Civic Space under Attack

Kleine versie Civic Space under attack

This project focuses on the difficulties people encounter when they organize, protest and express themselves collectively and how these can be overcome.

Indigenous people protesting against a new hydro-electric dam in Guatemala, citizen’s groups demanding more social justice in Tunisia or NGOs monitoring government corruption in Russia: across the globe civil society has surged in the past decades. However, in the past ten years 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”. This trend does not only occur in countries that are dictatorships. They also very often occur in what could be called partial democracies.

This trend does not only occur in countries that are dictatorships

Pressure on civic space can also be observed in more established democracies. This pressure renders social and political mobilization more difficult or even dangerous and can violate key human rights, such as freedom of expression or assembly. At the same time these rights are also tools to protect civic space, as well as a discourse to address social injustice.

The project will investigate both the concept of civic space and the pressures this space faces, from a legal, historical and a social sciences perspective. It will delve into the causes of the current attacks on this space and identify opportunities and tools to counter the current pressures.

The researchers involved aim to achieve a truly multidisciplinary encounter by addressing and researching the issues on different levels:


  1. the existing institutional channels, including laws and procedures and the possibilities for contestation they offer
  2. the discursive struggles accompanying pressures on civic space (e.g. the power to label groups as terrorists), and
  3. the capacity to maintain or defend civic space, as well as efforts to create new space.

This way, the interactions between norms such as human rights and the social and political context can best be tackled.


In the Autumn of 2018, the project organised a seminar in which three circles of stakeholders have met each other: first, academics from different disciplines who rarely meet up, such as conflict and development studies, law, history and other fields. Second, representatives of civil society organisations that are confronted with shrinking space, and third people working for international organisations which are either watchdogs to protect the rights of civil society or are fora where contestation over civic space takes place. The seminar offered a podium for research conducted within the Centre for Global Challenges at Utrecht University and connected it to work done elsewhere. 

Project Results and Publications

The project has amongst others resulted in:

  • A short and systematised research guide and bibliography on the issue of civic space under attack. It contains key sources, including abstracts and key words, of core publications of the last few years as well as a collection of hyperlinks. Together they form a starting point for researchers and students wishing to delve into the topic. The complete research guide document can be found by clicking on this link.

  • A very extensive research bibliography on civic space, civil society and human rights, compiling non-academic open access sources from 2015-2020 (from civil society organisations, think tanks and international organisations) with abstracts, key words and hyperlinks to facilitate easy access. To be found under this link.

  • A bibliography with the newest reports and literature on the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on civic space. This up-to-date resource of July 2020 is a systematised overview with a summarising introduction on the key issues involved. This bibliography on Covid-19 and civic space can be found by clicking on this link.

  • Two in-depth case studies on the effects on civic space of government measures to combat Covid-19 in the first six months of the global pandemic. The first case study centres on and compares the situation in Hungary and Poland. The second case study focuses on El Salvador. The first case study on Hungary and Poland can be found by clicking on this link. The second case study on El Salvador can be found by clicking on this link.

  • A research report exploring the potential and the risks of blockchain technology for civic space. The report can be found by clicking on this link

  • An open access article entitled 'Negotiating civic space in Lebanon: The potential of non-sectarian movements' in the Journal of Civil Society. The article can be accessed through this link.

Project Members