Last year proved to be a "dismal" one for civil society as activists who dared to challenge economic and political elites worldwide were marginalized, demonized, and threatened, according to an annual report on the state of civic organizations.
The fifth State of Civil Society Report (pdf), put forth by the international organization CIVICUS, documents a year shaped by conflict and popular resistance.
"In the past year, civil society responded to profound human rights abuses caused by conflicts, particularly in the Middle East," the report states. Among the challenges, the report notes, is that civil society personnel—which includes activists, organizers, NGO and aid workers, among others—were often "targeted in conflict settings, with international humanitarian law routinely flouted, and in numerous contexts civil society activists were violently attacked, jailed or detained."
At the same time, 2015 saw citizens taking to the streets to demand change in countries all over the world, "from Chile to South Africa and from Armenia to South Korea, with public anger fueled by skewed and unequal economic systems, corruption and the failure of governments to put citizens’ interests at the heart of their actions."
However, these protests were frequently "met with violent state response, which should be seen as part of a broader pattern of restrictions and attacks on civil society."
The report found that restrictions on civil society's ability to act or organize continued to be introduced and applied worldwide, with "civil society freedoms of expression, association, and peaceful assembly [...] under serious attack in 109 countries around the world in 2015 alone," the report states.
According to the report, methods of restriction in the past year included:
- the introduction or passing of legislation to constrain how civil society can organize, what it can act on, how it must account for itself and how it can be funded, e.g. in Israel and Uganda;
- verbal attacks and hate speech, e.g. in India and Venezuela;
- arbitrary detention and disappearances, e.g. in Burundi and Syria;
- criminalisation through biased judicial proceedings, e.g. in Angola and Malaysia;
- restrictions on travel, e.g. in Azerbaijan and Egypt;
- physical attacks and assassinations, e.g. in Honduras and the Philippines
One of the more "sinister developments," according to CIVICUS secretary-general Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, is "the widespread demonization of civil society activists—as terrorists, traitors, foreign puppets, or disconnected elites."
Sriskandarajah further notes, "Some of the most brave and inspiring activists, from Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, Peru, the Philippines and South Africa, paid the ultimate price in 2015, simply for exercising their rights as citizens to organize and mobilize."
Similarly, at a press conference launching the report, Mandeep Tiwana, head of policy and analysis at CIVICUS, highlighted the fact that Indigenous persons within civil society were particularly targeted in 2015.
"Indigenous rights activists who have been challenging the activities of mining companies of big agribusiness—many of (which) are connected to political elites—have had very violent attacks carried out against them, in some instances they’ve been assassinated," he said.
Tiwana further warned of the populations that are being "left behind" because of widespread exclusion and discrimination.
"One of the main tests of the justness of any society is how it treats its minorities whether there is equality of opportunity for all particularly for disadvantaged populations. On this test," he continued "we find that many our societies are failing."
"All over the world," Tiwana said, "people are being left behind on the basis of their gender, ethnicity, migration status, faith, age, sexuality, disability, HIV and health status, locality and more."