Civil society under pressure around the world


In May, activists, feminists, researchers, and human rights defenders from some 35 countries from all continents will gather at the Global Assembly in Frankfurt am Main to discuss their ideas and strategies for a world with more justice and human dignity.

Frankfurter Paulskirche
Teaser Image Caption
Frankfurt Paulskirche. Venue of the Global Assembly.

In May, activists, feminists, researchers, and human rights defenders from some 35 countries from all continents will gather at the Global Assembly in Frankfurt am Main to discuss their ideas and strategies for a world with more justice and human dignity.

Many come from countries in which freedom of expression or assembly are far from guaranteed. They have experienced repression and intimidation campaigns and have to live daily with the threat of jail or even death, simply for standing up for social redistribution, free and fair elections or access to land. Some of them come from countries whose rulers do not govern for the population but against it, from countries at war or under arbitrary rule. Their rights, their desire for democratic participation, freedom, justice and integrity are trampled on. Their courage to fight and stand up for these rights demands our solidarity.

Fundamental rights deteriorating globally

Critical, emancipatory actors from civil society being intimidated, locked behind bars, driven into exile or killed is not a new phenomenon. Many people around the world are prevented from exercising the most elementary rights of the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights, such as the right to assemble, to associate or to speak freely. But these fundamental rights are a prerequisite for political participation. And while the trend is not new, the space accorded to emancipatory civil society actors is more restricted today than it was twenty years ago. We can observe some of the progress that was achieved in terms of democratisation after the end of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in South America (Third Wave of Democratisation) being undone. Rights to participation are being rolled up. 

The CIVICUS network, which for years has been measuring the freedom of action of civil society in 197 countries through its Civil Society Monitor, states that only 3.1 per cent of the world’s population live in countries with unrestricted access for civil society action (”open civic space”). The organisation Reporters Without Borders measures the degree of freedom of the press and compares the situation faced by journalists and media in 180 states and regions. There has been a continuous global deterioration. In Russia, freedom of the press has de facto been suspended since the war of aggression against Ukraine. Journalists around the world must live with the fear of being murdered for their work. Mexico is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalists.

Dismantling democracy

Increasingly we also see democratically elected politicians and parties consciously driving the dismantling of democracy, human rights and the rule of law by undermining democratic institutions, attacking independent media and the judiciary and inciting hatred against minorities, LGBTIQ+ or migrants. Orban in Hungary, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Trump in the USA and the current government in Israel are examples of this worrying trend.

Despite all the attempts at intimidation and all the dangers, around the world protests against arbitrariness, inequality, the climate catastrophe and environmental destruction, corruption, and oppression have increased rather than decreased.  There are more and more local protests against dams, illegal logging and land grabbing, as well as against the social and environmental effects of mining and other large infrastructure projects. In the digital age, these local protests can link up even more quickly with international public opinion and political networks and so become more visible. Clearly this is something that the political and economic elites in many countries want to put an end to. They are worried about the threat to their development models and profits. The argument – no interference in internal affairs – is used by governments and frequently by aligned media when external actors link up politically and financially with local social and environmental activists and organisations. Democratically elected governments also evoke this rationale to discredit protests against land grabbing, oil pipelines or coal mines, painting them as externally directed.

Repression has many faces

All around the world, governments and economic actors are worried about their privileges and their political and economic power. Dozens of governments in Africa, Western Asia and North Africa, South America and Eastern Europe manifest their power through brutality: spying and intimidation, draconian prison sentences, torture, and open police or military violence. Security services or militias frequently also target the families of critics and opponents to force them into silence.

Right-wing groups, private and sub-state actors participate massively in online hate, targeted disinformation campaigns, retaliation and even murder – including security services, drug cartels, militias and mafia-like organisations.

The ways in which governments around the world are attempting to restrict and control the freedom of action of civil society actors are similar. They learn from one another, copy repressive measures from each other and so all follow the same “playbook”.  In this context, digitalisation and social media are a double-edged sword. While they open up new possibilities for progressive actors to network and mobilise, they also offer authoritarian systems unexpected opportunities for surveillance and control. Manipulating public opinion, influencing elections, triggering online firestorms – a proper disinformation industry using these tools has developed in recent years to target persons or democratic institutions. 

Laws and bureaucracy as a weapon

Not all resistance is suppressed with bloodshed. While a number of states continue to show their iron fist, repression is increasingly hidden behind a democratic facade. Instead of weapons, governments use a panoply of legal and administrative measures. The so-called NGO laws are the most obvious instruments to control organised civil society. Regulating the relation between state and civil society and between national and foreign non-governmental organisations (association law, charitable nature, reporting obligations, transparency on finances etc.) is a legitimate endeavour. The question, however, is whether these regulations guarantee or rather restrict fundamental rights and independence. A large number of countries – both autocratic and democratic – have modified or introduced NGO laws in recent years that violate precisely these principles and are primarily intended to cut off national organisations from international financing and to control them. Most of them ban acting “against public order and safety” or against “national interests” or violating “social mores”. This is mainly directed at women’s and LGBTIQ rights.  The language of the laws is purposely vague and open, leaving the door open to interpretation and thus to political arbitrariness.

One has to examine the entire set of legislation to see the full breadth of dimensions that restrict the action and effectiveness of civil society. More than 150 so-called anti-terrorism laws are directed not just against terrorists but in many cases also against the critical and democratic opposition and civil society, which becomes labelled as terrorism. Media and anti-defamation laws or registration and licensing regulations are meant to make critical civil society action impossible. According to the most recent figures of the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, in the past five years 82 countries have proposed or passed over 237 laws affecting civil society activities. The large majority, 84%, of these bills are restrictive in nature.

When laws and legal systems no longer work towards the rule of law and transparency but are used as weapons to remove critics and prevent them from exercising their legal rights, activists speak of “lawfare” – a portmanteau of “law” and “warfare”.

Depoliticised participation

Repression and new laws aim to silence any critical voice that rises up against government behaviour. Civil society activism remains permitted – provided that it is unpolitical and that it continues to assume state tasks, for instance in the social or environmental field, without laying claim to democratic participation or addressing structural causes of poverty and inequality. Depoliticised NGOs are so desirable that some governments establish them. They are even allowed to accept foreign money, albeit under strict state control. The practice of governments and the media separating NGOs and social movements into good and bad or subversive has a long history.

Towards a new solidarity

Despite the massive deteriorations and repressive restrictions on emancipatory political action described above, an encouraging signal comes from the diverse local, national and international struggles and protests for social and environmental rights, for gender self-determination, for freedom and for resistance to arbitrariness and corruption and the continued exploitation of the planet. Freedom of opinion, of association and of assembly are prerequisites and the essence of any democracy. The increasing restrictions placed upon them should push all democratic governments to cooperate more closely on a global scale. It requires our action at all levels. In all multilateral fora, participation should be guaranteed and exclusion and repression be placed on the agenda. The Global Assembly that we have organised in Frankfurt is such a place to further develop counter-strategies from below, to encourage and to further solidarity.


Barbara Unmüßig was a board member of the Heinrich Böll Foundation until March 2022 and co-organises the Global Assembly.

Layla Al-Zubaidi is Deputy Head of International Cooperation at the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


Download: Der Freitag Spezial Global Assembly (PDF)


Note: A shorter version of the article first appeared on the website der Freitag.