The guardians of civil society and democracy

The guardians of civil society and democracy

A Sudanese boy lifts a banner which reads in Arabic 'Imagine the fear of the military of chants on the streets', during a rally in Khartoum on Dec 6 to protest a deal that saw the prime minister reinstated after his ouster in a coup in October. (Photo: AFP)
A Sudanese boy lifts a banner which reads in Arabic 'Imagine the fear of the military of chants on the streets', during a rally in Khartoum on Dec 6 to protest a deal that saw the prime minister reinstated after his ouster in a coup in October. (Photo: AFP)

When global leaders gathered virtually last week from Dec 9-10 for US President Joe Biden's Summit for Democracy, they ought to have asked themselves a simple question: What can we do to help democracy's bravest advocates, like the protesters who are risking their lives in Sudan?

For months, hundreds of thousands of people have flooded Sudan's streets, demanding an accountable government and the end of military rule, even though Sudanese security forces have met them with bullets. Dozens of protesters have died.

Their courage is not unique. From Belarus to Bolivia, and even in the United Kingdom and the United States, civil-society leaders and organisations are heading bold movements to resist structural oppression, authoritarianism, and injustice.

Sadly, their work could not be more urgent. Threats to civil-society leaders and democratic institutions are increasing around the world. Nationalism, inequality, and political polarisation are on the rise worldwide, and pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings and increasingly advanced surveillance technology have empowered authoritarian regimes.

In Colombia, 65 environmental activists were killed in 2020. The Nigerian government's ban on domestic use of Twitter, imposed in June this year, remains in force. And in August, the Ugandan government suspended the operations of 54 human-rights organisations.

These crackdowns, in democracies and authoritarian states alike, have lasting consequences. By restricting civil liberties -- including freedom of the press, assembly, and expression -- and attacking the organisations that defend them, states are leaving our rights and institutions defenseless against future attacks.

This is why our civil-society grantees and partners are sounding the alarm bells. Organisations across causes and countries are being targeted by similar strategies, including accusations of "foreign interference" whenever they work with established international organisations and philanthropic institutions like the ones we lead.

These attacks must not continue. They threaten not only the lives and livelihoods of thousands of civil-society organisers and activists around the world, but also democracy itself. As authoritarian regimes go about disempowering these essential groups and disrupting their vital work, their cynical representatives call democracy "idealistic" and "naive".

We fundamentally reject this view. We embrace the power of democracy precisely because it requires constant maintenance, protection, and participation. The peace and stability it fosters are won by an inclusive social contract, not an iron fist.

In that spirit, Mr Biden's Summit for Democracy aims to support democratic renewal, civic participation, and multilateral collaboration. The gathering presents an important opportunity for leaders to recommit to the fundamental rights of assembly, association, expression, and information at home, and to promote these rights abroad through strategic diplomacy.

But verbal commitments alone go only so far. As states engage in virtual conversation this week, they must be prepared to move beyond rhetoric and affirm the importance of these rights by matching words with deeds in the fight for civic space.

In the human-rights domain, this means advancing international and national protections for free speech and free assembly, thereby ensuring every individual's right to voice dissent in the face of authoritarianism.

In many states, ensuring freedom of expression will require repealing sedition laws and adopting moratoriums on internet shutdowns. Furthermore, governments should block the export and transfer of surveillance equipment to repressive regimes.

Most urgently, global leaders must substantially increase investments in the civil-society organisations that provide a critical check on state power. And they must commit tangible resources to human-rights defenders, local journalists, social services, and community centres.

This requires not only supporting these organisations in times of crisis, when they are already scrambling to serve their communities, but also investing in their long-term growth -- which is an investment in sustaining an active citizenry prepared to confront future emergencies.

For example, democratic leaders should scale up wraparound protection mechanisms that provide at-risk activists with legal, medical, psychosocial, digital-security, and relocation support services -- particularly those schemes operating near where regional and national attacks on civil society are taking place. This is one of the surest ways states can support those risking their lives to defend democracy.

Lastly, leaders must unite around the common democratic cause and collaborate closely in multisector, multilateral partnerships. Across government, the philanthropic sector, the private sector, and civil society, we have an opportunity to build on the dialogue at the summit and use our unique strengths to expand civic space. After all, the best protector of civic space is more civic space -- populated by engaged, connected citizens who have the resources, protections, and power to advocate for their own rights and livelihoods.

Engaged citizenship can be transformative. In Moldova and Malaysia, for example, civil-society organisations helped to overturn repressive "state of emergency" laws this year, preventing the dangerous erosion of democratic institutions. And millions of people marched in Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, forming probably the largest mass movement in US history.

Regardless of the origin of the struggle or the distance it travels, when people come together peacefully to defend their fundamental human rights, they make tremendous progress toward dignity, equity and justice for all. From Khartoum to Kuala Lumpur, let us protect and advance that progress in word and deed, and ensure that it holds strong for the next generation.©2021 Project Syndicate


Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, is United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Darren Walker is President of the Ford Foundation. Mark Malloch-Brown is President of the Open Society Foundations.

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