Working closely with brave civil society activists in Burma/Myanmar during the darkest years of military rule was a profoundly life-changing experience for me. Seeing their perseverance in finding ways to organise and advocate for better lives of their people – with no less than their own lives at stake – showed me who are the true change-makers of this world.
It also made me reflect on what solidarity and support from the outside can mean to those who struggle for basic rights in repressive environments – and what they could get from the international community. Among those at the forefront of the democracy movement, there was generally a sense of disappointment in the UN system after decades of failures in dealing with the military regime. Nevertheless, they rarely seemed to doubt the relevance of the UN’s normative frameworks.
On the contrary, the UN declarations, convention and resolutions – with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the very centre – were useful to civil society actors in Burma in many ways. They provided globally agreed language to use when revealing injustices and wrongdoings of the regime, thereby de-politicising and legitimising the criticism. By the same token, they provided common frameworks for connecting with civil society in other countries and building global solidarity campaigns to generate international pressure.
Domestically, the international frameworks were also used for mobilising and empowering people, by raising awareness of the rights they were entitled to according to international agreements. Lastly, processes such as the Universal Periodic Review and CEDAW provided a space to indirectly interact with the regime. With minimal possibilities for direct interaction with the government at home, the international arena was the only place to publicly hold the regime accountable.
Since 2016 civil society in Burma and worldwide has a new global normative framework to utilise – one that specifically emphasises inclusion and multi-stakeholder partnerships. The normative underpinning of Agenda 2030 presents an opportunity to strengthen civic engagement and the role of civil society. Paradoxically, however, the adoption of the Agenda comes at a time when space for civil society is shrinking globally. The very year the Agenda was agreed, civil society in more than half of the signatory countries faced violations of civic rights.
Threats to civic space
Repression of civic freedoms is clearly not new, with Burma being a good case in point. However, violations of rights that are fundamental to civil society action – freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression – have followed a negative trend since the turn of the millennium. The term “shrinking space” captures an increase in both geographical spread and types of repressive measures against civil society.
Restrictions on civic action range from direct violence, criminalisation and defamation of human rights defenders and activists, to legislation that banns organisations from receiving international funding or places heavy administrative burdens or taxes on their operations. While the violations of civic freedoms vary in strength and nature in different countries, there are stark similarities in methods being used across countries and regions, indicating a global phenomenon.
In early April, the international civil society alliance CIVICUS released the first-ever global dataset from its civic space monitor. It concludes that only 3 % of the world’s population live in the 20 countries with “open civic space”, meaning that access to civic rights are safeguarded by the state. The remaining 169 countries rated have some level of restriction to these freedoms, with serious violations taking place in 106 countries, populated by almost six billion people. CIVICUS Secretary-General, Danny Sriskandarajah, points out that the restrictions “cut across established democracies and repressive states, undermining participatory democracy, sustainable development and efforts to reduce inequality.”
Why is civil society needed in SDG implementation?
Why is civic space important to the implementation of Agenda 2030? Most evidently, civil society engagement is necessary to realise the key concept of inclusion, mainstreamed throughout the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). To achieve inclusive societies that “leave no one behind”, civil society is needed for its expertise, implementation capacity and ability to reach and mobilise marginalised groups. This is also recognised in the Agenda itself, through SDG 17 that emphasises multi-stakeholder partnerships in the implementation.
While partnerships with civil society may be instrumental in implementing the SDGs – a means that will help governments to fulfil their commitments – the role of CSOs must not be reduced to that of a helping hand. The non-binding nature of the Agenda and the lack of strong international accountability mechanisms connected to it, call for a vibrant civil society that can exercise its democratic functions as monitor and watchdog. Through independent data collection and reporting, CSOs can both help governments monitor progress and shed light on shortcomings of the official picture.
Holding governments accountable also includes safeguarding goals and targets that risks being neglected. Although the Agenda was adopted in its entirety and the goals are intended to be dealt with in an integrated manner, the domestication of the agenda will mean prioritisation. Realistically, with 169 targets and 232 indicators, few governments will manage to stay focused on all of them. While this is understandable, it means the goals that are harder to reach might conveniently be de-prioritised.
An example of a goal at risk would be SDG 10 on inequalities. The Center for Economic and Social Rights has analysed the prospects of achieving goal 10 and finds it “uniquely vulnerable to strategic neglect and political backlash or inertia”. With no outspoken champion among member states and no body or institution within the UN system specifically mandated to deal with economic inequality, civil society attention and action will be necessary. Adding to this picture, the CIVICUS dataset mentioned above shows a correlation between the rating on civic space and the level of income inequality – where open countries were clearly more equal. Thus, goal 10 seems to be the most needed and most challenging to achieve in environments where civil society has difficulties pushing for it due to threats to civic freedoms.
Using the Agenda to create space
No doubt civic engagement is essential to successful implementation of the SDGs, and with limits to civic space in most of the countries in the world, the prospects look bleak. On the other hand, the rationale of the Agenda makes a strong case for advancing civic freedoms.
International actors, and civil society organisations themselves, must figure out how to actively use the Agenda to promote an enabling environment for civil society. After all, it was universally adopted, less than two years ago, through a uniquely consultative process. This positive starting point should be used as an entry point to promote and highlight the constructive and meaningful role civil society plays in peace and development processes.
While doing so, there is a need to be mindful of the pitfalls. While inclusion is key to success, token inclusion is not. Even the most repressive authoritarian regimes know how to consult and include on paper. In repressive environments, there is an evident risk that “uncritical” civil society actors, or government controlled ones, will be utilised as implementers of SDG efforts, while the more daring watchdogs who speaks truth to power are excluded or demonised. Worst case scenario, the Agenda framework could be used by governments as a whitewashing tool – with the support of the international community.
As a close Burmese friend used to say about the military in Burma “they are so smart – they know exactly how to play the international community”. (Well, she still says it, their smartness has guaranteed them a place in national politics even in the new political landscape). It’s necessary that international actors with good intentions are not naïve and careless with their context analysis. Inclusion must be meaningful. Inclusion must get the issue of representation right. Inclusion must mean influence.
Ultimately the implementation of Agenda 2030 and its impact on civil society space will be a test to the power of international normative agreements and who stands to benefit from them – we the peoples or we the states.
Some of the questions raised above were discussed at a recent seminar by representatives of Swedish civil society, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sida and UNDP’s OSLO Governance Center. Watch the seminar here.