Guest post from Niranjan J. Nampoothiri, who has just started as the Research Assistant on the Emergent Agency in a time of Covid project. Delighted to be working with you, Niranjan!
I have been following the literature on Covid-19 and civic space for several months now. One report that I was excited about, the annual People Power under Attack report by the civil society network CIVICUS, was released earlier this month. It is perhaps the only report dedicated to analysing civic space around the world and rating countries’ performance. The report details how civic space has changed in 196 countries in 2020. And the report, which has grown in size year on year (while civic space has shrunk), was an excellent read.
People Power under Attack records some very curious developments in the last year. While the report is fairly simple to understand given the usual accompaniment of easily consumable infographics, the overall picture it presents is complex. The report substantiated what has been observed by scholars- the pandemic was bad news for civic space. More people now live in ‘repressed’, ‘obstructed’, and ‘closed’ countries than before. On the other hand, the report also surprisingly revealed that two countries with ‘closed’ civic space (DRC and Sudan) upgraded, the first time that has happened since the launch of the report in 2016.
It might be worthwhile to speak a bit about the methodology adopted by CIVICUS. CIVICUS defines civic space as ‘the respect in policy and practice for the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression’. It also believes that the state has a fundamental duty to protect these rights. Therefore in its analysis of civic space in these 196 countries, it looks at these four indicators using data between November 2019 and October 2020. The report rates countries’ civic space as ‘open’, ‘narrowed’, ‘obstructed’, ‘repressed’, and ‘closed’.
The condition of civic space deteriorated in 2020 with 87% of the world’s population living in countries which have been rated ‘repressed’, ‘obstructed’ or ‘closed’ in 2020. Only 12.7% of the people living in ‘open’ or ‘narrowed’ spaces compared to 17.6% in 2019.
13 countries observed a change in their status, out of which only 2 countries upgraded their status, the rest 11 countries downgraded. In the Americas 4 countries downgraded – Costa Rica, U.S.A, Chile, Ecuador. In Africa as well 4 countries downgraded- Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Niger and Togo, highlighting that West Africa is particularly witnessing regression in civic space. Africa also witnessed the upgrade of 2 countries, Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C) and Sudan. D.R.C witnessed improvements after President Félix Tshisekedi came to power in 2019. Sudan observed improvements due to the formation of the transitional government in 2019. In Asia, Philippines and Iraq downgraded, while in Europe Slovenia downgraded and Austria upgraded from ‘narrowed’ to ‘open’. While Europe has the most ‘open’ countries, MENA region has the most ‘closed’ countries.
The Pandemic and Civic Freedoms
The report notes that while the trends in restrictions on right to peaceful assembly are not new, it is new to see governments use the pandemic as an excuse to limit civic freedoms. Detention of protesters and excessive use of force against them are the most common tactics. Regardless of the civic space rating, countries repressed protests, but in different ways. In ‘open’ countries, detention of protesters was the main tactic, whereas ‘closed’ or ‘repressed’ countries were more likely to use excessive force. Restrictions on civic freedoms affected some groups more than others, particularly women, those engaging in labour rights, youth, LGBTQIA+, and those working on environmental rights.
CIVICUS found that massive protests brought about positive changes, as in Chile, where protests led to a referendum to change the constitution; the U.S.A, where protests led to structural changes in the police, or Malawi, where presidential elections were rerun and there was a transition of power due to protests. Additionally, the report noted court rulings in Malawi that led to opening of civic space and the release of activists. The report ends with recommendations for States, international bodies and donors.
This report is highly recommended for those who are interested in understanding how the pandemic has affected civic space in different regions. This report can be complemented by other CIVICUS reports such as the two briefs by CIVICUS Monitor and the ‘Solidarity in the Time of Covid-19’, which has been featured as a blog on FP2P. This report will enter our database at the Emergent Agency in a Time of Covid project, through which we will try to understand how individuals, communities and grassroots organizations respond to these challenges and how agency is emerging/ changing during the pandemic.