Defending the Space for People’s Participation
- About the Civic Charter – The Global Framework for People’s Participation
- What is the Civic Charter?
The Civic Charter provides a global framework for people’s participation in shaping their societies. The two-page document, which people and organisations can sign on to and use as a basis for joint action, articulates a common set of civic and political rights. Based on universally accepted human rights, freedoms and principles, the Civic Charter serves as a reference point for people claiming their rights. It can be used as a tool for awareness-raising, advocacy and campaigning. The Civic Charter promotes solidarity among local, national, regional and global struggles to defend the space for civic participation.
- Which problem does the Civic Charter address?
The space for civic participation is under threat
Around the world, citizens are experiencing a major backlash from their governments, and are facing government-condoned threats from non-state actors, business, private security operators and others. According to the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2016 there are “serious threats to one or more civic freedoms in over 100 countries.” Civil society activists have to fear for their lives, with many falling victim to disappearances and murder. Civil society organisations (CSOs) and their staff face threats, arrests, frozen bank accounts, revoked licenses, blocked websites, coerced registrations and closure of their offices.
Governments from across the globe are borrowing various strategies from each other to restrict civil society actors within their own borders. In the last three years alone, over sixty countries have introduced restrictive provisions to laws regulating CSOs, and in laws on anti-terrorism, the media, cybercrime and more. To justify these laws and restrictive actions, states are driving a narrative that vilifies autonomous CSOs, thus weakening organisations which are powered by the people’s will to advance their societies.
One popular strategy at the moment is to defame legitimate CSOs and prominent activists as “foreign agents”. With nationalism and xenophobia on the rise in many countries around the world, many governments are denouncing civic movements and organisations by claiming that their work undermines national sovereignty. These accusations are backed up by “proof” such as connections to organisations abroad, especially funding from foreign sources. One example is a Russian law labelling CSOs that receive funds from abroad as “foreign agents”, thereby institutionalising the vilification and criminalisation of civil society actors. Since the establishment of this law many governments around the world have copied this approach.
Another strategy employed to restrict civil society actors is to link their activities to national security, particularly the threats of violent extremism and terrorism. In the name of national security, people are frequently denied their right to peaceful assembly. Often states may restrict organisations that are critical of the government by categorising them as extremist. Human Rights Watch cites an extremely grim example from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where activists speaking out against President Kabila were “jailed, beaten, and threatened after organizing peaceful protests” on the basis of “plotting ‘terrorist activities’ or ‘violent insurrection’”. Several countries – such as Cambodia, Egypt, Tajikistan, India, China, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – restrict foreign contributions to CSOs arguing that this is necessary to fight terrorism.
CSOs and activists that work to counter the negative environmental or societal impact of activities by large corporations are also facing government-condoned crackdowns. When civil society speaks out against environmentally-damaging practices or land grabbing by the extractive sector and other industries, activists often have to fear for their lives. The most prominent recent example is Berta Cáceres, the environmental activist murdered in Honduras in March 2016. Research undertaken by Global Witness shows that every week at least two people are murdered for taking a stand against land grabbing and environmental destruction.
The situation in which civil society is forced to operate around the world is deteriorating. Through negative campaigning, violent measures and restrictive laws, governments are denying people their inherent right to participate in shaping their societies.
This all comes at a time when the global community is confronted with persistent poverty, growing inequality, violent extremism, climate change, and other planetary boundaries. History shows that most of the social, environmental, and political progress made in the past came from people’s actions challenging the status quo: abolishing slavery, granting women the right to vote, establishing environmental standards, and bringing down the iron curtain. And every day an active citizenry can help shape political processes, organise political participation. Civil society plays an important role in communicating the needs of the people to the government and – through their continued engagement – ensuring the usefulness and sustainability of political measures. Civil Society actors expose corruption and human rights violations, and hold the state accountable – all of which are prerequisites for a just society. Moreover, the active engagement of people in their societies contributes to alleviating poverty, countering the dangers of radicalisation and violence by working with the marginalised and disenfranchised, and protecting the environment. Without the active and unrestrained engagement of people around the globe, the transition towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world as laid down in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be possible.
- Why was the Civic Charter developed?
The Civic Charter frames people’s rights to participate
In order to secure the space for civic participation, all those who value civil rights need to join forces to defend civic space. While activists and CSOs already fight for their space every day within their respective countries and communities, the cause is strengthened when they stand together internationally. As a starting point, while there have been a number of international initiatives launched over recent years to defend civic space, civil society actors were lacking a strong common definition of the terms and shape of the civic space to be defended. To fill this gap, an informal meeting of CSOs, which took place in Bangkok in November 2015, asked the International Civil Society Centre to facilitate the development of a Civic Charter.
Aimed at civil society activists and their organisations, the Civic Charter connects those engaged in the everyday struggle for civic space – on a local, national, regional or international level. Firstly, it draws together the most crucial terms for civic participation in an easily understandable way. Secondly, it serves as a global reference framework to civil society actors for their rights enshrined in international law. Thirdly, it reaffirms people’s rights to participate in shaping their societies. The Civic Charter will provide a more effective basis for campaigning and advocacy for civic participation, as well as for promoting international solidarity with CSOs and activists in a specific country or region.
- How was the Civic Charter developed?
Process and stakeholders
The Civic Charter is a global document developed by civil society for civil society. The Steering Group, which led the development, had representatives from CIVICUS, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), ActionAid, Amnesty International, Oxfam, Rendir Cuentas, Voluntary Action Network India (VANI), Africa Platform, the Oak Foundation, the Wallace Global Fund, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. Throughout 2016, hundreds of civil society stakeholders provided input to enhance the Civic Charter through three rounds of open consultations (online and face-to-face). In the first round stakeholders were asked what the value of civic participation is, as well as the conditions needed for people’s participation in shaping their societies. The survey results, in connection with a desk study on the most important international rights and agreements on people’s participation, informed the first draft of the Civic Charter. From April to June 2016 the first draft was then shared online for feedback. A number of face-to-face consultations were conducted and stakeholders were encouraged to provide feedback through a survey and open comments. The results of this consultation round informed the second draft of the Civic Charter and at the end of June 2016 a group of civil society professionals and grassroots activists from 13 countries came together in Tanzania to work in-depth on how to take the Civic Charter forward. Input from the Tanzania workshop contributed to the third draft, which was once again shared publicly for feedback in July, ensuring that the experience and insights from stakeholders worldwide were mirrored in the final version.
- Can I use the Civic Charter? How?
Everyone is free to use the Civic Charter in a manner that honours its intentions. At the regional and national level, the Civic Charter can be used to underline the universality of people’s demands. It can be used as a tool for awareness-raising, and to educate on people’s rights to participate. Advocacy and campaigning initiatives can be strengthened by employing the Civic Charter, linking the local struggles to the global ones, and utilising the weight of the signatories.
This document provides an overview of a few initiatives Civic Charter community members have used the Charter for. If you would like to learn more about a single initiative please don’t hesitate to get in touch and we will connect you.
- Who is a Civic Charter community member?
Everyone who signed the Charter is a Civic Charter community member. You can be as active as you choose to be.
- Who owns the Civic Charter
You do! Everyone is free to use the Civic Charter in a manner that honours its intentions. ActionAid supports this community in its engagement with each other, and growth into a stronger movement for people’s participation. The Civic Charter will remain true to its identity and purpose, and ActionAid, as its facilitator, will ensure that the community grows in achieving the Charter’s intentions.
- What is the community for?
In short, for solidarity and learning.
Solidarity: The Civic Charter ties us all together. We believe in the Civic Charter. This means we believe in solidarity. When one of us comes under undue pressure or attack, community members are encouraged to stand in solidarity. This can be in form of personal messages, signing a petition or offering each other support. If you are the party under pressure, you can call on the community for support.
Shared Learning: We share similar challenges in our diverse struggles for people’s participation. If we want to be a powerful movement, we need to learn from each other on how to best advance our struggles. Through webinars, blogs, videos, Facebook posts, informal online messaging groups and offline meetings, Civic Charter community members share their experiences so that others can engage with them. We encourage everyone to use the Facebook group, but also to approach the Civic Charter team directly if you have something to share. We also encourage you to raise challenges for advice.
- How do I engage with the Community?
If you signed and want to engage more, please join the Civic Charter Campaigners closed Facebook group. Also, make sure to sign up to the newsletter in order to keep up to date with community events, learning opportunities, and solidarity alerts.
If you would like to receive more information or be more closely engaged with the Civic Charter Community, please email Civic.Charter@actionaid.org
- I don't speak much English; how can I use the Civic Charter?
We appreciate that language can be a big obstacle in working together and we will continue working towards making the Civic Charter more accessible. The Civic Charter has been translated into 16 languages. Check here, to see if yours already available.
 CIVICUS: http://civicus.org/images/documents/SOCS2016/summaries/SoCS-full-review.pdf [accessed: 09.09.2016]
 ICNL: http://www.icnl.org/research/journal/vol17ss1/Rutzen.pdf (see p.8-9) [accessed 21.09.2016]
 Human Rights Watch: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/wr2016_web.pdf [accessed: 09.09.2016]; United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=17229&LangID=E [accessed: 09.09.2016]
 https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/world_report_download/wr2016_web.pdf;, page 10 [accessed: 09.09.2016]