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Challenging threats to civil society from powerful business entities

In recent years, there has been a perceptible rise in restrictions on civic space – the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. This clampdown is worrying almost everyone in civil society, from national and international NGOs to philanthropic institutions to social movements, trade unions and public spirited journalists and activists. CIVICUS’ recently released Civil Society Watch report uncovers substantial threats to civic space and civil society in 96 countries in 2014 alone.

While the reasons for the eruption of repressive laws and attacks on dissenters vary, negative effects are being felt in both democracies and authoritarian states. It is increasingly evident that the dangers to civic freedoms come not just from state apparatuses but also from powerful non-state actors especially unscrupulous business entities connected to powerful politicians. A major driver of closing civic space is the rampant collusion and indeed capture of power and resources in most countries by a handful of interconnected political and economic elites.

Oxfam International projects that the richest 1 per cent will own more wealth than 99 per cent of the globe’s population by 2016. Thus civil society groups exposing corruption and/or environmental degradation by politically well-connected businesses are extremely vulnerable to persecution due to the tight overlap and cosy relationships between elites. In some countries, law enforcement agencies are directly involved in attacks on activists while in others they fail to properly investigate and bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against civil society activists including private armies, right wing militias or hired criminal elements.

With market fundamentalism and the neo-liberal economic discourse firmly entrenched in democracies, labour, land and environmental rights activists are facing heightened challenges. At least 29 environmental activists were reported murdered in Brazil in 2014. Canada’s centre right government has been closely monitoring and intimidating indigenous peoples’ rights activists opposing large commercial projects in ecologically fragile areas. India’s prime minister recently urged judges to be wary of “five star activists” even as the efforts of Greenpeace India to protect forests from the activities of extractive industries have led it to be subjected to various forms of bureaucratic harassment including arbitrary freezing of its bank accounts. In South Africa, justice continues to elude miners massacred in Marikana in 2012 following an agitation for a wage increase at a platinum mine. Spain has recently passed a restrictive law to gag anti-austerity protestors.

In countries where democratic institutions are weak such as Bolivia, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Honduras, Laos, Kenya, Peru and the Philippines, the situation is even more challenging. Civil society groups opposing mass displacement and environmental degradation caused by the activities of large extractive industries, agricultural and housing development projects have been repeatedly targeted by unscrupulous businesses while law enforcement agencies regularly fail to protect them.

In this situation we need to defend and argue for civil society to play all of its legitimate roles, including that of acting as a watchdog on power, improving transparency and protecting the rights of the marginalised, and demonstrate the added value that comes when civil society is enabled to do so. But while exposing abuses, civil society must be careful not to propagate a narrative of disempowerment, in which governments and global corporations are presented as all powerful and civil society can only ever be vulnerable to their whims. It is important in civil society to recognise and celebrate our own power, as CIVICUS’ annual Global Day of Citizen Action.

Thus, international solidarity is critical for civil society when it is under attack, but needs to be exercised in ways that do not play to divides between global south and global north. Wherever possible, we should enable affected parties to speak for themselves in global forums. We also need enhanced focus on the development of more progressive norms on issues such as business and human rights while undertaking research that sheds more light on corrupt connections at all levels between politicians, public officials, security forces, organised crime and businesses.

Mandeep Tiwana is Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS.

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December 2017
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