Creating an enabling environment – EU Presidency Conference report

By Tor Hodenfield, CIVICUS Advocacy intern (Geneva)

“We have an obligation to stand together, to fight together” – Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association

Restrictions in both North and South

Concord Denmark hosted a CSO conference in Copenhagen, Demark from 14 to 15 March 2012. The conference, which took place during the Denmark’s six month presidency of the European Union (EU), was aimed at influencing the EU’s involvement of and policy towards civil society. The conference was attended by representatives from over 30 countries and 100 international and national CSOs (see conference programme here).[1] CIVICUS, represented by Katsuji Imata, Acting Secretary-General, and Tor Hodenfield, Advocacy Intern, played an integral role in shaping the discussion around the question of ensuring an enabling environment for civil society. On the first day of the conference, Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, delivered a keynote address.  Maina stressed that shrinking space for CSOs is global trend, permeating both the North and South. He noted that despite the integral role of CSOs in the development of a vibrant democracy, governments from Addis Ababa to Geneva have erected legal barriers severely limiting the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly and association.

On March 11, the government of the Geneva canton of Switzerland adopted legislation requiring groups and individuals to notify the government 30 days before holding a rally or demonstration. The law requires the petitioning party to secure permission from the government to assemble and empowers the government to dictate where the demonstration is held (see link to UN press release).[2]

In the global South, Maina highlighted the adoption of the 2009 Ethiopian CSO Proclamation as “one of the most restrictive laws in the world.” Maina stated that the international community can no longer equivocate about the impact of the effects of the CSO Proclamation on civil society. He underscored that of the 120 human rights organisations operating in Ethiopia in 2008, only 14 exist today. Maina encouraged international donors to reduce levels of direct budgetary support to Ethiopia and noted that international NGOs “must speak out,” because “once it starts, it will spread” (see the recent Amnesty International report on ‘The Impact of Civil Society Legislation in Ethiopia’).[3]

The role of CIVICUS

Shortly after Maina spoke, Katsuji Imata of CIVICUS took the stage to discuss what civil society can do to counter shrinking civil society space. Katsuji emphasised that CIVICUS has long been at the forefront of the enabling environment debate with its Civil Society Watch programme (see CIVICUS’ 2010 report ‘Civil Society: The Clampdown Is Real’).[4]

Katsuji pointed out that CSOs need to identify effective “push points” in global and regional forums to advance the civil society space agenda, and that changes can happen. For example, in a joined-up effort in 2010 with a few partner organisations, CIVICUS lobbied for the appointment of a UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association, which enabled Maina to become a prominent spokesperson on the need to protect civil society space and to join in this conference.

Katsuji urged the participants to take a mainstreaming approach towards an enabling environment for CSOs and to ensure that CSOs have the requisite protections and support to effectively pursue their mandates without undue hindrances. While significant steps were made at the Accra and Busan High Level Forums on Aid Effectiveness in 2008 and 2011 on laying the groundwork for an enabling environment, it is still a work in progress. CSOs, in conjunction with amenable governments and intergovernmental actors, must work towards viable and clear definitions and indicators for an enabling environment (see link to report on the Busan Civil Society Forum).[5] He argued that these indicators need to be built by civil society-led and country-owned approaches, rather than a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. Until then, effective monitoring of an enabling environment at the country level will remain impracticable.

The EU’s response

On the second day of the conference, the participants heard from the attending EU Representatives.

Pierre Vimont, Executive General Secretary, European External Action Service, highlighted that EU foreign policy must be more flexible and accessible. Mr Vimont alluded to the need for “more accurate assessments of the situation on the ground,” joking that Heads of EU Delegations often cite “talking to cab drivers on the way home from the airport” as engaging civil society. Among other suggestions, Mr Vimont advocated for more “transformative diplomacy,” increased use of “sanction instruments” and a need for the conditionality of aid based on the principle of “more for more” and “less for less.”

While also highlighting the need for heightened pressure on the Ethiopian government to meet their international donor and human rights obligations, Kristian Schmidt, Director of Human and Society Development, DG DEVCO, presented his “Seven Steps to Nirvana” for enhancing cooperation between the EU and civil society: 1) increased funding to civil society; 2) more loud diplomacy; 3) greater CSO consultations; 4) training for EU officials in best practices for engaging civil society; 5) using the forthcoming Structured Dialogue Policy Forum, May 2012, as a platform to continue discussion on enabling environment; 6) added support for unregistered CSOs; and 7) being more assertive

In response, the participating CSOs proposed several recommendations to the EU including:

  • Involve CSOs in the Article 8 discussion on the exigencies of imposing sanctions or abridging aid to governments which violate the fundamental rights of citizens.
  • Institutionalise responsibility to hold consultative meetings with domestic CSOs in framing the job descriptions and annual assessments of EU Delegation Officials.
  • 15% of European Development Fund to be ring fenced for engagement with CSOs.
  • Create an award for the most CSO-friendly EU Delegation.
  • Increase engagement with leaders of peoples’ movements in the Middle East and North Africa and beyond.






Tor Hodenfield


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