SPACES FOR CHANGE’s director, Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, joined activists from Argentina, United States, Brazil, Philippines and India at a panel discussion on Reclaiming Civic Space: Resistance, Resilience and Resources held at New York University (NYU) on May 21, 2018. The panelists at the discussion are contributing authors to the 26th edition of the Sur International Journal on Human Rights (SUR 26), published by Conectas Human Rights in collaboration with The Fund for Global Human Rights. Deborah Alejandra Popowski of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, NYU School of Law moderated the panel discussion.
SUR 26, a special edition of the SUR journal documented the resistance of human rights groups during a time of increasing repression and restrictions on civil society, and offers key insights on the strategies frontline activists are using to reclaim civic space. The panel started with a discussion of the drivers of governmental restrictions on free speech, association and assembly rights, resulting in growing repression and crackdowns on the civil society across continents. From Africa to Asia to Latin America, one thing is clear: governments do not like dissent. As such, they are determined to take the most-stringent measures to suppress dissent or any act of institutionalized challenge to the status quo. Because civil society groups and activists are the primary actors initiating a variety of bold actions to expose official corruption and challenge injustices, they are often the targets of governmental restrictions.
In many jurisdictions, civil society organizations and other non-profit entities that receive foreign funding are accused of engaging in terrorism. Accordingly, governmental measures often adopted to combat money laundering and counter financing of terrorism provide justification to cut off funding to organizations critical of government decisions, shrinking the civic space. Such attacks on activists and the civil society framed around the objective of national security and national interest clothe these official actions with legitimacy, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity while tightening the space for democratic engagement even further.
Discussing the strategies to resist the tide of legal and regulatory restrictions to civil society, Ms. Ohaeri explained that proposals designed to shrink the civic space are not always explicitly evident. Legislative proposals that contain restrictive provisions often bear confusing titles (e.g. “Frivolous Petitions Bill” was the title for the anti-social media bill), and the injurious content is only detectable through constant vigilance and policy analysis. Restrictive regulations could manifest in a variety of forms, not necessarily in the custom of legal regimes. For instance, restrictive regulations may be inserted into ministerial regulations, codes of corporate governance or internal policy directives, all of which have the possibility of obstructing civic engagement. The public usually becomes aware only once the directives or regulations have become operative. The only recourse available to affected groups is either social pressure, or a judicial review to try and invalidate the regulations or directives. These forms of legal and non-legal restrictions are more difficult to notice and counter.