Monitoring, first step to halt shrinking civic space

By Bihter Moschini

In 2015, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Tunisian civil society. At the close of last year, one of the nominees for the same prize was another civic group, the Syrian White Helmets. These are important acknowledgements of civil society’s role in achieving peaceful, transformed and sustainable societies. Paradoxically though, we are living in a time where civic space is rapidly shrinking across the world and across the Arab region, and one wonders how the year ahead will fare. 

Systematic violations of civic space are now worryingly common; arrests of human rights defenders, banning of demonstrations, restrictions on access to financial resources, information or travel bans are all frequent occurrences in the Arab region. These restrictions inhibit the true potential of civil society, by limiting financial, structural, and organisational capacity, as well as silence the voices of human rights defenders. 

In this context, the CIVICUS Monitor provides a new way of tracking violations in nearly real time. As one of the CIVICUS Monitor’s twenty core research partners, the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) covers seven countries in the region (Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia and Sudan). This involves sharing regular, up-to-date information on civic space developments which are sourced directly from civil society organisations on the ground.  The information received from the Monitor’s partners reflects voices from the ground and creates a channel for local voices to be heard at global level.

In only a few months, our work with the CIVICUS Monitor revealed obstructions to foreign funding in Egypt, where prominent human rights defenders have also been arrested. It illustrates how freedom of expression is being curtailed in Jordan, where no news can be published about the king or the royal family unless it has been sent by the media unit of the royal court. It has also demonstrated the resilience of citizens and civil society by documenting protests in Tunisia and Lebanon, where people have mobilised to promote accountability and fight corruption. 

It is obvious that, although most Arab states have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, there is a huge gap between the normative framework and the practice on the ground. States fail, or more accurately, choose to fail, in the implementation of their duties to protect, respect and fulfil these rights, and many others. A lack of respect for civic freedoms is becoming normalised and sadly, repressed civic spaces have become the status quo in many countries across the world. 

On the other hand, shrinking policy space for States negatively impacts decision making processes by leaving less room for national civic actors to participate. In turn, this leads to limitations on the disclosure of information, civic engagement and creates more tensions in many fragmented societies. A deliberate attempt to impede participation and consultation with citizens at the national level underpins a closure in civic space.

If there is a silver lining to be found, at least we are seeing an increasing focus on the issue of closing civic space. Through the efforts of civil society organisations, certain UN officials and some states, the crisis is gaining more attention and becoming of global concern to many. And it is a struggle that needs collaboration – cross-sectoral, cross-regional (between and among North and South, all together). It is not isolated, for instance, from the shift in development paradigm which civil society has been calling for many years, one which seeks to redress social injustices and inequalities. Enhancing civic space is at the very centre of this struggle. To tackle it however, requires a better understanding of the status of shrinking civic space. 

In this context, ANND believes that the CIVICUS Monitor represents a useful tool for civil society, researchers, academics and trade unionists. It is a resource tool, it is a monitoring tool, and it is an advocacy tool. Yet, its ultimate worth, of course, will depend on how the information is used. There are several possibilities – informing shadow reporting to the UN, including the Universal Periodic Review; ground civil society calls and campaigns more in reality, and in evidence; enable national civil society movements to connect their struggles across borders and build solidarity; and increasing accountability for implementation of Agenda 2030. 

Recognition from the Nobel Peace Prize is a great encouragement for civil society. The acknowledgement of civil society’s role within the new international development agenda is similarly motivating. Yet encouragement and acknowledgement must be supported with concrete steps which protect the promotion and expansion of civic space. Unless that is done, closing civic space will continue to transform our world, unfortunately for the worse. 

Bihter Moschini is a research officer with the Arab NGO Network for Development.