On 29 and 30 March, the US government, in partnership with Costa Rica, Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia, will co-host the second virtual Summit for Democracy. Several elected leaders and state representatives will come together to highlight achievements in advancing democratic principles.
This online global gathering intends to “demonstrate how democracies deliver for their citizens and are best equipped to address the world’s most pressing challenges”. Yet evidence gathered by civil society researchers indicates that all is not well with the state of democracy worldwide. Civic space, a key ingredient of democracy, is becoming increasingly contested.
Civic space, a key ingredient of democracy, is becoming increasingly contested
Pundits have long argued that democracy is not just about majoritarian rule and nominally free elections. The essence of democracy lies in something deeper: the ability of people – especially the excluded – to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance to influence society, politics and economics. Civic space is underpinned by the three fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, with the state having responsibility to safeguard these freedoms.
Yet, as revealed by the 2022 People Power Under Attack report from the CIVICUS Monitor, a research collaboration of over 20 organisations across the globe, states themselves are the biggest violators of civic freedoms. Among the top violations recorded globally are harassment and intimidation of activists, journalists and civil society organisations to deter 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 mobilising and exercising their fundamental civic freedoms.
States are the biggest violators of civic freedoms
Shockingly, two billion people – 28 per cent of the world’s population – live in the 27 countries where civic space is absolutely shut down, where mere expressions of democratic dissent can mean prison, exile or death. These countries categorised as ‘closed’ on the CIVICUS Monitor include powerful authoritarian states such as China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates as well as well as dictatorships with one-party or one-family rule such as Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria and Turkmenistan, among others.
However, the problem extends beyond autocracies. Worryingly, there’s been a perceptible decline in civic space in democracies. In the UK, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 gives police unprecedented powers to restrict protests on broad grounds of preventing serious ‘distress, annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenity’. A deeply draconian public order bill to further limit protests in response to civil disobedience activities of climate and environmental activists is also on the cards. Partly because of those issues, , the country has been downgraded to the ‘obstructed’ category on the CIVICUS Monitor.
There is a perceptible decline in democracies, too
Civic space in India, which calls itself the world’s biggest democracy, is under attack, with continuing intimidation of independent media, think tanks and civil society groups that oppose serious human rights violations and high-level corruption. Tactics include raids on office premises of organisations on flimsy grounds and denial of permission to access international funding. Prominent targets include the BBC, Centre for Policy Research and Oxfam India.
Tunisia, where democracy was until recently starting to grow roots, is now experiencing severe regression due to the high-handed actions of President Kais Saied, who has assumed emergency powers, undermined judicial independence and misused the law enforcement machinery to persecute critics. India and Tunisia are now both in the second lowest category, ‘repressed’, on the CIVICUS Monitor.
Significant protest was recorded in over 130 countries
Despite continuing civic space impediments, people are speaking out: the CIVICUS Monitor recorded significant protests in over 130 countries in 2022. The rising costs of food and fuel have sparked mobilisations even in authoritarian contexts. Protests initially driven by people’s financial pain have tended to grow quickly into mass mobilisations against regressive economic policies, corruption by political leaders and systemic injustice.
Women have often been at the forefront of protests, as seen in Iran, where a brave mobilisation to demand rights has seen thousands of protesters ruthlessly persecuted through mass imprisonment, police brutality and targeted executions. The gendered nature of repression against women and LGBTQI+ protesters seeking equal rights remains a sadly persistent reality.
Civil society has achieved some successes
However, in the midst of civic space regressions, some successes spurred by civil society action have also come. In Honduras, a group of water and environmental rights activists called the Guapinol defenders were released in February 2022 after two and a half years of pretrial detention following a concerted global campaign calling for an end to their unjust imprisonment. In Sri Lanka, mass protests led to the resignation in July 2022 of corrupt authoritarian president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presided over widespread economic mismanagement and civic space restrictions; however, 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 civic space.
Some countries have seen improvements in civic space conditions following elections and political shifts, including Chile and the USA. Both countries have moved from the “obstructed” to “narrowed” category on the CIVICUS Monitor. In Chile, initiatives by President Gabriel Boric’s government to provide reparations for human rights abuses and establish a framework to protect activists and journalists have contributed to an improvement in civic freedoms. In the USA, new policies by the Biden administration to strengthen police accountability, workplace organising and humanitarian assistance, as well as the adoption of a less adversarial position towards independent news outlets, are key reasons for the upgrade.
Only 3.2 per cent live in 38 countries rated as “open”
Nevertheless, civic space remains contested globally. Our research shows that just 3.2 per cent of the world’s population live in the 38 countries rated as “open”, where states actively enable and safeguard the enjoyment of civic space. The scale of global civic space challenges is enormous, and the price paid by civic space advocates can be heavy. In January, human rights lawyer and democracy activist, Thulani Maseko, was gunned down at his home in Eswatini. His killers continue to roam free.
The need to safeguard civic space is great. Many of us in civil society hope that this month’s Summit for Democracy will help build international resolve to recognise civic space challenges and catalyse action to end impunity.
Mandeep S. Tiwana is chief programmes officer at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS. The People Power Under Attack 2022 report collates findings from the CIVICUS Monitor which rates civic space conditions in 197 countries and territories along five categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed.