Every single person is a potential activist today 

Civil society actors and leaders from around the world gathered from 30 May to 3 June 2022 at the World Justice Forum in The Hague, the home of the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, and online to share insights and recommendations on three important priorities for strengthening justice and the rule of law.

The forum, which focused on fighting corruption, closing the justice gap, and countering discrimination, served as an ideal platform to collectively address the declining state of civil society. I had the privilege of participating in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Legacy conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill and the Recommendations, Commitments, and Investments to Advance Justice and Rule of Law plenary.  

Throughout the conference, immense emphasis was placed on the constant threats to and continuously shrinking civic space. Our research from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that, currently, only 3% of the world’s population live in conditions of open civic space, where their governments broadly respect and promote the democratic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression and allow their citizens to participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect them. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor also shows that in the last year, the top two violations in relation to civic space were the detention of protestors and the intimidation of human rights defenders. This points to a trend of a lack of investment in and strengthening of institutions that are meant to defend human rights and the people that speak on behalf of human rights.  

In the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we are witnessing a number of states, and international institutions, particularly in European democracies, divert funding and resources away from institutions and mechanisms that are devoted to defending human rights and strengthening civic space. Not only does this pattern of behaviour display a negative vote against democracy, but it contributes to the continuous fall of trust in public institutions, and not enough is being done to challenge the lack of investment in civil society from those in power. At this point, the fight for democracy rests solely on the shoulders of individuals who are constantly putting their lives at risk to fight against the worldwide decline of civic space.  

While international and public institutions have the power and resources to address the humanitarian crisis that faces us, their abstinence from actively investing in and protecting civil society displays a glaring lack of moral empathy for those on the ground.   

In light of these global challenges, the panel discussions at the World Justice Forum brought forth much-needed insights and recommendations to rebuild and strengthen civil society and the rule of law with respect to the three main priorities of the forum.  

One of the key recommendations from the World Justice Forum’s Outcome Statement highlighted the need for states to create enabling environments for innovation and for civil society to operate. During the pandemic, we witnessed some of the most significant protest movements despite extreme COVID-19 restrictions; this indicates that people are able and willing to mobilise regardless of restrictive laws intended to silence dissent.  

Conversations during the forum also pointed to the dire need for people-centred approaches. A practical example is citizen assemblies whereby people-driven resolutions are prioritised at international levels. Access to information and access to solidarity mechanisms also play a vital role in enabling people on the ground to advocate for fundamental rights, and states must invest in creating spaces for citizen participation.  

A stronger effort needs to be taken to ensure that institutions are open to scrutiny and to being held accountable. Too many a times do we witness leaders making promises of a better tomorrow on international stages but do not hold open dialogues with and remain accountable to those who elected them. This includes extending open standing invitations for UN experts to visit and provide recommendations to affected countries.  

There is a need for norms, narratives and investments that will help stimulate larger segments of trust and support towards civil society from a wide range of state and non-state actors. Concrete examples of how this can be done are available from CIVICUS’ work on reviewing approaches to civil society sustenance and resilience, including in the context of the pandemic.  

In the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals, we said that this would be the Decade of Action, it is actually the Decade of Agitation, and governments that wake up to this sooner will be wiser because every single person on the planet with a phone is a potential activist today.  


Lysa John is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS. She is based in South Africa and can be reached via her Twitter handle:@LysaJohnSA.