Dossier: Squeezed – Space for Civil Society — Heinrich Böll Foundation, Germany


Photo: Niklas Hughes. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Civil society is part and parcel of all political processes, be they national or international. It can shape political processes, successfully oranise political participation, uncover corruption and human rights abuses – and it will demand accountability from state actors.

But all across the world, civil society is under pressure. In many countries, state authorities are taking more and more systematic measures, aimed to restrict the work of civil society. Furthermore, civil society actors are targets of defamation, threats and violence. These developments, known as “shrinking space” or “closing space”, have become a global trend.

The present dossier provides analyses and background information about how civil societies’ spaces are being restricted and highlights various facettes. Examples from a number of countries provide evidence of how civil society is put under pressure – and what counter-strategies are being developed. Finally the dossier presents initatives, that are actively fighting against shrinking spaces to “Regain civic space!”

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“Reconceptualising solidarity with civil society” — By Barbara Unmüßig

State repression against non-governmental organizations is increasing globally. In this interview, Barbara Unmüßig calls for a reconceptualisation of solidarity with civil society and puts the issue of shrinking and closing spaces at the very top of the political agenda.

Street Art

Question: In many countries the space for non-governmental organizations has become increasingly restricted. In some countries lives are even on the line. Only a few weeks ago well-known human rights activist and environmentalist Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras. Why has pressure on civil society increased so massively?

Barbara Unmüßig: The repression and suppression of a vibrant and emancipatory civil society are nothing new. They have always existed. But what we have been experiencing now for several years is qualitatively different. A multitude of governments – whether authoritarian, hybrid, or democratic – regard an independent and critical civil society not only as a thorn in their side; they are currently combating it on a scale that is unprecedented in the past twenty-five years. Governments have engaged in massive reprisals against civil-society activists. The measures involved have ranged from restrictive legislation (laws on NGOs, the media, and terrorism) and bureaucratic constraints, over smear campaigns in the media and censorship, all the way up to open repression by police and intelligence agencies. In each case the goal is the same: Governments seek to delegitimize and, above all, to massively restrict the work of political, social, and ecological activists, from feminists to human rights advocates.

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LGBTI Civil society organizations and the rights to peacefully assemble and associate — By  International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL)

Civil society organisations can be a vanguard of progress for the LGBTI community. Despite the growing number of laws and policies impeding LGBTI advocacy, activists and organisations successfully challenge these trends.

Two women at the Gay Pride March in Johannesburg 2013

Two women at the Gay Pride March in Johannesburg October 26, 2013. Creator: Niko Knigge. Creative Commons License LogoThis image is licensed under Creative Commons License.

Around the world, civil society is under pressure. Governments are using creative legal maneuvers to shrink space for civil society. They target organizations that work on contested issues, including the rights of migrants, women, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) communities. Despite some historic legal successes, civil society organizations (CSOs) advocating for LGBTI rights continue to face monumental challenges when attempting to exercise their fundamental rights to peacefully assemble and associate. Such challenges are particularly formidable when in the form of laws, many of which not only prevent LGBTI individuals from achieving full equality, but also prevent CSOs from effectively advocating on their behalf.

Legal barriers to the rights of assembly and association faced by LGBTI CSOs are manifold and can been seen around the globe. They include prohibitions on LGBTI CSOs, activities and advocacy. Yet, despite the growing number of laws and policies designed to impede LGBTI advocacy, LGBTI activists and CSOs successfully challenge these trends.

Prohibitions on LGBTI CSOs

Some countries legally bar LGBTI CSOs from forming. In Nigeria the 2014 Same Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act bans “gay clubs, societies, and organizations” and their “sustenance, processions and meetings.” Any person who registers, operates or participates in these groups commits a criminal offense subject to up to 10 years in prison. Saudi Arabia is one of 10 countries to impose the death penalty for same-sex relations. No LGBTI-rights organizations exist, as in many other Middle Eastern countries. In the few instances where LGBTI persons have openly gathered, raids and arrests have followed. In Uganda the Parliament re-introduced The Prohibition of Promotion of Unnatural Sexual Practices Bill in October 2014, which criminalizes LGBTI relations. If passed, CSOs’ ability to advocate for LGBTI rights will be severely restricted as “promotion” is ambiguously defined and could include, e.g., providing information on safe sex to same-sex audiences or donating to LGBTI organizations.

Registration Refusals or Delays

Governments may refuse LGBTI CSOs legal entity status and the benefits attaching thereto, even where the laws do not explicitly prohibit such groups. Lengthy delays can also deter existing and prospective applicants from applying. In Belarus the few LGBTI CSOs that applied for legal entity status were denied. Gay Belarus was denied because it “does not have in its charter any clauses on supporting social maturity and comprehensive development of the Belarusian youth.” In Bolivia a LGBTI CSO reported delays in its registration due to a discretionary determination that its name was discriminatory because it contained the word “maricas” [queers] and that legal personality is granted only to “serious institutions.” The Chinese Same-Sex Love Alliance Network was denied official recognition in 2014. Its rejection letter stated that there is no legal basis for establishing a LGBTI group and that homosexuality has no place in traditional Chinese culture and morality. In Mongolia, the country’s first LGBTI organisation, The LGBT Centre, was refused registration over 10 times. The rejection letter stated: “the name, LGBT, is against the Mongolian traditions and customs and has the potential to set the wrong example for the youth and adolescents of Mongolia.”

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