12 Rethinking Shrinking Space Must-Reads

27 June 2017

Here are 12 essential reports that shed light on the issue of 'shrinking space' curated by Frank Barat. Sources range from UN rapporteurs and the European Parliament to civil society organisations like the Women Peacemakers Program.

1. European parliament report

The EU has developed an impressive range of policy tools for pushing back against restrictions on civil society across the world. It has gradually improved the way it deploys these instruments and has helped protect many activists at risk. Notwithstanding this, the EU needs to sharpen its ‘shrinking space’ strategy. This study suggests a range of precise policy changes it should contemplate to this end. It advocates a number of strategic guidelines that could help make the EU’s responses more proactive; better able to tackle the broad structural elements of the shrinking space; fully balanced between political and development approaches; and geared towards building more inclusive alliances against new restrictions on civil society.

2. Act Alliance

Governments must stop seeing civil society as a threat and allow it to operate more freely. Currently, the political space of civil society organisations is shrinking in many countries across the world by government policies and actions. Most negative attention is given to organisations or actors who work in justice, human rights or natural resources related areas.

Members of the ACT Alliance have in recent years been reporting increasing problems with the authorities, shrinking the space for their work. In response to these concerns, ACT Alliance has conducted an extensive process to analyse the phenomena in 10 countries as well as in general global terms. This report, that I am proud to present, is an outcome of that process, involving academia, consultants, two global Working Groups of ACT and ACT members and Forums in 10 countries (Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Malawi, Paraguay, Peru and Zimbabwe).

3. European Foundation Centre

First-hand accounts from foundations operating in affected countries provide an understanding of the nature of the shrinking space problem and offer fresh ideas on possible ways out. These clues and forecasting from foundations are particularly valuable as these organisations, due to their funding practice and policy work, are often ahead of the curve in terms of what’s happening on the ground. 

4. Women Peacemakers Program

Tightening the Purse Strings: What Countering Terrorism Financing Costs Gender Equality and Security represents the culmination of research, interviews, surveys, and statistical analysis carried out by the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law and the Women Peacemakers Program, to begin to fill this gap in understanding how responses to terrorism and violent extremism may in practice squeeze women’s rights and their defenders between terror and counter-terror. As a direct and indirect result of these rules, women’s rights organizations have lost critical access to resources, as well as the ability to fully use banking facilities, all of which circumscribe how, where, and in some cases, even if, women’s rights organizations can undertake their core work on mobilizing human rights, gender equality, and advancing the women, peace, and security agenda.

5. UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association

The long-lamented phenomenon of “closing space” for civic engagement is certainly real, and it spread dramatically in 2016. A recent report from CIVICUS found that roughly 85% of the world’s population lives in countries where the rights to expression, assembly or association have faced serious challenges.
And in many of those countries, the challenges are of the highest order. Ask protesters in Ethiopia, where more than 600 people have been killed by security forces since large-scale political demonstrations began in 2015. Ask the family of South Korean Baek Nam-gi, a 69-year-old protester who succumbed to his injuries last September after being knocked down by a police water cannon in late 2015. Or ask the numerous civil society members in Egypt who withstood a wave of arrests, asset freezes, travel bans and other harassment in 2016 in retaliation for their work defending human rights.

6. UN special rapporteur Maina Kiai

With the issue of shrinking civil space an ever lurking menace, the author discusses how new approaches are needed – not only to protect the civil space that still exists but increasingly to regain that which is already lost. Maina Kiai explains how the traditional tools alone – such as reporting - are no longer fit for purpose. Consequently, his mandate has developed a new litigation project which aims to support the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association through litigation in domestic and regional courts. The project actively seeks to support cases related to these rights and focuses on providing technical assistance and advisory services to litigants, attorneys and civil society organisations. Moreover, the author’s office submits amicus curiae briefs in relevant cases to add critical analysis and an international voice. The author presents his experience of lodging one such brief in Bolivia and encourages readers to get involved in the project.

7. Human Rights Watch

In his keynote essay, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth details how fear drove global developments of 2015. Fears of terror attacks and potential impact of refugee influx led to a scaling back of rights in Europe and other regions. In China, Ethiopia, India, and Russia, fears that social media will energize social and political movements helped to drive a disturbing global trend: the adoption of repressive new laws and policies targeting civil society. Roth traces the ways in which human rights law can and should guide responses to these major global developments.


8. Institute for Human Rights and Business

Four essays, one of which details the history of the Ogoni crisis, how it shaped the modern discourse on human rights and business. It also shows the shrinking space for civil society worldwide. The second essay outlines the features of the Declaration for Human Rights Defenders and its implications for the state and business. The third essay shows the growing trend worldwide to crack down on civil society. The fourth essay makes the case for human rights defenders and why business should work with, rather than against, human rights defenders.

The second part has eleven cases drawn from all parts of the world, which show instances where journalists, activists, environmentalists, and trade union leaders have challenged business conduct or government policies that have undermined human rights, and the range of responses that have followed. The conclusion offers recommendations to business on how they can operate in ways that do not undermine the freedoms of human rights defenders.

9. Euromed

This report depicts the obstacles and repression against civil society in the region and showcases first-hand accounts from Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories among others. The report also features recommendations by CSOs for joint action and seeks to influence EU policies to that effect. The report also focuses on the impact of security and anti-terrorist policies and lists the growing arsenal of repressive measures – both in law and practice – that CSOs face on a daily basis: judicial harassment, surveillance, arbitrary arrests, torture and assassination.

10. Heinrich Boell Foundation

The dossier provides analyses and background information about how civil societies' spaces are being restricted and highlights various facettes. Examples from a number of countries provide evidence of how civil society is put under pressure – and what counter-strategies are being developed. Finally the dossier presents initatives, that are actively fighting against shrinking spaces to "Regain civic space!"


Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and communicate without hindrance. In doing so, they are able to claim their rights and influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and opinions. These are the three key rights that civil society depends upon. The CIVICUS Monitor analyses the extent to which the three civil society rights are being respected and upheld, and the degree to which states are protecting civil society.

12. 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.

Re-Asserting Control: Voluntary Return, Restitution and the Right to Land for IDPs and Refugees in Myanmar - cover