When you think of activism, images of rallies, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience may come to mind. While these actions are critical for upholding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, they are not the only ways Global Citizens can promote human rights worldwide.

When you exercise your right to speak freely, debate, or communicate with elected representatives, you do so within civic space. Civic space is essentially defined as an environment in which individuals can engage in the political and societal matters that inform our lives.

But in order to take part in civic space, you have access to necessary tools and resources without interference from your government or other power-yielding actors.

According to the international non-profit organization CIVICUS, 9 out of 10 people live in countries where civic freedoms are severely restricted. CIVICUS tracks instances of government repression through their online monitor to shed a light on how laws and policies restrict civic space.

“We’re facing a complex and unprecedented landscape for human rights defense, which is rife with many challenges,” Conor Fortune, head of communications and events for the nonprofit Front Line Defenders, told Global Citizen. “These include a sustained, well resourced, and concerted repressive strategy by authoritarian governments to target human rights defenders, a weak defense of human rights from some democratic governments, and the further erosion of human rights protections in some countries.”

Front Line Defenders works with human rights activists around the world who fight oppressive governments. By providing security, support, and protection in times of crisis, Front Line Defenders helps these activists shine a light on closed civic space.

A “closed” civic space is one where governments attempt to shield themselves from criticism by imprisoning, injuring, and — in some cases — murdering people who exercise their civic freedoms. In order for a government to promote an “open” civic space, they must allow their citizens to gather, critique, protest, and express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Why Is Open Civic Space Important for Promoting Human Rights?

Civic space keeps democracy alive and promotes fairness and transparency in government.

Ensuring the existence of a healthy civic space both globally and locally, in-person and online, is essential when it comes to building individual trust in institutions and full participation in society. People need to be able to voice their opinion and be heard by their elected officials, for instance, in order to know the people in power are going to work in their best interests.

Unfortunately, there are many situations playing out right now that demonstrate the opposite of a healthy civic space.

When tensions build between a government and its people, often the ideal next step is to open communication threads and invite individuals to participate in civic society. But in some cases, particularly when conflict and crises occur, world leaders use the disruption as an opportunity to shut down civic space instead of working to protect it. This was the case during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The health crisis created an opportunity for governments to consolidate power, and anti-democratic leaders seized it — delaying elections, abusing emergency powers, cracking down on press freedom. We saw this around the world,” Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, the executive vice president of Freedom House, told Global Citizen.

Freedom House is an NGO that documents the ways world leaders restrict human rights both domestically and abroad. In its 2021 Freedom in the World report, the team reported on instances of authoritarian leaders using the pandemic to violate human rights.

“In Hungary, Viktor Orbán exploited emergency powers to amass power for the executive branch; in Algeria, the government used pandemic-related curbs on freedom of assembly to suppress a protest movement; and in the Philippines, the authorities harassed and arrested people for allegedly spreading false information linked to the virus and criticizing the state’s performance — including for posts on social media,” Bibbins Sedaca said. “As we’ve seen with the continuation of the [Chinese Communist Party’s] draconian policies ostensibly in support of zero-COVID, some of these abuses of power are systemic and are not going away even as the pandemic abates.”

Without the freedom to gather and critique one’s government, it is impossible to hold oppressive regimes accountable for their actions. And when accountability is absent, human rights violations flourish.

“Maybe it’s a strange irony, but many people may not realize the value of the human rights they enjoy until they come under threat,” Fortune added. “The loss of the rights to freedom of information, or free, prior, and informed consent, weakens opposition to unpopular or dangerous ideas, and can pave the way for other rights to be violated.”

3 Ways Your Government Can Protect Civic Space

1. Information should be public and accessible.

2. Indigenous communities must be able to provide free, prior, and informed consent — and this needs to set the example for other communities.

3. Governments must implement accountability mechanisms.

Information should be public and accessible. 

Widespread and accessible information promotes transparency in government and helps people trust their leaders. It also allows individuals to have a role in deciding the policies that govern their lives, building truly cooperative nations.

The right to information is protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but many countries have stopped short of enshrining freedom of information (FOI) into law. FOI policies outline if and how citizens can access and scrutinize public documents to make informed decisions in civic society and hold leaders accountable.

Even when nations pass FOI laws, however, their government may avoid making documents accessible, or pass secret laws to avoid public scrutiny. A famous example is the US Patriot Act, which allowed the US government to collect data and conduct mass surveillance without informing citizens.

The good news: There are positive cases of nations implementing FOI policies to recognize human rights.

One example is the Escazú Agreement. In 2018, 25 Latin American and Caribbean nations signed an international agreement guaranteeing the right of individuals to engage with their governments on environmental concerns.

A hallmark in how world leaders can cooperate with citizens to ensure access to information, the Escazú Agreement also respects public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters. Its existence allows people living within the 25 countries to engage with their governments and be part of environmental decisions that impact their lives and land.

The Escazú Agreement is vital when it comes to the work of organizations like the Alliance for Land, Indigenous, and Environmental Defenders (ALLIED), which works with environmental defenders to protect their work, improve access to resources, and strengthen government and business safeguards for those threatened by violence.

“Procedural environmental rights are extremely critical in safeguarding frontline communities against abusive businesses and corporations. The right to access information gives one the power to decide for themselves on what to choose and not to choose,” a spokesperson from ALLIED told Global Citizen. “Knowledge is power, and once someone is aware of what is to happen, we can avoid the extremities that we witness frequently and especially now.”

Indigenous communities must be able to provide free, prior, and informed consent. 

Free, prior, and informed consent is an important component of safeguarding the human rights of Indigenous peoples, who disproportionately suffer from poverty, limited resources, and the effects of climate change. The concept ensures that Indigenous communities are active participants in ways that affect them or their territories.

Despite agreements to respect territories, however, too many Indigenous communities face forced relocation and environmental degradation from state and corporate actors.

When the US and Canada gave the green light to build a transnational oil pipeline, Indigenous groups protested the effort on the basis of free, prior, and informed consent. The Keystone XL would have not only passed over Indigenous territories in both nations, but also threatened the environment in those areas, such as through river and air pollution.

Indigenous peoples are often left voiceless in situations involving their lives or territories, threatening their ability to engage in civic space. Once respected globally, the example set by the right of free, prior, and informed consent should be extended to other communities that are not consulted prior to government action. It is the only way to build trust, transparency, and cooperation within nations.

Governments must implement accountability mechanisms. 

When a government commits human rights violations, its future — and the future of its people — can be affected on how it is held accountable locally and on the world stage. The promise of accountability encourages citizens to engage in civic space, and ensure that there will be consequences for human rights violators.

“Free and fair elections are a vital component of democratic accountability, but they are far from the only ingredient. You also need respect for the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and independent, fact-based journalism that holds the powerful to account without fear of reprisal,” Bibbins Sedaca said. “Accountability can [also] be realized through people’s fundamental rights to express themselves, peaceably assemble, and associate with other people to advocate for change.”

Even when these systems appear to be in place, there are persistent gaps in how they’re implemented.

Take Russia, for example, which describes itself as a democratic republic where citizens elect government representatives. Despite the assertion that elections are free and fair, consistent victories for President Vladimir Putin take place along with accusations of ballot stuffing and low voter turnout.

In Iran, where country-wide protests have erupted after the death of Mahsa Jina Amini at the hands of police forces, human rights organizations are illuminating instances of arrest and violent retaliation tactics against peaceful protestors. This is taking place despite the precedent set by international law that safeguards the right of individuals to engage in peaceful assembly.

To enact proper accountability mechanisms for nations, there must be clear and thorough guidance on how governments are held accountable for their actions by and for the people. Nations must reform institutions, especially the justice sector, to hold leaders accountable. Intergovernmental organizations like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) can assist with investigations and prosecutions into human rights violations.

Take Action to Defend Civic Space

With civic space under threat, it’s up to Global Citizens to make sure world leaders know we’re watching. Find out how you can take action below to defend civic space and promote human rights around the world:

  • Engage in civic space: Support causes you care about by reaching out to your representatives and rallying friends and family.
  • Know your rights: A lot of abuses and limitations on civic space occur because people are not aware of their power and their rights. Read the UN Declaration of Human Rights and your nation’s constitution to be aware of the rights you have, and those you should enjoy but your country does not yet recognize. You don't need to be a scholar to be interested. You have rights just by the fact of being a human being.
  • Stand up for others’ rights:Sign our petition defending the right to protest without fear of arrest or retaliation.
  • Learn more about civic space:Take our quiz to flex your knowledge of civic space and share information on how to take action with family and friends.

This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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