War crimes are being committed by Russia on an industrial scale in Ukraine, women’s rights are being trampled on in Afghanistan and LGBTQI+ people’s rights are under assault in Uganda, along with several other African countries. Military rule has been normalised in countries such as Mali, Myanmar and Sudan, while China was able to successfully strong arm the UN Human Rights Council to shut down a dialogue on the commission of possible crimes against humanity against the Uyghur people.
These are among several concerning developments highlighted in the latest CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report. This year’s report, the 12th in our annual series, draws from our ongoing analysis initiative CIVICUS Lens. Notably, the report underscores the failure of global governance institutions to stop conflicts and foster transition from military rule in far too many places around the world. The 2023 report points to the wider pattern of powerful states ignoring international rules not just to start conflicts but also to encourage transnational repression. Previous editions of the report have pointed out how certain states seek to influence international institutions by selective funding, the capture of top positions and exert undue pressure on smaller states over their voting decisions. While civil society does its best to engage with international institutions it is frequently afforded a low priority and often denied meaningful access to the key arenas.
Conflict is creating humanitarian emergencies and displacing people, within and across borders. In a world where a record 100 million-plus people are now displaced, conflict is a key driver of mass migration, alongside other major problems that force people to flee, such as political persecution, economic strife and climate disasters. It’s during critical times like these that civil society is vital. Civil society provides essential services, helps and advocates for victims, monitors human rights and collects evidence of violations to hold those responsible to account.
But for doing this, civil society is coming under attack. The vital role civil society plays was recognised with the award of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize to activists and organisations in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, working to uphold human rights in the thick of conflict. But acknowledgement hasn’t stopped repression. The Russian award winner, human rights organisation Memorial, was ordered to close in the run-up to the war. The laureate from Belarus, Ales Bialiatski, received a 10-year jail sentence.
A global wave of protests and mobilisations
The 2023 State of Civil Society Report also captures the current great global wave of protests, with mobilisations triggered by economic pain on account of rising food and fuel prices from Argentina to Indonesia and from Ghana to Kazakhstan. Worryingly, this comes at a time when the right to peaceful protest is coming under assault even in longstanding democracies. The United Kingdom passed legislation in 2022 to impede public protest and acts of civil disobedience by climate and environmental activists. Iran’s extreme authoritarian regime imprisoned and tortured thousands of people for demanding gender equality and basic freedoms.
The report laments the erosion of democracy in many parts of the world, including through the rise of populist authoritarianism. In El-Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has eroded democratic institutions by concentrating power and trampling on rights in the guise of combatting gang violence. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has attacked the independence of the judiciary and misused law enforcement machinery to hound critics.
One of the forces undermining democracy is disinformation, which is skewing public discourse and fuelling hate in several countries including India, Israel and the United States. It played a huge role in elections in Brazil, Philippines and South Korea, among others. Rather than tackling disinformation, the tech industry is often complicit in promoting it through algorithms that feed compulsive behaviour and reinforce prejudices.
On a positive note, the report highlights improvements in women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Colombia and Mexico, spurred by civil society actions. It also points to victories for marriage equality following extensive advocacy in Chile and Switzerland. The role played by civil society groups including youth movements in pushing for climate action is profiled, with global impacts including the breakthrough agreement to create a global climate fund at the COP 27 meeting in Egypt to compensate global south countries for the loss and damage caused by climate change.
Efforts for an effective, incluse and democratic global governance system need to be reinforced
The report concludes that civil society is reinventing itself to adapt to a changing world. Notably, a significant amount of civil society’s radical energy is coming from outside the NGO universe, from small, informal grassroots groups, often formed and led by women, young people and Indigenous people, showing admirable resilience. New types of civil society formations are emerging that organise horizontally, adopt participatory approaches and cultivate distributed leadership. These often tend to rely on voluntary engagement, offering a test to conventional civil society resourcing models. While some questions remain about their sustainability, new forms of civil society will continue to spring up, transcending traditional societal fault lines, including of class, ethnicity, race and faith. In the context of pressures on civic space and huge global challenges, civil society is growing, diversifying and widening its repertoire of tactics. Drawing on its special strengths of diversity, adaptability and creativity, civil society continues to evolve.
The report highlights 10 ideas for action:
- To address retaliation there’s is an urgent need for a campaign to win of the vital roles played by civil society in conflict and crisis response.
- Greater emphasis is needed from civil society and its supporters to protect freedom of peaceful assembly, including by a focus on preventative actions, advocating for law enforcement reforms and accountability.
- Efforts to put in place a more effective, inclusive and democratic global governance system need to be reinforced with the support of civil society through emphasis on greater public participation and scrutiny.
- Civil society should stay vigilant during political shifts, including when progressive movements win power, to ensure political leaders are held accountable and stick to their promises to bring change.
- In the run-up to elections, civil society’s roles should include the defence of electoral rights, provision of voter education, scrutiny of the integrity of voting systems, promotion of civil debate and advocacy towards candidates to commit to advancing rights and social justice issues.
- Greater emphasis is needed from civil society on anti-disinformation strategies, including fact-checking, enhancement of media literacy and, crucially, advocacy for higher regulatory standards for social media companies, consistent with respect for freedom of expression.
- Civil society should break down silos in critiques of economic systems that promote inequality and reliance on fossil fuels by combining advocacy on progressive taxation, social protection floors, universal basic incomes, union recognition, just energy transition and business regulation.
- Civil society should use the full set of tactics available – including strategic litigation, which has proven highly effective in respect of climate action and Indigenous and LGBTQI+ people’s rights – to realise rights and advance progressive change.
- Civil society should develop media partnerships as part of its advocacy and campaigning work, building on the success of media engagement in raising public awareness of issues such as climate change and gender equality.
- Civil society should work to strengthen the reach and membership of transnational civil society solidarity networks to enable the rapid deployment of support when regressive changes take place or when rights come under attack.