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How to Undermine Democracy – Curtail Civil Society Rights

JOHANNESBURG, Apr 25 2017 (IPS) - Recent elections and referendums in a growing number of countries from Turkey to the USA and beyond are producing leaders and policies, which directly threaten some of the core principles of democracy.  In an increasing number of established and fledgling democracies, we see ruling parties violating the fundamental freedoms to speak-out, rally behind a cause and get involved in a social movement.

New research shows that these key conditions for a vibrant and open civil society are being violated to varying degrees in over 106 countries. A new online tool, the CIVICUS Monitor, finds that in many of these countries, governments are denying their citizens safe space to voice dissent, most often by detaining activists, using excessive force during protests and persecuting journalists.

The CIVICUS Monitor provides ratings on fundamental civic freedoms in all UN Member States, plus Palestine and Kosovo, and is designed to track and evaluate the state of civil society rights, in as close to real time as possible.  The online tool shows how almost six billion people live in countries where civic space – in other words the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression – are obstructed, repressed or closed.


Civic space rating categories # countries with rating Description of rating
Open 26  (Examples: New Zealand, Sweden, Portugal) The state both enables and safeguards the enjoyment of civic space for all people. Levels of fear are low as citizens are free to form associations, demonstrate in public places and receive and impart information without restrictions in law or practice.
Narrowed 63 (Examples: USA, Argentina, South Africa) While the state allows individuals and civil society organisations to exercise their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression, violations of these rights also take place. These rights are impeded by occasional harassment, arrest or assault of people deemed critical of those in power.
Obstructed 51 (Examples: Nigeria, Kuwait, Armenia) Civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights. Although civil society organisations exist, state authorities undermine them, including through the use of illegal surveillance, bureaucratic harassment and demeaning public statements.
Repressed 35 (Examples: Russia, China, Mexico) Civic space is heavily constrained. Active individuals and civil society members who criticise power holders risk surveillance, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, injury and death. Although some civil society organisations exist, their advocacy work is regularly impeded and they face threats of de-registration and closure by the authorities.
Closed 20 (Examples: Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Ethiopia) There is complete closure – in law and in practice – of civic space. An atmosphere of fear and violence prevails, where state and powerful non-state actors are routinely allowed to imprison, seriously injure and kill people with impunity for attempting to exercise their rights to associate, peacefully assemble and express themselves.


To provide meaningful assessments and ratings on the state of civil society in 195 countries, analysis is based on a coherent set of qualitative inputs on legislative developments, judicial outcomes, intelligence from activists and research partners on the ground and civil society consultations. By collating and cross-checking a variety of data sources, the CIVICUS Monitor, is able to assess and compare the conditions for citizens and civil society groups across the world.

Each ratings category represents a group of countries in which there is a diversity of nuanced yet comparable civic space conditions. For instance, North Korea and Ethiopia both receive a closed rating, but the exact nature and number of human rights violations differ between countries. By looking at all violations collectively on a per country basis, we are able to see the different degrees of civil society persecution on a macro level. Detailed narratives on individual country pages also allow us to describe which groups are being targeted, and examine the obstacles and opportunities for civic activism.

Evidence on national, regional and global trends related to civic space are critical for intergovernmental bodies and human rights mechanisms to monitor the state of civil society and hold governments accountable. Monitoring civic space also provides a useful proxy indicator for countries´ levels of development, democracy and ability to reduce inequality – on average, countries towards the better end of our civic space scale also rate highly on human development, equality and electoral democracy indices.

In 2017, we are facing no shortage of grand challenges ― humanitarian crises on scales unseen since World War II, rising global temperatures, spiraling economic inequality, the spread of populist politics. The solution to these is more democracy and respect for human rights, not less. We simply cannot hope to solve these global problems if governments and other non-state actors, continue to suffocate the one thing that can provide lasting solutions ― people’s innate sense of creativity, resilience and justice, qualities which emerge time and time again when civil society is set free to play its role in a democratic society.



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