Protecting civil society against shrinking spaces

By Prof Sir Malcolm Evans, Professor of Public International Law (University of Bristol Law School) and Chair, United Nations Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture.

On Thursday 26th January a debate took place in Parliament* on the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ in international human rights protection. I was recently at a meeting where it was pointed out that this description of the problem – which is much discussed in international circles at the moment – made it sound vaguely as if it was something to do with washing things at the wrong temperature, and meant very little to most people. To the extent that effective human rights protection is based on openness and transparency, which might be summed up in the idea of ‘washing dirty linen in public’, the idea of human rights being ‘shrunk in the wash’ at the moment is not altogether a bad one – but this hardly helps convey the significance of what is taking place and why it matters enough to warrant a debate in Parliament. The reality is that there is something extremely worrying going on in many parts of the world – which is that those who stand up for those in need are themselves increasingly subjected to various forms of attack, including physical attack, for doing so.

This is not just about problems faced by ‘Civil Society’, or ‘NGOs’ working on issues of rights protection – though members of such bodies are indeed subject to vicious and violent assault. It is also about those who have a public duty to question governmental authorities about their conduct and decision-making, including Ombudsman’s offices, National Human Rights Commissions, public defenders. When those with official responsibility for ensuring that governmental action stays within the boundaries of the law find themselves under attack simply for doing the job they have been appointed to do – such as acting Attorney-General of in the US, perhaps – , how much more likely is that that those seeking to raise concerns about others who do not have official positions will find themselves in trouble?  And trouble comes in many forms. Physical violence, the closure of organisations and other forms of legal crackdowns may get reported, but subtle changes to domestic laws and endless spurious administrative challenges can make it increasingly difficult – if not impossible – for such bodies to operate, to receive funds, to publish materials, to hold meetings, to raise concerns; these are rarely newsworthy, and often at least as effective. And even when they are able to operate, their work is more frequently side-lined or ignored.

Why is this happening? It seems to me that one reason is the increasing scepticism which ‘human rights’ seems to produce. Rather than defending something of value, human rights are increasingly projected as a negative rather than as a positive thing – something that can be used by people with nothing better to do to try to stop sensible people doing sensible things: something which is a bit of an irritant, an annoyance that we pay lip-service to but only because we have to. If you can afford to think like this – congratulations, you have won first prize in the lottery of life. It is not like that for many.

In my work as Chair of the UN Subcommittee for Prevention of Torture I routinely see quite enough to know that far too many people far too often are in desperate need of others to support and speak up for them. Unthinking systems, and unthinking individuals, can end up treating people appallingly. In my work, one of the most remarkable and humbling things I have seen is how people living together in some of the most appalling circumstances imaginable (and, I sincerely hope, for most readers, unimaginable circumstances) manage to survive. They survive by supporting each other. They may not even want to – but in the end they do. In desperate situations, most people help each other as best they can.  I have also seen how suggesting that some very small changes be made to the way things are done can have a huge impact for good, sometimes at little or no cost at all. Sometimes, all it takes is for something to be said in order that the difference be made.

And that is what is so worrying about the ‘shrinking space for civil society’. It is about making it harder and harder to let people support each other and to help make those changes for the better. It means that the problems people have to be facing need to become ever greater before they can be recognise and responded to. It also makes it more likely that unless (until?) we share in those problems, we may not be willing to recognise or respond to them at all. Remember ‘Je suis Charlie’? It was a very revealing slogan: if it is us, if we identify with a problem, we address it.

Having such a debate debate in Parliament was hugely important. It may seem to be dealing with an issue which affects other people in other places in a rather strange and esoteric way. It does not. It is about our willingness to support people who seek to help others. No more, no less. But there is another point too. ‘Civil Society’ has increasingly become the expression used to refer to the community of traditional non-governmental organisations, which continues to exist and which continue to do a great deal of vital work. However, the world is changed. People no longer ‘mobilise’ through organisations in the same way. We respond, perhaps, more intuitively and immediately through social media and in other ways, supporting many different causes and issues on a passing basis, but none the less sincerely for that. In case we had not noticed, we have all become civil society today, seeking to comment on political and social affairs as they happen and wherever it interests and concerns us. It is the pressure of people seeking change. There seems to have been a lot of that recently. We need to make sure that we, who are all now civil society, continue to protect our space and those who use that space in order to help each other have better lives. Which for the avoidance of doubt is what human rights are all about, actually.

The debate in Parliament held on Thurs 26th Jan was promoted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on International Freedom of Religion or Belief (AAPG FoRB) with the cooperation of the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief (CiFORB), of which Prof Sir Malcolm Evans is Chair of the Advisory Committee. At the same time, on the same day, the House of Lords was also debating the UK/UN relationship in light of the appointment of the new Secretary General. The two hansard transcripts of the debates are available for the House of Commons and House of Lords.

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