Citizen space, the basis of democracy, is scarce and controversial


Protests in Burma. Credit: CIVICUS
  • Opinion by Mandeep S. Tiwana (New York)
  • Inter Press Service

This global online gathering aims 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 the state of democracy worldwide is not doing well. Citizens’ space, an important ingredient of democracy, is becoming increasingly controversial.

Experts 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 freely to influence society, politics and the economy.

Civil space is underpinned by the three fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, with the state having a responsibility to defend and protect these freedoms.

Still, as revealed by the 2022 Human power under attack According to the report from the CIVICUS Monitor, a collaboration of more than 20 research organizations around the world, states themselves are the biggest violators of civil liberties.

Among the most significant violations recorded worldwide are harassment and harassment of activists, journalists and civil society organizations to deter them from their human rights work; arbitrary detention of demonstrators 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 social space is absolutely closed, where mere expressions of democratic dissent can lead to imprisonment, exile or death.

These countries categorized as “closed” on the CIVICUS Monitor include powerful authoritarian states such as China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as dictatorships with one-party or single-family rule, such as Afghanistan, White, among others. -Russia, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria and Turkmenistan.

However, the problem extends beyond autocracies. Worryingly, there is a discernible 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 the grounds of preventing serious ‘disturbance, annoyance, inconvenience or loss of amenities’.

A highly draconian public order law to further restrict protests in response to civil disobedience activities by climate and environmental activists is also on the agenda. As a result, the country has been relegated to the ‘impeded’ category on the CIVICUS Monitor.

The civic space in India, which bills itself as the world’s largest democracy, is under attack by constant harassment from independent media, think tanks and civil society groups that oppose serious human rights violations and high-level corruption.

Tactics include raiding office premises of organizations on weak grounds and denying access to international funding. Prominent victims include the BBC, Center for Policy Research and Oxfam India.

Tunisia, where democracy took root until recently, is now experiencing serious decline as a result of the arbitrary actions of President Kais Saied, who has taken over emergency powers, undermined the independence of the judiciary and abused the law enforcement apparatus to harass critics. prosecute.

India and Tunisia are now both in the second lowest category, “repressed,” on the CIVICUS Monitor.

Despite continued barriers to public space, people are speaking out: The CIVICUS Monitor recorded significant protests in more than 130 countries in 2022. The rising costs of food and fuel have led to mobilizations, even in authoritarian contexts.

Protests initially sparked by people’s financial pain quickly grew into mass mobilizations 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 mobilization to demand rights has ruthlessly persecuted thousands of protesters through mass incarceration, police brutality and targeted executions.

Unfortunately, the gendered nature of the repression against women and LGBTQI+ protesters seeking equal rights remains a persistent reality.

But amid the decline of civic space, there have also been some successes fueled by civil society actions. 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 in custody following a concerted global campaign calling for an end to their unjust incarceration.

In Sri Lanka, mass protests in July 2022 led to the resignation of corrupt authoritarian President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who presided over widespread economic mismanagement and restrictions on civic space; since then, however, the old guard has reasserted its control over the government, resuming repressive tactics to undermine constitutional guarantees, pointing to the need for continued vigilance over civic space.

Some countries have seen significant improvements in public space after elections and political shifts, including Chile and the US. Both countries have moved from the ‘impeded’ to ‘narrowed’ category on the CIVICUS Monitor.

In Chile, initiatives by President Gabriel Boric’s government to redress human rights violations and establish a framework to protect activists and journalists have helped improve civil liberties.

In the US, new policies from the Biden administration to strengthen police accountability, workplace organization and humanitarian aid, as well as adopting a less hostile stance toward independent news outlets, are key reasons for the upgrade.

Nevertheless, social space remains contested worldwide. Our research shows that only 3.2 percent of the world’s population live in the 38 countries rated as ‘open’, where states actively enable and safeguard the enjoyment of public space.

The scale of global civil space challenges is enormous, and the price paid by civil space advocates can be high. In January, human rights lawyer and democracy activist Thulani Maseko was shot at his home in Eswatini. His killers continue to walk free.

The need to safeguard public space is great. Many of us in civil society hope that this month’s Summit for Democracy will help build international resolve to recognize the challenges of the civil space and catalyze action to end impunity.

Mandeep S. Tiwana is principal programs at the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS. The People Power Under Attack 2022 report collects findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, which assesses the state of public space in 197 countries and territories in five categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All rights reservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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