Claiming Civic Space: Five Things Civil Society Should Do

June 15, 2023

#1 – Engaging Country Assessments by Global and Regional Counterterrorism Bodies

co-authored by Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and Ryota Jonen, Director of the World Movement for Democracy

The office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (UNSR on FoAA) and the World Movement for Democracy convened last year a series of consultations with civil society partners around the world to identify global trends influencing the shrinking of Civic Space. Below is part one of the five-blog series analyzing these global trends while outlining strategies for Civil Society to push back and expand citizens’ rights and engagement in the public sphere.

Uganda’s National Bureau for Non-governmental Organizations suspended the operations of 54 civil society organizations (CSOs) in the country in August 2021, accusing them of failing to comply with administrative regulations. Among these organizations was Chapter Four Uganda, whose inspirational leader and human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo was violently arrested, blindfolded, and detained incommunicado in December 2020. He was later charged with money laundering for a grant the organization received. Even though he was eventually released, and his organization resumed its operations in May 2022, the government’s harassment left a big dent in the organization. It has exhausted and crushed staff members’ spirits. Many donors also revoked their funding.

In Nicaragua, the government closed over 2000 civil society organizations in 2022 using anti-money laundry laws and charges for disruption of public order. The Nicaraguan authorities often use the draconian “Foreign Agents” law passed in 2020 and the Regulation and Control of Non-Profit Organization law passed in 2022 to silence independent voices in society. More recently, the government also started to weaponize citizenship. At least 94 democracy advocates have been stripped of their citizenship rights, limiting their freedom of movement, becoming stateless people.

Uganda and Nicaragua are not the only places where the government has restricted the environment for citizens to engage in public affairs. Democratic and civic space around the world has been shrinking for more than 17 years as highlighted in Freedom in the World report. In 2008, the World Movement for Democracy and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) jointly launched the “Defending Civil Society” initiative to document the growing negative trend of restrictive environments for people to associate and assemble. During this time, Russia and other countries with authoritarian tendencies began introducing restrictive NGO laws to respond to the Color Revolutions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan in 2003-2005. The Arab Spring in 2011-2012 furthered the fear of authoritarian leaders, triggering them to tighten their grip on power by limiting people’s capacity to express and organize. By learning from each other, authoritarian leaders have developed even more sophisticated tools to control societies with limited civic space. The restrictions usually comprise:

  1. Barriers to forming civil society organizations;
  2. Controls over spheres of activities;
  3. Sanctions on speech and publications;
  4. Limitations on communication, including digital surveillance and Internet shutdown;
  5. Bans on public gatherings; and
  6. Prohibitions against funding.

The development of more sophisticated tools to restrict civil society, such as the adoption of counterterrorism and anti-money laundering laws, illustrate how authoritarian leaders are learning from each other. What should we do to reverse this negative trend? Why is it that civic space keeps shrinking? What should we do to reverse this negative trend? To answer these questions, the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (UNSR on FoAA) and the World Movement for Democracy convened a series of consultations with civil society partners around the world in 2022.

These consultations identified opportunities and levers in five main areas in which we should consider making more concerted efforts. This blog focuses on the first area: Counterterrorism.

One of the main drivers for shrinking civic space is the international community’s efforts to fight against terrorism. As outlined in the UN Special Rapporteur’s report presented to the UN Human Rights Council in June 2022, many governments use counterterrorism and anti-money laundering as the pretext to adopt restrictive legal measures on civil society’s access to funding. Many governments often refer to the standard and risk evaluations by a global watchdog on money laundering and terrorist financing called the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). FATF’s recommendations were used to drive the controversial NGO law proposed in Tunisia in 2018. Zimbabwe introduced the Public Voluntary Organizations (PVO) Bill, a potentially restrictive legislation, to align with FATF’s recommendations and to develop policies to combat money laundering. Also, there is an increasing fear among civil society activists that FATF’s blacklisting of Myanmar in October 2022 might trigger banks and donors to step back and limit financial flows to CSOs.

To their credit, the FATF has increasingly been aware of the negative consequences of their recommendations and has deepened its understanding of civil society and non-profit organizations (NPOs). In 2016, the FATF adopted revisions to Recommendation 8, the recommendation concerning the NPO sector. The revisions expanded the FATF’s interpretation of the sector, requiring countries to follow a risk-based approach and moving away from a “one-size-fits-all approach”. It is also encouraging to see the increased monitoring by the FATF in 2021 over Turkey’s oversight of the NGO sector.

Those developments present opportunities for civil society to engage with FATF. Civil society needs to continue advocating for the FATF and their national governments to implement the recommended risk-based approach, helping to identify specific risks involved in the sector and avoiding a blanket approach that applies certain risks to the entire sector. Between 2023 and 2025, the FATF and its regional bodies plan to carry out over 50 country assessments. These assessments are opportunities for civil society to engage with FATF, national financial institutions, and other NPOs to help deepen their understanding of the sector’s role and risks, so the sector can be regulated properly without being overly restricted. This regulation should aim at enabling civil society access to funding while combating money laundering, not to use FATF recommendations to justify draconian regulations.