How to fight for the public square

The agora in ancient Athens

The agora in ancient Athens

As citizens gather in city squares from Caracas to Kiev to Cairo, governments are showing symptoms of agoraphobia, which literally means fear of an agora or “place of assembly,” according to Douglas Rutzen and Brittany Grabel of the International Center for Not-for-profit Law.

This phenomenon is occurring in countries across the political spectrum, but in cases of authoritarian agoraphobia, governments have simply destroyed public squares, they write for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab.

For example, in Bahrain, the government bulldozed Pearl Square to stymie the country’s 2011 reformist movement and prevent citizens from assembling there. In other countries, governments have erected physical barriers to restrict access to civic space. In Egypt, the military recently erected ten-foot iron gates to control access to Tahrir Square, while in Uganda, the police installed barbed wire to keep citizens out of Constitution Square, Kampala’s only public square. On March 20, 2014, the Turkish government blocked Twitter, restricting access to the digital agora.

Supplementing physical and electronic barriers, many governments are erecting legal barriers to civic space. In January 2014, Cambodia issued a blanket ban on all public gatherings. Days later, Viktor Yanukovych’s Ukraine enacted legislation imposing five year prison sentences on protestors if they blocked government buildings, and allowing the authorities to seize the cars of people participating in “Automaidan” protests. Shortly after, the Venezuelan government brought criminal charges, including arson and conspiracy charges to imprison citizens engaged in peaceful assemblies. These are but a few recent examples of the global agoraphobia pandemic.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, more than twenty countries have recently considered or enacted legal restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.

Agoraphobia is a global contagion, and no country is immune. To address this pandemic, international institutions, governments, and civil society must embrace a holistic treatment plan.

First, global and regional institutions must enhance norms protecting peaceful assembly. International norms on the freedom of assembly are just beginning to take shape. The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) recently established a U.N. special rapporteur on the freedom of assembly. He has written three pioneering thematic reports, but his reports are not binding in international law. …..

Second, governments must reform their national laws and practices. International norms have little impact if they are not enshrined at the national level. …….Donor and experts with comparative expertise must be prepared to respond to appeals from countries requesting assistance. In addition, like-minded governments must increase their political support for multilateral initiatives, such as the Community of Democracies Working Group, which plays a critical role in mobilizing diplomatic engagement when restrictive laws are proposed.

Third, the international community must focus on frontlines. In many countries, security personnel receive limited or no training on how to manage protests in a peaceful, democratic manner. Under the auspices of the special rapporteur or another international body, an initiative should be launched to compile and share good practices, complemented by in-person training programs. …….


No shortcut to national dialogue, Sudanese civil society insists

sudan darfurA national dialogue to address Sudan’s endemic crises requires security and basic rights for all citizens, a lifting of the state of emergency and a cessation of hostilities, say Sudanese civil society groups

Eighteen NGOs issued a statement on Thursday demanding that the national dialogue, proposed by President Omar Al Bashir earlier this year, should be inclusive of civil society.

Hafez Mahmoud, Director of the Sudanese Justice Africa, one of the signatories of the statement, told Radio Dabanga that the dialogue process should not be limited to political parties. “They lack the participation of society.”

Other signatories of the statement are the Darfur Bar Association of lawyers, the centre of Alkhatim Adlan for Enlightenment and Human Development, Nuba Relief and Rehabilitation, and Sudan Democracy First.

“We welcome calls for a national dialogue in Sudan, but we are deeply concerned as active civil society organisations that current plans for dialogue fall short of the minimum required,” the statement said:

A common approach to addressing grievances across our country is desperately needed. A de facto one party system has confiscated democratic freedoms and sought to silence dissenting voices even from within its own ranks. Piecemeal approaches to peace have failed, with the Darfur conflict now in its eleventh year and fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile continuing unabated.  

Full enjoyment of fundamental rights such as freedom of expression, association and assembly, along with a cessation of hostilities and humanitarian access are required before any meaningful dialogue can start.

“In my many travels to Sudan over the years, I have been inspired by the resilience, courage and vision of civil society leaders and activists,” said Ambassador Princeton Lyman, the former US Special Envoy to South Sudan and Sudan.

“I am impressed by the commitment of these non-partisan Sudanese citizens to advancing the interests of their country through open public consultations on creative proposals to resolve long-standing national problems,” which is why he is especially “concerned that the government has recently been increasingly engaged in a ‘crackdown’ on civil society organizations and leaders,” he wrote for Al-Jazeera.

The dialogue must be inclusive of all stakeholders and not restricted to political parties and alliances within them,” the NGOs added:

The process must not be elitist, limited to like-minded political parties and lack the participation of and accountability to society at large. This will require public access to credible and independent information on the dialogue and the space to debate and reach consensus. The ultimate failure of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was its lack of ownership by the Sudanese people. This time around, representatives of victims of Sudan’s many wars, civil society, youth, women’s groups, trades unions and intellectuals must be included, as well as political parties, and society at large.  The National Congress Party (NCP), National Consensus Forces (NCF), opposition groups, and Sudan Revolutionary Front must all participate.


New ‘foreign agents’ assault on Russia’s NGOs

russia_civilsociety_HRWThe upper chamber of Russia’s parliament is working on new amendments to force advocacy groups to register as “foreign agents.” Under the new proposal, the Justice Ministry could register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent, Human Rights Watch said today: 

The proposal comes amid an intense government crackdown on freedom of expression. A draft law would ban publication of “inaccurate” information about the Russian government and military. New proposals would further restrict media freedom online. Several opposition websites have recently been blocked and hundreds of peaceful protesters have been detained. 

On March 27, 2014, at a meeting between President Vladimir Putin and the leadership of the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament, the chair of the chamber’s committee on constitutional law, Andrei Klishas, announced that the upper chamber was working on the amendments to the legislation on nongovernmental organizations. He said the amendments were intended to make sure that all groups that receive foreign funding and engage in “political activities” publicly identify themselves as “foreign agents.”

A 2012 law requires groups receiving foreign funding and conducting broadly defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents,” effectively demonizing them as foreignspies. Authorities define as “political” such work as urging legal and policy reforms, raising awareness, and assisting victims of abuse.

Not a single advocacy group has registered as a “foreign agent,” and instead groups are fighting through the courts the efforts by the authorities to force them to register. Thirteen Russian rights groups also have jointly filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights challenging the “foreign agents” law as violating freedom of association. The case is under review.

When explaining the planned amendments to the president, Klishas characterized foreign-funded human rights groups as subversive organizations that refuse to register as “foreign agents” despite being engaged in “political activities” and promoting an allegedly foreign agenda. Putin said in response that, “No loopholes should be left for those who do not protect the interests of Russian citizens but rather protect the interests of foreign states inside Russia.” Authorizing the Ministry of Justice to register groups as “foreign agents” without their consent would apparently close that “loophole.” 

“For two years now, the ‘foreign agents’ law has been at the core of Russia’s unprecedented crackdown on independent groups and activists,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If it becomes law, this new proposal would take the crackdown to a new, dire level.”



External actors in democratic transitions: avoiding funding frenzies

barbarahaigExternal actors, including democratic states, non-governmental organizations and private groups can make a significant contribution by assisting transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But they should not be allowed to eclipse local actors, says Barbara Haig, Deputy to the President for Policy & Strategy at the National Endowment for Democracy.

External actors play an important role in assisting transitions to democracy by lending political and material support and know-how. They can help constrain the impact of spoilers (both internal and external), and cushion the blow of painful reforms with incentives and rewards. They can also serve as neutral conveners by providing a space for competitors and adversaries to resolve conflicts or disputes and reach consensus on policy or strategy.

Since the transitions of the early 1990s, donor countries and non-governmental groups grew confident about their ability to fund and in other ways support democratic transitions. While complicated and tumultuous, these transitions offered a relatively hospitable environment for external actors who wanted to help. But it is important to remember that prior to the breakthroughs in Central Europe, only modest material and technical support was provided to democracy activists, who shaped the course of their own actions and strategies. Donors, such as the NED, served as a support mechanism for their work, but they conducted their own negotiations – with outgoing authoritarian powers in the form of ‘pacted transitions’ and with democratic partners or rivals to resolve tensions over strategy and tactics. It was not until the transitions were underway that government donors entered in a big way, along with the contractors they employed. While much U.S. government funding was driven by political processes and short-term objectives, private foundations lent longer term support to build institutions and capacity within civil society, including political parties.

Sensitivity to sovereignty

Fast forward to more recent and current transitions—where the environment for support is not always hospitable and can turn very nasty. Donors and foreign implementers must be attuned to the possibility that, as we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, national pride and sensitivity to issues of sovereignty can rapidly consume a society and distract local actors from the tasks at hand. Social media can quickly spoil reputations and distort the picture. It may not always be wise to quickly ramp up democracy and civil society funding in a manner which could appear to be driven more by showing how involved we are in the transition rather than how to nimbly respond to what is practical and can be effective. Awarding substantial sums to new or weak organizations can pull them away from their potential constituencies with ruinous effect.

Over time, entrenched powers—even Western allies—realize that they can gain prestige in their region by pushing back against a “Western agenda.” And in many cases citizens can be stirred up by appealing to feelings of cultural or religious nationalism under the guise of preventing violations of national “sovereignty”. . Such trends can actually derail transitions, particularly if they turn violent.

For those of us who have engaged with many transitions over the years, there is a disturbingly familiar pattern. Donor resources are ramped up and hordes of consultants and contractors descend on the capital city of the country undergoing transition. Endless strategy and proposal writing meetings take place and eat up the time of people who need to be preparing and organizing their efforts. Rents go up and talented locals are lured away from their poor NGOs with high salaries offered by foreign contractors. The air is sucked out of local organizations and coalitions as outside groups with resources strive to pull locals into new coalitions for voter education and monitoring that is in their work plan. The critical role of political parties can be undermined if all key functions and resources are directed toward civil society.

Donor countries and foreign organizations should not make the mistake of taking too direct a role in building governance. Rather, indigenous civil society and political parties, as well as professional information outlets, however incipient, must be vested with these responsibilities since it is these actors that will ultimately be responsible for ensuring democratic governance. As these organizations will be the ones to hold institutional bodies accountable and generate new ideas and proposals, they should not be supplanted, but strengthened with the help of foreign actors. A transition is a long-term process, and needs local capacity to generate strategies for capable action over the long-term. Endless series of trainings and short-term project activities do not produce lasting results.

There is no question that those countries which are able should help transitioning countries to succeed with reforms, and develop political pluralism, rule of law, and accountability. But transitions should not be allowed to become opportunities for frenzies of funding in which proposal writing professionals take control.