Whyte
Ryan is a graduate from The University of Edinburgh (Law LLB) and The University of Glasgow (International Relations MRes) currently based in Berlin.
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