CIVICUS Civic Space Initiative

CIVICUS has partnered with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), ARTICLE 19, and the World Movement for Democracy to undertake a three year project aimed at protecting and expanding civic space by fostering an enabling legal environment for civil society.  The Civic Space Initiative (CSI) focuses on civil society legal initiatives at the global, regional, and national levels. Support for the CSI is provided by the Government of Sweden. CIVICUS is responsible four main arms of the project focusing on an international campaign on civil space and the Universal Periodic Review at a global level, the Enabling Environment National Assessments and the New Social Contract at a national level.

The role of CIVICUS

Governments across the globe are increasingly seeking to impose legislative and extra-legal barriers to the full realisation of the rights fundamental to the creation of a safe and enabling environment for civil society. In its 2013 report, “Global trends on civil society restrictions”, CIVICUS tracked 413 threats to civil society in 87 countries since the beginning of 2012. In an apparent attempt to suppress the influence and impact of independent civil society groups, governments are   imposing unwarranted legal restrictions on civil society, including laws criminalising access to foreign funding and unduly limiting the scope of their permissible activities. Civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders are further facing escalating intimidation, harassment and reprisals, including imprisonment, for undertaking their legitimate activities.

The Universal Periodic Rreview

As a result of these and other restrictions on civil society at the national level, intergovernmental processes, including the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and Universal Periodic Review (UPR), are emerging as imperative platforms to advocate for key reforms to ensure the creation of an enabling environment for civil society. However, limited access to financial and informational resources continues to hamper robust civil society engagement with the UNHRC.  CIVICUS, through its CSI UPR activities, including the development of joint UPR submissions, coordinating national post-UPR consultations, and facilitating the attendance of civil society activists at UNHRC sessions, has sought to empower human rights defenders operating in restrictive environments to take part in UNHRC processes to ensure that it addresses unwarranted restrictions on civil society. The civil society discourse at the UNHRC is largely dominated by large international human rights groups and prominent national civil society groups from the capitals. However, under the CSI UPR work stream, CIVICUS been able to significantly expand the number and scope of civil society organization that are able to effectively inform UNHRC discussions on civil society space.

As a result of CIVICUS’ joint UPR submissions on restrictions on the rights to association, assembly and expression, threats to civil society space are routinely addressed by governments during UPR examinations. At the national level, the post-UPR consultations provide an indispensable and protected space to discuss and create advocacy campaigns to address the deteriorating environment for civil society. A number of CIVICUS’ partners have reported an increased awareness of UNHRC processes among a wide spectrum of civil society and sustained advocacy projects on civil society space emanating from the post-UPR consultations. Finally, CIVICUS’ support for national civil society activists to take part in UNHRC and UPR sessions, including through holding parallel UNHRC side events, organizing high-level meeting with relevant government and OHCHR stakeholders, and supporting the composition and delivery of oral and written statements and press releases, continues to provide an essential ingress for national civil society activists to provide crucial first-hand information on pressing human rights concerns.

The Enabling Environment National Assessment (EENA) is a participatory research initiative aimed at creating an evidence-base for advocating for an enabling environment for civil society on a national scale. The research is focused at the legal, regulatory and policy environment for national civil society.  EENAs take place in countries where civil society has experienced threats or challenges in their legal, regulatory and policy environment. Another criterion for the choice of country is that there needs to be a reasonable chance of impact of an EENA on the enabling environment.

Threats in the eight countries that carried out the first round of EENAs include: restrictive laws on NGOs (Zambia, Cambodia, Uganda); anti-cyber laws that affect the freedom of online speech (Cambodia); draft laws that affect the freedom of association (Burkina Faso), peaceful assembly (Cambodia, Uganda), or the freedom of association and expression of sexual minority groups (Uganda); taxation laws and laws that threaten the funding environment for CSOs (Bolivia, India); challenges in the relations between government and CSOs (Cambodia, Bolivia, Uganda, India); and non-legal threats that affect the environment of CSO’s such as corruption (Cambodia, Lebanon, Uganda, Zambia) and drug trafficking (Mexico). The EENAs provide an evidence-base and action plan for advocacy aimed at addressing these threats and challenges. Furthermore, the ENNAs have raised the awareness of participating civil society organisations on their legal, regulatory and policy environment, and built national consensus on how best to collectively address challenges and threats through multi-stakeholder dialogue.

The Public Awareness Campaign

In many places around the world civic space is under threat. Governments have passed laws that restrict civic freedoms or make operations or financing for civil society groups difficult; in some cases they have increased the surveillance of ordinary citizens, activists and civil society organisations, and in others there has been direct repression and arrests. Civil society also faces threats from non-state actors, including powerful corporate entities, extremist right-wing and fundamentalist groups. The Be the Change online platform and the Global Day of Citizen Action allow individuals and organisations around the world to raise awareness, discuss and celebrate 'civic space'. The main goal of these initiatives is to raise awareness about the importance of 'civic space' and why we must make greater efforts to monitor and protect it. Awareness activities associated with these platforms have reached 743,112 actors through social media, direct mailers and targeted posts, and engaged 21,365 individuals in actions aimed at protecting civic space.

Due to restrictive political environments, some organisations were unable to raise awareness on the streets during the Global Day of Citizen Action. Instead, we mobilized global solidarity for citizens in repressive countries and provided materials and supplies that allowed groups like Action for Human Rights and Education Initiative in Uganda to hold events indoors - in schools and churches - that resulted in more than 400 people attending and discussing their civic and political rights to speak out, organise and take action within their community.

The New Social Contract: The world is facing unprecedented divides and underlying systemic disconnects that have contributed to our current ecological and socio-economic crisis and “led us into a state of organised irresponsibility, collectively creating results that nobody wants” (Scharmer and Kaufer 2013).  We believe that there is no other way society will achieve large-scale progress against the urgent and complex problems of our time, unless a collective impact approach becomes the accepted way of engaging across different sectors. The New Social Contract (NSC) work stream is helping define the terms of citizens’ engagements in governance processes that affect citizens’ lives by promoting and analysing new forms of collaboration around crucial economic, social and environmental challenges. CIVICUS developed a short methodology on multi-sector engagement to be tested through locally-initiated dialogues. The dialogues have been conceived as an empirical and innovative way of assessing and comparing local patterns of civic engagement taking place around the world. Through a global call for expressions of interest, over 940 applications were reviewed, eight partners were selected and throughout 2014 seven of them successfully organised dialogues around crucial challenges experienced within their communities. 

As a result, over 400 stakeholders representing government, civil society, private sector and scientific community engaged in these processes; and a number of agreements and action plans were endorsed by participants to address local challenges in a new and more participatory fashion. From the analysis of all the evaluation sheets completed by the participants it seems that there was a strong appreciation for this initiative: overall, the majority of participants to the seven dialogues indicated that they were satisfied with the organisation of the dialogues, that through the processes they gained insight into the main challenges at stake and that they have been able to strengthen their network for further engagement. Moreover, the majority of the participants are willing to take action on the basis of what they learned and what was agreed. The lessons learned through the local dialogues shall later inform a toolkit on multi-stakeholder engagement as well as other knowledge products for dissemination within the CIVICUS constituency and more widely. The participatory research process gave voice to hundreds of citizens engaged in the above-mentioned dialogues and shall inform the recommendations included in the toolkit.

For more infromation about the initiative, please visit ICNL's project page

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