Civil society in a time of social and political change
CIVICUS' report 'The State of Civil Society, 2011' reflects on the tumultuous events of 2011, the changes they will bring for the role of civil society, and the great potential and challenges for civil society at this time.
Friday, 04 May 2012, by HRHF
The year 2011 brought with it tumultuous changes the world over. The Arab Spring saw massive civil movements challenge autocratic power, and take the future of their countries into their own hands. Meanwhile, the Occupy Movement spread across the globe, breathing new life into civil activism.
Quite apart from the sweeping changes brought about by these movements, 2011 brought an even bigger shift to the world at large : a reminder of the importance and potential of civil society.
In its report ‘The State of Civil Society, 2011’, CIVICUS reflects on 2011 and explores what these changes mean for civil society, touching on its evolving identity and role in society, and the challenges it faces.
So what is civil society ?
The concept of civil society is broad and ever changing. Technological changes are shifting this concept by expanding and diversifying forums of communication and civic space. Netsanet Belay, Director of Policy and Research at CIVICUS, insists on the broad scope of civil society and the need for all members to be protected under this umbrella: “We need to affirm that protestors, occupiers and online activists are civil society, even when they are not formed into organisations, and even when people have acted individually.”
In insisting on this broad spectrum of civil society, which includes individuals and non professionals as well as civil society organisations (CSOs), Belay also describes the struggle that civil society faces in maintaining its influence and legitimacy in the international context: “The space granted to CSO’s is always a gift, rather than a right, often contested, sometimes ceremonial.”
It is this peripheral role of civil society that has been challenged in 2011, a year marked by the strong leadership of civil society. However, as the CIVICUS report underlines, the increasing prominance of civil society this past year has been met with an equally strong regime of repression in many countries.
The rapid transformation of the role and parameters of civil society has been matched by a transformation of repressive laws. In some countries, legislation is being broadened to accommodate the criminalisation of new protest activities. The CIVICUS report highlights that the implementation of repressive measures, which are disproportionately affecting journalists and activists, is being justified on the basis of anti-terror laws and national security. These measures include the misuse of laws to pre-emptively repress protests, and the manipulation of the legal system to prosecute or detain civil society activists on false grounds. The real impact of these repressive laws is reflected in the rate of imprisonment of journalists, which increased by 20% between 2010 and 2011. Other restrictive measures, which are being justified on the grounds of ensuring the transparency and accountability of CSOs, include legislation requiring CSOs to re-register.
The new wave of restrictive laws described in CIVICUS’ report imply a worrying tendancy amongst governments to consider civil society as opposition. In her contribution to the CIVICUS report, Mary Lawlor (right), Founder and Executive Director of FrontLine Defenders, describes this changing relationship: "Around the world it is clear that the priority of many governments is the maintenance of their power and privileges rather that [sic] creating societies rooted firmly in the protection of human rights". Such a relationship between governments and civil society not only undermines the legitimacy of CSOs and civil society activists, but also hinders their capacity to carry out their important work. It is therefore a relationship of great importance to society as a whole, and worth our consideration.
Models of Switzerland and Norway on freedom of association vs. repressive system in Belarus
However, distrust is not the hallmark of all governments. Looking towards the models of Switzerland and Norway, where there is a high degree of trust and collaboration between civil society and government, the importance of this relationship becomes clear. In Switzerland and Norway CSOs are not required to inform the authorities of their activities. This degree of trust supports the work of civil society, rather than hinders it, as we see in so many nations around the world. By allowing civil society to undertake their work in an open and transparent manner, their legitimacy is being bolstered by the government, and they become more effective agents for change.
Sadly, such practice is not seen all around the world. As the CIVICUS report underlines, countries such as Belarus, Croatia, Georgia, Russia and Armenia (among others), have extremely weak civil societies whose work is hindered by their poor relationship with the government.
In Belarus, legal measures have been introduced to restrict social and political expression in public. These blatant violations of civil and political rights – fundamental to the work of civil society – prohibit demonstrations and meetings, which are punishable by up to 3 years imprisonment.
Civil society undervalued in Armenia, Croatia, Georgia, Russia
CIVICUS reports that in Croatia, Georgia, Russia and Armenia, civil society is equally undervalued. In these countries, most CSOs reported that they felt their role in the society to be inadequate, or unimportant. This apparent insignificance is also reflected in the lack of citizen participation in civil society, and the societies’ low levels of trust in CSOs. In this sense, the influence of a government’s relationship with civil society in determining the legitimacy of CSOs in the eyes of the general population, is clear.
According to CIVICUS, Russian civil society has a weak relationship with the government, which prioritises economic interests over societal interests. Furthermore, in Georgia, civil society is confined within a very narrow, value based definition, which drives CSOs into the informal sphere. This marginalisation of civil society is typical of a poor rapport between government and civil society. The fact that 31% of Georgian CSOs surveyed felt that legislation restricted their work, illustrates the degradation that such a relationship can cause. In considering the increasingly peripheral role of civil society in such countries, as presented in CIVICUS’ report, the rise in restrictive laws indicates a worrying trend towards further distrust and marginalisation of civil society.
New technologies and civil society
During the Arab Spring, new technologies, such as social media, played an essential role in facilitating and mobilising civilian action. The CIVICUS report looks upon social media as an emerging platform of communication and advocacy for change ; it enables any individual member of civil society to engage in the political sphere. However, governments are following close behind this transformation of civic space in an attempt to maintain control by restricting freedoms on the internet. These emerging dynamics provide us with the opportunity to understand civil and political freedoms in a fresh light, as tensions between government and civil society unfold.
What the CIVICUS report delivers, is a clear message that now is the time for action. Civil society has long been challenged by governments, and its emergence from the margins in many instances is being met with pushback. The year 2011 brought momentum for change led by civil society, and now is the opportunity to strengthen the leadership and partnership of civil society in all its forms.