The long-term health of all societies depends on the ability of individuals to come together to share new ideas, promote social cohesion and advance shared interests for mutual benefit. But the freedom and space to do this—civic space—is increasingly under attack.
The most recent analysis by my CIVICUS colleagues shows that, in 2015, civic space was violated to a significant degree in more than 100 countries, up from 96 countries in 2014. This means that 6 out of 7 people live in countries where there are significant breaches of one or more of their basic rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression. No single region stands out; truly, this is a worldwide trend, a global clampdown.
We’re still finalizing our analysis of 2015 trends, but already, it is clear that threats to civil society are continuing to emanate from both state and non-state actors.
This worrying global trend—often considered largely the purview of governments and the nonprofit sector—must also be of concern to the private sector: It should be the business of business. Respect for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression is fundamental to good governance; it is the bedrock of stable societies where dissent can be expressed in an open and peaceful manner. Healthy civic space is vital, not just so that civil society can advocate for change, but so that commercial enterprises can thrive, secure in the knowledge that political differences can be accommodated peacefully.
Authoritarian and democratic governments are limiting civic space in the name of national security and strategic interest. The actions of religious and ideological fundamentalists are eroding many of civil society’s hard-won collective gains on human rights and social justice. Particularly where the rights of local communities to land and natural resources are concerned, business entities are also implicated. Indeed, in a significant number of countries, state violations of civic space relate directly to the protection of business interests.
The consequences of these restrictions for civil society are very real: community activists assassinated for opposing mining projects, environmentalists jailed for exposing land-grabbing and peaceful protesters met with brute force.
The complex relationship between business and shrinking civic space is both important and often overlooked. There are three critical areas where I believe business is particularly well-positioned to reverse the trend toward closing civic space.
Global studies on shrinking civic space show that impoverished and marginalized communities are hardest hit.
Easing Restrictions on International Funding Critical
The first relates to global initiatives to restrict civil society groups’ access to international funding. These restrictions, particularly affecting groups working on human rights and social justice issues, deal a crushing—and in some cases terminal—blow. One popular justification for such legislation is the need to combat international financing of terrorist organizations. Recommendations made by such bodies as the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have moved several governments to adopt disproportionately restrictive laws, which now threaten the viability of whole swaths of civil society and peaceful citizen mobilization. Civil society has lobbied vigorously to influence the revision of FATF guidelines and continues to do so, but we need the support of the business community.
As the primary beneficiary of an international financial system that allows capital flows across countries, the private sector has a central role to play in ensuring that the rules of the game are fairly applied.
Alliances of business and civil society groups could work together to ensure that laws designed to curb extremism and terrorism are effective without harming the viability of both profit-making and non-profit-making organizations. By leveraging the influence it gains through its funding of philanthropic initiatives and the responsibility financial service companies hold to distinguish between illegal and legitimate money transfers, business can call for states to regulate the civil society sector in such a way that the full range of its organizations could benefit from domestic and foreign sources of funding.
Protecting Open Access in Cyberspace
The second key area where business can play a critical role is online. As the internet creates new opportunities for civic activism, expression and mobilization, so states seek to regulate, control and, in some cases, censor its content and use. But the blame for restricting online civic space cannot be shouldered by states alone. Web companies, too, are at the epicenter of this tussle. A recent study from the Ranking Digital Rights project found that, of the 16 largest global Internet and telecommunications companies, none were meeting expected standards for ensuring users’ freedom of expression and privacy.
Business must meet some basic benchmarks that can help to improve the quality of online civic space. At the global level, Internet service providers can play a crucial role in making clear that they reject any calls by states to take down, filter or censor content that results from the exercise of legitimate, peaceful online expression by civil society activists. The business community should also speak out against companies that choose to profit by selling products and services to governments that can be used to spy on civil society activists and organizations.
Global Inequality a Core Issue
Finally, global studies on shrinking civic space show that certain groups—largely those in impoverished and marginalized communities—are being hit hardest. Demand for raw materials and economic development continues to put pressure on indigenous people and those living in remote, rural areas. Global income inequality is also rising at an alarming rate. A recent Oxfam report shows that the wealthiest 1 percent now own more than everyone else combined. This has the potential to create deep fissures and instability in society. The World Economic Forum has already recognized inequality as a major global risk.
Activists in many countries are not just fighting for civil liberties and a space at the policy table. Their struggle is increasingly aimed at combating the potentially corrosive impact of big business on political accountability, corruption, environmental degradation and the entrenchment of poverty and inequality. The perception that governments are beholden to big business, rather than responsive to the will of the people, is breeding resentment. As understanding around the responsibility business must share for creating a more just and sustainable society grows, so too does the risk to those businesses who choose to ignore it.
On one level, businesses’ responsibility towards civil society is quite simple: Make sure your activities do not interfere with civic space or with those exercising their rights to speak out, organize and protest. But businesses can—and, I believe, must—do more than stand back and not interfere. They must recognize the central role they play in creating the conditions that undermine civic space and threaten civil society organizations and activists. They must recognize their shared interest in advocating for and protecting good governance and the rule of law. They must speak out when governments—even friends in government—abuse human rights. (Encouraging evidence from Cambodia, India, Angola, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere suggests that this is beginning to happen.)
New alliances forged between for-profit companies and civil society could play a powerful role in countering shrinking civic space. But this is no corporate social responsibility box-ticking exercise; this must be about a shared and unshakeable commitment to the freedoms that are enshrined in international law and in the interests of us all. This is the business case for civic space, and it’s a strong one.