Philippines: International community must support independent investigative mechanism to end attacks on civil society

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, continues to call on the UN Human Rights Council to establish an independent investigative mechanism to address human rights violations and abuses in the Philippines to further accountability and justice. A new brief published today, shows that one year on from the adoption of a profoundly weak resolution at the Council, serious civic freedoms violations continue to occur, creating a chilling effect within civil society.

The CIVICUS Monitor has documented the arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and activists on fabricated charges. In a number of instances, the activists have been vilified and red-tagged – labelled as communists or terrorists – in relation to their work prior to their arrest. There have also been reports of evidence planted by the police and military forces to justify arrests or violence against activists.

Activists have been killed over the last year, both by the security forces and by unknown individuals. In many instances, activists were killed after being red-tagged. In virtually none of the cases has anyone been held accountable for the killings. In one incident, nine community-based activists were killed in coordinated raids, known as the ‘Bloody Sunday’ killings, which took place across four provinces in the Calabarzon region on 7 March 2021 by members of the Philippine security forces. The killing of journalists as well as judicial harassment against them has also persisted.

AdvocacyBrief Philippines CoverIn July 2021, the Philippine government and the UN formalised a human rights programme which includes strengthening domestic investigation and accountability mechanisms; improved data gathering on alleged police violations; civic space and engagement with civil society and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) to be implemented.

“The current actions by the UN Human Rights Council have failed to deter the criminalisation and attacks against activists and journalists, which has continued over the year, with impunity. The new joint programme seems to be just more window dressing by the Duterte regime to evade accountability. It is time for the international community to listen to civil society voices and establish an independent investigation to hold the perpetrators to account”, said Lisa Majumdar, CIVICUS UN advocacy officer.

Human rights groups have also documented an assault on the judiciary. An investigative report by the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) found that at least 61 lawyers, judges and prosecutors have been killed under the Duterte administration since 2016. There have been no convictions so far in any of the deadly attacks recorded. 

The new brief outlines other tactics used to silence civil society that have ranged from freezing their accounts to launching  smear campaigns against them. In June 2021, the Anti-Money Laundering Council (AMLC) froze the bank accounts of Amihan, an organisation of peasant women, which the authorities alleged were linked to communist rebels. Bank accounts of eight other nongovernmental organisations and civil society groups based in Mindanao were also covered by the order.

Human rights alliance Karapatan has been subject to  a spate of cyberattacks since July 2021 against its website, amid an online solidarity campaign #StopTheKillingsPH, which calls on the government to stop attacks against human rights defenders. Earlier attacks against Karapatan and alternative media outlets were traced by Qurium - Sweden-based media foundation - to the Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence of the Philippine Army as well as the Department of Science and Technology.

“Civil society groups have been at the forefront of monitoring violations perpetrated by authorities around the deadly war on drugs, and their assaults on activists. Despite the threats and litany of attacks against them, they have refused to be silenced. The international community owes them support and protection,” said Majumdar.

Following tireless research and advocacy efforts by civil society, in June 2021, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda requested judicial authorisation to proceed with an investigation into crimes committed in the Philippines from 1 November 2011 - the date the Philippines became an ICC member - until 16 March 2019. On 15 September 2021, Pre-Trial Chamber I of the International Criminal Court granted the Prosecutor’s request to commence the investigation in a landmark development.

In December 2020, the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration that rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries, downgraded the Philippines from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ in its People Power Under Attack report 2020. 

More information

Download the Philippines research brief here.


To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher and



Hong Kong: A year on, the National Security Law has crushed civic freedoms

New research on the state of civic freedoms in Hong Kong - a look at restrictions over the past year

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is extremely concerned about the alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. One year one from the passage of the draconian National Security Law, our research shows it has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

The National Security Law (NSL) punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison. These offences are vaguely defined and can easily become catch-all offences to prosecute activists and critics with potentially heavy penalties.

The NSL establishes new national security bodies which are partially or fully controlled by People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, in violation of the Basic Law. It gives Hong Kong police sweeping new powers including to conduct warrantless searches and covert surveillance, and to seize travel documents of those suspected of violating the security law. The law also contravenes the UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary and undermines the right to a fair trial by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal, guaranteed under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

"The national security law has become the most dangerous threat to civic freedoms in Hong Kong and has allowed for any form of dissent to be criminalised. The law has increased the climate of fear in Hong Kong and has been weaponised to target government critics, including people who are merely expressing their views or protesting peacefully”, said David Kode, Head of Advocacy at CIVICUS

More than a hundred people have been arrested under the National Security Law including pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers, lawyers, journalists and students. Activists have been accused of inciting or abetting secession or subversion just for showing leaflets and banners with reference to Hong Kong Independence or for their social media posts. 

In January 2021, 55 people, including pro-democracy activists, opposition candidates, former lawmakers and lawyers, were arrested and detained under law for ‘subversion’ for holding and participating in primary elections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. 47 of the activists have been charged.

The NSL has also dramatically changed the environment for civil society in Hong Kong, greatly impeding the ability of civil society to carry out their work. Some have quit on the eve of the law’s introduction while others have exercised greater caution in their activities. The chilling effect of the crackdown on the entire sector cannot be overstated.

The law has also been deployed against the media. Media owner Jimmy Lai, the founder of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, has been detained since December 2020. He is facing multiple charges, including ‘colluding with foreign forces’. In May 2021, authorities announced they had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law marking the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.  On 17 June, six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role in the publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged under the NSL. Apple Daily ceased operations on 26 June.

The use of the national security law to silence activism is a violation of international law. The repression against pro-democracy activists and other critics has led to the dismantling of civil society in Hong Kong, forcing many to flee the territory. The international community must not remain silent in the face of such abuses but must stand up and stand in solidarity with those defending human rights” said David Kode.

Since 2019, the Hong Kong authorities have also deployed other laws to criminalise peaceful protests in particular the Public Order Ordinance which has been used to charge activists holding and participating in an ‘unauthorised assembly’, It carries a maximum five-year sentence.  The UN Human Rights Committee has criticised the law, saying that “it may facilitate excessive restriction” to basic rights. 

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in December 2020 for a mass protest outside a police station in June 2019. Wong’s long-time fellow activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 and seven months in prison for ‘incitement,’ referring to their use of a megaphone to shout slogans during the protest. 

In April 2021, the courts sentenced ten pro-democracy activists to between eight and 18 months in prison for gatherings that were part of a series of mass protests triggered by the proposed Extradition Bill. In May 2021, eight activists were sentenced for organising a protest in October 2019. More recently, On 4 June 2021, the authorities banned the annual Tiananmen massacre vigil for a second straight year and arrested barrister and activist Chow Hang Tung for breaching section 17A(1D) of the Public Order Ordinance by ‘promoting an unauthorised assembly’. 

More information

Download the Hong Kong research brief here.


To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 


COVID-19 and freedom of expression: A global snapshot of restrictions

New research brief from the CIVICUS Monitor finds:

  • New censorship controls have been implemented during the pandemic
  • The pandemic has expanded the use of laws criminalising misinformation - new or amended measures in over 35 countries
  • Journalists detained in over 30 countries for their reporting on the pandemic

Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. During this period, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions to civic freedoms. The latest research brief focuses on the state of freedom of expression and violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.

The research covers the period from January 2020 to February 2021 and highlights where governments are using COVID-19 as a pretext to censor the media and silence dissent. In some countries, governments have passed laws and regulations which impose undue restrictions on press freedom and access to information.

Censorship and the detention of journalists are some of the violations covered in the research brief. From Tanzania to Turkmenistan, governments have banned and blocked media for their COVID-19 related coverage. While in Chile and China, governments have put journalists in jail for their reporting on the pandemic.

The research brief how of journalists, media workers and civil society organisations have been the target of government overreach and provides over 60 country case studies that illustrate three trends:

  • The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including the use of misinformation legislation
  • Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage
  • Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks and arrests



Malaysia: Fundamental freedoms in decline under Perikatan Nasional government

Joint research report on the state of civic freedoms in Malaysia

The Perikatan Nasional government has undermined and obstructed the exercise of fundamental freedoms during its first twelve months in power, said ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS in a new report published today. The government has not only failed to reform or repeal laws that restrict the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association but has initiated baseless criminal proceedings against government critics, human rights defenders, journalists, and individuals expressing critical opinions.

The report, “Rights in Reverse: One year under the Perikatan Nasional government in Malaysia”, highlights the Perikatan Nasional government’s record during its first year in power against its obligation to respect, protect, and fulfil the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. The report highlights the government’s sustained use of repressive laws and provisions to silence dissent amid a global pandemic, when press freedom and civil society is needed more than ever to ensure reliable information and to hold the state accountable.

“The Perikatan Nasional government has been extremely secretive about its legislative agenda but has been crystal clear about its intention to continue using repressive laws to target critics and dissenters,” said Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19’s Malaysia Programme Officer. “A healthy environment for public discourse cannot be achieved until dissenting and unpopular opinions are respected and protected instead of silenced.”

Over the past year, authorities have aggressively applied the Sedition Act 1948 and Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA) to investigate, arrest, charge, and convict individuals who have criticized government officials or Malaysian royalty, or who have shared opinions about sensitive issues such as race and religion. Between March 2020 and February 2021, ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS recorded 66 cases involving 77 individuals who have been investigated or charged under the two laws because of their exercise of the right to freedom of expression. Over this period, at least 12 people were convicted under the CMA.

Press freedom has also declined sharply during the Perikatan Nasional government’s first year in power. This trend was highlighted by Malaysiakini’s conviction on contempt of court charges in relation to third-party comments made on its website, the unprecedented witch-hunt against Al Jazeera journalists investigating the treatment of migrants workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the targeting of journalists reporting on the actions and statements of government officials. The harassment and intimidation of journalists further demonstrates the shrinking space for free and independent media in Malaysia.

In addition to journalists, the authorities have harassed, investigated, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders, peaceful protesters, women’s rights activists, and union leaders in an effort to silence civil society voices.

The legal framework governing the exercise of freedom of assembly and association remains highly restrictive and excessively burdensome.

The Peaceful Assembly Act falls shorts of international law and standards and denies the right to protest to children and non-citizens. It also fails to allow for spontaneous assemblies. The last year saw peaceful protesters being investigated and arrested, including health workers protesting their lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Societies Act has continued to stand in the way of enjoyment of the right to freedom of association, which is critical in a democracy. The Registrar of Societies has excessive powers and has erected barriers to registration for new opposition political parties such as Muda and Pejuang and civil society groups while simultaneously fast-tracking the registration of the Perikatan Nasional.

“The Perikatan government has attempted to silence peaceful protesters and impede the formation of political parties to keep itself in power,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Researcher. “Its attempt to join the Human Rights Council cannot be taken seriously unless it takes immediate steps to remove undue restrictions on assembly and association,” Benedict added.

ARTICLE 19 and CIVICUS urge the Malaysian government to undertake a comprehensive and inclusive process of legislative and institutional reform in order to promote and protect fundamental rights and freedoms. To this end, authorities must ensure that all processes are fully transparent and facilitate full and effective participation of all concerned stakeholders, including civil society.

Malaysia’s reform process must be informed by relevant international human rights standards. The Perikatan National government should take concrete steps towards the ratification of core human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

For further information:

  • Nalini Elumalai, ARTICLE 19 Malaysia Program Officer,
  • Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Researcher,

More information

The space for civil society in Malaysia is rated as ‘Obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. An Obstructed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – face a combination of legal and practical constraints in Malaysia.


Sustainable Recovery Lab: Building on human rights and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

As the UN Secretary-General has highlighted, ‘the 2030 Agenda, underpinned by human rights, provides a comprehensive blueprint for sustainable recovery from the pandemic’.

The Sustainable Recovery Lab, which took place on 14th January 2021, discussed how to operationalise this blueprint for Sustainable Recovery.


Civil and political rights are backsliding in West Africa ahead of elections

There has been a rapid decline in civic freedoms and democratic norms in Francophone West Africa with ruling presidents evading term limits and muzzling their opposition and pro-democracy groups, CIVICUS said ahead of presidential elections in Guinea (18 October) and Côte d’Ivoire (31 October).

Over the next six months a series of elections will take place across Francophone West Africa. Voting kicks off in Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire later this month, followed by elections in Burkina Faso (November), Niger (December-January) and Benin (April). Togo already had a contested presidential election in February 2020.

In Togo, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, violence and political tensions are being fuelled by presidents refusing to step down. In Benin, recent changes in eligibility requirements mean that members of the opposition may not be able to run for presidency, while Côte d’Ivoire, Niger and Burkina Faso are confronting or emerging from violent armed conflicts which are being used to justify repressive laws and policies. In addition, the restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and armed groups spilling over from the Sahel to the Gulf of Guinea are making the political situations more volatile.

In this tense political environment, the new report “Civic space backsliding ahead of elections in Francophone West Africa” examines the tools of repression being used to undermine opposition groups, human rights defenders, activists and journalists. with a focus on Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo.

It documents recent Internet disruptions, the arrest of hundreds of pro-democracy activists and journalists and the killing of dozens of peaceful protesters in demonstrations organised over the last three years. Governments are using restrictive laws, over-complicated registration processes, judicial harassment and excessive use of force to clampdown on civil society, particularly when dissent is expressed online or during protests.

“Instead of working with civil society groups to create an enabling environment for free and fair elections, authorities across Francophone West Africa have resorted to muzzling human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists. In the hope of stamping out all opposition, they have created a climate of fear which fuels political violence, erodes the rule of law and undermines regional stability,” said François Patuel, senior researcher on West Africa and author of the report.

In Guinea, where President Alpha Condé will run for a third term on 18 October 2020, over fifty people were killed since October 2019 in protests organised by the political opposition and pro-democracy group Front National de Défense de la Constitution (National Front for the Defence of the Constitution, FNDC). In March 2020, the constitutional referendum which opened the way to Alpha Condé running for a third term was marred with a social media shutdown and intercommunal clashes in the Guinea Forest region which left over 30 people dead. Dozens of FNDC supporters and journalists have been detained since the creation of the movement in April 2019.

In Côte d’Ivoire, at least 12 people were killed in protests and clashes between political supporters following President Alassane Ouattara’s decision to run for a third term for the presidential election scheduled on 31 October 2020. Public protests have been banned since August 2020. The authorities have adopted laws criminalising false news and used them to target journalists, bloggers and politicians expressing dissent, including members of parliament such as Alain Lobognon who remains in detention since December 2019. In gross contempt to regional institutions, Côte d’Ivoire has been ignoring orders from the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights to release pro-Soro supporters and allow Guillaume Soro and Laurent Gbagbo to stand for elections.

“Local human rights groups do not take up sensitive political cases for fear of reprisals. Even lawyers are scared.” --Woman human rights defender, Abidjan, 15 May 2020.

“On paper, the right to freedom of expression is supposed to be protected. But in practice, journalists are intimidated when they write on sensitive topics such as land rights, police brutality and corruption.” -- Interview with a human rights defender, Lomé, 14 May 2020.

With civic freedoms backsliding across West Africa Francophone, civil society organisations need support from regional and international partners to remain safe, to ensure their voice is heard in international and regional fora and to increase the pressure on national authorities for positive human rights change. ECOWAS and the African Union, in particular, must step-up their response to the authorities’ disregard for regional standards and instruments, including their efforts to undermine the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights.


To arrange interviews, please contact: 
François Patuel, Consultant & Senior Researcher on West Africa for CIVICUS, , +221 77 693 78 46


Feminist movements and the Beijing Vision: Organising, resisting, advocating.

The year 2020 marks 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BDPfA), heralded as the most progressive blueprint in achieving full human rights for all women and girls. Yet, 25 years on the ambitions of the BDPfA have not been achieved. In fact, the process takes place at a time of ever increasing challenges for women’s rights. 


India: Report highlights ongoing misuse of restrictive laws during pandemic to keep activists behind bars

  • Report highlights judicial harassment of activists, targeting of journalists and crackdown on protesters 
  • Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of activists and critics during COVID-19 pandemic 
  • CIVICUS calls for the immediate release of arbitrarily detained human rights defenders

The Indian government is using a variety of restrictive laws - including national security and counter-terrorism legislation - to arrest and imprison human rights defenders, peaceful protesters and critics.

More than a year into  Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second term in office, the CIVICUS report, Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India,” shows an increasingly repressive environment for civic freedoms, such as the freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  The report highlights the arrest, detention and prosecution of activists, the targeting of journalists, and the unprecedented and brutal crackdown on protests against the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act. CIVICUS is also concerned about increasing violations in Indian-administered Jammu Kashmir.

Further, India’s slide towards authoritarianism has led to the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism, often with disastrous results for human rights defenders and activists who have been subjected to damaging smear campaigns.

The activists profiled in the report represent a small fraction of the arbitrary arrests, prosecutions and imprisonments taking place across India, providing a snapshot of the challenges facing the country’s human rights defenders.

The report also highlights a series of vaguely worded and overly broad laws being used by the Indian authorities to deprive activists of bail and keep them in ongoing detention. These include the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), which is India’s primary counter-terrorism law; section 124A on ‘sedition’ of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial-era relic; and administrative detention laws such as the National Security Act (NSA) and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir

“The Indian government must stop using restrictive national security and counter-terrorism laws against human rights defenders and critics. The authorities must also drop the baseless and politically-motivated criminal charges against activists and release them immediately and unconditionally,” said Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher.

“The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Modi government has continued to use state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics, many of whom have underlying medical conditions or are at risk of contracting COVID-19 in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons. CIVICUS is also concerned about the judicial harassment of individuals and journalists who criticise the authorities’ handling of the pandemic. 

“It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights,” said Benedict.

Despite the hostile environment, human rights defenders and civil society organisations in  India are pushing back against oppression. The benefits of a vibrant civil society, and of human rights defenders who are free to do their work, are tangible. This has been evident in civil society’s crucial response to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, in providing vital help to communities in need, defending rights, and holding governments accountable.

“As India’s political and economic influence increases, developments in the country are being closely followed by the global community. India’s quest to play a critical role on the international stage would be better served by committing to upholding democratic values and recognising the validity of people’s struggles,” said Benedict.

In the report, CIVICUS makes a number of recommendations to the Indian authorities, including:

  • Drop all charges against human rights defenders, activists and protesters, and immediately and unconditionally release all those detained;
  • Review and amend India’s criminal laws to conform to international standards for the protection of fundamental freedoms;
  • Take steps to ensure that all human rights defenders in India are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance or fear of reprisals.

More information

The space for civil society in India was downgraded in December 2019 from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks civic space in every country. A repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms – such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association – are significantly constrained in India.


To arrange interviews, please contact Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher  and 


Threats to civil society’s HIV and AIDS progress have lessons for COVID-19 response

NEW REPORT --See mini-site and supplementary materials

Achievements made in the fight to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic are at risk because of continuous attacks on basic civil liberties all around the world. It has become more and more difficult for civil society to reach out to people in need, says a new report from a global civil consortium which is relevant for the COVID-19 response.

Vulnerable groups like LGBTQI+ communities, particularly transgender people, are among the most commonly persecuted, and police and law enforcement authorities are among the main perpetrators, according to the report by Aidsfonds, CIVICUS, and Frontline AIDS. 

The report, titled Activism and AIDS: protect civil society’s space to end the epidemic, launched during the 23rd International AIDS conference, examines the risks and restrictions facing civil society who are fighting to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. At the launch event, activists shared how new COVID-19 restrictions undermine their efforts to carry out their work on HIV and AIDS and further jeopardise the achievements towards ending AIDS by 2030. 

“The success that we’ve made towards fulfilling the goal of ending AIDS by 2030 has only been achieved because civil society is able to reach the most marginalised communities,” says Sylvia Mbataru from CIVIUS, lead author of the report. “But this is at serious risk of being derailed by increasing ultra-conservative politics. As we confront the COVID-19 pandemic and we witness new restrictions on civic space, it is imperative that AIDS activists and organisations are given the space to serve their communities.”

The research, unique in its scope and breadth and the global human rights monitors involved, was conducted using the CIVICUS Monitor. The Monitor provides quantitative and qualitative data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in countries around the world. The report covers trends from four diverse countries - Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Indonesia, and Vietnam  ( see civic space rating scale)

The report calls civil society’s response to the disease an “unparalleled example” of ”engagement and leadership”, with those living with HIV and AIDS having played “a vital role as advocates, as watchdogs and in the provision of services”. But governments and law enforcement agencies, among others, are making it difficult and dangerous for civil society to support people living with the disease. 

“The diminishing space for civil society and an increasingly hostile political and social landscape herald an urgent international and regional call for action,” the report says. 

In Indonesia, activists and organisations were attacked online, had their social media content censored by authorities, had protests broken up even before they began, and had their offices raided, among other abuses, according to the report. The country is now a potential coronavirus hotspot, where the government has been accused of lack of transparency, and people have been charged for allegedly spreading fake news about coronavirus. 

In Ukraine, key populations including gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers and their clients, and transgender people have been targeted by influential religious figures. “I personally saw how supporters of religious organisations disrupted protests of key populations,” says a civil society organisation (CSO) representative, according to the report. In April, one of the country’s LGBTQI bodies announced it was suing an eminent preacher for remarks blaming COVID-19 on same-sex marriage. 

The report also finds that opposition to civic space is strengthening at international and regional levels, with one CSO representative saying that “voices are not heard at the UN”. The World Health Organization (WHO) was a “very closed space for civil society”, the report says, with a complex registration system for organisations.


Bangladesh: Two years on, impunity for attacks against student protesters

Two years since student protest movements mobilised in Bangladesh, there is still no accountability for human rights violations against protesters.

Crushing Student Protests,’ a new report launched today by civil society groups Front Line Defenders, CIVICUS and South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), highlights the use of excessive force, arbitrary arrests and allegations of torture and ill-treatment by the Bangladesh security forces during the protests, as well as attacks by non-state actors perpetrated with impunity against the students.

In April 2018, senior students from universities mobilised to call for reform in the quota system for government jobs. Three months later, in July and August, junior students from schools and colleges led protests demanding public transport safety reform after students were killed in traffic accidents.

Law enforcement agencies responded to both movements with excessive force. Protesters reported that the police attacked them with teargas, rubber bullets and high pressure hot water cannons. Unidentified armed individuals believed to be members of the student wing of the ruling party, known as the Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL), operated as an auxiliary force to Bangladeshi security forces to attack protesters with wooden logs, sticks, iron rods, and sharp weapons. They used social media to intimidate, harass and threaten protest leaders and organizers.

An activist from Jagannath University in Sadarghat, Dhaka said that on 20 April 2018, he was attacked by BCL members: “They accosted me and dragged me to a corner. There were 12 people, and they beat me up, and cut my lip…They beat me until I was senseless and left me there.”

Police also arbitrarily arrested protesters and filed multiple cases against them without specifying names, detaining students at will. Some reported torture and ill-treatment in detention.

One activist arrested on 1 July 2018 in the Bhasantek area of Dhaka related his experience of being beaten up for a full day by security forces. “They made me lie down on the floor, with my arms handcuffed, and several policemen beat me with rods,” he said. “I bled on the floor, and they made the others detained clean the floor.”

Bangladeshi journalists also were assaulted and detained as part of government efforts to control the narrative and silence critical voices.

One of those arrested was 63 year old Shahidul Alam, a well-known photojournalist and activist. He was detained by plainclothes policemen on 5 August 2018, hours after giving an interview to Al Jazeera English on the student protests and charged a day later under the Information and Communication Technology Act for making "false" and "provocative" statements. Alam told reporters that he had been beaten in police custody.

“The failure to hold anyone accountable for the violence against protesters points to deeply ingrained impunity in Bangladesh. We demand a prompt and independent investigation into all reports of violence by the police and nonstate actors against human rights defenders, journalists and protesters, and for those responsible to be brought to justice,” said Sultana Kamal, noted Bangladeshi Human Rights Defender and Chairperson of SAHR.

“The police must drop all charges against the student human rights defenders and protesters and review the convictions of protesters and other individuals prosecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Roshmi Goswami, SAHR bureau member from India who took part in the joint international mission.

The crackdown occurred just prior to elections held later in 2018, indicating the kind of actions the ruling party was, and remains willing, to take to hold its grip on power.

Long after the protests stopped, many student activists, their friends and family members continue to face surveillance, intimidation and harassment, effectively silencing future dissent. Social media has been deployed to intimidate and smear human rights defenders and civil society groups that supported the protests. 

A prominent activist was attacked eight times after the protest movement ended. Another protest organizer has been routinely stalked by members of the National Security Intelligence (NSI).

“The authorities must end all forms of harassment, intimidation and surveillance against those involved in organising, participating or supporting the protests and ensure a safe and enabling environment for protest leaders to carry out their activism without fear of reprisals,” said Andrew Anderson, Executive Director of Front Line Defenders.

The crackdown on the protests is indicative of a broader pattern of aggression and attacks by the government against critics to silence dissent. The now defunct Information Communication and Technology (ICT) Act, and its successor, the Digital Security Act, have been used to restrict freedom of expression while human rights activists, journalists and government critics have been charged or convicted for speaking up and, in some cases, forcibly disappeared.

“The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately,” said David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead at CIVICUS.

The human rights violations documented in this report around the protests are inconsistent with Bangladesh’s Constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and other international laws and standards. Despite the fact that many of these issues have been raised by states, the Bangladesh authorities have failed to address them.

Front Line Defenders is the Ireland-based international human rights organization that works for the security and protection of human rights defenders at risk (HRDs) around the world.

CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists headquartered in Johannesburg, South Africa and dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. 

South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) is a democratic regional network with a large membership base of people committed to addressing human rights issues at both national and regional levels. SAHR seeks to contribute to the realisation of South Asian peoples’ right to participatory democracy, good governance and justice by strengthening regional response, including regional instruments, monitoring human rights violations, reviewing laws, policies and practices that have an adverse impact on human rights and conducting campaigns and programmes on issues of major concern in the region.

Civic space in Bangladesh is currently rated as repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor.


Civic Freedoms and the COVID19 Pandemic: A snapshot of restrictions

On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. The spread of the pandemic, and the response of states to the crisis, have created unprecedented living conditions for much of the world’s population. A range of restrictions on freedoms has been introduced in attempts to curb the pandemic. However, some of these have had troubling impacts on human rights and the space for civil society. In many cases, they have patterned onto and reinforced existing restrictions of civic space.

Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society and is rooted in the fundamental freedoms of people to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express their views and opinions. Since 2016, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented and analysed the state of civic space in 196 countries.

States have taken measures that include emergency laws, nationwide lockdowns and restrictions on movement. But one month after the declaration of the pandemic, CIVICUS has documented several alarming civic space trends that have resulted. These are:

  • Unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship;
  • Detentions of activists for disseminating critical information;
  • Crackdowns on human rights defenders and media outlets;
  • Violations of the right to privacy and overly broad emergency powers.

International human rights law recognises that in the context of officially proclaimed public emergencies, including in public health, which threaten the life of a country, restrictions on some rights can be justified, but they must have a legal basis and be strictly necessary, of limited duration, respectful of human dignity, subject to review, proportionate to achieving the objective, not involve discrimination and be used strictly to the extent required by the emergency in question. Even where an official proclamation of emergency has been made, non-derogable fundamental rights such as the right to life and freedom from torture and inhuman, cruel, or degrading treatment still must not be infringed. Where a proclamation of emergency has not officially been made, rights can only be restricted during a public health threat in accordance with the limitations allowed in normal times under the relevant provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

International law is clear, but there are concerns that some of the actions taken by some states may be exceeding justifiable restrictions and negatively affecting civic freedoms. CIVICUS has compiled information on key civic space issues that have surfaced due to the response by governments and some other groups to the COVID-19 pandemic, raising serious concerns about the state of civic space at this time. These reports are sourced from civil society groups and activists, credible news sources and official documents. The restrictions are happening in a range of countries with different civic space ratings. When a country is referenced the respective rating colour is also displayed:


Censorship and restrictions on access to information

In  China, the government initially  responded to the outbreak by withholding information from the public, under-reporting cases of infection and downplaying the severity of the infection. The authorities also censored numerous articles and social media posts about the pandemic, including those posted by families of infected people seeking help and by people living in cordoned-off cities documenting their daily life. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, through a ‘medida provisória’ (provisional measure), decreed that government officials were not obliged to answer any freedom of information requests during the outbreak. The Supreme Court subsequently suspended the decree.The CIVICUS Monitor has shown that in 2019, censorship was the most common tactic used by states to silence activists, journalists and government critics and suppress critical information. Human rights groups have documented attempts to censor or restrict information on the COVID-19 pandemic. These have potentially prevented people from accessing information about the pandemic that can help them protect themselves and their families and being able to ask informed questions about the decisions being taken by the authorities in response to the pandemic.

In Turkmenistan, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov’s government is limiting the use of the word ‘coronavirus’ as much as possible in order to deter the spread of information about the pandemic. It has ordered the word’s removal from health brochures distributed in hospitals, schools and workplaces. In El Salvador journalists have not been allowed to ask questions during press conferences related to the crisis and the government’s response.

In Vietnam, where the state controls all conventional media and implements strict social media censorship, the authorities have been cracking down on people using Facebook and bloggers who are trying to deliver timely and valuable information about the pandemic. As of 17 March, at least 654 people who posted on Facebook about the outbreak had been summoned to police stations for interrogation about their posts, and 146 of them have been fined.

During this crisis, internet shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control. The shutdown in Indian-administered Kashmir is hampering the ability of doctors to obtain information about the virus and educate the public. Similar concerns have also been raised in Rakhine state in Myanmar, which is also subject to an internet shutdown.

Threats and arrests for criticising state response

There have also been reports of people being threatened or arrested for criticising their state’s response or disseminating information on the pandemic.

In Iran, civil rights activists, journalists, a city councillor and a footballer have all been  detained or summoned for questioning after criticising the Iranian government’s management of the pandemic in social media posts. Some of those who were summoned were accused of portraying the country in a negative light and pressured to be supportive of the government’s response to the outbreak.

In the Solomon Islands, the Ministry of Health has sent out a memo threatening ‘termination with immediate effect’ for staff who post comments online criticising the government’s response to the pandemic. It said the regulations were included under the State of Public Emergency declaration. In Sri Lanka, on 1 April, the Inspector General of Police instructed all police officers to take legal action against those who publish posts on social media criticising government officials.

Police in Pakistan have arrested dozens of doctors and medical staff who protested about a lack of personal protective equipment in their fight against the pandemic. In Thailand, on 23 March, an artist was charged under the draconian Computer Crime Act for a Facebook post criticising the lack of airport COVID-19 screening.

Restrictions on the media

Journalists and the media have a key role to play in sharing timely information about the pandemic. However, some states are shutting down media outlets, restricting the media and criminalising journalists.

On 17 March it was reported that decrees had been issued by the governments of Jordan, MoroccoOman and Yemen to suspend newspaper printing and distribution in response to the pandemic. This includes both independent and state-owned media outlets. Authorities reportedly imposed this to prevent the possible spread of the virus during the printing, delivery and distribution of papers.

On 5 March, authorities in Niger arrested Kaka Touda Mamane Goni, an independent journalist who publishes news reports on his Facebook and Twitter pages, at his home in Niamey, Niger’s capital. His arrest stemmed from a complaint filed by the local General Reference Hospital, which alleged that his social media posts about a suspected COVID-19 case at the hospital posed a threat to public order.

In Kenya, blogger Robert Alai was arrested on 20 March for posting false information about the virus. Alai had claimed that the government was concealing crucial information about the spread of the virus and that its impact was far greater than the government was acknowledging. He is accused of contravening the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crimes Act 2018.

The house of journalist, Darvinson Rojas in Venezuela was raided and he was detained by agents of the Special Action Forces of the Bolivarian National Police on 21 March for his reporting on the pandemic in Venezuela. At the hearing on 23 March, Rojas was accused of ‘instigating hatred and public instigation’.

On 26 March, the President of Vanuatu signed a declaration of a State of Emergency in response to the pandemic. As part of the declaration it was announced that all news articles on the virus had to be vetted by the National Disaster Management Office after consultation with the Ministry of Health.

Journalists have at times also been subjected to physical assault or harassment while covering COVID-19 lockdowns. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, journalist Tholi Totali Glody was reportedly chased by police officers and thrown off a motorcycle taxi on 22 March in Likasi, Haut-Katanga province, resulting in injuries that included a broken leg.

Passage and use of restrictive laws to counter ‘fake news’

The pandemic’s spread has been matched by the proliferation of misinformation about the virus. While misinformation is a serious problem, some states have resorted to unduly repressive laws on ‘fake news’ that could have wider impacts.

On 18 March, the government of South Africa's new regulations criminalising statements intended to deceive any person about COVID-19 or the government's response to it. The regulations were published in the Government Gazette under the 2002 Disaster Management Act and carry penalties including fines, imprisonment, or both.

The Philippines government declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic on 25 March and passed a law that included provisions penalising the spreading of ‘false information’ on social media and other platforms. Those found violating this provision may face two months’ imprisonment or a fine of not less than P10,000 (approx. US$196). Courts may also impose a fine of up to P1 million (approx. US$19,642). On 28 March, Egypt's general prosecution said that those spreading ‘fake news’ and rumours about the virus may be imprisoned for five years and fined EGP 20,000 (approx. US$1,266).

Turkey’s Ministry of Interior announced on 23 March that legal action had been taken against 316 social media account holders who had shared information about the virus ‘to cause worry among the public, incite them to fear and panic and target persons and institutions’. In Malaysia, the authorities reported on 11 March that they had opened 37 criminal investigations related to the spread of ‘fake news’ on the virus.

Targeting of human rights defenders

There is also evidence that governments and others are using the pandemic as an opportunity to target human rights defenders.

In Honduras, on 24 March, police arbitrarily arrested Evelyn Johana Castillo for being on the street during the emergency, while she was returning home from buying food with her husband and older daughter. She is the Assistant Coordinator of the Ojojona Women’s Network and a member of the National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras. Evelyn stated that this attack against her may have been a reprisal.

A human rights defender in El Salvador has been the target of a smear campaign after posting on Facebook on 13 March about overcrowding and the lack of hygiene for people held in quarantine during the pandemic. She received messages containing harmful speech, intimidation and threats, including misogynistic insults and derision of her feminist activism.

According to local civil society groups, death squads in Colombia are taking advantage of lockdowns to kill rural activists. Marco Rivadeneira, a high-profile activist, was murdered in the southern Putumayo province, Ángel Ovidio Quintero was shot dead in the western Antioquia region and Ivo Humberto Bracamonte was killed on the eastern border with Venezuela.

Police abuses during lockdowns

Civil society groups and journalists have raised concerns about the use of excessive force or inhumane and degrading treatment by law enforcement officials towards people who have violated lockdowns in various countries. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Killings has raised concerns about this.

According to Human Rights Watch, police and local officials in the Philippines have  confined those arrested for violating the government’s COVID-19 regulations in dog cages and forced them to sit in the midday sun as punishment, among other abuses. In Indiavideos have circulated of police officers violently caning those who do not respect the restrictions. Violators have also been publicly shamed in India by being forced to do squats, push-ups, crawl or roll around the streets.

In South Africa numerous videos have emerged that appear to depict police officers and soldiers kicking, slapping, whipping and even shooting lockdown violators. On the first day of South Africa’s lockdown, police fired rubber bullets at News24 journalist Azarrah Karrim, despite her shouting ‘I’m media’, when she was covering the dispersal of people by security forces in Johannesburg.

In Kenya, police in various locations were also recorded caning people who defied the curfew. Videos and photos also featured the police lobbing teargas canisters and clubbing people with batons in the city of Mombasa to clear the streets in advance of the curfew.

Surveillance and violations of the right to privacy

There have been numerous examples of states increasing intrusive surveillance measures. Any surveillance measures and restrictions on the rights to privacy introduced in response to the pandemic should be provided for by law and be necessary, proportionate, timebound and implemented with transparency and adequate oversight; they must be the least intrusive available to achieve the desired result. The reality has not lived up to these standards.

China's authorities are notorious for using technology for surveillance, unconstrained by privacy legislation. Its universal street camera system, first deployed for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has been expanded all over the country's main metropolitan areas and has been recently upgraded with facial recognition capabilities. The authorities have been using this system to catch, shame and fine citizens going outside without face masks and to identify and quarantine individuals who show symptoms.

The move by the authorities in Israel to permit the security service to use mobile phone data of infected people has also raised privacy concerns. This system is apparently already operational, with 400 people having received text messages warning them of potential contact with infected people.

On 31 March, Armenia's parliament passed amendments to broad surveillance powers to enable the use of mobile phone data for tracking COVID-19 cases. The amendments impose restrictions on the right to privacy and allow the authorities to access confidential medical information related to people exposed to the virus. In Fiji, civil society raised privacy concerns after the Ministry of Health disseminated private information that listed the names and addresses of passengers who were on the same flight as the country’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient. The list of 82 names included residential addresses.

Overly broad emergency laws and new restrictive legislation

International civil society has documented a number of countries that have declared a state of emergency or passed emergency laws or regulations to combat the virus that grant the state overly broad powers and endanger civic freedoms. International human rights law is clear that any measures introduced must be subject to sufficient oversight by both the legislature and the courts, should not be discriminatory and must be time bound.

Among the emblematic cases highlighted by CIVICUS partners is Hungary. Its new law (Bill on Protection against the Coronavirus or Bill T/9790), adopted on 30 March, extends the government’s power to rule by decree by absolving it from parliamentary scrutiny and does so without providing a clear cut-off date. The new law also amends the Criminal Code concerning the crime of ‘imparting or conveying false information’: anyone who publicises false or distorted facts that interfere with the ‘successful protection’ of the public or might alarm or agitate the public could be punished by up to five years in prison.

The government of Cambodia has drafted a state of emergency bill, containing many overly broad and vague provisions, which would empower Prime Minister Hun Sen to override fundamental human rights protections. This includes unlimited surveillance of telecommunications, control of the media and social media and complete authority to restrict the freedoms of movement and assembly. Articles 1 and 4 of the bill would allow the law to be used even after the crisis ends.

Some states have also used the crisis to quietly pass restrictive legislation without adequate scrutiny. For example, amid the chaos of the pandemic in the USA, at least three states have passed  laws imposing new criminal penalties on protests against fossil fuel infrastructure.

Recommendations to governments

Given the concerns outlined above, it is clear that governments need to do more to respect civic freedoms when responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments should implement the following recommendations to ensure that fundamental freedoms do not become another casualty of the virus:

  • Safeguard the freedom of expression in all forms while addressing the pandemic and refrain from censoring social and conventional media. Any restrictions should be pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy, in line with international law and standards.
  • Maintain reliable and unfettered access to the internet and cease internet shutdowns that prevent people from obtaining essential information and services during the crisis.
  • Address violations against human rights defenders and journalists during the pandemic, and ensure that those who commit violations are independently and promptly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice.
  • Respect and protect media freedom, as guaranteed under international human rights law, during the pandemic.
  • Replace approaches to misinformation on the pandemic that rely on censorship and criminal sanctions with those emphasising transparency and media freedom.
  • Ensure that surveillance measures adopted to address the pandemic are lawful, necessary and proportionate. As part of this, ensure that any expanded monitoring and surveillance powers are timebound, and only continue for as long as necessary to address the current crisis.
  • Ensure that increased collection, retention and aggregation of personal data, including health data, is only used for the purposes of responding to the pandemic.
  • Ensure that law enforcement officials respect the law and avoid abusive conduct while enforcing lockdowns and curfews, and investigate those suspected of such abuses and bring the perpetrators to justice.
  • Guarantee that any new emergency laws and decrees deployed to combat the pandemic do not in any circumstances restrict certain fundamental rights, including the right to life, prohibition of torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment, recognition before the law and the presumption of innocence. Make sure that any such laws or decrees are not discriminatory in any way, including on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, language, religion and social origin, and are timebound and subject to sufficient oversight by both the legislature and courts. 



Global Monitor Report: Twice as many people live in repressed countries compared to a year ago

Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries.

The CIVICUS Monitor's latest global assesment,  People Power Under Attack 2019, finds that the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are backsliding across the world. In the space of a year, twice as many people are living in countries where these civic freedoms are being violated: 40% of the world’s population now live in repressed countries - last year it was 19%.

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration, shows that civil society is under attack in most countries. In practice, this means that just 3% of the world’s population are now living in countries where their fundamental rights are in general, protected and respected – last year it was 4%.

2019 has been a historic year for protest movements. From the streets of Sudan to Hong Kong, people have poured onto the streets to make their voices heard. However, according to the 536 updates by the CIVICUS Monitor, the fundamental right to peaceful assembly is under attack across the world. In fact, within the last year the CIVICUS Monitor documented that 96 countries either detained protesters, disrupted marches or used excessive force to prevent people from fully exercising their right to peaceful assembly.

“This data reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe. As millions of protesters spilled onto the streets, government response has been repression instead of dialogue,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “However, the fact that so many activists were brave enough to raise their voices, shows the resilience of civil society in the face of brutal repression.”

Nine countries have changed their civic space rating: seven countries have been downgraded and only two improved their rating. Worrying signs for civic space are recorded in Asia-Pacific, where three countries dropped a rating: Australia, India and Brunei. There is growing concern about the decline of democratic and civic rights in Europe, with Malta also being downgraded. Other countries on the slide include Nigeria, Comoros and Madagascar.

People Power Under Attack 2019 also provides analysis on the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past year. Globally, censorship is the most common violation, occurring across 178 countries. From blocking websites and social media, to banning television programmes, governments across the world are going to great lengths to control public discourse and suppress free speech. The other top violations include:

There are bright spots emerging, as both Moldova and the Dominican Republic improved their ratings this past year. The Dominican Republic moved from the obstructed to narrowed category after civil society managed to challenge and overturn restrictive laws; these laws related to defamation cases and constitutional amendments which would lengthen Presidential terms.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Regional summaries and press statements:

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:


New paper on the restrictions facing climate change activists

  • Environmental activism is dangerous and too often deadly, and may worsen as the growing climate crisis fuels divides over access to natural resources
  • Millions of people have marched this year calling for an end to climate injustice yet around the world just 4 percent of the world’s population live in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression according to the CIVICUS Monitor.
  • The annual United Nations climate change negotiations (COP), to be held in Madrid from 2 to 13 December  was meant to be the ‘People’s COP’ but was unable to find a home in Latin America, which remains the most dangerous region in the world to be an environmental defender

Millions of people have taken to the streets in 2019 calling for an end to climate injustice but on the frontlines of the crisis and at the United Nations brave activists continue to be deliberately silenced.

This new position paper ‘We will not be silenced: Climate activism from the frontlines to the UN’ details how people who speak out for climate justice are threatened and intimidated with violence, repressive laws, frivolous lawsuits and disinformation campaigns. Instead of responding to the demands of the climate movement for a more ambitious and just response to the climate crisis, governments are choosing to smother their voices.

In October, when Chilean civil society called for the government to withdraw the military from the streets before hosting COP 25 the Piñera government instead responded by withdrawing overnight from hosting the pivotal meeting. Chile’s withdrawal reflects a worrying trend after Brazil earlier pulled out from hosting COP 25 and Poland, the host of COP 24, imposed restrictions on public mobilisations and limited the participation of accredited civil society.

Civil society scrutiny and contributions to UN climate talks are vital in a year when millions of people have marched in the streets demanding an end to climate inaction. Recent developments in UN climate talks - including the erasure of the landmark IPCC 1.5 degree report from negotiations - under pressure from states including  Saudi Arabia - show the vital need for the COP 25 to be the first true ‘People’s COP’ - reversing the trends in closing space for civil society from the local to the global level.

For more information and interview requests please contact:

Lyndal Rowlands (English)
Natalia Gomez Peña (English, Spanish)

Download: English | Spanish


Shifting the Power to Grassroots Movements

The question of how grassroots groups and activists based in the global south can mobilise adequate support to overcome the growing ecological, social, political and economic challenges they face and achieve positive change is a serious one that requires our attention. These groups face significant challenges in accessing key resources (financial and otherwise) to sustain their work.

CIVICUS embarked on a consultation process to identify, in a participatory way, possible mechanisms that would increase the scale and quality of resources, both international and domestic, for groups and movements. Over the course of five months, we have had the privilege to learn from activists, organisers, young leaders and progressive funders from around the world about resourcing challenges, and to sense-check solutions and co-create scenarios based on lived experiences, bold ideas and deep understanding of social problems.

This consultation is an attempt to move conversations forward at a practical level, exploring options that, pulled together, could help start a radical transformation in the range and quality of resources accessible to grassroots groups. As well as sense-checking the relevance, appeal and feasibility of emerging concepts, the process itself has been significant. These early explorations have directly engaged the groups that we seek to better resource, including a cross-section of grassroots activists, the financial arms of social movements and other strategic partners.

This document is a distillation of our findings and learnings.



Silence Does Not Mean Consent: The Dire State of Human Rights in Equatorial Guinea

Located in the west of Central Africa between Cameroon and Gabon, and with a population of less than a million people, Equatorial Guinea is often described as one of the most censored countries in the world. The space for civil society - civic space - is closed, and consequently, independent journalists and human rights defenders (HRDs) are vulnerable to judicial persecution, threats and attacks from the state. Recent acts of intimidation, arbitrary arrest, detention and harassment of HRD Alfredo Okenve on the day he was supposed to receive a human rights award from the French Embassy in the capital city of Malabo exemplify the risks faced by HRDs.

Cover EG

President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo is Africa’s longest-serving head of state and the world’s longest-serving non-royal leader, having seized power from his uncle Francisco Macías Nguema through a coup d’état in 1979. Equatorial Guinea remained isolated until oil was discovered in the early 1990s and the country opened up to more foreign investment. However, despite the vast amounts of funds secured from the sale of oil, Equatorial Guinea’s human development indicators remain extremely low. Much of the wealth is controlled by President Obiang’s family and close associates while a majority of citizens lack basic services and live in poverty. President Obiang and his ruling Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea (PDGE) have used violence, repression, intimidation and harassment to maintain control of all state institutions and military forces for four decades. Groups or political parties and activists that are perceived by government officials to threaten the power base of the PDGE are either co-opted, harassed, intimidated, or forced to self-censor.  

This policy brief sheds light on some recent human rights violations committed by the regime and restrictions placed on citizens. Since assuming power four decades ago, President Obiang has refused to implement any verifiable and irreversible democratic or political reform. The ruling PDGE party, maintaining stringent control over all aspects of governance, has completely closed spaces for civil society reforms. Given this, Equatorial Guinea’s UPR hearing offers a rare opportunity to hold the government responsible for human rights violations. The African Union (AU), donors, multilateral organisations and global civil society have a responsibility to exert pressure on the government to implement much-needed reforms.

Read the Policy Brief: ENGLISH | SPANISH


In Defence of Humanity: Women Human Rights Defenders and the struggle against silencing

WHRDs PolicyBriefIn recent years, combined with existing threats, the rise of right-wing and nationalist populism across the world has led to an increasing number of governments implementing repressive measures against the space for civil society (civic space), particularly affecting women human rights defenders (WHRDs). The increasingly restricted space for WHRDs presents an urgent threat, not only to women-led organisations, but to all efforts campaigning for women’s rights, gender equality and the rights of all people. In spite of these restrictions, WHRDs have campaigned boldly in the face of mounting opposition: movements such as #MeToo #MenAreTrash, #FreeSaudiWomen, #NiUnaMenos, #NotYourAsianSideKick and #AbortoLegalYa show how countless women are working to advance systemic change for equality and justice. More WHRDs across the world are working collectively to challenge structural injustices and promote the realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Their power has been in the collective, despite constant attempts at silencing them. Furthermore, there have been WHRDs recognized for their invaluable contributions to opening civic space and protecting human rights in India, Poland, and Ireland. In the United States, WHRDs have won awards for the environmental activism, and in Iraq for their work in calling for greater accountability for sexual violence during war time.

This policy brief responds to this context and highlights how the participation of WHRDs in defending and strengthening the protection of human rights is critical for transforming traditional gender roles, embedded social norms and patriarchal power structures. WHRDs are leading actions to advance sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR), socioeconomic justice, labour rights and environmental rights. Moreover, WHRDs work to ensure that women are included in political and economic decision-making processes, making clear the disproportionate effects that socioeconomic inequalities have on women and gender non-conforming people.

Download the Report


New Report: 6 in 10 countries now seriously repressing civic freedoms

Espanol | Francais

Findings based on data released today by the CIVICUS Monitor a global research collaboration which rates and tracks the respect for fundamental freedoms in 196 countries. 

CIVICUS has today released People Power Under Attack 2018, a new report showing that nearly six in ten countries are seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. This reflects a continuing crisis facing civil society organisations and activists across the world, with the space for civic activism most commonly undermined through censorship, attacks on journalists and harassment of human rights defenders.

“This data is a wake-up call. Given the scale of the problem, global leaders, including the G20 who are meeting this week, need to take the protection of civic freedoms far more seriously,” said Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead at CIVICUS. “For civil society, 2018 was a story of states innovating to suppress and restrict criticism by those who dare to challenge people in power.”

The report, which is based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor - a global research collaboration - shows that civil society is under serious attack in 111 out of 196 countries. This is up from 109 countries at our last update in March 2018. In practice, this means that repression of peaceful civic activism continues to represent a widespread crisis for civil society in all parts of the world, with just 4% of the world’s population living in countries where governments are properly respecting the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Nine countries’ civic space ratings have worsened in this latest update, while seven countries improved their ratings. Countries on the slide include Austria, Azerbaijan, Gabon, Kuwait, Italy, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Tanzania and Senegal. Those improving are Canada, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Gambia, Liberia, Lithuania and Somalia.

People Power Under Attack 2018 also provides analysis of the kinds of violations most frequently recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor over the past two years. Globally, attacks on journalists and censorship are the two most common violations, indicating that power holders are going to great lengths to control public narratives and repress freedom of expression. Harassment of activists and the use of excessive force by security forces during protests are the third and fourth most common violations recorded on the CIVICUS Monitor since October 2016.

“While there is rightly a lot of concern about the proliferation of bad laws which stifle civic freedoms, our data shows these are just the tip of the iceberg. Extra-legal measures, such as attacking journalists or beating up protestors, are much more common,” said Gilbert. “These tactics are cynically designed to create a chilling effect and deter others from speaking out or becoming active citizens.”

CIVICUS data released today also contains good news stories. In the seven countries which improved their civic space ratings, and elsewhere, we see clear evidence that peaceful activism can force repressive governments to take a different path. In Ethiopia, for instance, following years of popular unrest and the severe repression of all forms of dissent, 2018 has witnessed a remarkable about-turn. New prime minister Abiy Ahmed has released political prisoners, eased restrictions on electronic communication and made important progress towards reforming some the country's most repressive laws. Changes in political leadership in Gambia and Ecuador have similarly led to an improved environment for the exercise of fundamental freedoms.

“Recent improvements in Ethiopia show what is possible when political will is present and leaders take courageous decisions to respond to the calls of civil society,” said Gilbert. “This should encourage those seeking change in repressive countries everywhere. By removing restrictions and protecting civic space, countries can tap into civil society’s true potential and accelerate progress on a wide range of fronts.”

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has published more than 1,400 civic space updates in the last two years, data which is analysed in People Power Under Attack 2018. Civic space in 196 countries is categorised as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.

Regional press statements:

For more information or to arrange an interview, please contact:

Cathal Gilbert, Civic Space Research Lead, CIVICUS,


New Paper: Regulating Political Activity of Civil Society -- A look at 4 EU countries

A comparative analysis of regulation of civil society organisations’ ‘political activity’ and international funding in Ireland, Netherlands, Germany and Finland. Written by CIVICUS, Irish Council for Civil Liberties, with support from The Community Foundation for Ireland

RegulatingPoliticalActivityOfCivilSociety650This paper provides a comparative assessment of how the “political activities” of civil society organisations are regulated in Ireland and three other European Union member states. This paper focuses particularly on organisations, such as human rights organisations, which carry out public advocacy activities and rely on international sources for a substantial portion of their funding.

All four countries are rated as “open” by the CIVICUS Monitor, a global platform which tracks respect for civic space in 196 countries. These four  european countries are also well known for their strong promotion of civil society, human rights and democratic freedoms through their foreign policy and international development cooperation on programmes. 

Following a brief outline of key international and regional norms, the paper outlines relevant aspects of domestic regulatory systems in Netherlands, Germany and Finland. A final section sets out what Ireland could learn from these examples, with a view to reforming its laws and policies governing “political activities” and foreign funding of civil society organisations.

Download Paper


Repression in Paradise: Assault on fundamental freedoms in the Maldives

The Maldives, an archipelago of islands in the Indian Ocean, was thrown into a political crisis on 1 February 2018 when the country's Supreme Court ordered the release and retrial of a group of opposition politicians, including exiled former president Mohamed Nasheed. President Yameen Abdul Gayoom refused to comply with the ruling, leading to mass protests in the capital, Malé.In response, the President declared a state of emergency, provided the security forces with sweeping powers and suspended constitutional rights. He also removed and arrested two Supreme Court judges.


India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society 

According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.


People Power Under Attack

CIVICUS Monitor Ratings Update October 2017

Updated ratings from the CIVICUS Monitor, released 4 October 2017, provide further evidence that the space for civil society - civic space - continues to close around the world. The findings show that this phenomenon extends to a wide range of countries - from established democracies like Belgium and the Netherlands, to economic powerhouse China and conflict ridden Yemen. The report outlines how civic space ratings worsened in eight countries, improved in two and remained unchanged in 185 countries. These changes are based on a review of quantitative and qualitative data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression undertaken between July and September 2017.

Some highlights:

  • 108 countries are now in the CIVICUS Monitor’s ‘obstructed’, ‘repressed’ and ‘closed’ categories, an increase of two from April 2017, which indicate serious restrictions of civic space.
  • Just 22 countries now occupy the ‘open’ category, down from 26 in April. This means that just 2%  of the world’s population live in a country with ‘open’ civic space. This analysis also shows that more than three billion people live in countries with serious to extreme restrictions on fundamental civic freedoms.
  • Only 13 of 28 European Union (EU) member states now have ‘open’ civic space, an uncomfortable statistic for the leaders of a union founded on the values of democracy and human rights.
  • Journalists are especially vulnerable to violations of their civic freedoms, between June 2016 and September 2017, the CIVICUS Monitor published a total of 184 reports involving attacks of one kind or another on journalists.

Download the Report 


Peers and Partners: Empowering Children to take Civic Action

STC PaperWhile threats against civic space are well documented around the world, little is said on how civic space trends are being experienced by children, and how children’s rights and abilities to be active agents for change in their countries and communities are being affected. The report aims to fill that gap by bringing children’s voices to the debate, as well as those of concerned adult civil society activists. The report presents findings from a study conducted in 2016 combining online consultations and face-to-face group discussions with a total of 1,606 children, aged between eight and 17, from 60 countries, and from an online survey carried out with 488 respondents from adult-led civil society from 98 countries.

Among other findings, the research reveals that:

  • The challenges faced by civil society in general are accentuated for children who seek to engage in civic action and influence public decision-making.
  • Children have the right and the desire to be involved in decision-making, but their potential and ability to contribute to society is being obstructed in many countries.
  • State and intergovernmental institutions must prioritise the creation of spaces and opportunities for children to participate in processes that make decisions on issues that affect them.
  • Adult-led civil society should work to broker new connections between children and policy-makers, and help facilitate meaningful and ethical opportunities for children to participate.

The brief calls for policy-makers to support children’s civic rights, recognise the benefits of enabling children to exercise their civic rights and their right to participate, and act to unlock these benefits. Improved participation will ultimately lead to better informed and more effective policy.

Download the Report 


Report: Civil Society Rights and the Extractive Industries

People’s rights to organise, speak out and take action are being extensively violated in a large number of member countries of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The CIVICUS Monitor, a new online tool to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale, shows that the space for civil society - civic space - is currently seriously restricted in 38 of 51 EITI countries, as of May 2017. 

Civil society organisations (CS0s) and human rights defenders in most EITI member countries face serious obstacles, including threats to their personal safety, denial of the right to protest, surveillance and censorship, as a direct result of their nonviolent activism. The fact that civil society’s fundamental rights are seriously violated in so many EITI countries is alarming, given that the EITI seeks to promote “accountability by government to all citizens” and explicitly recognises the “important and relevant contributions” of non-governmental organisations.  The level of restrictions revealed by this report presents a direct challenge to the viability of the EITI and raises serious questions about member states that are routinely failing to protect CSOs and in many cases treating them as adversaries.

The EITI should recognise the threat the violations documented in this report offer to its credibility and viability as an international multi-stakeholder initiative. It should respond by taking increased steps to ensure that the protection of CSOs and activists becomes a priority in all its member countries.

CIVICUS recommends that EITI:

  • Enhances its requirements for multi-stakeholder engagement in a way that contributes to the creation of a more robust civic space. In doing so, EITI should ensure that CSOs enjoy the “full, free, active and effective engagement” they are meant to have within country-level multi-stakeholder groups;
  • Ensures that all member governments engage fully and meaningfully with CSOs and implement the recommendations made in the review of multi-stakeholder groups carried out by MSI Integrity in 2015;
  • Applies existing requirements more strictly and consistently to make sure that conditions for meaningful civil society participation are met in member countries;
  • Promotes an early validation process against the EITI Standard - the requirements that apply to all EITI member countries - for all those countries in which civic space is seriously restricted;
  • Prescribes corrective actions to governments of countries where there are serious civic space restrictions and closely monitors their progress in implementing recommendations; and
  • Credibly applies or threatens to apply sanctions, including suspension, towards countries failing to make discernible progress in upholding fundamental civil society rights

Download Report


New Report: Civic Space in the Americas

People’s rights to organise, speak out and take action are being extensively violated in a large number of countries in the Americas. This is according to new research by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, the Caribbean Policy Development Centre (CPDC), the Charity and Security Network, the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (REDLAD) and the Rendir Cuentas initiative. Our findings are based on data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a new research collaboration to track and compare civic freedoms on a global scale.


Keeping up the pressure: enhancing the sustainability of protest movements

The report explores key factors that contribute to or undermine the sustainability of contemporary protest movements. The research examines these issues in three countries: Bahrain, Chile and Uganda, drawing from a series of surveys of and interviews with leaders of contemporary protest movements.

The report’s key findings show that in the face of domestic restrictions on dissent there is a lack of adequate support for the right to protest from a range of international stakeholders, including other protest movements, foreign states, United Nation bodies and international civil society organisations. This study concludes that such support is essential for enhancing the sustainability of national protest movements.

Additional key findings include:

  • Irrespective of their state’s overall level of respect for core civil society freedoms, the states covered by the research are failing to facilitate the right to peaceful assembly.
  • The major ways in which states undermine the sustainability of protest movements are the excessive use of force, the arbitrary arrest of protesters and the imposition of legal restrictions on the freedom of assembly. 

  • As networking with domestic civil society allies, including with unions, faith groups and other civil society groups, is important for enhancing the sustainability of protest movements in each country, domestic CSOs should play a larger role in mobilizing support for protest movements. 

  • The sustainability of protest movements would be enhanced if legal and extra-legal restrictions on the right to the freedom of assembly are removed or eased.
  • Protest movement leaders believe that they and their movements have capacity development needs that are currently not being.

Download the full report in English 


People power under attack: findings from the CIVICUS Monitor

According to new findings from the CIVICUS Monitor, just three percent of  people live in countries where space for civic activism - or civic space- is truly open. The first ever analysis of civic space covering all UN Member States shows people in 106 countries face serious threats when organising, speaking out and taking peaceful action to improve their societies. These rights are guaranteed by most national constitutions and enshrined in international  law. 

Download Report


Addressing Civic Space Restrictions in Uganda: What Role for the UPR?

This policy action brief, prepared by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative (FHRI), examines a range of restrictions on civil society’s fundamental rights recently experienced in Uganda. In particular, these have included a series of break-ins on the premises of civil society organisations (CSOs), in which CSO information has been stolen; attacks on the media, which have included physical attacks on journalists and the closure of private radio stations; the introduction of restrictive legislation, including on CSO operations, the media and the freedom of assembly; and increased restriction of peaceful assemblies, including through the use of excessive force to break up protests.




On 21 November 2016, CIVICUS together with Amnesty  International, Defence  for  Children  International,  KidsRights and World Vision convened a side event- Widening Space by Young Human Rights Defenders. The event allowed young human rights defenders to share their local realities and the ways in which they contribute to the protection and promotion of human rights, in their communities and globally. This report summarises key insights, discussions, and outcomes from the event. 

Read the report in English



If citizens are to have strong opportunities to take part in the making of decisions that affect their lives, there needs to be space for civil society to function, flourish and play a full range of roles. The space for civil society – civic space – rests on the realisation of three fundamental rights: the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. If these three rights are respected, citizens can exercise dissent, propose solutions and contribute meaningfully to democratic governance.

The importance of civic space is recognised in international law, which compels governments to respect, facilitate and protect the three fundamental civil society rights. The role of civil society has also been recognised in a number of recent landmark international agreements, including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, this survey of civic space in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) offers compelling evidence that civil society rights are not being realised. On the positive side, core freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most LAC countries, and mechanisms for civil society participation are increasingly being institutionalised in the region. But against this, legal and administrative barriers to the creation, functioning, communication and resourcing of civil society organisations (CSOs) have either been maintained or  recently introduced in numerous LAC countries. These constrain the freedom of association.

Alongside legal and administrative barriers, restrictions on the effective exercise of  the  freedom  of  association  take  various  forms, including  increased  scrutiny and surveillance; moves to close CSOs forcibly; smear campaigns; arrests, imprisonment, and miscarriages of justice; and the intimidation and targeted assassination of activists and human rights defenders (HRDs). Such measures disproportionally affect the work of CSOs, HRDs and journalists that engage in advocacy,  seek to hold governments to account, and work to expose poor governance and realise the rights of excluded people.

Many LAC countries have also witnessed an increase in the state’s coercive power to maintain public order, which impinges on the freedom of peaceful assembly. Laws have been passed or proposed in several countries that privilege the free circulation of traffic over the right of people to join together in public space to express dissent, and that allow for the more authoritarian policing of protests. 
More often than not, protests have been violently suppressed. This has come in response to an upsurge of citizens’ protests in response to entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.Further, despite a continuing trend  towards  the adoption  of legislation on the right  to  access  information,  conditions  for  the  exercise  of  the  freedom  of  expression have deteriorated in several LAC countries. Judicial persecution and violence against journalists, as well as against CSOs and activists using the media, are among the most troubling limitations on the freedom of expression. Related issues that impact on the space for expression include conflicts between governments and critical media, and increasing concentration of media ownership.

Finally, two pressing and connected issues further affect the quality of civic space in LAC: government corruption and the influence of predatory business interests. A key concern here is the existence in many LAC countries of extensive corruption networks that link business interests, public officials and elements of the security forces, particularly at the local level. These structures of corruption cause widespread violations of the human rights of communities affected by their activities, and of CSOs and activists that work to uphold the rights of those communities. Affected populations include those whose livelihoods and environments are threatened by the advance of extractive industries, agribusiness and large-scale construction projects.


Download the report: English | Spanish 


Against all odds: The perils of fighting for natural resource

Many countries worldwide rely on the exploitation of natural resources as an important source of economic activity and public income. Yet when people in those countries legitimately want a say in the stewardship of their collective natural endowment, they often experience pushback from political and corporate entities seeking to defend their own interests. In response, CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Publish What You Pay coalition have collaborated on this report to highlight the vital work being done by activists and their organisations for natural resource justice. In doing so, we want to acknowledge the courage and resilience of those who fight tirelessly for the equitable management of natural wealth. We want to make their stories known and create even stronger webs of solidarity.

This work comes at a price for activists, including members of CIVICUS and the PWYP movement. For many of them, harassment has become a constant companion. Authoritarian and corrupt elements in states and the private sector have attempted to silence those questioning the unscrupulous exploitation of natural resources. Their methods include arbitrary arrests, illegal surveillance, disproportionate fines, various forms of intimidation and threats, unjustified travel bans, unwarranted raids on offices and violent attacks.

This report shows that shrinking civic space is a reality in most, if not all, resource-rich countries, from Australia to the Democratic Republic of Congo, from Azerbaijan to Canada. In shining the spotlight on the grave human rights violations taking place in some of the world’s most remote locations, we believe this report can be useful to those engaged in struggles for justice and equity around the world. These include UN and regional special experts, multilateral institutions, development banks, academic institutions, the media, and civil society activists and organisations. We are seeking out allies in sympathetic governments and private sector entities willing to work with initiatives such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Open Government Partnership.

Download the report: English | Spanish


CIVICUS Monitor Findings Report

Data from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that 3.2 billion people live in countries where civic space (which is made up by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly) is repressed or closed.


Of the 104 countries for which we have verified ratings, 16 countries are rated closed, 32 repressed, 21 obstructed, 26 narrowed and nine open. Of the closed countries, seven are in Africa, five in the Middle East, three in Asia and one in the Americas. Of the repressed countries, 14 are in Africa, seven in Asia, four each in Europe and the Americas and three in the Middle East.1 Of the obstructed countries, seven are in Asia, five in the Americas, four each in Africa and Europe and one in the Middle East. Of the narrowed countries, ten each are in Europe and the Americas, four in Africa and two in Asia. All nine of the open countries for which we have verified ratings are in Europe. 1 The list of countries included in each of these regional classifications 




Civic Space in Europe Survey

Recent  years  have  witnessed  increased  challenges  to  the  core  democratic  values  upheld  in  many 
parts  of  the  world,  protest  movements  have  gathered  in  many  countries  to  call  for  greater 
accountability of governments. 

At the same time a number of governments have appeared to regard civil society organisations and 
active  citizens  as  unhelpful  and  have  at  times  suggested  that  the  basic  freedoms  of  association, 
assembly and expression should be limited  in favour of vaguely defined ‘national interests’; in other 
cases there have been direct calls for limits to the right to campaign, which would undermine the 
basic freedoms that lie at the heart of democracy in Europe.

So  we  set  out  to  understand  a  core  issue:   do  civil  society  organisations  feel  that  their  rights  are 
being eroded? 

This survey set out to draw out some initial perceptions of civil society leaders in Europe as part of a 
wider global process to understand and analyse the changes that are taking place in many countries. 
It is intended to highlight some key trends but does not aim to provide a fully comprehensive picture 
of the situation in every country at this stage.



Burundi on a Downward Spiral: Prevalence of Violence and Impunity

BurundiThe current crisis in Burundi has given rise to the worst violations of human rights since the country’s brutal civil war of 1993 to 2005.The Burundian government has wantonly targeted representatives of civil society organisations (CSOs) and real and perceived members of the political opposition. Extrajudicial killings and assassinations of those who are critical of the actions of the government have become commonplace.

While highlighting the extensive violations of civil society freedoms in Burundi, this Policy Action Brief also makes several recommendations on steps to create an enabling environment for civil society.

Read the full brief here


Core Civil Society Rights Violated in 109 Countries - Civil Society Watch Report

CSW ReportCoverThe latest CIVICUS monitoring shows that in 2015 one or more of the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly were seriously violated in at least 109 countries. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS has documented serious violations of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly in 109 countries over the course of 2015.

The list shows that instead of heeding calls to reverse the trend of closing civil society space, more and more states are failing their commitments under international law and reneging on their duty to protect and enable civil society. Several non-state actors also stand accused of seriously violating civil society freedoms.


CIVICUS Civil Society Watch Report 2016 - Map


CIVICUS Civil Society Watch Report 2016

Countries which significantly violated fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly or expression in 2015 are highlighted in blue on the map.



In this discussion paper, based on interviews with 12 innovative foundations based in the global south, CIVICUS examines the question of how philanthropists in the global south could better support the activities of human rights and social justice CSOs. This paper has found that there is a nascent local culture of institutionalised philanthropy for human rights and social justice causes in the global south, but so far it is not sufficiently developed to bridge the gap left by reducing support from foreign donor agencies and increased government restrictions on the receipt of funding.


Enhancing the Effectiveness of the UN Universal Periodic Review: Civil Society Perspective

In a new report released today, “Enhancing the effectiveness of the UN Universal Periodic Review: A civil society perspective,” CIVICUS examines the experiences of civil society groups from across the world in engaging with the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The report, based on interviews with civil society leaders operating in diverse regions of the globe, provides a number of substantive recommendations to strengthen the UPR process to support the creation of a safe and enabling environment for civil society to promote and protect human rights.


Attacks on Civil Society Undermining Democracy and Development in Kenya

This Policy Action Brief, co-authored by CIVICUS and the National kenyaCoalition of Human Rights Defenders-Kenya, presents an overview of the challenging environment for civil society in Kenya, particularly since the March 2013 elections which brought the Jubilee Coalition government in power. It assesses the Jubilee Coalition’s tenure in office and notes that many analysts have mixed feelings about the government’s handling of political and economic challenges and that civil society in Kenya is deeply disturbed by official attitudes toward the non-profit sector.  The brief makes several recommendations on steps to create an enabling environment for civil society.


Civic Participation and Activism in Armenia: A Civil Society Index – Rapid Assessment

By Counterpart International Armenia

Download the report in English

Civic engagement, participation and individual and collective activism form one of the core components of civil society as this describes the formal and informal activities undertaken by individuals to advance shared interests at different levels, from shared associational and social activity to the advancement of political interests. The level of ‘active citizenship’, whether it takes place within or outside CSOs, is therefore a crucial defining factor of civil society.  The Civil Society Index- Rapid Assessment (CSI-RA) in Armenia, conducted by Counterpart International Armenia, focuses on civic participation and activism as currently very important and under-researched aspects of Armenian civil society.


Counterpart International has also put together a policy action brief based on the results of the CSI-RA. Read the brief titled "Armenian Civil Society: Consolidated but Detached from Broader Public".


Enabling Environment National Assessment – Mexico Country Report

By CEMEFI – Centro Mexicano para la Filantropía

Download the report in English or Spanish
The Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA’s), a research tool jointly developed by CIVICUS and ICNL, aims to assess the legal, regulatory and policy environment for civil society at the national level. These national assessments are meant to be locally-driven, rooted in primary data collected at the grassroots level, and validated by a consensus based, multi-stakeholder process. Ultimately, the EENAs are intended to operate as springboards for local actors to improve the legal and enabling environments for CSOs.  By empowering local partners to successfully advocate for the rights of CSOs, the EENAs will facilitate the strengthening of civil society and the improving of CSO-government relations.
The EENA is part of the Civic Space Initiative implemented by CIVICUS in partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, ARTICLE19, and the World Movement for Democracy, with support from the Government of Sweden.


Enabling Environment National Assessment – India Country Report

by Voluntary Action Network India

Download the report in English or Hindi

The Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA’s), a research tool jointly developed by CIVICUS and ICNL, aims to assess the legal, regulatory and policy environment for civil society at the national level. These national assessments are meant to be locally-driven, rooted in primary data collected at the grassroots level, and validated by a consensus based, multi-stakeholder process. Ultimately, the EENAs are intended to operate as springboards for local actors to improve the legal and enabling environments for CSOs.  By empowering local partners to successfully advocate for the rights of CSOs, the EENAs will facilitate the strengthening of civil society and the improving of CSO-government relations.
The EENA is part of the Civic Space Initiative implemented by CIVICUS in partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, ARTICLE19, and the World Movement for Democracy, with support from the Government of Sweden.


CIVICUS - FACTS Report “Stories of innovative democracy at local level: enhancing participation, activism and social change across the world”


FACTScoverThe special issue of the FACTS Report titled, “Stories of innovative democracy at local level: enhancing participation, activism and social change across the world”, compiles ideas, stories, project evaluations and research from CIVICUS members and partners and beyond. From participatory budgeting (Lisbon, Nigeria, India, China) to local development initiatives (Niger), distribution of public services (Madagascar, India) and improving the dialogue between government authorities with citizens (Oregon, France, Argentina), these 14 articles tackle key issues for democracy such as government transparency and accountability, to make government institutions more receptive to citizens’ voices and demands.

“From Europe to Latin America, from Asia to Africa, and across the Arab world, the news is full of examples of disconnect between governments and citizens. Public institutions are not meeting—or are no longer meeting— the needs and expectations of the population.


Framework Conditions for Civil Society in Austria: A Civil Society Index-Rapid Assessment Report

English | German

AustriaCSIRAA vibrant civil society contributes significantly to a living democracy, social cohesion and social innovation. Civil society organizations (CSOs) provide important services. Especially in times of crisis, they can help to improve living conditions for many people.

Appropriate framework conditions are a prerequisite if the potentials of civil society are to be developed and exploited in an effective way. While this has been known to scholars and experts for some time, politicians are now becoming increasingly aware of the opportunities which may arise from creating favourable conditions for civil society.

The Civil Society Index – Rapid Assessment (CSI–RA), therefore, examines the general climate and framework conditions for civil society initiatives and organizations in Austria. Using the internationally tested CSI-RA tool, supporting as well as limiting factors were identified and assessed from the point of view of experts and social stakeholders. The ultimate aim of this report is to provide a basis for the creation of a beneficial environment for Austrian civil society.


Enabling Environment National Assessment – Lebanon Country Report

By Arab NGO Network for Development

Download the report in English or Arabic

The Enabling Environment National Assessments (EENA’s), a research tool jointly developed by CIVICUS and ICNL, aims to assess the legal, regulatory and policy environment for civil society at the national level. These national assessments are meant to be locally-driven, rooted in primary data collected at the grassroots level, and validated by a consensus based, multi-stakeholder process. Ultimately, the EENAs are intended to operate as springboards for local actors to improve the legal and enabling environments for CSOs.  By empowering local partners to successfully advocate for the rights of CSOs, the EENAs will facilitate the strengthening of civil society and the improving of CSO-government relations.
The EENA is part of the Civic Space Initiative implemented by CIVICUS in partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, ARTICLE19, and the World Movement for Democracy, with support from the Government of Sweden.


Civil Society in Cambodia: Existing Under a Shadow

 Civil Society in Cambodia coverAs part of its work to monitor civic space, from time to time CIVICUS produces Policy Action Briefs on countries where civil society is under increasing and or dire threat. As part of this work, we have produced a Policy Action Brief on Cambodia which highlights the following:

•Increasing attacks on protestors

•Intimidation and harassment of civil society members 

•Drawing up of restrictive legislation to quell dissenting voices

The Brief is particularly relevant as Cambodia has recently completed its Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council while rejecting some recommendations to protect civil society freedoms. 

Public dissatisfaction at the manipulation of democracy by members of the ruling political elite has led to a brutal response by the Cambodian state. The brief also sheds light on attacks on human rights activists, environmental and land rights defenders in Cambodia. Finally, it highlights the multiple challenges that the country’s vibrant civil society faces and makes several recommendations in the wake of the increasingly disenabling environment for civil society and citizen participation in the country. 



Civil Society Index- Rapid Assessment (CSI-RA) - West Africa Reports

The CIVICUS Civil Society Index‐Rapid Assessment (CSI‐RA) project in West Africa was initiated in 2013 with financial support from Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA) and CIVICUS, and in partnership with the West African Civil Society Institute (WACSI). The ultimate goal of the project was to generate local knowledge by civil society and develop actionable recommendations that can promote civil society’s role and capacity to foster democracy and citizen’s participation in BeninGhana, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.
It engaged civil society partners in these countries in developing and implementing a self‐assessment tool that contributes to evidence‐based civil society strengthening at the country level. Because the CSI-RA offers a more flexible methodology that is designed to be highly adaptable to any context, including sub-national, sectoral or thematic contexts; the different country partners chose, in consultation with a wide range of CSOs, different areas of assessment depending on their needs and prioritization.


Executive Summary: Citizen action to the fore: a second wave of protest

Executive Summary (English)
Resumen Ejecutivo (en Español)
Résumé (Francais)

A predictable backlash against dissent  |  Privileging of the private sector  |  A global governance system fit for purpose  |  Recommendations 

Globally, there is a crisis in governance. This is playing out on the streets at national and local levels. Increasing numbers of people are protesting to express their frustration at the failure of power holders to act in the best interests of citizens.

Our State of Civil Society Report published in 2012 analysed the wave of public protest that was then sweeping many parts of the world, including the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Europe and North America. Our 2013 report, on the theme of the enabling environment for civil society, noted multiple deficiencies in the conditions for civil society and for the expression of public dissent, drawing attention to state pushback against protest, particularly in the MENA region. In the last 12 months, we have seen a second wave of mass protest, this time in new, often unexpected locations.

Recent protest hotspots have included Brazil, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela and several countries in South and Southeast Asia such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand. Each of these mobilisations of dissent has had different local inspirations and varying trajectories of success, but they share some striking commonalities. These include the mushrooming of protest from an initially local grievance, such as a hike in transport fares or the proposed loss of a green space, to broader issues – of dissatisfaction with people’s lack of voice, the behaviour of political and economic elites, corruption and inequality. Often this growth of protest was inadvertently encouraged by a heavy-handed state response to largely peaceful dissent. Another commonality was in tactics, which saw substantial use of mobile technology and social media; creative, attention-grabbing techniques and viral memes; the nonviolent occupation of public space; and loose organisational structures with an absence of hierarchy and a commitment to participatory democracy. These borrowed directly from the tactics of earlier protests and saw similar currents of international sharing and cross-border solidarity.

What recent protests tell us is that the anger that fuelled earlier protests is here to stay, because the issues remain salient. It is also significant that many recent protests have taken place in relatively mature, formal democracies and in countries that have made progress on economic indicators. Protests were not necessarily driven by the poorest and most marginalised people. This suggests that people want more than the formal right to participate in elections and want to see more than a growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And they are making new channels for their demands. Protesters see established politics as not addressing the issues they care about. In doing so, they have identified a democratic deficit. Traditional party politics are therefore being rejected as being complicit in the status quo and inadequate in the opportunities they offer for voice; thus, new civic and political arenas are being formed.

It should also be noted that some of this anger and rejection of existing politics also takes extremist forms, while mainstream civil society organisations (CSOs) can face challenges in connecting with new protest movements and proving their relevance to these communities. 

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A backlash against dissent

In the face of contemporary waves of protest, many governments feel threatened and have stepped up their efforts to close down civic space, through a combination of dubious legislation, the demonization of protest movements and direct harassment of civil society activists and their organisations. In doing so, they have often times breached the letter and spirit of international law, further eroding public trust in the morality of the state whose response to crises is expected to be just and ethical.

The list of offenders is a long and egregious one. In most MENA countries, particularly Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, the pushback has been strong and brutal, testing the hope generated by the peoples’ uprisings of 2011. Two other geographical regions show particular concentrations of heavy state action against civil society: the countries of the former Soviet Union and Sub-Saharan Africa. A further marked trend in the past 12 months has been backlash against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) activism, seen in both these regions.

There is a tendency for repressive legislation to be borrowed and adapted from one country to another just as advocacy and protest tactics are being replicated by civil society. As discussed in the full report, a particular focus is on restricting the right of CSOs to receive funding from foreign sources, an essential means of support for CSOs working in politically difficult contexts. Other laws recently adopted in multiple contexts seek to proscribe what is considered permissible CSO activity, limit peaceful assembly and protest, and make CSO registration inordinately complex.

In more politically repressed contexts, the fact that new media has offered tools to find ways around censorship and the restriction of protest has made it a new target for government attacks. Meanwhile, individuals who blow the whistle on international surveillance tactics have been subject to malicious prosecution. The complicity of private sector interests in internet surveillance is a troubling part of this picture.

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Privileging of the private sector

A rising area of concern for civil society is the role of the private sector in governance. Part of the dissatisfaction being expressed through protest is with the lack of public control over large corporations, as well as the tight overlap and collusion between economic and political elites. Sometimes these are hard to distinguish: politicians may have extensive business interests, while the economically powerful may move into politics as a way of protecting their wealth. Political decisions are taken that benefit economic elite interests. Compared to their own lack of voice, protesters see that private sector interests enjoy privileged access to decision-makers. They see states abdicating their responsibilities by outsourcing basic services and selling elements of the public sphere to private interests, diluting accountability as a consequence. Further, large transnational corporations transcend the regulation attempts of national jurisdictions. Many of the worst acts of repression against civil society are against activists seeking environmental justice and protection of land rights, who position themselves in opposition to powerful construction, agribusiness and extractive industries.

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A global governance system fit for purpose? 

One hope we might hold out for the institutions of global governance is that they can offer a source of protection and support for people who are being repressed, marginalised or excluded at the national level. If democratic deficits at the national level arise partly out of the experience of economic globalisation, which hands power to unaccountable corporations, then it should be logical that global opportunities also exist to redress this. In an ever more complex governance environment, where large problems are acknowledged to cross national borders, the international level of decision-making is starting to matter more. Global institutions need to be more attuned to this reality.

And to some extent, international governance institutions play a positive role: the UN Human Rights Council and regional human rights bodies, such as those in Africa and the Americas, are valued by civil society as arenas in which important issues of civil society rights can be raised and international support can be won, despite the areas where civil society feels their processes could be improved. The UN has helped propagate global norms that can then be applied to, and become the focus for, civil society advocacy at the national level. International connections offer an important source of solidarity and support for civil society activists who are under threat.

However, a number of powerful, connected civil society critiques about the institutions of global and regional governance are being made. The international governance system is complex and characterised by gaps; for example, it is strong on enforcing trade agreements, but weak on enforcing environmental agreements. Many of these institutions have not kept up with dramatic geopolitical changes in recent decades that have seen the rise of new powers from the global South, the expansion of civil society and changing citizens’ expectations of participation. They are out of date, reflecting a post-Second World War order that has long passed in reality, but which prevails in the control of key political and financial institutions, notably the UN Security Council, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These remain skewed towards the interests of a handful of states that have in effect been able to lock in the power imbalances that they enjoy.

They have been able to do this because international institutions do not have a high level of autonomy from the most powerful states; these governments pay the bills and their representatives sit in the key decision-making structures. This means that national interests too often prevail and that international institutions provide a battleground in which the strategic imperatives of states are asserted and contested. The failure of the international community to mount a coherent response to end the suffering of civilians in the Syrian conflict is the current clearest indictment of an international order that was supposedly established to transcend the inability of states to act in the best interests of humanity. Instead, the system has become deadlocked, captured by vested geopolitical interests.

It is for this reason that suggestions that the international order can be reformed by redressing power imbalances between states in the governance of international institutions – for example, by bringing more states into the UN Security Council – are inadequate. The challenge that international institutions are deformed by state interests will not necessarily be addressed by involving more states, which will carry their vested interests in with them.

A further civil society concern is that large transnational corporations are seeing the development arena as an opportunity for profit. International financial institutions are promoting public-private partnerships, at international and national levels, and also pushing market liberalisation onto economically fragile countries as a condition of support, which has the effect of increasing access for large corporations to activities previously carried out by governments. At the global level, private sector involvement is often justified by the argument that it makes international governance more efficient and flexible. Many international organisations, not least to address the funding gap between their aspirations and their resources, are targeting private sector support and are encouraged by states to do so. But this does not come without a cost: the privatised sphere generally has less scope for accountability than the public sphere; it also excludes those who cannot afford to pay for services, further exacerbating inequality. Moreover, private involvement in the implementation of state responsibilities often bleeds into influence on policy, favouring elite over majority interests.

Comparatively, CSOs and citizens have far less access and influence. In global governance, there is insufficient opportunity for voices that rise above the interests of national governments and the private sector to prevail. CIVICUS’ Scorecard exercise to assess civil society engagement with international organisations reveals considerable discontent with the way international governance institutions engage with civil society. Consultations with civil society are assessed to be largely superficial, often appearing to be box-ticking exercises. Many CSOs feel that, while they are asked to help implement programmes, they are not given sufficient scope to shape policy. It is often hard to show real influence having resulted from international institutions’ engagement with civil society. The member states of international bodies are often able to override input from CSOs. The terms of engagement are determined by international institutions and states, and CSOs are excluded from the key decision-making arenas. CSOs also assess that international institutions are too selective in choosing who they engage with and need to improve their outreach to be exposed to a wider, more diverse range of civil society.

At the same time, CSOs themselves come into criticism for sometimes acting as gatekeepers. Larger and better resourced CSOs that have traditionally enjoyed privileged access to international institutions are often blamed for being preoccupied with retaining their status rather than broadening civil society participation. This includes a tendency for CSOs based in the global North, where the overwhelming majority of international institutions are based, to have the most voice. Civil society is also criticised for being parochial and focussing on individual issues, rather than working together, and for failing to put forward implementable solutions. There remains a glaring lack of global, mass-based, citizen-led movements in international decision-making arenas that can offer counterbalances to an international order based around the interests of states and large corporations.

International governance currently offers a double democratic deficit: large numbers of people are dissatisfied with the subversion of democracy by elites at the national level, and an international governance system that is accessible to a select few offers little possibility to address citizens’ concerns. The current arrangements of international governance are not open and transparent. International institutions remain mysterious to citizens and fail to engage directly with them. When they act, they are not seen to be responsive to the expectations of voice and participation that people are demanding on the streets in different parts of the world.

Just as states that go through the formal motions of democracy without addressing inequality and marginalisation in society have fallen into discredit, international governance institutions with limited scope for people’s participation risk becoming irrelevant. The challenge for international institutions is that they are seen to be doing little to foster positive change about the issues that people are expressing their anger about – the widening gap between the top and bottom echelons of society, lack of voice and subversion of democracy, elite power – or worse, that in promoting market oriented policies, they can be identified as contributing to these problems.

The current system that privileges states and corporations over people is unacceptable. The key test of meaningful global governance reform would therefore be whether opportunities for access by, and accountability towards, a wide range of citizens and their associations are assured.

As the world debates a post-2015 sustainable development agenda, it is critical that national governments and international institutions inspire actions that empower the marginalised and collectively address the challenge posed by economic and political systems that concentrate power and prosperity in the hands of a few.

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Recommendations for governments and intergovernmental organisations:

There is a need to move away from the state-centric model of international governance towards a citizen-oriented model. Radical new forms of representation and oversight, such as citizens’ panels and assemblies that have real power, should be explored. Current institutions should be audited and tested on their ability to respond to and achieve progress on issues identified by people rather than just governments. International governance institutions need to make their decision-making processes more open and democratic. This needs to be done on two levels. It should include the promotion of equality between states and the removal of arbitrary veto powers that some states hold. Additionally, it should also include efforts to create greater parity between official and civil society delegations and more opportunities for civil society to give input and exercise accountability. As part of this, attempts to involve civil society should actively broaden the involvement of various segments within the sector, and address imbalances in access between Northern and Southern civil society actors.

Information on the work and mandates of international governance institutions should proactively be made available to enable greater civil society involvement and scrutiny of decisions and their implementation. New media, including mobile and social media, should also be used to help demystify international institutions, and to encourage participation and the exercise of social accountability. In addition, there should be regular interactions by the leadership of intergovernmental organisations with civil society and the media, as well as the creation of accessible databases of statistical and other information on their work.

In order to strengthen civil society participation, greater local outreach should be offered and dedicated spaces for civil society participation should be established, with civil society helping to define and govern these. Additionally, funds should be earmarked to enable broad civil society participation, and accreditation procedures should be simplified.

International organisations should prioritise making the environment for civil society more enabling – at the local, national, regional and global levels – in law and in practice. Efforts should be made from the local to the global levels to ensure practical realisation of civil society rights enshrined in various international treaties and agreements.


Recommendations for civil society:

CSOs that are concerned with issues of social justice and civic change should make the influencing of global governance institutions a programmatic priority. This necessitates enhancing civil society’s knowledge and understanding of the impact of global decision making on their local conditions, including through information sharing and peer learning. Additionally, the creation of linkages with new protest movements – and building of coalitions and networks that enable the sharing of resources and the connection of diverse parts of civil society, particularly South-North and national-local connections – should be prioritised.

The larger, better resourced CSOs that have an established presence in key intergovernmental organisations should take the initiative to democratise the space they hold and involve a wider range of civil society groups in engaging international governance institutions, including by sharing their organisational accreditation and financial resources.

Strategic relationships should be forged with states that are more sympathetic towards global governance reform. Relations also need to be built with academia and the media to ensure that civil society advocacy is grounded in expert analysis and wins wide public support. Strengthening these relationships will ensure that the role of international organisations, the challenges of private sector privilege and the centrality of global governance reform to the issues that people are concerned about can be made more clear, and tangible paths for engagement and influence can be identified.

CIVICUS commits itself to working with its members and partners to implement the above recommendations. In the coming weeks and months, we will redouble our efforts to build more lateral relationships within civil society and create pathways for greater citizen involvement in and the monitoring of global governance processes.

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download the 2014 State of Civil Society Report

Executive Summary

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Executive Summary (English)
Resumen Ejecutivo (en Español)
Résumé (Francais)


State of Civil Society 2014: Reimagining Global Governance (full report)
Full report

The Year That Was

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A year in civil society - citizen action to the fore


Summary of Expert Perspectives

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Towards a democratic multilateralism: civil society perspectives on the state of global governance


Civil Society Perspectives on Global Governance

Section 1: The great challenges of the 21st century

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Old problems, invisible problems, new actors: Conceiving and mis-conceiving our urban century
Sheela Patel
Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres and Shack/Slum Dwellers International

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Escaping the global resource curse
Gavin Hayman
Global Witness

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Responsibility to Protect:  Can we prevent mass atrocities without making the same old mistakes?
Jaclyn D. Streitfeld-Hall
Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect

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A people's Internet: democratising Internet governance
Dixie Hawtin
Global Partners Digital

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What needs to change in the global governance system to ensure climate justice
Kumi Naidoo and Daniel Mittler
Greenpeace International


Section 2: Citizens demanding accountability in the international arena

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The fight against UN impunity and immunity in Haiti: The cholera scandal
Mario Joseph
Bureau des Avocats Internationaux

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Assessing the accountability of the world’s leading institutions
Christina Laybourn
One World Trust

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Innovative strategies used by the disability movement in pushing for the Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities
Julia Wolhandler


Section 3: Strengthening regional mechanisms 

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We came, we saw and we kept watching: How the UN and the Arab League failed the people of Syria
Ziad Abdel Samad and Joel Ghazi
Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND)

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Good practices on CSO participation at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights
Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network

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How to maintain the independence of a human rights body within an intergovernmental structure: The case of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the Organization of American States
Jefferson Nascimento and Raísa Cetra
Foreign Policy and Human Rights Programme, Conectas Human Rights

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Advocating for a mechanism to protect the Commonwealth charter
Kirsty Welch
Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative


Section 4: The search for an equitable economic order 

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Designing Equitable Economic Policies: The case for a G193 (rather than a G20)
Aldo Caliari
Center for Concern

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The Great Divide: Exposing the Davos class behind global economic inequality
Nick Buxton
Transnational Institute

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The changing face of the World Bank and Civil Society's role in the evolving institution
Chad Dobson
Bank Information Center


Section 5: From Rio+20 to beyond 2015

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Best practices in Youth Engagement with IGOs: Case Study from Rio+ 20 process
Ivana Savić

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Volunteerism, civic engagement and the post 2015 agenda
United Nations Volunteers

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The Future We Want: The New Reality of Governance Post Rio + 20
Jan-Gustav Strandenaes
Stakeholder Forum


Section 6: The way forward

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Multi-stakeholder governance seeks to dislodge multilateralism
Harris Gleckman

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Influencing Global Governance from the Outside:  A case study of
Paul Hilder

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Bringing Citizens to the Core: The Campaign for a UN Parliamentary Assembly
Andreas Bummel
Committee for a Democratic UN


Intergovernmental Organisation Scorecard

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Introduction: Beyond our two minutes

Part Two: Results

Part Three: Conclusion and Recommendations

Part Four: Intergovernmental Organisation Profiles


Statements from Danny Sriskandarajah, Amina Mohammed and Mo Ibrahim

Foreword by Amina Mohammed | Foreword by Mo Ibrahim

From the CIVICUS Secretary-General 

CIVICUS SG Danny Sriskandarajah medium

In 2013, I flew tens of thousands of miles. Most of these trips were to represent CIVICUS at intergovernmental meetings in places like Geneva, New York and Washington DC. As the year went on, these “consultations” started to feel like “insultations” in which civil society was there just to tick a box.

Having read this year’s State of Civil Society Report, which documents a new wave of discontent around the world and some serious shortcomings in global governance, I fear that the world is wasting a lot of time, money and carbon without making a dent in the issues that matter most. 

In this report, we argue that we need to redress a “double democratic deficit”. At the national level, growing numbers of people – including in countries that look democratic on paper and show excellent economic growth rates – are angry about a lack of voice, inequality, corruption, environmental destruction. This “second wave” of citizen uprisings - from Brazil to Turkey – is here to stay unless something is done to improve governance and accountability at the national level.

Meanwhile, in a world facing multiple crises, global governance is not working. Many of our international institutions and processes are out of date, unaccountable and unable to address present-day challenges effectively. This report shows that global governance remains remote and often disconnected from the people whose lives it impacts. There is an urgent need to democratise global governance, to support greater participation of citizens in decision making and to engender an environment that enables civil society to substantively engage in these processes. 

In addition to surveying the year that was for civil society and our thematic contributions on global governance, this report also includes a pilot study in which we have tried to design a Scorecard to evaluate how well intergovernmental organisations engage civil society. We hope that, with refinement, this Scorecard will become a useful tool for measuring how accountable and responsive these organisations are.

I would like to express my thanks to our colleagues from within the CIVICUS alliance who contributed pieces to this report, and to the small but very talented CIVICUS team that put the report together. 

I look forward to working with our members and partners to usher in a new era of accountability in the international arena.

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah


Foreword by Amina Mohammed, Special Adviser on Post-2015 Development Planning, United Nations

Amina Mohammed Small Photo

We stand today at the threshold of significant opportunity – to realise our quest to end extreme poverty and put our planet on a sustainable path. Work to develop a post-2015 development agenda has begun through a truly open and inclusive process – involving governments, civil society, the private sector, academia, and the voices of more than 2 million people. There is a broad consensus that a business-as-usual approach is neither desirable nor feasible.

In today’s increasingly integrated world, the most important transformative shift is perhaps towards a new rights-based spirit of solidarity, cooperation, and mutual accountability. The post-2015 development framework must be conceived as a mutually reinforcing agenda, supported by a renewed global partnership with collective action and commitment from all; governments, as well as civil society, businesses, philanthropic foundations, academia and other local and international organisations.

Sustainable development demands substantially increased levels of accountability – not only for results in the short-term, but also for the long-term consequences of our actions. Although not legally-binding, one of the major changes the future development framework may bring is to include a framework for mutual – horizontal – accountability, which goes beyond accountability for aid and serves as an overarching principle for the effectiveness of development cooperation and partnerships.

In the transition to a new development framework, participatory decision-making will be essential to ensure people’s ownership of the current and future development goals. As part of a global movement for transformative change, CIVICUS and other civil society stakeholders can play a vital role in giving a voice to people living in poverty and in helping craft, realise, and monitor this new agenda. By making sure that government at all levels and businesses act responsibly, civil society can help create a high standard of transparency, monitoring, accountability and representation.

In negotiating and finalising the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, diplomats and world leaders will need to appropriately respond and stay true to the aspirations of ‘We the Peoples’ – the first words of the founding charter of the United Nations. Through open, inclusive and transparent UN-led consultations and as synthesised in A Million Voices: The World We Want report, we can discern that people the world over:

“…are indignant at the injustice they feel because of growing inequalities and insecurities. They feel that the benefits of economic growth are distributed unequally, and so demand social protection, decent jobs and empowered livelihoods. They want their governments to do a better job in representing them – delivering key services, encouraging growth while regulating markets, and preventing insecurities associated with compromising the planet and the well-being of future generations. They want to enjoy their rights and to improve their lives and those of their families and ask that governments create opportunities for their full and equal participation in decisions that affect them. And they want to live without fear of violence or conflict. They ask that these issues be part of a new development agenda.”

Defining the post-2015 development agenda is a daunting yet inspiring and historic task. Building on the inputs and advocacy from civil society, private sector and other stakeholders, the UN system will continue to play a leading role in supporting the necessary transformative shifts and by refining and strengthening the concepts of effective partnerships and accountability that are central to the achievement of an ambitious and responsive sustainable development agenda for people and planet.


Foreword by Mo Ibrahim, Entrepreneur, Mo Ibrahim Foundation

Dr Mo Ibrahim Small 2013

Transforming global governance

In an ideal world, citizens and civil society organisations would operate in an environment conducive to progressive action - one that would allow them the freedom to create, share and enact a vision for society that is just and fair.

In order to achieve this ideal, we must concede that citizen action also requires robust and accountable institutions, from the local to the supra national level, to support citizens in this endeavour.

However, our global governance institutions are frequently opaque in their processes and remain focused on what certain states want rather than what citizens need. Their governance structures and geographical locations reflect 20th century geopolitical power dynamics and allow inequities between nations to be played out and amplified where they could and should serve to bridge them.

There is no question that we urgently need to transform these institutions. But for the overwhelming majority of the world’s populations, global governance remains steeped in mystery and the case for reform needs to be clearly made. Without broad citizen engagement and participation in this process, the self-preservation instincts of our elites will ensure the continuation of the status quo.

Therefore, civil society has a vital role to play in clearly and accessibly highlighting the inadequacies of current governance systems to the public.  We need to equip citizen movements with the data, the tools, the belief and the support to tackle this task of paramount importance - creating a global governance architecture that is fair, inclusive, accountable and responsive and reflects the present and the future rather than the past.

This timely report by CIVICUS on the state of global citizenship in 2014 is a barometer of our progress. As I watch active citizens around the world, particularly the youth, demonstrating their engagement with politics online and offline, I hope we can all work together to ensure that global governance is the next issue to fall under the spotlight. Ultimately, we can only hope to resolve the biggest challenges of this century - from climate to povety - once we have reformed our global institutions to be accountable, democratic, empowering and people-centred.

Without reform there is a real threat of creeping paralysis and de-legitimisation of our global institutions.

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Towards a democratic multilateralism: civil society perspectives on the state of global governance

 Summary  |  But why should we care about global governance  |  So what’s going wrong  |  But who gets a say in reform  |  So what’s the vision  |  And how do we get there

This overview draws from the 21 guest contributions to the 2014 CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report. When taken together, the contributions – from a broad range of civil society voices – offer what can be seen as a comprehensive, broadly owned civil society critique of global governance. Reflecting the contributions received, this section of the State of Civil Society Report focuses primarily on the challenges of international governance institutions and processes, and how these relate to civil society.


1. Summary

Global governance isn't working. Many of the institutions and processes by which international decisions are made, and by which norms are set and diffused, are out of date and unable to meet present-day, entrenched challenges. In a rapidly changing world, they are not fit for purpose.

While international governance institutions were set up to tackle large problems, they have largely failed to offer people-centred responses to contemporary international economic, social, political and environmental crises. Global problems still lack global people-oriented solutions.

But the crisis is more than one of efficiency. It is also one of democracy. The institutions of international governance are not open enough: they do not organise themselves to be exposed systematically to people’s voices. It is hard for people to relate to them or indeed to understand them. They are less democratic even than the states that make up their membership, and it is naive to expect citizens’ voices to be filtered through their states to be heard at the global level. As such, international level institutions reproduce and amplify national democratic deficits.

The global governance picture is one in which there are huge disparities between who gets to have a say and who does not: the wealthiest states and corporations disproportionately influence international agendas and norms. Too often, powerful states skew international governance institutions towards their interests. Transnational corporations enjoy privileged access to many international institutions. They exert considerable influence over many of the states that have formal ownership of international institutions. Imbalances of power are reinforced by a lack of transparency and accountability, which make it harder to shed light on these realities.

When international institutions consult with civil society, they consult selectively and superficially; they privilege larger, wealthier or less critical civil society organisations (CSOs), which enjoy disproportionate access, and may be reluctant to share and dilute the few opportunities they have. CSOs do not work together adequately to take full advantage of what opportunities do exist. In any case, access does not usually translate into influence. There is an absence of truly global, mass citizens' organisations that can organise to act as alternatives and counterbalances to global institutions owned by governments. The following adage is often repeated in the corridors of power: “The United Nations was never intended to be a utopian exercise. It was meant to be a collective security system that worked.”[i]

Because they are skewed towards elite interests and offer little scope for direct accountability, international governance institutions cannot be considered to be representative of, or to be serving adequately, the world’s citizens.

This is not to suggest that multilateralism could be dispensed with. Indeed, there is a danger at present that reform proposals could increase the power of large states and corporations, making current democratic deficits worse rather than better. Rather the need is for fairer, systematic, more transparent and demonstrably influential access by a broader range of voices.

As is explored below, critiques of global governance arrangements and proposals for reform can be grouped into two camps: those that concern themselves with efficiency and those that focus on democracy. While greater efficiency is important, CIVICUS asserts that the test of any reform should be that it makes global governance more open to, and visibly influenced by, a wider diversity of people’s voices.


2. But why should we care about global governance?

Global governance proceeds mostly through institutions that have formalised the relationships between states, including the United Nations (UN) and its various agencies, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO). There are also regional institutions, such as the European Union (EU) and the Caribbean Community (Caricom); blocs created around historical ties, such as the Commonwealth and La Francophonie; more exclusive groupings of smaller numbers of states, such as the G8 and G20; and less formal groupings, such as the World Economic Forum (WEF). Many regional and more exclusive institutions appear to be growing to prominence, with implications discussed further below.

It is significant that the first – ultimately failed – attempt to create a global governance institution, the League of Nations, came in response to the unprecedented carnage, one hundred years ago, of the First World War, and that many of our present-day institutions date back to the aftermath of the horror of the Second World War. This serves as a reminder that these institutions are set up in acknowledgment that otherwise an international anarchy in which states are free to pursue self-interests will produce dire consequences for the world’s people.

International institutions are also formed in recognition that there are large-scale problems that do not restrict themselves to borders and that cannot be solved by states alone – such as the present-day challenges of climate change, economic dysfunction and ongoing conflicts – and that there are collective action problems that need to be overcome, in that individual states may lack incentives to take action unless they can be assured that others will, or may ride for free on the actions of other states without contributing their share.

Some international institutions have become important arenas for decision-making. While collective action problems often endure in practice, and many international institutions are inefficient and stymied by state and business interests, it is also the case that many important decisions that affect our lives and our planet are being taken at the international level.

At the same time, it needs to be acknowledged that there are large portions of civil society for which international level working is not seen as relevant. CIVICUS’ 2011 analysis of the Civil Society Index, a series of civil society self-assessment projects carried out in 35 countries,[ii] revealed that there are many types of civil society around the world that are locally driven; this ability to address local issues should be seen as one of the great strengths of civil society. Civil society groups and activists may be concerned with local issues, and not necessarily seek change on a larger scale. Accordingly, they may not see any need to engage with international institutions, many of which were formed over a half a century ago and reflect the global dynamics of that time. For example, many African and Asian activists point out that these institutions were formed to serve the interests of powerful colonial powers at a time when much of the global South was un-free. Even among even large-scale CSOs in the US, there is some scepticism or lack of interest in engaging with institutions such as the UN. New protest movements that have come to prominence in this decade may well think likewise, opting to seek change and develop alternatives outside the international system. At the Rio+20 sustainable development summit, held in Brazil in 2012, many CSOs chose to stay outside formal processes and organise their own events.

It is possible to mount a critique that because international governance processes are often deadlocked and many of their decisions fail to have impact, it should not be a priority for civil society to engage with them. And indeed there are challenges when civil society is seen to lend legitimacy to broken processes, as discussed further below. But if civil society does not engage at the international level and try to influence the major issues of the day being addressed by global governance processes, then it risks being seen to admit that it cannot hope to achieve impact; the end result would one of apparent irrelevance. If civil society is to offer a source of hope to people, there is a need for at least some parts of it to take on the big, international battles.

The contribution from makes the link between global governance and local level working:

“…this does not mean that these [local] campaigns are irrelevant to global governance. As many of us who have worked at the global level know all too well, sustainable global change has to be rooted in shifts at the national level, and in people’s attitudes and daily lives. This imperative is only increased in an era of turbulence, multipolarity and distributed governance.”

Further, as the Stakeholder Forum’s contribution suggests, even CSOs that work at local levels may be affected by what goes on internationally. This is partly because of the role international institutions, particularly the UN, and regionally the EU, have played in setting norms at the international level that establish good practice, which can diffuse down to and influence the possibilities available at local levels. Global Witness also calls attention to the role of international institutions in setting progressive norms, in their case in the contested area of the transparency of extractive industries, an industry that affects many poor communities; Global Witness indicates that, through engagement, norm-generating institutions can be gradually grown and enhanced. Conectas Human Rights, in the context of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), similarly notes that the Commission has been able to develop its mandate and spread norms out into national level applications.

International spaces and processes can also offer CSOs levers to seek change, or to defend and enhance the space for civil society, at their national level. For example, while there is substantial scope for improvements in processes available, CSOs can use opportunities to make inputs to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and regional processes in Africa and the Americas, as discussed by Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network (PAHRDN) and Conectas, to raise awareness of attempts to restrict civil society space.

Global governance also matters more negatively, because it is a space where political contestation takes place that can limit the possibilities for civil society and where deadlock can be forced and maintained, as in the case of Syria. Global governance is an arena where decisions that reflect powerful interests can be enacted in conditions that lack transparency and where leaders can build profile, appear statesmanlike and strengthen alliances that may provide assets to enable repression at home.

In addition, repression itself is being globalised. CIVICUS has observed a clear culture of imitation, where repressive laws and surveillance strategies from one state are picked up on, borrowed and applied in another context. This trend has the effect of making the erosion of rights appear more commonplace and somehow more legitimate. Further, conditionalities and prescriptions imposed by international financial institutions in exchange for finance packages and loans, which have often imposed privatisations of public services and the reduction of social spending, can be seen as acts of global governance that impact on people’s sovereignty and rights.

However, the present time may be one of opportunity to push for significant change. Negotiations around the next generation of sustainable development goals to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) beyond 2015 are well advanced, giving civil society opportunities to make sustained critiques about the need to connect development goals with broader questions of human rights, participation in governance and institutional reform to tackle democratic deficits, including at the global level. CSOs that work on international governance issues are demanding that they be included in the design, implementation, localisation and monitoring of goals, as well as more broadly in the international architecture that shapes itself to deliver them.

For all these reasons, positive and negative, global governance matters.


3. So what’s going wrong?

From the contributions received for the 2014 State of Civil Society report, a number of connected critiques can be discerned of current global governance arrangements: that they fail on the big tests; are out of date; are dominated by states; are insufficiently accountable to and inclusive of citizens and civil society; and susceptible to vested private sector interests. These are each explored below.

a. Failure on the big issues

A key criticism of the global governance system is that it often ducks or fails to make significant progress on the big issues, such as climate change. The international system can frequently be seen to fail when it comes to responding to large, complex emergencies. Syria offers the current most dismal example of manoeuvring between powerful states creating deadlock, with the result that international agencies are failing to deliver Syria’s people from bloody, internecine conflict. A repressive and brutal regime largely continues to enjoy impunity. As the Arab NGO Network for Development (ANND) starkly puts it:

“Words, it seems, are almost all that the international community can offer the people of Syria.”

Failures such as Syria reflect the difficulties of an international system in which competing state interests make it difficult to reach consensus. While transnational actors, particularly in the private sphere, have become more important – and the world’s people are increasingly mobile, globally connected and identifying with more than one nation – the international system, at least formally, still remains organised around and privileges the state as the primary unit of governance, rather than the citizen.

Furthermore, the historical progression of the present international system is rooted in the notion of national sovereignty – a state's right to hold the monopoly of authority over what goes on within its borders, free from external interference – has held powerful rhetorical sway. States such as Syria have been able to use appeals to sovereignty and the inviolability of borders to claim a right to repress within those borders. Further, as Global Witness points out in relation to extractive industries, businesses can attempt to uphold the primacy of national laws to resist the introduction of greater global transparency standards:

“Business lobbyists claimed that national laws in countries such as Angola and China criminalise the publication of revenue payments. They argued for a clause… to exempt companies from reporting in such countries, despite not being able to provide any credible evidence that these national laws exist.”

In practice, sovereignty is frequently violated; the most powerful states have frequently transgressed into the affairs of those less powerful, both directly and indirectly, while states have compromised on sovereignty, both willingly and as a result of coercion or inducement, in making international agreements. The notion of sovereignty thus remains contested, but it still offers a useful fiction for states to assert their pre-eminence in international institutions, resist external scrutiny, and mutually reinforce others states’ desires to do likewise.

The fiction of sovereignty has gradually been eroded from its low point in the 1970s and 1980s, when, for example, the African Union’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, denied any platform to criticise baroque dictatorships within its member states. In this respect the instigation of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which sets out that, when states fail to protect their citizens from the worst mass crimes – crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war crimes – the outside world has a responsibility to intervene, was seen by many in civil society as a major step forward. However, when the R2P doctrine was invoked to justify intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in Libya in 2011, some states took the view that intervention exceeded the mandate and was skewed towards achieving outcomes that served the interests of states that intervened. This led to support for R2P being undermined – including within civil society – and weakened and ultimately caused to fail attempts to build a similar case for intervention in Syria.

In such circumstances, the hope might be that regional organisations, which a number of contributions assess as growing in importance, could step in to fill the gap. However, here ANND judges that the League of Arab States also failed, falling into the same traps of division and deference to the head of a member state.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect asserts that – even though the R2P doctrine has faced challenges in implementation when it comes to the question of intervention, both in terms of mobilising political will and avoiding the accusation of regime change – a precedent has been set:

“Since Resolution 1970 on Libya, the Council has passed 13 Resolutions and issued four Presidential Statements invoking the Responsibility to Protect.”

This suggests that a constructive global norm is being established and diffused, as well as influencing the behaviour of states, indicating that there are still ways of developing progressive norms within a dysfunctional global architecture. But the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect also suggests that the international system remains weak at prevention, rather than intervention after the fact. A further implication is that the biggest obstacle to further progress is the fact that the UN Security Council (UNSC) remains unreformed. Its five permanent members continue to wield arbitrary veto power to obstruct action often to the detriment of the primary objective for which the institution was established (i.e., to maintain international peace and security).

In the light of this, the R2P doctrine could be seen as a noble attempt to graft a progressive goal onto a fragmented international order: the principle is a good one, but the challenge is that a narrow UNSC – closed to exposure to a diversity of voices and tied to the self-interests of five powerful states – is going to make flawed and failed decisions in applying it.

If the purpose of the global governance system is to deal with the big challenges of the day, then from endemic problems such as climate change to large scale emergencies such as Syria, it seems clear that the system is failing. If, however, its role is more to perpetuate the status quo and uphold the pre-eminence of states as international actors, it could be judged as remarkably successful.

b. An out of date system

The era since the establishment of the UN has seen profound changes. The UN had 51 founding states; now it has 193 members. The 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall alone have brought the end of the Cold War, economic globalisation, the rise of a unipolar world now shifting into a multipolar or apolar world, and the increased prominence of middle power Northern states (such as Canada, Germany and Sweden) and emerging economic powerhouses in the global South such as Brazil, India,  Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and, more recently, Nigeria which has laid claim to having become Africa’s largest economy). Across many parts of the world, recent decades have seen a wave of democratisation, followed by a mixture of consolidation and digression. There has also been renewed interest in – arguably followed by a retreat from – civil society as a source of solutions; the entrenchment of neoliberalism as an international political and economic orthodoxy; the concentration of corporate economic power into larger, transnational companies that are not bound by state borders but can heavily influence state behaviour; the burgeoning of new technologies that offer novel ways of making international connections; and two recent waves of mass protests. As Shack/Slum Dwellers International (SDI) puts it, in their case in the context of urbanisation, policy has simply not kept up with this rate of change.

Harris Gleckman from the University of Massachusetts summarises the challenge:

“Today’s core institutions of global governance were put in place after the Second World War. However, in the intervening 60 years, the global economy has completely changed; international CSOs have played key roles in intergovernmental conferences; multinational corporations (MNCs) have multiplied in size and scope; and environmental problems have evolved into challenges to the stability of global ecosystem. Yet the formal institutions of global governance have remained state-centric. And they are demonstrably unable to manage contemporary globalisation, contain global climate change, or address systemic social failures.”

In this fast-changing landscape, it is not surprising that some global governance institutions have failed to keep up. But some have been blocked from trying to do so by powerful states. In the most egregious example, the Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the IMF) continue a cosy government arrangement whereby the head of the former is always from the United States and the head of the latter always a European, reflecting a view of the world order that is now half a century out of date. As One World Trust (OWT) attests:

“…attempts to reform the governance of the IMF to provide more balanced voting and membership from developing countries continue to stall, and voting reforms at the World Bank still mean that high-income countries hold vastly more power than middle-income or low-income countries.”

Power relations have changed since then, but some government blocs have been able to freeze an expired status quo to their advantage.

c. Institutions deadlocked by states

The notion that international institutions will solve problems that individual states cannot themselves address is a fine one, but it only works if states are able to put some aspects of their national interests aside. Otherwise, there is a clear paradox: if international institutions emerge from failures of states, how can those same states be assumed to be able to solve problems by taking their failure to a different level?

Contributions to the 2014 State of Civil Society Report offer numerous examples of where international institutions' best intentions have been stymied by national interest politics, something also confirmed as one of the major findings by respondents in the CIVICUS scorecard of civil society engagement by intergovernmental organisations which is part of this report. “Member states overriding CSO voices” was highlighted as one of the biggest obstacles to engaging with global governance systems.

The UNSC provides perhaps the most extreme example, remaining skewed towards the interests of its permanent five members – and frequently stalemated as a result of their veto power – tending to divide between the US, UK and France on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other. On the basis of vetoes by China and Russia, intervention in Syria has been blocked. Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea has seen the UNSC becoming once again a forum for grandstanding and theatrical rhetoric, reminiscent of the Cold War excesses of the 1970s. The UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) also sometimes act as forums for international rhetorical performance, lacking substance.

Double standards and selective posturing on human rights by states to advance their strategic interests continues to undermine the legitimacy of these institutions. The case of Israel – which continues to grossly violate the rights of the Palestinian people, while enjoying continued support from the three permanent Western members of the UNSC that claim to predicate their foreign policies on human rights standards – is a sorry reminder of the hypocrisy that prevails in international relations.

There have been calls for UNSC reform since the 1970s, but thus far these have made no headway. It is increasingly difficult to mount an ethical or even logical justification for the permanent privileging of five states, particularly given the deadlock that so often results, but it is equally hard to imagine the permanent five agreeing to reform when this would dilute their powers. It is in arguably the UN’s most important institution that the assertion of narrow state interests most strongly prevails.

Meanwhile a structure that was set up partly in the hope of getting around UNSC deadlock, the International Criminal Court (ICC), established as a body outside the UN to tackle impunity enjoyed by powerful figures for crimes against humanity, has also run into problems with the assertion of national and regional interests. In the ICC’s case, Kenya and Sudan’s Presidents, facing proceedings, have successfully mobilised an African bloc that previously supported the setting up of the ICC to now condemn it, as biased against Africans and unacceptably intrusive of sovereignty. Even though the formation of the ICC largely came about through middle and smaller powers working in combination with civil society to overcome staunch US opposition, it has taken little in practice for the project to falter once state leaders came under scrutiny. Conectas suggests that national interests have also been in play recently at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), in which states used a recent review process to try to restrict its autonomy.

In the light of this, the notion that increasing the number of states involved in making the big decisions may seem an appealing, if small, step. But when states such as Brazil, India and South Africa seek reform, it appears they have less interest in changing the UNSC to make it more democratic, accountable and active, than in merely expanding it to include themselves. Their claims are made not on the basis of improving governance, but on their right to achieve special recognition and enhanced power as a result of their increased geopolitical influence, thereby reproducing notions of international legitimacy based on power rather than on accountability to citizens. Expanding the UNSC may not make it any more progressive or less vulnerable to deadlock, unless opportunities for input from, and accountability towards, civil society form part of a reform package.

Stakeholder Forum similarly sets out how the move to make all UN member states members of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) could result in lessened civil society access:

“UNEP was given a mandate to redirect its entire system, as it has been given universal membership. Having once been the first body within the UN system to allow civil society/NGOs the right to participate, UN member states belonging to the G-77 group of countries that are engaged in writing the rules of procedure for the revised UNEP are now questioning these rights.”

Global Partners Digital, in the context of the current debate on the governance of the Internet, makes clear the complexity of the discussion: in this new area, a distributed, semi-formal governance system has evolved, in which civil society has some scope for input. While there is much that could be improved with current arrangements, including bringing greater transparency and addressing the US’ particular power over this domain, a range of repressive states seek to impose a narrow form of multilateralism which would hand power to state elites:

“…a number of authoritarian governments, reacting to growing evidence that the Internet is a remarkably effective tool for citizen mobilisation, are calling for new mechanisms for greater governmental control.”

Again, what on the face of it might look like a broadening of governance, by involving more states, could reduce the potential for civil society voice. The Center for Concern, in the context of the G20, suggests that debates about balancing membership by adding the odd extra state from the global South misses the broader point: the challenge is less about which states are involved in institutions, than about how accountability can be exercised.

International institutions should not of course be assumed to be mere servants of their member states: there are often complex processes of interplay at work by which international institutions form their own cultures, expertise and inertias, and have some ability to resist the promptings of their member states. CIVICUS knows from its experience that many of the officials of international organisations are motivated to seek change, and have a more progressive outlook than that of their member states. But they are also often acutely sensitive to, and seek to anticipate the demands of, member states, particularly the most powerful members; many international institutions are bound to member states by virtue of the funding they provide to keep the organisation going. Again, this can produce a skewing effect; in many institutions, the largest, wealthiest, most powerful states provide most of the funding, and so inevitably have voices that seem loudest.

d. New powers, old problems?

The above examples suggest that inequality between states in the international system is a problem, but making improvements to redress this inequality may do little to address broader democratic deficits. It may only widen a little the circle of most privileged states; depending on the democratic make up and attitudes towards civil society of states that obtain enhanced power, the rise of new powers might result in a worse deal for civil society.

For that reason, the upsurge of alternate global and regional powers to challenge the  recent US hegemony offers mixed news. The Bank Information Center (BIC) offers one indicator that the international role of countries from the global South is changing: states such as Angola, Georgia and India are becoming donors to the World Bank, rather than only being recipients, diluting the claim to pre-eminence of the US.

The countries that have captured most attention here are those in the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) group. This group combines large states that subscribe to democratic values, as well as those that profoundly do not, and contains two states (China and Russia) that are emphatically intolerant of activism and the expression of alternate views. China in particular holds hard on the notion of sovereignty and the inviolate nature of national borders, making clear the connection between domestic elite interests and states’ behaviour in the international arena: brooking no interference in its own affairs, China uses international forums to promote non-interference in all circumstances as a reasonable notion, in doing so blocking the UNSC.

It's also widely noted that changing power relations are giving smaller or less powerful states the ability to offset external pressures from Western powers. Clearly, this can be a positive, in that such states may feel less constrained by Western states and more assertive internationally, but it is also a negative, in giving the leaders of repressive states alternative resources to resist external democratisation pressures usually pushed by the West, as has been observed as a consequence of China's growing role in African states with poor human rights records.

BIC notes the growing influence of Chinese lending:

“…developing countries face a growing number of options for development financing… [T]his is linked to many global trends, including the rise of other regional development banks and the growing influence of national banks such as the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) and Chinese Banks (China Development Bank and China Export Import Bank). In a recent estimate, the Chinese banks offered loans of at least US$110 billion to governments and firms in developing countries in 2009 and 2010, eclipsing World Bank lending of US$100.3 billion from its equivalent arms.”

In March 2013, the BRICS group announced that they would establish a BRICS Development Bank. Given China’s economic dominance, there is concern from civil society groups that the proposed bank could have weak human rights and social accountability standards, being more permissive of repressive states than current lenders.

Other BRICS states tend to have contradictory foreign policies: for example, India adheres closely to its national interest in some international arenas, such as those for the control of nuclear arms, but in others, such as the WTO, positions itself as offering a more progressive voice, aligned more generally with the interests of the global South. During the March 2014 session of the UNHRC, Indian diplomats delivered a statement on behalf of a group of ‘like-minded’ countries comprising some of the world’s worst violators of democratic freedoms, including Bahrain, China, Egypt, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and Zimbabwe, urging the international community to exercise caution in supporting “causes of civil society.” This statement was also endorsed by South Africa.

Later that month, South African diplomats, supported by Indian representatives and some authoritarian governments, attempted to impede the passage of a UNHRC resolution on the “promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful protests.” They proposed that the right to peaceful protest should be qualified by the need to ensure stability of the state and friendly relations with foreign states.

If one’s primary unit of analysis is the state, one may see global power imbalances as being redressed in these recent trends; but if one starts from the point of view that the citizen should be the most important actor, benefits become harder to discern.

e. Complexity and gaps

Global governance architecture is also criticised for being complex and unwieldy, which makes it hard to understand and engage with. As PAHRDN observes, relating to the African Commission for Human and People’s Rights:

“Even for those who have been participating at the… Commission for some time, its structure and rules can be confusing to navigate.”

Greenpeace International and SDI indicate that one problem is the lack of coordination between different institutions and the siloed nature of many institutions. Fragmentation, including within the UN and between its various agencies, is identified as a problem by ANND.

When we talk about the global governance system, the word 'system' is a misnomer; rather, there is a patchwork that has evolved over time, with a mushrooming of institutions since the UN, IMF and World Bank came into being, both within the UN and outside it, along with a proliferation of sub-global institutions and regional bodies. It is not surprising that this is confusing.

A plurality of institutions could be seen to be consistent with democracy, in enabling a range of institutions, spaces and opportunities. However, democracy also implies turf wars, jealousies and competition for resources and visibility. It entails heavy coordination costs and provides space for states to pursue multiple and some contradictory agendas at the same time to assuage various interests. There are challenges of efficiency. But there are also challenges of democracy. Complexity places a premium on those who understand the system. Those who know how the system works and how to speak its jargon – and where the entry points and levers of influence lie – are privileged with insider knowledge. They may be reluctant to share this knowledge, even though doing so would broaden participation, as that may cause them to lose a gatekeeper status that they enjoy. This includes those within civil society who have invested years in becoming insiders.

Further, because the international system is a patchwork, some fields have more coverage and are given more weight than others: the governance of trade seems strong, but the governance of environmental issues seems weak. Greenpeace International observes that the WTO enjoys special status as an institution that can enforce its rulings rather than relying on the consent of states. It is not a level playing field: some institutions are more equal than others.

f. Lack of accountability, limited dialogue

It is important to go beyond the critique that global institutions are out of date and inefficient, as reforms to address this could plausibly make institutions more efficient but less open, as is discussed further below.

As well as the issue of the dominance of states, international governance institutions are also accused of being insufficiently open and lacking accountability. This manifests in a variety of ways: for One World Trust (OWT) and the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH), the fact that UN staff are above the law – and insulated when on mission from the scrutiny of local actors – is troubling. A further concern is the lack of accountability on internal issues, which reaches to the very top. Often it is hard to pin down key officials, as BIC points out is the case with the World Bank:

“Executive Directors – who represent all member countries and their citizens – are all based in Washington, DC, and engaging with them is problematic, given that their travel schedules are not published and their websites are often out-dated.”

One way to enhance accountability, short of enabling direct accountability to citizens, is to improve civil society participation. A challenge here is that civil society participation was rarely designed into the structures of institutions. While consultation with civil society has grown over time, sometimes it still appears as an afterthought or add on, as affirmed by CIVICUS’ scorecard of civil society engagement by intergovernmental organisations. CSOs are not involved in designing structures for their own inclusion. Action from civil society can be effective in challenging agendas, but the essential relationship is still one of response: the international system may react to civil society, but it rarely anticipates. International governance institutions, being designed for a world of nation states, have had to try to adapt to the evolving nature of people’s participation over the past 70 years, some better than others. The quality of engagement and its influence are unclear.

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a growth in international, multilateral summits, and a gradually growing norm that, at least in international meetings that occur under the imprimatur of the UN, there ought to be a substantial component of CSO participation, even if the practice of that CSO involvement is often superficial. As the Stakeholder Forum notes:

“The contribution UN bodies make to establishing global norms may not always be well understood, but the diffusion of norms is often a prerequisite to the successful implementation of agreements. Among these normative contributions is the involvement of non-state actors in global processes.”

Accordingly, there has been an explosion in the number of CSOs participating in international meetings. According to the UN accreditation body for CSOs, 3,900 CSOs are in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), and over 31,000 other CSOs work with the UN.[iii] Despite this mushrooming, results from CIVICUS’ scorecard point out that the majority of CSO respondents do not believe that access to intergovernmental organisations has substantially improved. Then there is the unfortunate situation of some CSOs acting as gatekeepers to international institutions and unhealthy competition within civil society itself to gain access and influence.

An irony in the expansion of the number of CSOs participating is that it is harder for individual civil society voices to be heard. The challenges that can arise with volume were seen in the participation arrangements at Rio+20. If sometimes CSOs feel that they are in the room largely for ornamental purposes, at Rio+20 many were not even in the room: the dedicated civil society area was 30 kilometres from the main meeting. Other constraints on CSO participation and influence include resources, accreditation issues, familiarity with institutions, language barriers and access to information.

Confronted with this complexity, officials will understandably seek to apply simplifying filters, by giving weight to the voices they are most familiar with – or deferring to the big, international brands of the best funded, most visible CSOs – and privileging what they see as peak institutions and coalitions.

Many of the contributions to the 2014 State of Civil Society Report offer strong critiques of current processes for consultation with and participation by civil society. United Nations Volunteers (UNV), one of the UN agencies with the closest connections to civil society, asks the question of how a larger range of actors can be involved in the exercise of accountability. OWT suggests that, while acknowledgement of the need for consultation has grown, it largely remains handled in a superficial way. Key questions that remain include: how serious are opportunities for input? What is the quality of the processes? And how well are institutions able to process and apply the input received?

BIC and OWT identify some progress on opening up to greater scrutiny on the part of the World Bank, IMF and WTO, but also many continuing gaps. Some regional and sub-global organisations are seen to have worse consultation standards than the UN. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), for example, identifies that the Commonwealth, an association of states that cover almost a third of the world’s population, has gone backwards in its participation and consultation approaches. What happens with civil society input in its official processes is mysterious, and even the dates of some key meetings are hard to obtain; the best civil society access is granted to the least important meetings. These lead them to conclude that:

“There is a continuing sense that the Commonwealth is an association of governments rather than people.”

International governance institutions, when they place emphasis on formal accreditation procedures, also struggle to engage with informal structures, even though these can be platforms for the most vulnerable and marginalised. As SDI puts it:

“Informal populations are excluded by formal rules and regulatory frameworks that produce legal norms and standards... Informal social movements are still not well understood. Very few formal institutions have instruments, strategies or mechanisms to identify them, engage them in dialogue and attempt to channel their energy, ideas and resources into solutions that bring about sustainable inclusion of the informal into mainstream processes.”

For SDI, as economic globalisation has accelerated the pace of urbanisation, with global corporations often involved in the rapid development of urban spaces and global financial companies recasting urban spaces as financial centres with accompanying private infrastructure, what can be observed is a gap between the globalisation of capital and a globalisation of political response for those most affected.

Institutions may also fail to make special efforts to reach out to young people, women and other typically marginalised and excluded groups, such as people with disabilities and indigenous peoples; the formal representation many such groups were given at Rio+20 and preceding processes is the exception, rather than the rule, and even here, as Ivana Savić from the Centre for Human Rights and Development Studies discusses, there is a lack of resources to sustain inclusion.

Some contributors emphasise that consultation processes can be important in their own right. As Harris Gleckman puts it, there is a fresh need to reassert the value of negotiation as a process. ANND further suggests that, in the case of Syria, starting a meeting and discussion process that gets different people around the same table is in itself a positive step.

An emphasis on process offers a challenge to critiques that focus on making the international system more efficient, by affirming that process itself is valuable. Institutions could be reformed to become more nimble, flexible and efficient, but one way to realise efficiency gains could be by reducing expensive and time-consuming consultation processes. For many of the contributors, it is not just the outcome that matters, but how it is arrived at, who was involved and whether the process of reaching the outcome has helped to develop inclusive, democratic processes with future utility.

The difficulty with emphasising process is that if consultative processes take place inside flawed institutions, they may fail to challenge those flaws; indeed, they may reproduce them, or be used to confer a layer of legitimisation. Consultations can become box-ticking exercises, styled by CIVICUS as ‘insultations’. CSOs may be seen as having been co-opted. As OWT points out:

“CSOs engaging with the most powerful intergovernmental organisations have found that efforts at greater accountability can be superficial. Large consultations with civil society can be lavish, but their recommendations may go no further than the conference room. In individual meetings CSO representatives often only get access to junior members of staff without decision-making power.”

Further, SDI claims:

“Global governance institutions pay lip service to hearing the voices of civil society… and encouraging broad-based participation. Real decision-making continues to be concentrated in the hands of national governments and international bureaucrats.”

OWT additionally points out the gap between the critiques made by civil society and the lack of structural reforms that would imply these are being taken seriously:

“…although civil society seems to have had an important role to play in highlighting problems of accountability deficits in global governance, there is less evidence that this results in these problems being addressed through structural reforms, which would be necessary to entrench accountability in the everyday workings of an international organisation.”

From the CIVICUS scorecard exercise, a sense emerges from civil society that intergovernmental organisations are more interested in CSOs for their ability to help deliver projects and programmes, than for their potential to influence policies: 63 percent of CSOs consulted assessed impact on policy at the international level as poor or very poor. Further, the pattern seems to show a clear bias towards Northern-based CSOs in being able to achieve impact. Dialogues are criticised for lacking demonstrable outcomes, which may drive apathy. Access to key decision-making bodies is weak.

The argument for CSOs to engage in consultations – even when they are superficial – is that routines of collaboration can be built up that can be established over time as a minimal base to build out from, or at least a line in the sand that it is hard to retreat from. Conectas suggests that there is a need to make systematic and then expand existing consultation opportunities, and PAHRDN further suggests that spaces can be grown out from. At the same time, a sense is expressed by several contributors, such as those from BIC, Conectas and Stakeholder Forum, that democratic gains are never permanent, always capable of being reversed, and so there is a need for vigilance and to defend existing space, however limited. For example, regarding the IACHR, Conectas states that:

“…there is a continuous need to assert the Commission’s independence and to consolidate a strong IACHR that is capable of resisting attempts to limit its freedom of action in the face of tough challenges by some states.”

Further, in the context of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), Disability Rights International (DRI) notes:

“Implementation requires constant engagement to ensure the original intent of the CRPD is not undermined by weak legislation.”

This fear is one driver of regular participation. Often CSOs take the view that spaces in global processes need to be used or they will be lost, and the credibility of civil society will be called into question by states if participation opportunities are not taken up, even if consultation processes are fundamentally flawed.

At the same time, more self-interested motivations from civil society need to be aired. Competition for visibility and prestige can be motivations; those CSOs that accept invitations and sit at the table will appear more important than those who do not. A danger this can entail is over-respectful behaviour that conservatively values being at the table and seeks to build civil society respectability, and so does not want to risk being seen as disruptive or unconstructive.

It is important not to see improved consultation processes as a panacea: civil society’s demands need to be more ambitious than that. For Greenpeace International, tinkering with consultative processes can only realise marginal gains, and to some extent is a distraction, unless the way in which power imbalances are expressed and reproduced through institutions are addressed:

“A shift of power is more important than a change in the frequency, style or depth of consultations... Achieving effective environmental governance is... above all about changing existing power relations. It is about building a movement powerful enough to force governments to act in the public interest. It is about building alliances between grassroots initiatives and global organisations. It is about making the argument for change as much on the street as in the corridors of power… It is imperative not to settle for a little more transparency here or a little more consultation there.”

This lack of clear routes for quality input – and to enable efficient scrutiny – is troubling from the point of view of efficiency: if international governance institutions are not informed by the widest range of well-informed inputs, the design and reach of their programmes will not be optimal, while without feedback processes, institutions will not learn how to do things better. But more fundamentally, there is a problem with democracy.

g. The democratic deficit

The pre-eminence of states as international actors causes a democratic deficit at the global level. When states with internal democratic challenges work internationally, they bring their lack of democracy with them into the international arena. A lack of domestic democracy and limited accountability to citizens allows for narrow notions of national interest to be constructed around elite interests, which are then advanced and defended internationally. Undemocratic states use their presence in the international arena to reinforce each other and try to legitimise their behaviour. States that are uncomfortable with democracy, alternate voices and activism at home are unlikely to encourage them abroad. Even mature democracies are not immune from the malaise of advancing vested minority interests in international affairs, and states that promote themselves as progressive voices fail to live up to high expectations when international horse trading and deal making come into play.

There is a democratic deficit because international institutions are less democratic than the highest standards of their most democratic member states. Citizens are able to have much less influence on international institutions than on their own governments. As OWT notes:

“…such institutions stand outside the rule of democratic elections and they rarely answer to the people whose lives they most affect.”

The challenge is that citizens do not have direct relationships with international governance institutions; their involvement is filtered through representatives of their states, whether that be politicians democratically elected to some greater or lesser extent, or appointed, career officials over whom citizens cannot exert direct accountability. As the contribution from the Committee for a Democratic UN, which is running a campaign for a UN parliamentary assembly, states:

“Agenda-setting and decision-making on important policies are shifting to the UN and its specialised institutions, as well as to international fora such as the G8 and the G20. The decisions of these bodies are prepared by highly inaccessible officials appointed by the executive branches of national governments. While the point could be made that at least democratic governments that appoint these officials have a political mandate to do so, the reality remains that diplomats and negotiators are unelected and that the constituents of the political opposition are not represented. Intergovernmental bodies thus are largely disconnected from democratic oversight, participation and deliberation.”

OWT adds:

“All too often the people most affected do not have the power or weight to individually influence the world’s largest organisations.”

Even in states with long established and sophisticated democratic practices, such as the states of Northern Europe, this is problematic, given the remoteness of international institutions from citizens. As this report’s section on citizens’ activism in 2013 and 2014 suggests, many of these states are now experiencing a rejection of traditional, formal, electoral politics, as expressed through behaviour such as the organising of direct, alternative structures and the withdrawal of participation in elections. People are demanding different relationships with decision-makers. What is on offer at the international level is less than what they are not happy with domestically.

For the large number of states where civic participation is more limited and there is some degree of antipathy towards civil society by the state, as evidenced by CIVICUS’ Enabling Environment Index, the prospects for citizens to engage with global governance institutions through their states seem slim. There is a double democratic deficit here: citizens who lack voice at the national level cannot look to international forums as an alternative; given the privileged role of states and large  corporations and, as is discussed further below, national voicelessness is amplified at the international level. A citizen of a repressive state will struggle to find global level redress.

It may even be the case that undemocratic regimes prefer to situate some difficult questions within the international arena precisely because there is less transparency, as the Committee for a Democratic UN indicates:

“It has been argued that shifting policymaking to the international level is not always driven by pure necessity, but also by the intention of governments to limit domestic public interference and discussion.”

Certainly, such governments will have little interest in democratic reform.

h. Civil society divisions

The blame for the present state of affairs does not lie solely at the feet of states and international governance institutions. There is a need to be honest and open about challenges in the civil society arena as well.

One should not assume that there exists a unified, well-organised civil society. CIVICUS sees civil society as a diverse, heterogeneous arena. Different civil society actors have different perspectives, interests and agendas, which may not coincide. There may be competition within civil society, and to some extent that competition is healthy, as it fosters innovation. The diversity of civil society should be upheld as one of its great assets, as it enables multiple ideas, alternatives and solutions to be advanced. As the UNV puts it:

“…civil society is now more diverse than ever, ranging from organised groups to huge movements and various forms of non-formal mass action. This brings with it unparalleled power and possibilities, but also complexities. It makes it harder to work with a representative cross-section of civil society, but brings with it opportunities for innovative solutions that can potentially transform citizen-state relations.”

Attempts to oversimplify this diversity or filter voices in reductive ways should be resisted. This is one danger that comes with consultation processes, which may seek to condense a range of perspectives into simplistic and sometimes pre-decided messages. At the same time, SDI points out that different CSOs may be working on different parts of the same problem without adequately connecting. Global Partners Digital suggests that in discussions of Internet governance, a divided specialist civil society and a failure to mobilise broader civil society have contributed to a lack of proposals for reform. Stakeholder Forum indicates that civil society collaboration is essential to achieve international impact:

“For civil society to be successful in its endeavours, it needed to be organised and the organisations needed to be recognised as legitimate entities.”

PAHRDN, in the context of civil society’s engagement with African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, notes the benefits of closer working between different CSOs:

“Unsurprisingly, the… Commission’s agenda is packed and there are limited opportunities to engage with the 11 commissioners on a one-to-one basis. To increase chances of making an impact, it is a good idea for like-minded CSOs to work together and seek joint meetings with the relevant commissioners or to organise joint side events. Not only is this a more efficient use of time, but joint efforts are likely to attract a larger audience, and to generate stronger recommendations through drawing on the expertise of a larger group.”

Because civil society is an arena of competition, even if they have the noblest of intentions, CSOs are competing for resources, visibility, prestige and the claiming of success. A recent CIVICUS assessment of the health of civil society at the national level in six West African countries seems translatable to the international level here. That analysis found that CSO coalitions are bedevilled by competition for resources with their member organisations, caused in large part by coalitions’ attempts to sustain themselves by taking on funded project work that might otherwise be carried out by their members, and that some coalitions were effectively captured by their founding or host organisations, with little opportunities for members to influence them. At the international level, large, international CSOs and coalitions can act as gatekeepers. They are not neutral; they apply their own agendas and frames. There is a lack of neutral sherpas that can give guidance to the smaller and less well connected CSOs.

As any selection inevitably entails choices about who gets to be in the room, consultation processes face the challenge of stirring division through selection. Processes can bring divisions between those CSOs that are asked to participate and those that are not. Stakeholder Forum raises the possibility of insider-outsider splits based on technical expertise, linked to agency specialisation:

“It is easier for expert groups and the NGO community to interact with the substantive and thematic areas of single issue organisations. And since specialised expert groups, to which many single issue NGOs relate, can provide government negotiators with leading edge research results and incisive analysis, delegates are more prone to integrate expert groups into the inner, formal sanctum of the intergovernmental system… The danger raised whether this could split the civil society community between those that have insider status and those that do not.”

For the Transnational Institute (TNI), multi-stakeholder processes choose the less critical, better funded civil society groups:

“They… tend to exclude conflictual civil society groups in favour of more consensual ones, which are often better funded, willing to make deals and accept ameliorative change.”

CSOs that participate can be seen by others as privileged or co-opted. Those that participate regularly may be seen as part of a global elite, disconnected from the rest of civil society. Sometimes who gets to be in the room can have a literal meaning: processes will privilege those who are able to have a physical presence and repeat attendance in New York or Geneva, building up knowledge, routines and habits of participation. CSO representatives who are able to attend consultations repeatedly will develop personal relationships. They will be recognised by officials and may be more likely to be called upon to contribute; at the same time, they may be reluctant to risk damaging the relationship by asking difficult questions. The effect of this is can be to limit the scope of discussion and marginalise those CSOs that cannot afford to have regular representation, which are likely to be smaller CSOs and CSOs from the global South. A CIVICUS analysis of CSO participation at World Bank annual and spring meetings reveals that almost 70 percent of the CSO attendees were from the global North. A report on the role of civil society in global governance published by Bertelsmann Stiftung estimates that a third of over three thousand ECOSOC registered NGOs with specific headquarters were based in Europe and a further quarter in North America.[iv]

Two-thirds of CSOs that took part in the CIVICUS Scorecard of civil society engagement feel that intergovernmental organisations’ consultation arrangements are too selective and insufficiently broad in their reach. In response, it is suggested there is a need for more focus on regional, local, decentralised outreach by intergovernmental organisations.

The notion of cultural capital may be helpful in understanding the gatekeeping challenge in global governance. The situation can be characterised as one in which knowledge and opportunities to access is limited to a handful of well-resourced CSOs, most of which are located in developed countries. Citizens from different geographic locations or cultures may be inadvertently discriminated against; in global institutions there well may be an unconscious bias in favour of citizens who have been socialised in similar structures to those of controlling elites. A complex system also leaves accountability holes in which the powerful are likely to enjoy shortcuts and be able to exploit personal connections.

This implies that outsiders may waste time and resources through not understanding how the system works. They may not know how to get what they seek, what is feasible, or even how to articulate their demands. As a result, they may disengage. Further, a lack of engagement may also reflect a limited outreach to the local level by international governance structures.

Alongside this, CSOs compete to raise their particular, individual issues. While diversity is a great value, there is also a lack of coordination to make and re-emphasise key points to achieve concerted impact. Too many appear happy enough to travel to a meeting, make their particular point and publish a story on their website about their presence at an important meeting.

Another challenge CIVICUS has identified is that in many countries of the global South, including those rising in prominence such as BRICS countries, there is a lack of organised internal civil society advocacy on foreign policy processes, compared to civil society pressure on domestic issues. Closer connection needs to be made between domestic and foreign policy. An absence of domestic civil society scrutiny and pressure gives leaders a foreign policy free ride. At the same time, in many developing countries, foreign policy tends to be highly personalised and at the disposal of presidents, career diplomats and surrounding elites; foreign policy decisions may not reflect the views of citizens, particularly in states with limited democracy.

Alternatively, some international CSOs based in mature democracies have developed cosy relationships with their governments, including financial and project delivery relationships, limiting their advocacy power and running the risk of being co-opted in foreign policy agendas.

CIVICUS' enduring critique that CSOs that are active on national and global stages need to be able to demonstrate their legitimacy by proving their connection to citizens and the vital issues of the day still stands true; otherwise civil society itself will be accused of being part of the global democratic deficit problem rather than its solution: if there are insufficient official channels for citizens to influence the foreign policy decisions of their governments or the deliberations of international processes, then civil society has to prove that these connections are capable of being made in its own sphere. Civil society needs to model within itself the best possible way of working across diversity, rather than reproduce the flawed practices of others.

The Stakeholder Forum suggests that those inside processes need to find better ways of opening the system up to others. For Greenpeace International, there is a need to connect the street to the conference table: those inside the room need actively to reach out towards and try to grow connections with those who may be boycotting, protesting or simply not involved, to the benefit of both sides of the equation. TNI also asks the question of can evident public anger about issues rising in salience, such as inequality, be channelled into structured demand for policy change.

New technologies offer potential to cut through gatekeeper challenges by enabling outreach to more people, but at present these processes often seem superficial, and the mechanisms by which they may feed into final outputs are mysterious. What international governance institutions also need to understand is that participation may raise expectations. Over 1.5 million people are said to have taken part in the UN’s My World survey to identify their development priorities;[v] that is a large number of active and perhaps technologically savvy people who will be disappointed if other voices are allowed to outrank them.

If international institutions believed they needed to derive democratic legitimacy from demonstrating close connections to citizens, they would have to do more to address this challenge, but consistently they are demonstrating that states matter more to them. Similarly, CSOs that are internationally engaged are not doing enough to connect with local CSOs and expand the footprint of involvement. Better global to local, two-way links are needed.

i. Private sector privilege

There is, however, not a level lobbying field. Public concern about economic elites has been fuelled by the widespread, recent economic crisis – and states’ emergency responses to it, which have largely entailed slashing public spending – hit the poorest hardest, while tolerating economic elites whose lack of responsibility caused the crisis. This has focused attention on how many economic assets are controlled by a small number of people. As TNI identifies:

“…the world’s wealth is concentrated even more than is popularly understood, not in the 1% but the 0.001%: 111,000 people control US$16.3 trillion, equivalent to a fifth of the world’s GDP. Even in the wake of the economic crisis, the world’s millionaires have thrived. In 2012, the wealth of the world’s millionaires grew by 11%, while household income in EU and US either stagnated or, in some cases, fell.

This economic wealth is matched by growing dominance of transnational corporations in the global economy. Today, 37 of the world’s largest economies are corporations. Walmart, Shell, Volkswagen and others have become modern-day empires, bigger economically than Denmark, Israel or Singapore. A historic study by mathematicians in the Zurich Polytechnic Institute revealed an even greater concentration of economic power when they focused on ownership of these companies. In a study of 43,000 corporations, they found just 147 companies control 40 percent of the economic value of the entire sample. Most of these are banks, hedge funds or other financial services corporations.”

This consolidation and concentration of economic power into a small number of massive, interlined, transnational corporations has almost imperceptibly led to them encroaching into the international governance sphere and quietly rewriting its rules. As Harris Gleckman warns:

“Today's powerful actors, multinational corporations, are recommending ways to use their power to establish themselves in crucial governance roles. At the same time, this process will not be effective unless a new universal set of sustainable development rules is in place to constrain their adverse behaviour in the global marketplace, and as it affects individual communities and people.”

At the same time, the rise of new powers, such as China, is fuelling an increased demand for raw resources, creating new governance challenges, as Global Witness indicates:

“As new global actors emerge and demand for natural resources increases, competition for the world’s remaining deposits of oil, gas and minerals will continue to intensify. The drive to find new sources of supply is taking extractive companies into ever more challenging operating environments, which brings with it an increased risk of complicity in fuelling violent conflict, looting of state assets and propping up autocratic regimes.”

International financial institutions have propagated a neoliberal economic orthodoxy that improves the conditions for big business. Increasing encroachment by the private sector into the public sphere and indeed in the development discourse remains a matter of grave concern for civil society. Public-private partnerships have become a more common mode for delivery and have become normalised as something that held to be efficient and desirable. In truth, they are misnamed; they are not partnerships with the public, but with states and international institutions over which the public exercises little influence.

Effective and efficient delivery may well result, but there are three challenges: first, such partnerships, by moving public services into the private sphere, reduce the potential for accountability to be exercised by citizens, not least on the grounds of commercial confidence. Second, the ingrained assumption that the private sector brings greater efficiency needs to be scrutinised and tested more. The private sector enters into partnerships not out of charity but in order to turn a profit, and that profit needs to be seen as an opportunity cost, given that it could instead have been expended for public benefit. The profit motive also introduces the potential for corruption in dealmaking. Third, partnership over delivery leaks out into influence over policy; in any engagement, partners are liable to start suggesting how rules and regulations could be amended. Even if partnership improves delivery, the potential for insider access that allows private partners to influence policies, including for their greater gain remains a worrying phenomenon.

Greenpeace International’s concern is that the private sector has penetrated – indeed, to some extent, captured – international institutions and states. On the question of climate change, solutions are available, but blocked by corporations that benefit from an unsustainable economy, while the finance industry blocks effective regulation of its practices. Large corporations are effective in evading accountability, as OWT suggests:

“Transnational corporations… can have clear accountabilities to their shareholders and consumers. However, this accountability rarely extends to the citizens who may be affected by their polluting or degrading manufacturing processes, their use of scarce land, water and other resources or their competition against smaller national brands.”

Many states are penetrated by, and to some extent beholden to, transnational corporations that belie the rhetoric of sovereignty by working beyond borders and jurisdictions. Growing public concern about inequality has often been matched by increased indignation about how little taxes global corporations pay in the territories where they make their fortunes. Oligarchs – from states where neoliberal privatisation agendas, pushed by international financial institutions, enabled national assets to fall into a small number of private hands – are part of a highly connected, cosmopolitan wealthy class, where crossovers between the interests of private wealth and the aims of politics seem almost natural. As TNI characterises it:

“Corporations are also staffing government, whether by providing contractors and running previously public services or by seconding staff to ministries. The revolving door has become a well-oiled one, with politicians and businessmen changing places regularly.”

The annual WEF held in Davos, Switzerland, is one place where this elite convenes.[vi] TNI notes a striking disparity in participation at the WEF:

“In 2014, while some 1,500 business delegates attended, they were joined by only 37 CSO leaders (mainly from large CSOs) and 10 labour leaders.”

The privileging of powerful private sector voices in governance processes can also be seen in the realm of Internet governance, Global Partners Digital notes:

“At the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)… businesses are able to gain sectoral membership, but the price is set at a level that is prohibitive to civil society groups, and as a result civil society is not able to access most of the documents under discussion, as they are not made public.”

The Committee for a Democratic UN suggests this is indicative of a broader trend:

“Even if intergovernmental processes might be open to participation, the resources required to do so effectively are often prohibitive. Multinational corporations, by contrast, do have the financial capabilities to pursue their interests… multinational corporations and their industry associations are often granted access and consulted in international negotiations.”

It is no surprise, TNI suggests, that civil society attempts to propose regulation to rein in the influence of global corporations have met with firm rebuke by powerful governments sympathetic to corporate interests. Even when corporations make global commitments, it is harder to scrutinise them and exercise accountability compared to intergovernmental institutions, partly because these lack the formality of state commitments, and partly because of resource disparities between corporations and those in civil society that seek to hold them to account. When it comes to the extractive interests, Global Witness is seeing corporate pushback against already agreed rules:

“…the American Petroleum Institute (API) – an oil business association that includes ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron and BP – continued making strenuous efforts to undermine the global transparency standard.”

Global governance reform needs to correct this power imbalance that gives large corporations privileged access, preventing progress on major issues such as climate change.


4. But who gets a say in reform?

Taken together, the above criticisms amount to a powerful critique of global business as usual. The case for reform is compelling.

One issue that confronts reform attempts is why would those who benefit ever agree to give up their privileged position? This points to a larger question: if international institutions reflect skewed power imbalances and unequal access, how can the likelihood of those imbalances distorting any process of reform be mitigated? As BIC suggests, the challenge is not just whether global governance reform can be advanced, but who has a say in that process, who sets the parameters of debate and how reform is managed.

Harris Gleckman sets out the current danger: currently reform proposals from the WEF’s Global Redesign Initiative seem to have some traction, and to be driving a narrative of reform that prioritises efficiency over democracy.

These ideas suggest, essentially, that global governance should be reworked to be less about formal, intergovernmental institutions, where member states are officially equal, and to be based more around flexible institutions that combine different stakeholders, including from governments, business and civil society, in different ways. Global governance is to be restructured on corporate lines. This conforms to the contemporary paradigm in which companies are assumed to be lean, flexible and efficient, and governments are considered slow, hidebound and bureaucratic. However, as Harris Gleckman observes, this borrowing from the private sector is problematic:

“The three crucial elements of what WEF means by multi-stakeholder are… First, that multi-stakeholder structures do not mean equal roles for all stakeholders; second, that the corporation is at the centre of the process; and third, that the list of WEF's multi-stakeholders is principally those with commercial ties to the company: customers, creditors, suppliers, collaborators, owners and national economies.”

This is why the critique that international institutions are out-dated and inflexible is dangerous, if it is not accompanied by one that they are also insufficiently open and democratic. Given the critique this analysis makes of international governance institutions as stymied by powerful national interests, a proposal to move away from formal intergovernmental working and a proposal to expand less formal, multi-stakeholder methods, may initially seem appealing, not least to some of the larger, more visible parts of civil society that would hope to benefit from increased opportunities for access.

However, reform proposals such as the Global Redesign Initiative fail on any democracy test, because they would shrink the circle of decision-making, rather than expand it. As Harris Gleckman notes:

“What is left unsaid is that leaving governance to self-selected and potentially self-interested elite bodies risks undermining public acceptance and democracy.”

Multi-stakeholder processes, as they define them, would be elite ones, with elites essentially self-selecting. The most powerful states, corporations and perhaps some elite CSOs would be able to determine global responses and indeed, define what is identified as a global problem. Commitments might be voluntary rather than mandatory, and funding processes and reporting lines unclear, making it harder to exercise scrutiny and accountability. As TNI suggests, the proposal:

“…rejects intergovernmental agreements, international frameworks and enforceable hard law that would constrain corporations, favouring instead volunteerism, codes of conduct and soft law.”

Further, if the challenge with the current system is the assertion of state interests, then elite reform in the name of efficiency would not fundamentally address the problem. The autonomy of international institutions would not be enhanced. The most powerful are unlikely to countenance problems or solutions that go against their own interests. Global corporations may well expect lucrative spin-offs from active involvement in such arrangements. Harris Gleckman offers that:

“What the WEF proposes is that when important global issues appear on the international political horizon, a multi-stakeholder group can be quickly created to take the lead in defining the issue, taking that role away from the multilateral process. They could, if the leading multinational corporations wish, scope the issue very narrowly, or they may, from the outset, frame an issue in a way such that a market-based solution is likely to be presented as the best outcome.”

TNI makes the point that the rubric of flexibility can be applied to dodge demands for greater regulation. In these arrangements, smaller states and non-elite civil society are likely to have less say. Divisions between elite civil society and the rest would be broadened.

Centre for Concern suggests that a creeping shrinking of the circle is already taking place with the rise to prominence of the G20, a smaller, self-selected group of the most powerful states that has indulged in mandate creep, with the gloss being that it is a more nimble and flexible institution than the UN, in which 193 states are formally equal. Centre for Concern sets out the rationale, as it has been made on the part of the G20:

“The world needed a small group of countries to lead a swift and tailored response to the global economic challenges of our time. There was always going to be a trade-off between representativeness and capacity to act. The smaller the group, the argument goes, the less representative it is, but the faster it can react. On the other hand, the larger the group – the UN’s universal membership being the archetypical example – the greater the representativeness, but the longer it can take to act.”

However, Centre for Concern exposes as a myth the notion that a smaller group is more effective, noting that the G20 faces the same challenges of reconciling competing state interests as the UN:

“Even officials attending G20 meetings agree that as time goes by and the echoes of the emergency fade away, the G20 is less able to muster consensus to take joint and decisive action on global economic issues that require attention.”

In the context of the Commonwealth, CHRI suggests that the trade-off between flexibility and accountability is unacceptably high. For example, much of the Commonwealth's work is said to consist of 'quiet diplomacy' in trying to shift the positions of errant state leaders, something that requires flexibility and privacy. However, as they note:

“The problem with this is that their vigour and worth can only be guessed at because they remain cloaked in secrecy.”

A similar tension between flexibility and accountability in play at the World Bank, and surfaces more generally in debates on post-2015 development goals, where the question is one of global standardisation versus national variation. As BIC states:

“A key question… is how the Bank will navigate which responsibilities should lie with borrowing countries and which should be mandatory loan requirements. Borrower country systems can and should be used when those systems can be demonstrated to offer robust, transparent and inclusive processes that are equivalent to international standards, and when countries not only have good policies on paper but the institutional capacity to implement them on the ground…. What is unacceptable is a transfer of responsibility and accountability for safeguard outcomes to borrowers with a concomitant loosening of safeguard compliance at appraisal, and open-ended compliance during implementation.”

There is much to be said in favour of national adaptation, rather than global, top-down approaches that do not take adequate account of national specifics. The challenge comes when that variation allows global best practice standards to be slackened. Safeguards, hard fought for by civil society, can be lessened in importance by trade-offs with flexibility. The issue here once again is that in national contexts where there is little potential for local civic pressure on governments to uphold the same high standards, governments will tailor to their advantage.

What is clear is that new structures such as the G20 place are placing more emphasis on interaction between heads of states and less on consultation with civil society. They have less well-developed processes and are less open and less accountable. They operate less like parliaments and more like clubs. And they have little interest in expanding the circle, even of states involved. But as Centre for Concern suggests, they are effective at determining the scope of debates and limiting what it is possible to do in broader forums:

“An alternative that non-G20 countries raise may not be seen as worthy of debate, thereby curtailing the scope of rights to raise, frame and debate issues that non-G20 members would have in global institutions.”

Similarly, while the ability of the WEF to drive its reform agenda forward in the longer term may be open to debate, and the question of the financing of the suggested reforms is a difficult one, they have the power to shape the narrative at present and frame debate around the details of elite multi-stakeholder governance, rather than more broadly about its principles. It could be argued that the WEF’s ideas have enjoyed predominance partly because there is an absence of well-argued, worked out solutions from other sources; but while an argument that some parts of civil society are better at making criticisms than suggesting constructive solutions may hold some weight, numerous civil society proposals have failed to gain traction. It is more the case that the most powerful voices are prevailing in defining what the problem is and advancing solutions that place themselves at the centre.

Current processes to define new, post-2015 development goals reveal some of these issues. Much of civil society is expressing concerns about the private sector’s access to and influence over these processes. Some powerful government voices, and corporate interests, are pushing in negotiations for a heavy emphasis on public-private partnerships. The danger this raises is of a new development framework that has less accountability than the MDGs, where states make fewer commitments to their citizens that can be monitored and which cannot address the negative impacts large corporations have on development, which include limited development financing as a result of corporate tax avoidance and human rights abuses perpetrated by extractive industries.[vii]

CIVICUS affirms that any new framework for sustainable development must be holistic and underpinned by the full range of human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural.[viii] Additionally, there must be a central and institutionalised role for civil society, with indicators set on the enabling environment for civil society, and recognition of civil society participation and rights as a cross-cutting theme and essential element of any global partnership for sustainable development.[ix] Further, there is a need to revisit the values outlined by world leaders in the Millennium Declaration as central to contemporary international relations: freedom, equality, solidarity, tolerance, respect for nature and shared responsibility.

5. So what’s the vision?

Global governance needs a rules-based series of international governance institutions that have coherent mandates and work cohesively together. There should be clarity to outsiders on what each institution is trying to achieve, how it tries to achieve its aims and what the entry points are – with open, transparent procedures. There should be as wide an inclusion of a diversity of civil society and citizens as possible. Civil society should be involved in defining processes for their inclusion, rather than simply being invitees to spaces that are not of their making. The other side of this should be that different parts of civil society become better at organising to use opportunities with more focus and with broader inclusion. Technology-based solutions that are not superficial add-ons should be developed to address the problem of selection and who gets to be in the room.

While a degree of flexibility needs to be built into the system, so that institutions can change to reflect shifting landscapes rather than become frozen, what helps them do this is to rework themselves as open, listening, learning institutions. Neither states nor elite groups where powerful state and business interests coincide should be assumed to have the monopoly on learning and innovation. Similarly, while a flexible response is sometimes needed in the face of crisis, and the current structure certainly often fails on that score, the need is surely to build up the ability to anticipate and prevent crisis, rather than react too late to events. The true test of any reform should be that it advances openness, access and accountability – that it serves democracy.

Multilateralism is not finished yet, and reform proposals such as the WEF’s may open the risk of putting civil society into the invidious position of appearing to defend a status quo that they do not agree with. States remain important, and an international system without them is unimaginable. But inclusive, democratic multilateralism is needed, rather than elite and secretive multi-stakeholderism. In order to tackle enduring challenges, there remains a need to engage with and try to reform the current system, rather than indulging in purist debates, as Global Partners Digital suggests has been the case with the Internet governance question:

“…civil society has been caught up in an important, but staid and resource-draining, debate about whether an ideal Internet governance regime is multilateral or multi-stakeholder. Thankfully, in the last year and a half, there has been growing consensus among newer civil society voices on the need for a ‘third way’ – a more inclusive and effective regime than we have at present, but one that does not resort to centralisation and government control…”

Without some kind of formal multilateralism, as in the arena of Internet governance, the danger is that powerful states will unilaterally make policy through national processes, but which has international impact.

The Stakeholder Forum also points out why civil society needs multilateralism:

“Civil society is often viewed as an antidote to administrative systems and bureaucracies, but lasting change can only be achieved when civil society has access to an organised system where outcomes and agreements are respected and rule bound behaviour and transparent processes are developed.”

The current multilateral system has, however, effectively been penetrated by powerful private sector interests, as captured by Global Partners Digital:

“It is also often argued that even multilateral processes are already effectively multi-stakeholder, but the influence of the private sector and others is secret and unofficial; as such, the goal of pushing for multi-stakeholder participation is to bring those relationships out into the open and to ensure that civil society also has a place at the table.”

There is a need to shed light on that involvement and to give other actors, from a wide range of civil society, the same access. There is a need for new and equitable rules of engagement between states, businesses, civil society and international institutions in the global arena. In the words of Greenpeace International:

“We need the United Nations in particular to be an open space of free deliberations to set global standards to improve the lives of all.”

UNV highlights the vision for a new form of multilateralism with multiple accountability identified by many involved in post-2015 processes:

“Many people surveyed on post-2015 accountability mechanisms proposed a system of multiple accountability involving all stakeholders, and to include governments, civil society, donors and the private sector, along with all beneficiaries, particularly those from marginalised groups.”

Once multilateral institutions are more open, they need to be supported to grow teeth and strengthen their autonomy from powerful interests. The world’s problems need international institutions to act as an effective counterbalance to the interests of the powerful. As Greenpeace International goes on to remind us, the example of the WTO proves this is possible, given sufficient political will:

“It’s important to remember that global regulations with teeth are not impossible. If governments want to create powerful institutions, they can. The World Trade Organization, for example, can impose punitive fines on countries that break its rules.”

Other institutions, `subject to improved accountability and access, need to be given the same powers, including over the regulation of the global private sector, to counterbalance the WTO's power.

While international governance institutions may be out of date, no corresponding, broadly owned, citizen-led global movement has emerged to act as a counterpoint. Bigger, broader civic forces are needed, rather than elite civil society. Technology offers new possibilities here. Alongside this, social accountability tools, already popularly used in many countries and communities, need to be adapted and applied to enable large scale, citizens’ accountability over international institutions.


6. And how do we get there?

As this report’s overview of the defining events in relation to citizen activism in the previous year citizen activism covers in more depth, the two recent waves of protests – firstly, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Europe and the US, and secondly, in large countries that have grown in global importance, such as Brazil and Turkey – have brought to the forefront issues of inequality and poor governance. Each uprising addressed local issues and had specific tipping points, but they tend to share some characteristics: a sense of frustration about the insulation of elites who have captured governance institutions; a growing out of protest from initially relatively small, specific issues to broader issues of lack of voice and shocking inequality; the holding of mass, highly visible protests in public spaces that brings many people into protest who were not previously engaged, but rejects conventional notions of formal, party political participation; and the use of new technology and social media to enable the horizontal organisation of protest. These characteristics suggest the possibility of making new connections from the local to global.

UNV highlights that:

“A 2013 World Economic Forum report noted how ‘networked citizens have started to change the interface and expectations of civil society empowerment’. It highlighted different forms of citizen expression and participation over recent years, including uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa to the Occupy Movement and citizen protests, from those against austerity to those demanding fair elections. A late 2013 analysis (covering 87 countries and 90 percent of the world’s population) of 843 protests between 2006 and 2013 notes the main grievances were economic justice and opposition to austerity, failure of political representation and political systems, global justice and human rights. It noted that the increase in the number and diversity of protests are ‘a result of people’s growing awareness that policy-making has not prioritized them.’”

Social media has been critical to the success of these protest movements and, as CIVICUS highlights elsewhere in this report, has enabled people to become more connected globally and more demanding of their leaders. makes explicit the link between technology and raised expectations:

“Technology is connecting us like never before, accelerating and diversifying the opportunities for communication and social action. Just as importantly, social attitudes, relationships and modes of organisation are in flux. Citizens’ expectations of decision-makers and institutions are growing. Top-down power and business as usual are losing legitimacy, and the narrative of individual empowerment is growing.”

New movements present challenges to different parties. To other civil society forms, as SDI observes, and as CIVICUS has emphasised in recent years, new protest movements offer challenges of adjustment: existing CSOs need to recognise these as new and dynamic civil society forms, find ways to connect to them and be of relevance to them, and analyse and internalise learning from their successes. They also need to help find ways of sustaining participation momentum once protest fades from the spotlight or meets with state backlash.

For many governments and corporations, the emphasis on inequality, power imbalances and the privileging of corporations is an unwelcome one. Different governments may seek to repress, ridicule or ignore new protest movements. Few have found ways of engaging constructively. For international institutions, with their emphasis on formal procedures of accreditation and rules of engagement, it is hard to see how they can make existing procedures encompass new forms. New movements may suggest fresh ways of making local to global connections, but global institutions struggle to deal with them.

What new protest movements indicate is that there is no apathy about politics or lack of desire to change, but rather that some of the formal methods by which change has once been pursued, including at the international level, have fallen into discredit. There are other assets that suggest a citizen-led campaign for global governance change can be built. For example, public opinion suggests that the UN as an institution still enjoys high levels of support amongst the public, with a sizeable majority of people surveyed in the bulk of countries, particularly younger people, having a positive view of its role and impact.[x] Further, as the Committee for a Democratic UN notes, people are prepared to support in principle international rules that constrain the power of their states:

“International opinion research carried out over the last decade shows that the world's citizenry as a whole is more receptive to global solutions than those offered by their own national governments. Majorities in most countries, for example, support a strong regulation of the arms trade; an international responsibility to protect people from severe human rights abuses by their own government; the elimination of all nuclear weapons (something supported by citizens of the nuclear powers); more government spending to fight hunger and severe poverty in the world; and higher prioritisation of climate change.”

Public opinion in the US consistently supports action on climate change.[xi] And as the Committee for a Democratic UN points out, there remains widespread support for the idea of democracy, albeit unhappiness with how it works in practice, not least because of globalisation and the lack of democracy at that level:

“With average approval rates of up to around 90 percent, support for the abstract idea of democratic governance proves overwhelming throughout the world. It is no contradiction that at the same time there can be deep scepticism with regard to how democracy actually works.”

Further, at the UN, some states have called for an international legal instrument to hold transnational corporations to human rights obligations.[xii] Put together, these suggest there is some potential for a progressive, people-led, global reform movement.

Alliances will be important here, particularly alliances that bring in more than the usual suspects. Some contributors – such as Conectas, Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and PAHRDN – draw attention to the value of alliances that realise a multiplicity of participation and influence routes, as well as alliances between CSOs, academics and representatives of supportive and reform-minded states. Some, such as Disability Rights International, IJDH and PAHRDN, note that successful local-to-global partnerships have been forged on specific issues. In the case of IJDH, connections were made between people and politicians in the US and Haiti, diaspora populations, the academic community and the media to bring pressure on the UN for accountability over its peacekeepers' introduction of cholera to Haiti. These partnerships are difficult, but not impossible. Now there is a need to translate that experience on specific issues to the general question of global governance reform.

Alliances need to be smart and multi-stakeholder in nature, including to help leverage the power of states sympathetic to civil society – but crucially, these need to be open, transparent, mass partnerships, rather than elite, closed multi-stakeholder ways of working. If the current system still requires some civil society forms to act as gatekeepers, then there is a need for more honest brokers who can demonstrate that they do not bring their own interests into that role. Alliances need to demonstrate that citizens, in large numbers, are unhappy with the current state of global governance.

That unhappiness still needs to be fully articulated. The complex and mysterious world of international governance institutions may be a source of strength to them – if people don’t understand them, it is harder to engage critically and articulate alternatives. If international institutions won’t demystify themselves, then civil society needs to do it. Ways need to be found of making connections between the things people are expressing anger about – inequality, lack of voice, low wages, lack of employment and poor quality of employment – and the international institutions that in part shape the policies that help create these conditions – or do little to improve them – and continue to set the parameters of the debate in favour of global capital. The wit, imagination and anger of the new, mass protest movements needs to be joined by an informed critique, including by those CSOs that currently work inside the system, if changes are to come and a convincing alliance of the many is to be built.

We in civil society have our work cut out for us. We need to both drive and be the change that we want to see.



[i] United Nations, A more secure world: Our shared responsibility, Report of the Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change, 2004, available at: .

[ii] CIVICUS, Bridging the gaps: Citizens, organisations and disassociation, 2011, available at: .

[iii] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), NGO Branch, .

[iv] Bertelsmann Stiftung, Sharing Global Governance: The Role of Civil Society Organizations, 2011, available at: .

[v] United Nations My World Survey website, .

[vi] CIVICUS press statement Davos is the epitome of a world run by elites, 22 January 2014, available at: .

[vii] Centre for Economic and Social Rights blog, Civil Society Rallies to Prevent Privatization of the Post 2015 Process, available at: .

[viii] CIVICUS press statement, Civil Society: Put Human Rights at the Centre of the Post 2015 Agenda, 18 March 2013, available at: .

[ix] Civic Space Initiative Consortium submission on CSO Enabling Environment to the UN High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, 2 May 2013, available at: .

[x] Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, September 2013, available at: .

[xi] US Climate Action Network website,

[xii] Statement by Ecuador and others, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, available at: .





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