The annual CIVICUS report sheds light on the role of civil society and the challenges ahead
Despite the challenges of 2020 caused by the pandemic, civil action that called for more just, equitable and sustainable societies led to breakthroughs in democracy and human rights around the world.
The last report Global civil society alliance CIVICUS found that countries around the world failed the pandemic stress test and many institutions and methods of governance were out of date.
However, civil society rose to the challenge of holding governments accountable by providing services and defending human rights on the front lines.
Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Civic Space Research Officer, told Pro Bono News that many governments of vulnerable citizens have failed by failing to put in place adequate safety nets and, in some cases, introducing civil law restrictions that have little to do with the pandemic.
“Without civil society, people’s experiences with the pandemic would have been much worse,” said Benedict.
The role and importance of protest in 2020
While protests around the world looked slightly different in 2020, the report states that the impact of these events was profound.
The resurgence of racial justice demands and an end to police brutality under the banner of the Black Lives Matter hit the headlines and traveled from the United States to countries as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands and South Africa.
The report also highlighted the importance of civil measures such as the Indian farmers’ strike, civil disobedience against the military uprising in Myanmar and protests for democracy in Hong Kong, Belarus and Algeria throughout the year, with civilians in front of the authorities the way to demand freedoms.
Benedict said that with so many political systems dominated by elites and neglecting people’s needs, protest is often the standard way people can make their voices heard and seek change.
“Protest work – here around the world we can confirm that the climate and the Black Lives Matter movements are changing their agendas, Chile’s movement towards a new constitution, Argentina legalizing abortion,” he said.
“Positive changes like this are the reason protest rights should be respected. Of course, because protest works, we get backlash from political and economic elites who don’t want to share power. ”
Australia remains on guard
87 percent of the world’s population now live in countries that the EU has classified as “closed”, “oppressed” or “disabled” CIVICUS monitor (an increase of over 4 percent compared to 2019), Australia’s civil space is relatively positive.
This is despite CIVICUS Downgrade of the Australian rating from “open” to “narrowed” in 2019 due to encroachments on freedom of expression, attacks on freedom of the press, attempts to silence whistleblowers and politicians’ denigration of environmental activism.
Continue reading: Smear campaign against green activists, anti-protest laws and media restrictions in Australia
That rating didn’t change at the end of 2020, and Benedict said CIVICUS welcomed commitments To adopt freedom of the press Reforms More was needed in the revision of whistleblower laws to protect and strengthen civil liberties.
“We are concerned about the ongoing prosecution of attorney for whistleblower witness K, who is being prosecuted under the Intelligence Services Act for disclosing information about wiretapping of government buildings in Timor-Leste in 2004,” he said.
He also expressed concern about the Australian Security Intelligence Organization’s 2020 Act, which was brought in without proper scrutiny by Parliament in late 2020.
The law, which gives powers such as the ability to question and detain children under the age of 14, has been criticized by groups like the Australian Human Rights Commission, who say it should be reformulated to change the ASIO’s powers and provide greater oversight and others to involve human rights protection.
And as momentum builds towards the United Nations Climate Change Conference at COP26, Benedict said another resurgence in climate action will be seen particularly in Australia, where tensions between fossil fuels and climate impacts are already high.
Challenges in the years to come
Despite the gains in advocacy and the important role played by civil society organizations over the past year, the report warned that civil liberties around the world continue to deteriorate and significant restrictions on civil space continue to increase year by year.
“Our data shows that detaining protesters and using excessive force against them is the most common tactic government agencies use to restrict the right to peaceful assembly,” said Benedict.
“This is not a new trend, but what has changed in 2020-21 is that several governments are using the pandemic as a pretext to restrict democratic activity and challenge civil liberties.”
The report found that censorship problems are increasing around the world. Governments block websites and social media posts, target the media and journalists, and use laws to criminalize language under the guise of preventing the spread of “fake news”.
Some governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to silence critical voices about the looming disaster.
The report called on states to respect human rights and democratic freedoms and to listen to the voices of the demonstrators.
“The current wave of protests will certainly continue,” the report said.
“People are brave to protest, but they shouldn’t have to do so at the risk of being thrown behind bars or exposed to brutal, even fatal violence.”
To learn more about the role of civil society and the threats it faces today, join Pro Bono Australia’s upcoming webinar on “Rethinking Civil Society in Uncertain Times” on June 10th. Register for the event here.