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Civil Society Targetted While Responding To Human Rights Abuses

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  • The 2016 State of Civil Society Report, produced by CIVICUS, provides a comprehensive `year in review’ as well as 33 guest essays focusing on the topic of exclusion. 
  • Addressing exclusion is an urgent political issue, which gained renewed emphasis with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.
  • In the past year, civil society responded to profound human rights abuses caused by conflicts and worked to alleviate human suffering in the wake of disasters, yet faces major challenges including dubious attempts to silence dissenting voices.
  • CIVICUS documented serious violations of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly in 109 countries over the course of 2015.

In an increasingly unequal world where human rights are being undermined, civil society is challenging exclusion in innovative ways. 

“Much of civic life is about promoting inclusion. It is about amplifying the voices of the marginalised, tackling the causes of discrimination, and promoting equal rights and access to services,” said Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, CIVICUS Secretary-General on launching the organisation’s 2016 State of Civil Society Report. “But, for many millions of people exclusion remains a painful, everyday reality.” 

Year in Review

The yearly report, produced by CIVICUS, provides a comprehensive `year in review’ of civil society and the conditions it works in around the world, drawing on a range of perspectives from experts and activists.  This year’s 33 thematic guest contributions tackle the complex issue of civil society and exclusion, exposing contemporary, dynamic drivers of exclusion, which in many cases are worsening.  

“These contributions from civil society working on the ground emphasise the need for excluded people to be understood not as victims, or objects of charity, but as people striving to access their basic human rights. And, they highlight the disproportionate effect that civic space restrictions have on excluded groups and civil society seeking to protect their rights,” added Sriskandarajah. 

The report outlines how the huge and growing gap between super-rich elites and the overwhelming majority of humanity is fuelling public anger and protest. Climate change and conflicts also disproportionately impact excluded populations, further exacerbating exclusion. Addressing exclusion is therefore an urgent political issue, which gained renewed emphasis with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, which promise to change the present reality and “leave no one behind.” However, as the report outlines, all over the world, people are being left behind on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, migration status, faith, age, sexuality, disability, HIV and health status, locality and more.  

Civil society responses to global challenges and attacks on civic space

In the past year, civil society responded to profound human rights abuses caused by conflicts, particularly in the Middle East, and worked to alleviate human suffering in the wake of disasters, such as the major earthquake in Nepal. The report notes that part of the fallout of the Syrian war, and of conflict in the Middle East more generally, was an influx of refugees into Europe in 2015. The response of many European governments and the European Union (EU) as a whole was “defensive, miserly and mean-spirited, falling far short of the EU’s stated human rights commitments.” While levels of racism and xenophobia were high, there were also significant voluntary responses from citizens and civil society organisations to communicate that refugees were welcome and to help settle them into communities.

The past year also saw large-scale protest in many parts of the world – including Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, parts of East Asia, and Eastern Europe – in which citizens expressed frustration with corruption, repressive unaccountable governments, and elite economic power which perpetuates inequality.  

To thwart civil society, governments are employing a number of dubious measures to silence critical voices. Whether it is under the guise of combatting terrorism, protecting state secrets or preventing cybercrime, governments are using a number of far-stretched justifications to limit free speech, association and assembly. CIVICUS has documented serious violations of the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly in 109 countries over the course of 2015, meaning citizens face serious restrictions for speaking-out, organising and taking action on issues affecting their communities. 

Such restrictions threaten the vital role civil society plays in working towards all citizens being able to access their rights and advocate on issues that affect them. Civil society organisations and activists faced restriction most strongly when they worked to question the power of political and economic elites, expose corruption and poor governance and realise the human rights of excluded populations, such as the LGBTI community. 


The Year in Review

  • Assassinations of human rights defenders.  Activists and investigative journalists exposing malpractices by extractive industries and agribusinesses remained vulnerable to assassinations, which were recorded in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, Philippines and South Africa, among other countries. 
  • Market fundamentalism sparking protest. In many countries, people are seeing their material conditions worsening as public services and employment rights are slashed while the cost of essential goods is rising. As elites grow wealthier many see that their governments are unresponsive, or even complicit in their impoverishment. 
  • Results through continued engagement.  The year offered some success stories for civil society. In Tunisia, the commitment and sustained engagement of civil society to build peace and democracy, and resist a slide into repression and extremism, was recognised by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian Dialogue Quartet, comprising a human rights organisation, a lawyers’ group, a labour union and a trade confederation.
  • Online freedom. The restriction of online freedom of expression, including through the targeting of social media commentators and restriction of content, is now a marked trend, seen for example in China, Thailand and Turkey. Pervasive surveillance in supposedly mature democracies such as the UK and USA is also limiting online freedom. Roughly 60% of internet users now live in countries where there is censorship of online criticism of the government, ruling family, or military
  • Sustainable Development Goals. On the global stage, civil society campaigned successfully to make the major international commitments of 2015 – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on climate change – more comprehensive and rights-based than previous agreements. 

2016 Theme: Exclusion and Civil Society 

  • Failing on Exclusion. One of the main tests of whether a society is just is how it addresses exclusion, reduces inequality and protects minorities, while enabling their access to services and decision-making. On this measure, many of our societies are failing. 
  • Exclusion in 2015. The history of the past year can be seen as one of exclusion, observed in numerous examples, from the dismal reception given to Europe’s new refugees to the physical attacks made on indigenous people’s rights activists and women’s human rights defenders, and from the enactment of new discriminatory measures against LGBTI people to the continuing fact that black people in the USA are far more likely to die at the hands of the police than anyone else.
  • Exclusion is intersectional. Different forms of exclusion compound and overlap; for example, people with disabilities are excluded, but women with disabilities face further exclusion, and even more so if they also come from an impoverished community. 
  • Exclusion is dynamic. New drivers of exclusion can come into play and interact with existing experiences of exclusion; for example, people who were most exposed to human rights abuses in Syria on the grounds of poverty or minority status became newly excluded as refugees when they were forced to flee.
  • Heightened Risks. CSOs and civil society activists of excluded groups often experience heightened risks of restriction and attacks in conditions of limited civic space
  • Civil society looking inward. Exclusion is not just a concern for society at large, but also for organised civil society. Looking inwards, CSOs need to examine their own practices and ask themselves – how do we collectively address exclusion? 

To download the full report or individual sections, click here.  

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