OGP must protect space for people power – Before it is too late

Police attempt to remove human rights protestors from a demonstration in London in July 2016. Photo: Alisdare Hickson

Police attempt to remove human rights protestors from a demonstration in London in July 2016. Photo: Alisdare Hickson

The mobile phone footage may be shaky, but there is no doubt about what is happening – and it’s a disturbingly familiar scene.  A black protester struggles against half a dozen policemen, who are attempting to restrain him amidst the screams of fellow protestors for them to desist. Seconds later, another black protester Jerry Afriyie is punched in the head by a policeman, dragged through the door of a bus and repeatedly beaten with batons.

Afriyie’s violent arrest, and those of nearly two hundred others, took place on 12th November in Rotterdam, during a protest against racism in Dutch society. Brutality like this is what those of us in civil society call a ‘civic space violation’. In plain English, this means any abuse, violent or otherwise, which prevents a person from organising, speaking out or taking peaceful action on an issue of concern to them.

My organisation, CIVICUS, is tracking this kind of abuse all over the world. In a huge number of countries – including in many Open Government Partnership (OGP) countries – ordinary people, whose only aim is to fight against injustice and create fairer, more tolerant societies, are being treated like common criminals or terrorists. In fact, right now there are serious civic space problems in over a third of OGP countries.

Even more worryingly, as we see from the example above, serious violations don’t just happen in authoritarian countries: they now happening in established democracies.

In some OGP member countries, the threats to peaceful dissent and activism are extremely grave. Examples include the assassinations of five social leaders in just one week in Colombia, the police’s use of tear gas and water cannons to disperse student protests in Honduras, the four-hour detention and questioning of a newspaper editor in Liberia and the murder of a community radio journalist in Mexico.

These OGP countries are part of a much broader, global trend in which we see that at least 3.2 billion people live in countries where there are serious violations of some of our most cherished and basic rights.

This situation has not come about overnight. Rather, we are now bearing the bitter fruits of the gradual degradation in respect for people’s basic right to speak out and challenge authority. This decline has been well documented now for at least a decade, to the point where trust and democratic institutions and elected leaders is at a dangerously low ebb.

Of course, it was a recognition of these very threats which led to the creation of the Open Government Partnership in 2010, as an ambitious attempt to innovate solutions which would bring people and their governments closer together and rebuild trust in the ability of democracy to deliver for all. Sadly, it is also these continuing feelings of disconnection and disaffection which are fuelling the rise of neo-authoritarians who further perpetuate the erosion of civic freedoms.

Our analysis of why these violations are happening reveals some predictable conclusions – but also some surprises. When we looked at data on the use of excessive force against protests, we saw that, unsurprisingly, protestors were targeted most often when they sought directly to challenge the state and its decisions. More surprising however was the finding that police often used tear gas, rubber bullets, baton charges and other extreme measures to attack crowds of people calling for very basic needs to be met. These needs include disability benefits, access to land and job opportunities. At the CIVICUS Monitor, we are also tracking a high number of protests by students and teachers which are regularly repressed with force.

This analysis tells us that there is combination of political and economic driving forces behind the increased activism on our streets – and also behind the repression that activists are being met with. It is a reminder that we cannot divorce our analysis of civic space violations from the economic models and rules being pushed forward by our democratically elected leaders, which benefit a few influential people and companies, rather than the majority of the population.

So what can governments and civil society organisations do, and specifically, what should those in OGP countries do to reverse this trend?

As a starting point, we should remember that all OGP governments have publicly committed themselves to the Open Government Declaration, which includes a commitment to safeguard ‘the ability of not-for-profit and civil society organizations to operate in ways consistent with our commitment to freedom of expression, association, and opinion.’

That matters. At the same time, it’s clear that words alone are not enough to make sure states comply with their obligation to protect civic space under international law. The recently-concluded OGP Summit in Paris heard a lot of good ideas for practical steps that could be taken.

A quick win is for OGP countries to include – and for civil society organisations to push them to include – specific and concrete commitments on civic space in their national action plans (NAPs). There is already evidence from Latvia, Bulgaria and Guatemala on how this can be done.

Other suggestions include the development of an OGP working group specifically focussed on civic space, something which would give reformers within government the tools and knowledge needed to create protective environments for civil society. Some also proposed a relook at eligibility criteria on citizen engagement and ‘basic protections for civil liberties’ to make sure that states who abuse civil society cannot get in or remain in the Partnership.

Governments and civil society alike are also calling for a much stronger focus on collective actions through which member countries jointly agree to secure better protections for civil society. In so doing, OGP member countries could  seek to work closely with ongoing efforts to defend civic space,  such as the Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund, the Community of Democracies working group on protecting and enabling civil society and the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment.

These past two weeks, we have seen the importance of huge citizen mobilisations happening across the globe in opposition to President Trump and his policies which undermine the international human rights framework. As South African political commentator Ranjeni Munusamy so eloquently put it this week, Mr Trump has ‘agitated a global awakening’. There is little doubt that in the years that lie ahead people will increasingly challenge power through protest and other tactics of nonviolent mobilisation.

And so, we say it again: the OGP must bring the protection of space for such activism centre stage. Otherwise, brutal attacks like those on the anti-racism protestors in Rotterdam will continue. And they will continue to eat away at public trust in democratic institutions, something which could ultimately undermine the OGP’s success.

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