G20 attempted to address a growing list of critical problems, namely a faltering global economy, terrorist threats in a majority of G20 member states, and a patched-up climate change agreement. Solving these problems took more than 20 Heads of State and their economic ministers. The role of the private sector was widely acknowledged, but the power of civil society is often dismissed. Addressing these expensive and expansive issues requires the will and contribution of the people.
As history has repeatedly shown, it is charities, non-profits, NGOs, social movements, and individual citizens that make the critical difference when we try to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Civil society plays a critical role in securing public buy-in for government policies and helps to ensure that the right programmes get implemented at the local level. The worldwide wave of attacks on civil society has been well documented for more than a decade and has now reached crisis levels. The restrictions on civil society are no longer confined to ‘authoritarian’ parts of the world, but are now also prevalent in many democracies too.
The latest research from the global civil society alliance CIVICUS shows that just three per cent of people on the planet live in countries with ‘open’ civic space and that many G20 member countries excel at attacking their critics and closing space for citizens to organise, take action and speak out on political, social, environmental and other issues.
According to the data, only meeting host Germany does well enough at protecting civil society to merit an ‘open’ rating on the CIVICUS Monitor – a new research tool providing close to real-time data on the state of civil and political freedoms in 195 countries. An ‘open’ rating indicates that the state properly protects civil society and enables citizens to form associations, conduct peaceful protests and speak freely.
On the other hand, there are eight G20 member countries where conditions for civil society are categorised as ‘closed’, ‘repressed’ or ‘obstructed’, according to the Monitor’s data. In the worst cases – G20 members Saudi Arabia, China, Turkey and Russia – it is almost impossible for citizens effectively to criticise authority or freely express an opinion on social or political issues without risking state censure, harassment, imprisonment or even extrajudicial killing.
Last week, G20 leaders gathered to discuss issues as diverse as the resilience of the global financial system, global health challenges and women’s economic empowerment. These are crucial topics on which a broad coalition of civil society organisations has already made strong recommendations though the Civil20 group.
States must stop seeing open spaces for civil society as a ‘nice to have’ and begin to recognise them as a way of solving crises and creating peaceful and sustainable societies. Criticism should not, however, be limited to countries from the global south, but should also include reprimanding Western countries where respect for civic freedoms is in decline. Western countries should be challenged on their restrictive laws, policies and practices which damage citizen action in their ‘democracies’:
Dozens of restrictive protest laws are proposed or passed, while media freedom has been undermined at the highest level. Prolonged state of emergency in certain countries has caused civic groups and activists to have their rights unduly restricted as surveillance powers have expanded. Increase in harmful and racist speech should not go unchecked. Governments’ anti-terrorism agendas should not erode civil liberties.
A clear commitment from all G20 members to improving space for civil society would be a monumental post-summit achievement.