Civil Society: Whispers of progress, though we must keep shouting to get more satisfaction

By Mark Nelson, Policy and Advocacy Intern, CIVICUS

Although 2012’s Mayan apocalypse didn’t pan out quite as spectacularly as anticipated, the year was nonetheless an eventful one for civil society activists engaged in struggles for political, social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Through its Civil Society Watch project, CIVICUS continued to monitor situations adversely affecting civil society in seventy-six countries in 2012. CIVICUS’ State of Civil Society Report 2013 also focuses on an “enabling environment” for civil society.

Despite disturbing trends ranging from the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria, where pro-democracy activists have been bombarded with tanks and heavy artillery, to authoritarian aggrandizement in Russia via draconian laws and intimidation of activists, a few small victories have been achieved through advocacy and solidarity initiatives.

A modest win for press freedom was found in Azerbaijan when, in June, the government released blogger Bakhtiar Hajiyev, a member of the Azerbaijani youth movement, Positive Change, after imprisoning him for more than a year for using social media to promote peaceful demonstrations.

In Ethiopia, the Justice Ministry’s decision to drop charges against the editor of weekly newspaper, Feteh, which has been critical of official policies, was coupled the following month with the government’s release of Swedish journalist Martin Schibbye and photographer Johan Persson, who had remained behind bars for 14 months. Unfortunately, these actions may indicate only isolated aberrations, rather than any substantive comprehensive shift in policy. Only recently the government slapped an 18-year prison sentence on activist blogger Eskinder Nega for writing about the implications of the Arab Spring on democratic freedoms in Ethiopia.

A Zimbabwean court acquitted two members of human rights group, Zim Rights for “holding a public meeting without notifying authorities,” raising hopes that some brave members of the judiciary could actually provide an important counter-balance to state repression and impunity. This is particularly significant as the militias of Zimbabwe’s ruling party, Zanu-PF, continue to use fear and intimidation tactics to chill efforts by opposition groups to have their voices heard in elections expected to take place in the country later this year.

Myanmar rang in 2012 by releasing 130 political prisoners. The Kazakh government freed human rights defender Yevgeny Zhovtis, whose imprisonment for vehicular manslaughter following a fatal traffic accident was decried by many human rights defenders as a pretext for authorities to silence him.

There were also positive trends worldwide toward the creation of a more advanced “enabling environment” for civil society, heralding positive steps at a time when there has been a proliferation of restrictive civil society legislation around the world.

The Mexican government passed a new law which seeks to protect the lives of journalists and human rights defenders by establishing mechanisms for their safety, such as evacuation and relocation procedures, and the provision of bodyguards, as well as mechanisms of cooperation between national and state governments to facilitate these protections.

New legislation on public associations, taking into account opinions by public experts, non-governmental and international organizations, and the diplomatic community, and in compliance with European standards, was also passed in the Ukraine. Nonetheless, concerns in the country remain about politically motivated persecution of opposition members.

Myanmar’s government undertook modest legal action by first announcing its intention to draft an NGO registration law, and then later taking an additional step towards the rational treatment of civil society by reissuing the license of a prominent human rights lawyer in the country. Yet, while it would be an understatement to say that there have only been mild changes in the country’s economic and political systems, the government still has a long way to go in making the reforms necessary for the country to enter the community of nations with open civil societies. The Rohingya Muslim minority continues to be harshly repressed, with some human rights defenders classifying the situation as an ‘ethnic cleansing.’ What is more, the government has failed to fully stamp out the recruitment of child soldiers.

Human rights groups in the blossoming state of South Sudan showed that they wished to join the global endeavor to create space for civil society by launching the South Sudan Human Rights Defenders Network last August.

Notwithstanding lackluster action by some UN organs, such as the divided Security Council’s reluctance to take affirmative and concrete action in Syria, the UN Human Rights Council focused its attention on human rights violations in Belarus and Eritrea, adopting resolutions condemning efforts by the two governments to restrict fundamental civic freedoms.

These developments are laudable, but they often indicate only modest advances, particularly in those countries where the efforts of civil society groups remain imperiled. The silver lining of 2012 should not eclipse efforts by human rights defenders to address disquieting circumstances which were, and largely continue to be, the subject of deep concern.

Nevertheless, the human rights community should take heart in small victories where they can be found. Advances for civil society do come, albeit typically only in painfully modest increments. As those masters of oration The Rolling Stones so eloquently put it, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

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