In Cambodia, Tanzania, and Hungary, independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have come under vicious verbal attack from politicians; in India, Azerbaijan, and Sudan, travel restrictions have been imposed on civil society leaders; elsewhere around the world, activists and human rights defenders have been physically attacked and in some cases murdered.
All this is part of what CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society groups, is calling a global emergency: unprecedented restrictions on the freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly that it describes in its 2017 State of Civil Society Report as “a new democratic crisis.”
So how should the 28-member European Union, the world’s largest trade partner and aid donor, respond? Last week, in an important public stand, its members adopted a position affirming the important role of civil society groups globally “as promoters of democracy, defenders of rights holders and of the rule of law, social justice, and human rights” and committing the EU and its members to adopt “to take concrete actions … to protect and expand civil society space,” and to adopt “sharper and more coherent approaches.”
The EU recently established one element of an emergency response system for civil society, with the launch in October 2015 of Protect Defenders, which, through a consortium of 12 civil society organizations, offers emergency grants and relocation support to human rights defenders at risk.
The EU also has an elaborate conflict prevention framework that sets out a systematic approach to identifying a crisis. This framework identifies emerging threats to civil society groups as one of the indicators of a potential conflict.
But to address the global emergency that CIVICUS and other organizations have identified, the focus needs to be even earlier. The EU and its member states need to improve efforts to identify and act on the very early warning signs—both to safeguard the space for civil society and prevent further escalation. Continued discussions with the institutions should refine responses along four areas of concern:
- Preventive strategies: Ensuring that civil society groups are strong enough to face threats in the first place is vital. This should include ensuring core funding for organizations, so that they can build effective structures and develop medium- to long-term strategies, with sufficient flexibility to respond to emerging challenges. Increased knowledge and the ability to effectively spot trends should also be part of ongoing preventive action.
- Early warning and action: Currently the most neglected area. Precautionary steps must be taken at the first signs of trouble—as soon as an individual politician questions the transparency of NGOs, or journalists are questioned, or protests are shut down. A range of possible early responses can underline EU concern, such as organizing a seminar, proposing a visit from a special rapporteur, facilitating regional connections, or organizing visits by EU diplomats to groups that are coming under pressure. At the same time, scenario planning is crucial in the event that repressive measures are ramped up. This includes having a clear understanding of the legal obligations associated with various policy options, opposing funding restrictions and ensuring tailor-made responses.
- Crisis response: This is probably the area where there has been the most action so far by from the EU, but not always in a systematic way. The ability to collect and correctly analyze information on a rapidly developing crisis is crucial for an effective response.
- Preventing civil society extinction: How should the EU respond when prolonged repression leads to the closure of all independent civil society groups within a country? Possible options should include ensuring that individual human rights defenders and civil society organizations are able to operate in neighboring or in other safe countries, potentially for extensive periods of time. Individuals who continue to work under difficult circumstances should also be supported—both through financial and political support. Without these kind of efforts, which require a flexible approach, there is a risk that independent and critical organizations may disappear, making them harder to re-establish years later.
Being conscious of the actions that might be harmful is also important. Engaging with civil society through one formal network (that might be exposed to interference by hostile political forces) can have a very damaging effect, as can channeling funds through a single basket fund.
The “sharper, more coherent” approach that the EU has now publicly espoused requires a bold and structured approach. Without it, the risk is that reflexive responses will continue to be too little, too late.