Space for Civil Society | I.A. Rehman

“IF leaders do not listen to their people, they will hear from them — in the streets, the squares, or, as we see far too often, on the battlefield. There is a better way. More participation. More democracy. More engagement and openness. That means maximum space for civil society.” — Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General

WHILE Pakistan and quite a few other developing countries are trying to reduce the space for civil society in the management of public affairs, international human rights organisations are pleading for better respect for its rights.

The theme for this year’s International Democracy Day, that was observed on Sept 15, 2015, was ‘space for civil society’ and the subject figured extensively in the statement of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at the opening of the Human Rights Council session last month.

In a recently re-issued booklet on Civil Society Space and the UN Human Rights System, the office of the Human Rights Commissioner has again highlighted the role of civil society on the basis of Article 1 of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders: “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.”

The civil society actors recognised by the United Nations include human rights groups (non-governmental organisations, associations), coalitions for the rights of women and children, and social movements (for peace, students’ rights, pro-democracy movements), trade unions, associations of professionals, and public institutions (schools, universities, research bodies).

The activities of civil society actors encompass a wide field — from provision of social services, empowering youth, women and minorities to combating hate speech, promoting the rule of law, and fighting poverty, corruption, economic inequality and any form of discrimination.

It is necessary to bear these categorisations of civil society actors and their fields of activity in order to avoid limiting the definition of human rights defenders to disbursers of charity.

The high commissioner for human rights began his address by recalling the death of three-year-old Aylan al-Kurdi at sea and asked as to what good sessions of the Human Rights Council were when such incidents could happen. He then moved on to the question of space for civil society in humankind’s striving for a better, happier future. This is what he said:

“Instability is expensive. Conflict is expensive. Offering a space for the voices of civil society to air grievances, and work towards solution is free….

“When ordinary people can share ideas to overcome common problems, the result is better, more healthy, more secure and more sustainable states. It is not treachery to identify gaps, and spotlight ugly truths that hold a country back from being more just and more inclusive. When states limit public freedoms and the independent voices of civic activity, they deny themselves the benefits of public engagement, and undermine national security, national prosperity and our collective progress. Civil society — enabled by the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly — is a valuable partner, not a threat.”

The high commissioner regretted that the number of states “that have taken extremely serious steps to restrict or persecute the voices of civil society” was growing. He took note of overly restrictive legislation enacted to limit the work of civil society organisations, suppression of the voices of minorities’ activists, targeting of women human rights defenders, measures taken to sharply limit the democratic space online, and attacks on journalists, particularly those who investigate human rights violations and corruption.

The many countries named by the high commissioner for denying civil society its due did not include Pakistan but the country would be a strong candidate for joining the list if the current campaign against civil society organisations continues.

The attacks on civil society in several countries should be seen in the context of deviations from the democratic norms of governance and decline in the rule of law, particularly through the enactment of laws that curtail due process and allow interference with the fundamental freedoms of people ostensibly to fight terrorism or other threats to state security. It can, therefore, be argued that any curtailment of space for civil society will lead to a shift away from democracy and the rule of law.

Space restrictions do not permit a detailed statement on the scale of the campaign against civil society going on in Pakistan at present but the resoluteness the government is showing in pushing forward legislation such as the NGO bill and the cybercrime bill and the new restrictions on freedom of expression and association portend an ominous future.

It is surprising that little thought is being given to the fact that by reducing the space for civil society the government is breaking from the tradition of promoting people’s participation in government that was founded long ago in the colonial period. For instance, large public organisations, such as the railways, had advisory boards comprising non-official experts, citizens and consumers to ensure that the views of the people were duly taken into consideration. This system did not work because of the widespread acceptance of use of official connection for personal gain.

The next stage in the scheme of engaging civil society in the area of governance was the creation of associations to manage professional groups (lawyers, medical and dental practitioners, engineers, teachers, et al). These institutions have succeeded, by and large, in dealing with organisational matters of professional groups except for setbacks caused by the interference of political authorities.

Thus, the emergence of civil society organisations that seek to protect people’s interest against state interference is the result of an evolutionary process aimed at achieving the ideals of civilised governance and any state resisting it would be imperilling its own future.

Published in Dawn, October 8th , 2015

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