Part 2 - Social and Political Challenges:
2.2 Fraying Rule of Law and Declining Civic Freedoms: Citizens and Civic Space at Risk
A new era of restricted freedoms and increased governmental control could undermine social, political and economic stability and increase the risk of geopolitical and social conflict.1 Empowered by sophisticated new technological tools in areas such as surveillance, governments and decision-makers around the world are tightening control over civil society organizations, individuals and other actors.
Over the past 10 years, multiple sources from within and outside the civil society sector have pointed to deteriorating rule of law and declining respect for basic civil and political rights at the global level.2 New regulations and restrictions are ostensibly intended to protect against increased security threats, but potentially threaten the existence of an open and free society and the stability of the environment in which businesses invest and operate.
Civil society actors have historically been integral to driving progress and innovation in the political, social and economic spheres – by advancing human rights, the rule of law and sustainable development – and they are currently at the forefront of efforts to tackle global challenges such as the migration crisis, implementing the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and promoting transparent governance. Closing space for civil society reduces the chances that these challenges will be effectively addressed.
This chapter will explain the current challenges of a closing space for civic freedoms and solid rule of law, casting a light on the triggers and contextual factors that are contributing to the phenomenon. A separate focus on the implications for businesses and society at large is also provided to highlight the medium-to-long term impact of this trend and the issues at stake in the global context of a fraying rule of law.
Analysing the Closing Space for Civic Freedoms
“Closing civil society space” refers to actions by governments and others that, intentionally or otherwise, result in the prevention, limitation or eradication of civil society activities. This is something that can occur for very different reasons. In some cases repressive laws have been introduced in order to reduce dissent and silence opposing voices. In others, civil society freedoms have been unintentionally restricted as a consequence of other democratically agreed policies. This is testament to the fact that the compromise between security and liberty is still a difficult one to tread for many policy-makers. In the current context of heightened security concerns and terrorist threats, many governments have promulgated regulatory frameworks that entail greater scrutiny of all economic and societal actors – but trade-offs between security and the protection of civic freedoms have not always been managed in a balanced way, and some of these measures have had a disproportionate impact on civil society organizations in certain parts of the world.3
Closing space is difficult to quantify because restrictions are different in each country and impact each actor in different ways.4 In some countries, for example, businesses and civil society actors have different reporting requirements – for example, civil society actors may be prohibited from receiving foreign donations, while businesses are encouraged to seek foreign investment.5 However, civil society organizations, media and corporate actors have all expressed growing concern about the closing of civic space.6 In 2015, CIVICUS found serious threats to one or more civic freedoms – including the freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression – in 109 countries, up from 96 in 2014.7 Restrictions on press freedom are intensifying around the world, with a range of methods from physical violence to legal intimidation to new laws criminalizing speech being widely used by a number of actors to undermine freedom of expression and free flow of information.8
The trend is accelerating and expanding globally, to encompass countries that have traditionally been open and inclusive. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, 3.2 billion people live in countries where the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly are repressed or closed, with only nine countries out of the 104 analysed globally being rated as open in terms of enjoyment of rights and adherence to the rule of law (Figure 2.2.1).9
Restrictions affect both organizations and individual citizens, including journalists and media outlets – particularly those who challenge economic and political elites.10 Methods of restrictions include verbal and physical actions (vilification of civil society groups,11 crackdowns on protest,12 violence against individual activists);13 regulatory measures (burdensome reporting requirements such as on the management of foreign funding);14 and technological intrusions (e.g. digital rights restrictions).15
Some organizations have closed down or reduced their operations as a result.16 Furthermore, in addition to human rights and advocacy organizations, academic, philanthropic and humanitarian entities, as well as journalists, have also been affected by closing civic space.17
Triggers and contextual factors
Factors behind the closing space for civil society vary per region, though Table 2.2.1 summarizes some common dynamics. In some cases, security concerns, protectionism and the changing global aid landscape have been used as reasons for reducing dissent. In other cases, restrictions on freedom have been unintended byproducts of well-intentioned security packages. While it is possible to try to distinguish between the trend in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian and democratic countries, worrying trends are seen even in democratic countries. Genuine problems among a subset of civil society actors – such as a lack of transparency and links to terrorism – do exist, but responses are drafted widely enough to affect reliable organizations delivering benefits to society.
Table 2.2.1: Contextual Factors
|Security concerns and counter-terrorism measures||The sensitive geopolitical context, the rise of cyberattacks and major data breaches and hacks, as well as the global insurgency of violent extremism and radicalization have led many countries to adopt security measures and counter-terrorism laws that have increased scrutiny and restrictions on the participation of societal actors, including civil society and individual citizens, sometimes including restrictions on dissenting voices.¹|
|Rising nationalism||Civil society actors often challenge decision-makers on issues tied to security and identity, such as the response to terrorism or the refugee crisis, or the treatment of minorities. Nationalist sentiment has fuelled the closing of civic space in an attempt to reduce such criticism.² The argument against foreign funding also has nationalistic undercurrents: some non-governmental organizations that take foreign funding have been accused of being unpatriotic or anti-development.³|
|Changing scene of development aid||Developing and emerging countries are often less dependent on foreign aid than they have been in the past, and less tolerant of external influence over the spending of aid money.⁴ Claiming ownership of development aid is an important step towards reducing aid dependence – but some governments have used it to exert control over civil society activities in their country.⁵|
|“Market fundamentalism”||At times the push for economic growth has contributed to restricting the civic space by nurturing in certain geographical contexts the distrust and repression of civil society actors who have criticized business or foreign investors, and who have consequently been labelled “anti-development” or “anti-national interest”.⁶|
1 Carothers and Brechenmacher 2014, p. 9; Greenslade 2011; OHCHR 2014b.
2 Palumbo-Liu 2016; Sokatch 2013.
3 Such accusations have been made in several countries, including India, Pakistan, and Malawi (see Doane 2016; ICNL 2016a; Jafar 2011, p. 133).
4 Green 2015.
5 Rutzen 2015, p. 7.
6 Doane 2016; Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society 2016, p. 9; United Nations Special Rapporteur 2016. In India, the Intelligence Bureau claimed, in a leaked report, that civil society prevents GDP growth by 2–3% per year.
The Role of Technology
Technological advances have expanded civic space by providing citizens and organizations with new opportunities to make their voices heard, express their grievances and demand their rights, and innovative ways to hold decision-makers to account. They offer virtual platforms for citizens to engage and mobilize on issues they care about. At the same time, ICT and other technological tools benefit individuals or groups seeking to leverage technology for the spreading of hate, misinformation and extremism, and present challenges for law enforcement and other governmental authorities attempting to monitor terrorist activity.
Technological tools are also being used to increase surveillance and control over citizens, whether for legitimate security concerns or in an attempt to eradicate criticism and opposition.18 Restricting new opportunities for democratic expression and mobilization,19 and by consequence the digitally enabled array of civil, political and economic rights (such as the right to work and education; freedom of expression)20– just as citizens have become more connected and engaged – creates a potentially explosive situation.
Implications for Citizens and Society
Closing the space for civil society not only reduces the number of actors and operations that are protecting and promoting the common good in society, but it also potentially increases the likelihood and impact of the risks, including:
- diminishing public trust in institutions;
- more resources devoted to national interests over citizens’ well-being, in a context where governments pursue specific agendas without ample prior consultation with societal actors;21
- corruption, as quantitative and qualitative studies attest to the contribution of civil society organizations in reducing illicit activities;22, 23
- polarization of views, due to misinformation or asymmetry of information across countries and societal groups;24 and
- socio-political and economic instability as discontent around governance systems that are not participatory and accountable manifests as protests.
A world with limited freedoms and closing civil space is additionally deprived of the important economic value contributed by civil society organizations. The economic importance of civil society organizations is under-researched,25 but some studies find evidence of impact that could be lost as their space to operate shrinks. Back in the 1990s, the Johns Hopkins Comparative Non-profit Sector Project quantified the non-profit sector’s economic contribution in the 22 nations examined as $1.1 trillion, with nearly 19 million full-time employees and average expenditure totalling 4.6% of the gross domestic product. These figures are likely to be larger now.26
Implications for Business
Civil society actors are increasingly looking to the private sector for support expanding their space to operate.27 The case for business leaders to promote openness is not always immediately apparent, because shrinking civil society space may not directly impact their core business in the short term. But studies show a long-term link between democratic systems and increases in GDP per capita,28 and most of the top performers in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking are free countries (Figure 2.2.2).
Societal freedom is economically beneficial for several reasons. Data suggest it reduces corruption,29 which imposes costs on business: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) puts the annual cost of bribery alone at around US$1.5 to US$2 trillion, nearly 2% of global GDP, and this is only one form of corruption.30 Additionally, it is often the case that restrictions on civil society represent just the initial sign of more authoritarian systems impacting all economic and societal actors.31
Civil society helps to hold economic actors to account for respecting basic rights, promoting competition by creating a more equal playing field. Indeed, in some countries with less open societies, companies are collaborating with civil society actors to facilitate human rights compliance reporting and demonstrate compliance with international standards even if this is not required by domestic legislation. Companies operating in countries where human rights are not respected and civil society is suppressed run a potentially high reputational risk from being associated with environmental or human rights violations in supply chains or at production sites.32
Evidence shows that workforce diversity is good for business,33 implying that busineses benefit from being located in societies that value diversity. Brain drain fuelled by unstable and corrupt environments means that business loses out on the country’s top human potential.34 From a talent management perspective, it can only be good for companies to be able to freely move their human capital across countries, knowing their staff will not be held back by legal and/or cultural restrictions challenging global corporate diversity policies.35
Finally, against the backdrop of ongoing pressure on economic and societal actors to deliver on the SDGs through partnerships and cooperation, it is in the interest of corporations to promote an open space where civil society actors can thrive and cross-sectoral partnerships develop. Restrictions to the civic space risks endanger the ability of businesses to achieve their SDG targets.
How Could Business Help to Keep the Civic Space Open?
It is not always straightforward for business leaders to understand the nature of their contribution to promoting open and democratic systems. There are, however, some interesting examples of businesses promoting an inclusive civic space. Business leaders can promote space for civil society “behind the scenes”, for example through lobbying in meetings with governmental authorities. At the local level, business associations – which are also affected by closing civic space – can help to coordinate actions such as awareness raising and lobbying the government.36 In some cases, companies have assisted civil society groups by providing in-kind support, such as meeting space for activists, or indirect support, including quietly resisting discriminatory local practices.37
There are also examples of businesses publicly working against specific attempts to limit civil society activities, as illustrated by technology companies pulling out of countries over internet censorship; diamond companies speaking out against the prosecution of activists; sportswear manufacturers publicly supporting the work of human rights defenders;38 and food associations bailing out civil society leaders who had been investigating abuses in the food industry.39
Considering the complex nature of this challenge, some businesses have preferred to come together in coalitions to collectively raise their voice for the promotion of rights and freedoms in the contexts they operate. Examples include the Open for Business coalition,40 which supports LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) diversity across the world.
Increased international solidarity with affected civil society and stronger coalitions of businesses to advance and advocate for human rights promotion are concrete recommendations that have been identified by many organizations as priorities for action.41
Despite the global nature of closing civil society space, there is still not much awareness among businesses, decision-makers and a good part of societal actors about this worrisome pattern and the potential risks it can engender: increased social and economic instability, augmented social polarization, more fragile governance, and major detriment to basic civil and political rights that have been gainfully acquired by many countries in the past 50 years. More investment should be put to further study this phenomenon and quantify it in terms of lost economic and social opportunities. With technological innovation creating new opportunities for social inclusion and civic empowerment, time is ripe for all actors to come together and enable an open civic space by collectively taking measures and engaging technology to address this risk effectively.
Chapter 2.2 was contributed by Silvia Magnoni, World Economic Forum, and Kira Youdina, World Economic Forum.
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