Setting the scene at the opening of the Donor Workshop on the Disabling Environment for Civil Society, Tom Carothers, coauthor of Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire, described a global contagion of restrictive measures that threatens to paralyse or extinguish the work of CSOs – not least by throttling cross-border funding.
Clear eyed about the scale and potency of the challenge, Tom urged donors to recognise that closing space is a long-term tectonic shift, not a passing phase. Private philanthropy, in developing counter-strategies, should recognise that mitigation efforts, pursued alone, risk being ineffective or overwhelmed. This is even true of funding aimed at helping groups work around restrictions. Given the strength of political will driving civil-space closure, common cause with other actors – governments, business, development, humanitarian and multilateral – is particularly important.
With this in mind, the workshop explored potential areas for responsive engagement, based on analysis of some of the key drivers behind closing space. Foundations can work with other actors on protecting business and human rights; boosting international development; resisting counterterrorism and security agendas; strengthening counter-narratives; building CSO resilience and strengthening diplomatic responses.
I participated in a breakout discussion diving deeper into how to respond to the hijacking of norms, processes and international institutions. Gerald Knaus, of the European Stability Initiative, opened with a vivid account of how one such institution, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe ( PACE) – supposedly one of the region’s premier human rights protection bodies – had been ‘captured,’ or co-opted by Azerbaijan. PACE’s vote in January 2013 against a resolution on Azerbaijan’s political prisoners, lodged by its own special rapporteur, stands out as emblematic of this regressive process, which was unfolding parallel to, and as an adjunct of, a relentless government campaign to imprison human rights defenders and close civic space in Azerbaijan. Noting Baku’s methodological approach to institutional co-option and the supine acquiescence of some Council of Europe representatives, Gerald warned that previously effective ‘strategies of shaming’ now appear outdated as they have failed to lead to action.
Gerald called for stronger resolve to combat the capture of protective institutions and processes, through early-warning monitoring and the robust articulation of red-lines. He also urged the remobilisation of public outrage by bringing the human faces of both the victims and the apologist institutional officials and politicians to public attention.
With attention primarily focused on the restriction of civic space at the national level, the consequences of undermining the global infrastructure for human rights protection tends to attract less attention. In part because of the remote, often byzantine nature of such mechanisms and processes, the will, resources and public activism needed to combat their capture by repressive states can prove challenging to marshal.
There are successful examples of pushback in the Inter-American human-rights system and in defence of key UN Special Rapporteurs’ mandates. These need to be shared and deployed to help energise public diplomacy. Donors seeking to work in diplomacy aim to draw out comparative strategies that may prove replicable in other contexts. Which tactics gained traction and which failed – and why? Who are the best actors for the necessary political engagement among NGOs, academics, think tanks and the institutions themselves? This conversation will continue, driven by the realization that international institutions, often criticised and dismissed, remain a keystone for global rights protection – whose loss would be disastrous.
Tim Parritt is programme officer at the Oak Foundation.