Shrinking Civic Space? The Role of Civil Society Organisations

From Monday the 14th till Wednesday the 16th of September The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sida, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute and a number of other Swedish civil society organisations co-organised this year’s Civil Society Forum. The purpose of the forum is to follow up on the government and civil society’s joint commitments to strengthen dialogue in international development cooperation and create better conditions to meet global challenges. The Director of RWI’s Stockholm office and China programme, Malin Oud was one of the organisers of this year’s forum. She explains why dialogue forums like this are important, in particular in these times of shrinking civic space.

Peter Brune (Secretary General of War Child Sweden) and Malin Oud presenting the joint commitments of civil society and the Swedish government to strengthening collaboration

“Civil society organisations play a key role in defending democratic space and protecting human rights and freedoms. Civil society organisations are also important strategic partners to the Swedish government and Sida in international development cooperation. By working together, we can share experiences and support each other to tackle the difficult situation we are currently in, and which the pandemic is exacerbating.”

Human rights education

During the forum RWI hosted a session titled ‘Supporting human rights education and research in a time of diminished democratic space’ during which experiences and lessons learned from RWI’s work in Belarus, Cambodia, China and Turkey were discussed.

“Universities play a critical role in the international human rights movement and have often played an important role in democracy movements around the world. A recent evaluation of Swedish democracy assistance to countries with increasingly authoritarian rule and shrinking civic space also highlighted the importance of supplementing civil society support with support to state actors, including universities. In countries with very limited civic and democratic space, the classroom can still be a safe place to speak out ones opinion and universities can function as a legitimate platform for different actors to come together.”

Working in the aforementioned countries can be difficult, and visible results can take time. Human rights education is a long-term effort, which requires sustained commitment and investment. The UN defines human rights education (HRE) as the development of knowledge about human rights, through human rights principles and values, and for human rights including the empowerment of persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and respect the right of others. Such education has both an intrinsic and an instrumental value – as a preventative tool, an empowering process, and a means of transformation.

Expanding civic space

Although the discussions at the CSO forum were framed around a so-called ‘shrinking space’ for civil society, Oud remarks that this might not be the best way to talk about it:

“Mr Maina Kiai, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, put it well when he said that we should not talk about “shrinking space” as if it were some kind of natural or astronomic phenomenon. Civic space is shrinking because governments around the world put in place repressive policies and laws. Recently, democratic space has diminished even further as a result of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Civil society’s ability to operate has been curtailed due to closures and restrictions on freedom of movement.”

At the CSO Forum, government ministers and civil society members from around the world could come together and discuss how to actively expand civic space and support those who are hit the hardest by the impacts of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic also meant that this year’s CSO forum had to be a hybrid of digital and physical meetings. This was challenging in many respects – working around technology, security, accessibility, interactivity – but it also made it possible for participants from across the world to join, from Beijing, Dhaka, Istanbul, Minsk, Amman, Nairobi, Bogota, and Lund! Thus it was also an opportunity to make this year’s forum more inclusive and expansive than usual.

Behind the scenes at the online part of the forum, On stage: Per Olsson Fridh, State Secretary to Minister for International Development Cooperation; Lina Arvidsson, Board member and Spokesperson for International Partnerships at the National Council of Swedish Youth Organisations; and Jakob Schwarz, President, Church of Sweden Youth

Looking ahead

A new working group for ‘The Government’s and Swedish civil society organisations’ joint commitments to strengthen dialogue and collaboration in the area of development cooperation’ was also elected at the forum. The working group consists of representatives of Swedish civil society organisations, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Sida.  Representatives of the following twelve organisations were elected for 2020-2021:  The Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Plan International Sweden, War Child Sweden, Swedish Red Cross, Centre Party International Foundation, Swedish Missionsrådet (SMC), Union to Union, ForumCiv, Save the Children, Svalorna Latin America, and Islamic Relief Sweden. Malin Oud was re-elected as chair of the working group. The new working group will continue to ensure that the Joint Commitments are implemented, and organise another great CSO forum next year!

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