The Civic Charter: Another Passing Fad or the Missing Link?

Arthur Larok on the Global Perspectives Conference
Teaser Image Caption
Arthur Larok at the Global Perspectives Conference at Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin

A Keynote on the Civic Charter at its Launch at the Global Perspectives Conference on 26th October 2016 in Berlin.

Opening Note

It gives me great honor to make this keynote address on behalf of a Global Steering Group that the International Civil Society Centre here in Berlin put together earlier this year to develop the Civic Charter that we launch this evening. This event and in deed the whole Global Perspectives Conference this year has been dedicated to reflect on the advent of Shrinking Political Space the world over. Of course the renewed focus on this topic doesn’t mean it is new but that perhaps the advent has in the last few years touched on what a Ugandan colleague told me are ‘high voltage’ campaigners in the sector. It is thus an opportunity to connect the struggles with ‘low voltage’ activists who have been on the frontline of shrinking space for ages.

Shrinking civic and political space is an historical reality. It is an intentional process whose effects are about curtailing citizen capacity to defend and shape their societies. It is caused by systematic actions aimed at limiting individual and collective rights and reducing people’s capacity to engage politically, have choices, and organize to demand accountability from government, corporates [and other powerful players], and to play a substantial role in shaping development and political outcomes. This historical contestation has in large part been and will likely remain between the power in people and people in power. Therefore, harnessing people’s imagination and resolve to resist and challenge injustice caused or aided by people in power is what this struggle to expand civic space is about.

We know that in an apparent attempt to suppress the influence and impact of independent civil society groups, governments, often at the instigation of the hidden power of private corporations and other interests use the visible power of the state to impose unwarranted legal restrictions on civil society, including laws criminalising access to foreign funding and unduly limiting the scope of permissible activities, among many tactics that we all have heard about. Civil society activists, journalists and human rights defenders are facing escalating intimidation, harassment and reprisals, including imprisonment, for undertaking their legitimate activities.

While activists and CSOs already fight for their space every day in respective countries and communities, the cause will be strengthened when they stand together nationally and internationally. It is precisely for this reason that we believe the Civic Charter that we launch today is timely, believing in the adage that reminds us that, ‘… alone, you can run fast but with others you go far…’ Our push back on shrinking political space, a historical struggle will not be about who can run fast on their own but how much further we can go together.

A Global Problem needs a Collective and Global Response

Shrinking political and civic space is a global phenomenon. The space for meaningful participation all over the world: from repressive authoritarian or hybrid regimes to the ‘traditional’ democracies has been hijacked by interest groups whose agenda is often at variance with the common good. From Ethiopia and The Gambia to Russia and Turkey, Hungary and the UK, to Guatemala and Brazil, Vietnam and Cambodia, to the US and Canada, the problem is engulfing us all.

According to CIVICUS, in 2015 alone, at least 156 human rights activists were killed and Global Witness estimates that every week, at least two people are murdered for taking a stand against land grabbing and environmental destruction. Most crucially however, beyond these conservative figures is the more tragic reality about why citizens and peoples of the world are detained, disappear or are killed, not as criminals but for standing for what they believe in and expressing it peacefully.

So this being a global problem, we need a global response and civil society organisations, in their diversity, can be a good anchor for such as a struggle. While we find ourselves in different and often disconnected struggles for public, civil society, political and media space, the reality is that we are all in a hole, regardless of which space we operate from. And as we say in Africa, ‘when you are in a hole, you stop digging…’ and instead focus your energy on how to get out. Connecting our individual efforts, we stand a better chance of, not just getting out of the hole but covering it thereafter so that no one falls in it again.

Our collective action at the end of the day is not just about saving ourselves or our organisations, rather saving our planet and our common humanity, for as we all know, when civic space is closed, it is the cause for which we stand that is halted. Like Maina Kiai, UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association, writes in the foreword to the Civic Charter, unless people genuinely participate, the world will be unable to overcome its most threatening challenges, including persistent poverty, growing inequality, violent extremism and climate change’. We need a plurality of voice and solutions through open spaces for expression, association and action to achieve global peace shared prosperity.

The Essence of the Civic Charter

The preamble to the Civic Charter underlines the centrality of people’s participation as necessary to bring life, and give meaning to democracy. And that it is vital in protecting human rights, achieving development and building just, tolerant and peaceful societies. History has taught us that most social, environmental and political progress in the past came from people’s actions challenging status quo, be it: abolition of slavery, right to vote for women, organisation for labor rights, establishing environmental standards or the determined struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. In all these examples, the benefactors were a minority holding power. However, the majority’s resolve to resist and build a stake in their societies is the reason the world made progress. The essence of civic charter is therefore a commitment to harness the Power in People to engage People in Power and deliver justice for humanity and the planet.

Further, as Anabel Cruz from Rendir Cuentas and member of the Steering Group observed, the Civic Charter is not another whining request for people’s rights to participate, but more; it brings forth the synergy between rights, guarantees and principles. It demands of us, in Principle 10 to take greater responsibility and also be publically accountable as government, business and civil society. As civil society leaders promoting this charter, we open ourselves up for more intense scrutiny, including from the public and so as we claim greater freedoms and space, we should also remember the responsibility this comes with. As another African proverb reminds us, ‘the higher the monkey climbs a tree the more it exposes its bottom’. We can no longer downplay questions about civil society itself are only an excuse to legitimize attacks on us. There are real challenges we face within and the Civic Charter can also help us deal with some of them in a conscious manner.

The Empowering Journey of the Civic Charter

Before I conclude, let me share the journey of the Civic Charter. From Bangkok in November 2015 to Berlin in October 2016, the journey of developing the Civic Charter has been a challenging and empowering one - involving conceptualization (how to frame the charter given the so many international instruments already in place), articulation (what we meant by every single word in the Charter), testing (asking who the primary target was and whether it made sense for them) and finally delivery.

First, after taking up the challenge of providing leadership in developing the Charter in response to a discussion about it in Bangkok at the end of the Global Perspectives Conference in 2015, the International Civil Society Centre convened a group of fourteen representatives from diverse agencies[1] to discuss the outcomes of a survey commissioned on civic space and provide thought and write-leadership for the Civic Charter. Phase I came to an end when the Civic Charter Steering Group that first met in March 2016 produced a first draft. This was followed by consultation phase between April and June 2016 where the public had the option of providing feedback through several mediums: an online survey, an open-comments option on the text, direct contact with the project team at the Centre, and through three face-to-face consultation sessions.

In addition to this consultation process, the Centre convened a diverse Stakeholder Workshop, 29-30 June in Arusha, Tanzania, bringing together members of the Steering Group as well as civil society activists and professionals. At the end of this stakeholder workshop, the second Steering Group Meeting took place and a 2nd draft was produced that went through a third round of consultations, including an online targeted reach-out to activists and contacts in the middle east. In August, the Steering Group finalized the text of the Civic Charter. The Steering Group also reached out to key stakeholders to secure their support for the Civic Charter, which was also discussed at various fora, including the World Social Forum in Montreal.

With its launch today, we believe another phase of the struggle for civic space will begin, one that places, at its centre people, locally rooted in their countries and communities but globally connected. From air-conditioned conference halls and away from fancy and well-written international instruments or progressive constitutions that provide a basis for the Civic Charter, it is its brevity and simplicity that could rally the world community to push back the resurgent advent of shrinking political, civic and public space. In short, it is people all over the world, it their diverse capabilities that offer us the best chance to resist, push back, expand and create new civic spaces for public engagement. This means as civil society, we must align more with and support people’s movements and struggles for social justice, an act we have often shied away from but which is inevitable if we are to remain relevant.

Concluding Note - Making that Right Choice

We believe, as the Civic Charter Steering Group that, this simple and concise document can be used to underline the universality of people’s demands and aspirations. The Civic Charter can be used as tool for awareness raising and for education on people’s rights to participate. It can also be used for advocacy and campaigns especially where we desire to link people’s struggles from local to global levels. We can use it to build people power by expanding outreach beyond civil society organisations by mobilizing a real world movement of connected struggles for our space as peoples of the world.

At the end of the day, whether the Civic Charter is judged as another fad or the crucial missing link is all dependant on what you and I choose to do with it. I am clear about the incredible opportunities this Civic Charter offers because of its simplicity and rootedness in human rights and entitlements and acknowledged in many progressive national constitutions and international commitments to people’s participation. I am thus on the side that believes that it has been the missing link! What about you? At least you have a choice to make and I trust it will be the right choice.

I thank you!


Video: Global Perspectives 2016 - The Future of Civic Space: What are the Realities of “Shrinking Space”?

The SDGs provide a historic opportunity to drive transformational change. Successfully implementing these global goals requires comprehensive contributions from all sectors alike; governments, business, academia and civil society. This, however, is significantly challenged by the worrying global trend of shrinking civic space. Global Perspectives aims to address this challenge by focussing the conference on the question: How can civil society actors worldwide protect and expand civic space, in order to make meaningful contributions to the implementation of the SDGs and climate goals?

Welcome Address - The Future of Civic Space
- Burkhard Gnärig, International Civil Society Centre
- Barbara Unmüßig, Heinrich Böll Foundation

Keynote Address - The State of Space: Civic Participation Worldwide
- Thomas Carothers, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

​Coffee Table Discussion - Global Challenges, Local Struggles: What are the Realities of “Shrinking Space”?
- Henri Tiphagne, People’s Watch
- Dhyta Caturani, PurpleCode Collective
- Bahey Eldin Hassan, CIHRS


Video: Global Perspectives 2016 - The Future of Civic Space: United in the Struggle for Civic Space

Keynote Address - Our Space, Our rights: Launching the Civic Charter
- Arthur Larok, ActionAid Uganda

Panel Discussion - United in the Struggle for Civic Space
- Burkhard Gnärig, International Civil Society Centre
- Arthur Larok, ActionAid Uganda
- Anabel Cruz, Instituto Comunicación y Desarollo,
- Harshvrat Jaitli, VANI


[1] The Steering Group had representatives from Amnesty International, Oxfam International, CIVICUS, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Heinrich Böll Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Rendir Cuentas, The Africa Platform, Volunteer Action Network India (VANI), Wallace Global Fund, The Oak Foundation and ActionAid Uganda, facilitated by the International Civil Society Centre.