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Meaningful & inclusive participation of civil society is the antidote to the decline of democracy

(In collaboration with and on behalf of UNSR - not for dissemination, all rights reserved)

2021 was truly eventful for global democracy and saw a continuation of States stripping citizens of their assembly and association rights, often under the pretext of Covid19 measures. Last year witnessed the sharpest regression in freedom as yet, in a decade already characterized by democratic backsliding. According to the Freedom House 2021 Report, nearly 75% of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration last year.[1] A trend that has been further exacerbated by the ensuing rise in inequalities as a result of the pandemic.

But there was also another side to this story. In 2021 we saw an explosion of civic activism and witnessed the tremendous power and resilience of civil society at work. Despite –but often due to - the global ongoing pandemic and the repressive environment it generated, people have taken to the streets en masse, facing dangers and threats and often risking their lives to demand democracy, and to defend their assembly and association rights.

As Special Rapporteur on the rights to xxx, I am in a unique position to observe first handedly the thirst for freedom and democracy that is driving people in a world where democracy is under attack. I have the honor to meet some of these individuals, to engage with them and to witness their struggles and advocate for the restoration of their rights.

Since taking up my mandate in 2018 we have registered a significant increase in incoming communications from civil society reporting all sorts of violations to the rights covered by my mandate. Last year alone we received 177 different communications affecting no less than xxx individuals. It is fair to say that this number represents only a fraction of the full scope of violations that impacted the lives of millions of individuals worldwide.

No doubt this rise can partially be attributed to the growing awareness regarding the rights concerned by the mandate, as well as to its broadened base of support. And this is good news! Whereas only a decade ago assembly and association rights rarely made headlines, they have steadily gained international recognition and have underpinned some of the most cataclysmic events of this century. But less encouragingly, the rise of communications also bears witness to the ongoing tendency of a shrinking civic space, the violent oppression those looking to make their voices heard are increasingly confronted with and a general malaise surrounding protests and democracy.

As governments are ramping up the rollback of civic freedoms, often cloaked in the guise of covid restrictions, the key issues facing civil society are multiplying and deteriorating: adoption of national security, counter-terrorism and public order laws, restrictions on protests, increased militarization of police, campaigns of violence, intimidation and stigmatization and arrests as well as murders of activists, and censorship and surveillance of the digital space to name but some. We bear witness to an unparalleled erosion of an enabling environment for civil society and an increasingly violent nature of its repression.

Just take a look at Hong Kong where citizens have suffered a litany of loss following the passing of a sweeping national security law and extreme forms of intimidation aimed at oppressing human rights defenders. Or Sudan, where courageous prodemocracy protesters underwent violent repression following a military coup but nevertheless continued to brave the authorities’ oppression in a bid to reinstate a democratically elected transitional government. Not to mention Colombia which faced the most intensive public uprisings in decades, most of which were met with excessive police violence resulting in numerous deaths.

And it is not just happening in developing countries. From the US, once the global superpower and beacon for democracy, civil society has reached out to my mandate on more than one occasion last year. The January insurrection at the Capitol shook the very foundations of the country’s democratic seat. Meanwhile the militarization of European police forces reacting to anti-covid demonstrations resonated across the European press.

Democracy is shaking in its foundations. The global status quo is at a turning point. But while at first glance it seems autocracy is gaining ground, a deeper look reveals there is more at work than meets the eye. Autocrats are having to revert to more and more blatantly fraudulent elections in order to stay in power.[2] Russia and Belarus are just two examples. Subtle manipulation no longer suffices to cling onto power, as civil society and political opposition join forces to oppose manipulated elections and oust often long-standing autocrats, with large-scale protests backing them.

Lest we lose the people’s ability and determination to continue to speak up and demand change, we risk destroying not only our democracies but our planet too. The climate action movement has made this all too clear. There is an almost unparalleled urgency to the movement, and courageous people demanding to be heard, continue to take to the streets despite the countless obstacles in their way.

Because taking to the street is the most powerful and effective tool citizens, civil society and grassroots movements have at their disposal. If states and non-state actors continue to clamp down on them, rather than meaningfully engage with them, these movements could grow angrier and become violent. If they continue to be repressed, they may eventually lose momentum and dwindle with all its consequences….

More than a decade into what some have termed the beginning of a global democratic recession, it is vital that state actors, multilateral organizations and the international community step up their engagement with civil society in order to maintain and restore democracy and peace. This engagement needs to be consistent, structured, meaningful and inclusive to fully benefit from civil society’s counsel and to allow civil society actors to come together to form a united front with a common agenda, hence ensuring its resilience in times of crises. Reaching out and engaging on an ad hoc and largely symbolic basis as is too often the case, just isn’t sufficient.

I have said it before and I will continue to repeat it. Rather than seeing peaceful assemblies, including mass protests as a threat to national security and public order, authorities must embrace them as an opportunity to develop more inclusive democratic policies and societies, which ultimately will be more resilient and lead the way to a more peaceful world.

After all, throughout history and across cultures the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association have enabled individuals to address many of world’s most difficult challenges. Civil society gave the world the anti-slavery and anti-apartheid movements; the transnational advocacy campaigns against poverty and inequality; the women’s suffrage movements; the unions that fought for and won rights for workers; the environmentalists who worked and continue to work to protect the planet and climate; and the movements that ignited transitional democracies.

And so it was in 2021. Amidst last year’s democratic rollbacks, we witnessed the power of peaceful protest at work. The relentlessness of civil society activism achieved remarkable feats and continued to inspire millions around the globe. In the face of adversity, protests gained ground even when it meant risking arrest, injury or death.

Let this explosion of civic activism that marked the past year be a reminder that while the challenges up ahead may seem daunting, there are many reasons to remain hopeful and to continue to seek out concrete opportunities to transform what the future will hold.

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