Safeguarding our democracy by standing with civil society

Safeguarding our democracy by standing with civil society

When people are free to speak their minds and hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive and more effective…If you want strong, successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies: President Obama, remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative 23 September 2014, New York.

Across the globe, civil society advocacy is increasingly being threatened by laws and practices that criminalise protest, prevent association, threaten funding and curtail independence. While the most extreme conduct is occurring in nations like Russia, China and Egypt, the trend isn’t limited to repressive states or transitioning democracies.

In September, Hungarian authorities raided the offices and staff homes of an NGO that distributes Norwegian aid money against the backdrop of government claims of foreign political interference. In Canada, there are fears of politically motivated audits of environmental NGOs, and late last year, the Spanish Government sought to introduce anti-protest laws creating massive fines for minor offences.

Here in Australia, the past two years have seen a range of federal and state laws, policies and statements that signal a clear undemocratic trend towards stifling criticism and protest and restricting NGO advocacy.

Anti-protest laws have been introduced or passed in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. The NSW and federal Governments cut funding to Environment Defenders Offices after a campaign by the Minerals Council. Other community legal centres and Aboriginal legal services have had funding cut for law reform and policy advocacy. In 2012, the Queensland Government imposed gag clauses on NGOs.

In this environment, many government-funded NGOs are avoiding or watering down criticism of governments for fear of having their funding cut in retribution (highlighting the importance of non-government funding for organisations like ours).

Globally, the fight back is happening. Initiatives like the Community of Democracies, the Open Government Partnership, resolutions from UN Human Rights Council and the establishment and work of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, are all seeking to reverse this trend.

Organisations like the Human Rights Law Centre across the globe are fighting for the core human rights that are vital to enable civil society and democracy to operate; freedom of speech, freedoms of assembly and association and voting rights.

In September, I was invited to join 28 other civil society leaders from around the world in a two week US Government “Standing with civil society” program that explored the importance of civil society freedom and that built the capacity of the participants to advance it. The program culminated in addresses by President Obama at the Clinton Global Initiative and the Open Government Partnership in New York.

President Obama recognised that criticism by NGOs can make governments uncomfortable but noted that “open and honest collaboration with citizens and civil society over the long term – no matter how uncomfortable it is – makes countries stronger and it makes countries more successful, and it creates more prosperous economies, and more just societies, and more opportunity for citizens”.

As I write this, my colleague Anna Brown, along with 16 other human rights advocates, is attending a workshop in Kenya on litigating rights to peaceful assembly and association with Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

This global experience puts Australia’s democratic success in context. Australia has strong and stable democratic institutions and practices and a strong and vibrant civil society. But we can’t take our success for granted. The struggle for basic democratic rights in other nations reinforces not only the importance of what we have and its universality, but also the vital need to resist attempts to wind back what we have achieved over many years.

The HRLC has a long and successful history of impact in this area and will be expanding our work in coming months to defend democracy and civil society independence.

Hugh de Kretser is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre.