United Nations Special Rapporteur on Free Assembly and Association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, was the keynote speaker in the expert seminar "Civic Space under Attack" on 21 November. " The seminar was co-organised by Antoine Buyse (Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM) and Montaigne Centre, of Utrecht University School of Law) and Chris van der Borgh (Centre for Conflict Studies, of the history of international relations department) as part of a larger research project.
Pressures on civic space - being the space in which people can freely organize, debate and protest – have been identified as one of the most critical human rights and social issues of today, by both civil society itself as well as by international organizations. In the past decade civil society organisations in many countries have increasingly come under pressure. Collective citizens' efforts, especially when they have political salience, seem to be regarded with increasing suspicion and even to be actively countered in many states. Anti-NGO laws, arbitrary inspections and even harassment and criminalization all strike at the roots of what is often called “civic space”.
The seminar addressed these issues by way of a day-long debate between different communities:
Civil society representatives:
- Amnesty International
- Free Press Unlimited
- Helsinki Committee
- Breed Mensenrechtenoverleg
The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
- Council of Europe
- Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- Institute of Development Studies
... as well as academic researchers from different disciplines from Utrecht and beyond, including law, history, development studies and political science.
Human Rights Defenders
UN Rapporteur Voule recounted major trends threatening civic space which he has encountered in his work, including repression of social movements, cyber-attacks and stigmatisation of human rights defenders. He underlined the necessity to build new coalitions between social movements and traditional human rights actors to protect and broaden space for civil society. Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment discussed how states and other powerful players use new tools to limit the freedom of people as part of broader global geopolitical changes. Dominic Perera of CIVICUS, the global network of civil society organisations, presented the ways in which the pressures could be measured in order to get a clear picture of the extent of the current problem. The second part of the day was dedicated to zooming in on three areas in which the pressure on civic space play out with particular intensity; the work of human rights defenders, the contestations around the extraction of natural resources, and the position and role of the media. A series of short pitches as part of a roundtable discussion between all participants on the way ahead, both for practice and for research, concluded the seminar.
The expert meeting was organised under the banner of the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges. It was also liaised to the research hub on Future of Citizens-based Initiatives (FOCI) of Utrecht University’s strategic theme Institutions for Open Societies and co-funded by the former focus area Cultures, Citizenship and Human Rights. These initiatives all foster multi- and interdisciplinary cooperation in order to research the world’s most pressing issues as well as working towards possible solution in close cooperation with societal partners.
Research publications on this topic by the two organisers, include:
- Chris van der Borgh and Carolijn Terwindt, NGOs under Pressure in Partial Democracies (Palgrave 2014).
- Antoine Buyse, ‘Squeezing Civic Space: Restrictions on Civil Society Organizations and the Linkages with Human Rights’, The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 22, no. 8 (2018) pp. 966-988 [open access].