“Reconceptualising solidarity with civil society”

Street Art

State repression against non-governmental organizations is increasing globally. In this interview, Barbara Unmüßig calls for a reconceptualisation of solidarity with civil society and puts the issue of shrinking and closing spaces at the very top of the political agenda.

Question: In many countries the space for non-governmental organizations has become increasingly restricted. In some countries lives are even on the line. Only a few weeks ago well-known human rights activist and environmentalist Berta Cáceres was murdered in Honduras. Why has pressure on civil society increased so massively?

Barbara Unmüßig: The repression and suppression of a vibrant and emancipatory civil society are nothing new. They have always existed. But what we have been experiencing now for several years is qualitatively different. A multitude of governments - whether authoritarian, hybrid, or democratic - regard an independent and critical civil society not only as a thorn in their side; they are currently combating it on a scale that is unprecedented in the past twenty-five years. Governments have engaged in massive reprisals against civil-society activists. The measures involved have ranged from restrictive legislation (laws on NGOs, the media, and terrorism) and bureaucratic constraints, over smear campaigns in the media and censorship, all the way up to open repression by police and intelligence agencies. In each case the goal is the same: Governments seek to delegitimize and, above all, to massively restrict the work of political, social, and ecological activists, from feminists to human rights advocates.

People who observe this trend assume that it is not a temporary phenomenon, but rather tied to fundamental changes in international politics. The emerging economies of the Global South emphasize their sovereignty more than ever and see the cooperation and international networking of civil-society actors as an improper intervention into domestic affairs. Fewer and fewer governments in the North, the South, and the East feel bound by established international law that guarantees and protects freedom of opinion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of organization. We have to remind them of this, constantly and vehemently.

Motives and reasons vary or are emphasized according to interests. Concerns about domestic security and the war on terror are used more than ever as justifications, but they are pretexts to silence or prohibit democratic organizations, critical voices, and independent media. The general suspicion that a person or an organization has threatened domestic security is supposed to legitimate any and all repressive measures. In autocratic countries additionally the goal is to nip in the bud any form of organizing or public protest.

Protests against corruption and arbitrariness, against miserable working conditions, against major dams, against illegal logging and land theft, against mining and other major infrastructure projects have increased globally. In addition, digital technology has made possible a rapid networking far beyond the local level, allowing protest and resistance to become more visible internationally and create solidarity. This is precisely what political and economic elites in many countries clearly want to prevent. The many media laws have thus led to even more massive state control of the internet. Political and economic elites fear for their power and for their “business model.” The common denominator is retaining political power and securing the economic interest of the majority of elites. Protest, especially organized protest, is to be thwarted.

Does the German government do enough, in your opinion, to oppose this development?

Especially the Federal Ministry for Economic Collaboration and Development, the Foreign Office, and the Environmental Ministry are quite aware of the issue of shrinking and closing spaces. I cannot, however, recognize any political concepts that offer a response to the new qualitative dimension of the restrictions. Individual cases stand more in the foreground here. In the Bundestag the Green Party has introduced a parliamentary proposal on the issue that is currently being discussed. Perhaps this will stimulate more serious political debate on the issue, at least in parliament and in government circles.

German embassies have intervened locally with critical commentaries in individual cases and also in response to the new NGO laws. There were also concerted and critical reactions to the recently passed Chinese NGO law by several European embassies and the United States embassy. These are important and positive signals. Nevertheless, I have no illusion about the fact that foreign policy and foreign economic interest determine the agenda of governments, including the German government. The interest of critical civil society and of human rights activists quickly fall under the radar. Turkey and Egypt are only the most prominent current examples. Foreign policy is more complex than ever and there are many actors with differing interests who have to be taken into account. As diplomats themselves say, we are often left with a choice between two evils.

Furthermore, the time has passed when conditional aid, for example, in development (however critically this should always be seen, especially in economic terms) could be used to make governments comply with human rights and constitutional law. This is related to shifts in global power and new actors in development cooperation. In my opinion, however, social and political participatory rights, such as the social and ecological standards for World Bank projects that civil societies fought for in the 1980s and 90s, have also been diluted or dismantled without any greater “necessity.” More than ever we need steadfastness and less lip service from those governments that continually assert the importance of human rights and constitutional principles.

NGOs and civil society have generally been assigned important responsibilities in terms of implementation and monitoring, for example when the United Nations recently adopted its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). The Paris Climate Agreement also assigned an important role to NGOs in making possible climate protection and in critically monitoring the agreement. At the same time, however, especially critical actors are being persecuted. For this reason the issue of shrinking and closing spaces should be right at the top of the political agenda in implementing Paris and the SDG, as well as in multilateral negotiations in general. As the host of the G20 summit in the coming year, Germany can address this issue and can also set an example by ensuring broad participation from civil society in the North, the South, and the East.

What challenges do German NGOs and their partner organizations face as a result of these increasingly difficult parameters abroad?

Freedom of opinion, freedom of organization, and freedom of assembly are the essence of participation and democracy. They are basic rights established by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; they are binding international law. All of us together have to demand repeatedly that they are enforced. One effect of all the laws, intimidation, and repression is that governments seek to divide civil society into “good” and “bad.” Not infrequently they have even established their own NGOs and have used new social media in various ways for government campaigns and instruments of soft power, such as cultural institutes and radio stations abroad in order to demonstrate that they are not opposed to civil society. We have to be more conscious than ever about these attempts to divide us and we have to defend ourselves when “our” own governments participate in this game. Those people who want to continue fighting in their societies for more justice, for social and ecological participation, and for women’s rights need our protection and our support. What this looks like concretely is very specific to each location and to each country.

Thus every organization that works with critical partners from the Global South has to determine in close consultation with those partners how far they can go locally with critical, social, and political agendas. I think what applies to all of us is that our local partners have to determine the issues, the mode of operation, and how “loudly or quietly” they want to engage. Their safety has to be a priority. This does not make our work easier internationally or at home in Germany. We need to have an even greater sensitivity and more coordination about whom or what we discuss in our work at home. This is a balancing act, because the objective of governments is to ensure that we are quiet, that self-censorship functions, and that we defer to apolitical issues.

Given these more repressive parameters, solidarity has to be re-conceptualized. How can we provide concrete support for partners in acute and threatening situations? Can we at least help on the road to exile? How can we offer concrete support through legal assistance funds? These are all questions that we here in Germany should address together rather than separately, even if each organization has to decide for itself how it wants to work in a particular country.

Transparency is a very important issue in Germany and many NGOs are at pains to present their activities as transparently as possible. In Russia, Ethiopia, and Egypt, in contrast, many organizations have almost been forced into silence, simply to be able to work. Do you see any possibility of distinguishing legitimate transparency standards from harassment and state control?

That is another balancing act. For good reason transparency and accountability are high standards and we demand them not only from governments, institutions, and the economy, but also practice them ourselves. Under repressive conditions, however, we must in fact rethink this. If, as said above, we regard the support and protection of endangered citizens and partners as an important responsibility, then we have to define rules - precisely about transparency - in such a way that this concern is taken into account. Hopefully we will come to an understanding together about what this would look like and, if necessary, be able to convince the funding ministries and other important sponsors and donors of this as well.

The interview was first published in German on Venro.org.