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As a ‘force for good’, what could and should Global Britain do to help defend civic space around the world?

Article by Iva Dobichina, Poonam Joshi, Sarah Green and James Savage

October 19, 2021

As a ‘force for good’, what could and should Global Britain do to help defend civic space around the world?

The UK Government’s stated commitment to open societies is unequivocal. In the wide-ranging Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published in March this year, open societies are lauded as both a moral end in themselves, and the best means to achieve human prosperity and security.[1] Open societies are mentioned repeatedly in the Review and cut across each of the Government’s four high level objectives in this area for the next decade, alongside human rights and an international rules-based system. In the combined Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) the Government has created an Open Societies and Human Rights (OSHR) Directorate that will support civil society, democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law. This is extremely welcome in the context of the well documented increase in authoritarianism and autocratic government around the world (an estimated 68 per cent of the world’s population live in autocracies), and a decrease in the number of democratic states over the past 15 years or so.[2]


Many readers would infer from this a concomitant commitment to defending civic space – the place, physical, virtual, and legal, where people exercise their rights to freedom of association, expression, and peaceful assembly, and the engine room of any free and open society. But a pledge to proactively defend civic space and the people in it is not as forthrightly made in the Integrated Review, which in fact sets out policy which could either promote or further harm civic space around the world. Setting up a ‘Civil Society and Civic Space’ department within the OSHR Directorate is potentially a good start, but can only help deliver the UK Government’s commitments to open societies if it has an ambitious strategy with the necessary resources and political championing from the Foreign Secretary to ensure it reaches beyond its departmental silo to positively influence policy and action across government in the realms of trade, development, security, and defence.


Civic space is under attack on every continent. From the criminalisation of peaceful protest, to measures restricting freedom of expression (censorship, internet shutdowns, surveillance and attacks on journalists and academics), and administrative harassment through restrictive NGO laws (making registration and financing of NGOs difficult), and the smearing and harassment, attacks and killings of activists has become routine.[3] This is stifling individuals, movements, non-profit organisations and donors, and it is hampering the innovation which comes from the civic realm, and which would create the solutions to local and global problems that we all desperately need. It is affecting people working on every critical social issue – from climate change and environmental justice to the rights of racial, ethnic, religious minorities, women’s and LGBTI rights, to economic equality and public health. Counter-terrorism is notably often cited as justification for this repression, but it is clear that governments are exceeding proportionate responses to terrorism risks and curtailing critical freedoms.


Those like the UK who maintain that openness is a strength and a necessary condition for good governance and human prosperity, and an antidote to authoritarianism, must more consistently raise the profile of this problem, and push hard for a reversal of the clampdown.


As the Integrated Review’s new policy direction unfurls, and the UK’s leaders, diplomats, trade negotiators and key representatives set out the UK stall, we recommend an additional headline commitment to defending and expanding civic space, and action to back this up at home and overseas. If it is serious about advancing the cause of openness and democracy over the coming decade, the UK should:

  • In bilateral relations and multilateral fora, press governments to respect the rights and civic freedoms of human rights defenders and other civil society actors, and model this commitment by providing flexible and sustainable funding and emergency protection for those who need it;
  • Establish politically smart, adaptable, longer term programmes to foster more sustainable and resilient civic space environments, with broad levels of support across societies (including the domestic private and philanthropic sectors) and government institutions;
  • Use and expand its new ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions regime to ensure rapid, coordinated and targeted sanctions against high level officials involved in orchestrating gross human rights violations of fundamental civic freedoms;
  • Champion safeguards for civic space in the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and ensure existing and emerging norms on countering terrorist financing, content moderation and travel surveillance are not used to restrict freedoms of association, expression and movement;[4]
  • Use multilateral fora – including the Open Government Partnership Summit and the Summit of Democracies to impose obligations on all states to switch pandemic response away from the use of emergency security powers and reset it squarely around public health;
  • Work multilaterally and in collaboration with civil society to put human rights and civic space considerations at the centre of cybersecurity policy development. The UK should also ensure transparency of such policy development so that it is available for public scrutiny; and
  • Ensure trade and investment in new science and technology adhere to the most stringent of human rights safeguards. When any new technology with offensive, surveillance or mass data capture capability is under consideration, there must be meaningful practice of consultation with human rights experts and assessment of risk of harm.


Why is civic space under siege and what are the long-term implications?

There are attacks on the right to assemble and protest, and on free expression both on and offline, on every continent. In Thailand scores of democracy protestors have been arrested this year after also being attacked with rubber bullets, while in Nigeria #EndSARS activists have been harassed, arrested and put under surveillance. After the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd in the USA last year, around 20 state legislatures responded by considering laws restricting the right to protest. In Hungary and Poland, LGBTQI Pride protestors have been singled out by their governments as a threat to the moral order.


Over the last decade governments in every region have passed new anti-NGO laws, sometimes copied from one another, which impose onerous registration requirements, and give authorities powers to monitor and interfere in the work of human rights defenders and civil society organisations, and restrict access to international funding. Amnesty International found that, between 2016 and 2018 alone, almost 40 such laws were proposed and passed.[5] Over the past year new laws have been passed in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Turkey, and Libya, while existing restrictive NGO laws have been tightened in Russia (including adding journalists to the register of foreign agents) and India (severely limiting the NGOs’ ability to access vital funds from overseas donors).[6]


Over the last 18 months governments have used the COVID pandemic to justify increased repression and bring in new laws and measures affecting freedom of expression, privacy and limiting assembly, such that the UN Secretary General was moved to sound the alarm on countries using COVID emergency laws as a pretext to crush dissent and curb freedoms. He has called for a return to universal human rights as the starting point for the pandemic response.[7]


What is driving this?

Last year the Funders Initiative for Civil Society published an investigation of the trends and drivers of this crackdown on civic space, talking to more than 150 civil society representatives across the world. It found that the constriction has indeed been severe over the last 20 years, and that while its causes are complex, and intertwined with the inequalities and exploitation perpetuated by concentrated economic power and populist movements, it is the abuse of counter-terrorism laws, policies and ‘temporary’ emergency measures that is the dominant driver of closing civic space.[8] Since 9/11 in particular, governments have stepped up the claim that they need to restrict rights to assemble, to organise and to protest in order to keep us safe. UN Security Council resolutions and a now sprawling UN Office for Counter-Terrorism set in motion a template for curbs on protest and free expression, pre-emptive surveillance, travel watchlists, funding controls and a ‘security-justifies-almost-anything’ narrative, which have led some to say counter-terrorism is now effectively the UN’s informal but well-funded fourth pillar, alongside peace and security, human rights and development.[9]


States must act to keep citizens safe, but the creep of using exceptional counter-terrorism measures on a routine basis now sees progressive activists regularly termed ‘extremists’, and essential work on climate, women’s rights, human rights, democracy, racial justice, freedom of religion/belief and migration and land rights made much more difficult. In Hong Kong it is ‘national security’ which is cited when democracy activists are arrested and imprisoned, while in Myanmar counter-terrorism laws have recently been used to prosecute journalists. Egypt has so frequently used anti-terrorism laws to harass and prosecute human rights defenders and journalists that the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders this year singled the country out for clear misuse of anti-terrorism laws to criminalise civil society and appealed for an immediate halt.[10] A high-profile Saudi women’s rights defender was imprisoned when she challenged the country’s strict guardianship laws and the state used anti-terror laws against her, accusing her of ‘pursuing a foreign agenda’.[11] In India, activists fighting the draconian anti-Muslim citizenship laws have been arrested and imprisoned using counter-terror laws.[12] Governments are increasingly citing counter-terrorism as justification for cracking down on civic space and their opponents.


As we mark 20 years since the horrific 9/11 attacks and the loss of thousands of lives which ensued, there is considerable reflection on whether the policies and action pursued since have kept us all safe. The UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism found, in a comprehensive 2019 report, that measures introduced to prevent terrorism and violent extremism (including funding restrictions, travel surveillance, content moderation, protest bans) are in practice primarily being used to criminalise activism and dissent.[13] States that purport to be stalwart guardians of human rights have failed to uphold adequate rights protections in the international counter-terrorism agenda, allowing it instead to be co-opted and funded by authoritarian states, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.[14]


The UK Government’s Integrated Review acknowledges increasing authoritarianism and says political and economic power are set to be more contested this decade, with increasing complexity and a shift to multi-polarity as the world and its stumbling governance gets to grips with the climate crisis, managing pandemics, persistent conflict, humanitarian disasters and poverty. It assesses the UK’s prospects as based on its relatively large economy, its place at key tables including the UN, and being a ‘soft power superpower’. If the UK is to be a ‘force for good’ in the world, it must be prepared to champion civil society and unfettered civic space at these tables and make the case for reversing the measures which have harmed civic space and which threaten openness and shared prosperity for us all.


Where is UK policy in tune with protecting civic space, and where might UK policy lead to harm?

The Integrated Review includes a comprehensive setting out of the geopolitical context in which new UK foreign, defence, security, and development policy will be developed. These include, of course, complex, meta-level challenges that no single state could ever solve alone. This is where the critical bridge to protection of civic space needs to be made. It is the people in open and free civic space that will generate many of the ideas and action we need to tackle these problems, but they cannot do that when they are harassed and under siege.


There is commitment in the Integrated Review to long-term UK work to protect human rights, the rule of law and implicitly civic space. The UK Government’s initiation and high-level championing of the Global Media Defence Fund, recognising the targeting of journalists and offering both individual casework support as well as pushing for better legal protection of journalists in the first place, is very welcome. Civil society cannot thrive while those who would report impartially and hold power to account are threatened for doing so. It is worrying that one of the first tests of this policy however, ensuring Afghan journalists who had worked with UK media outlets were among those prioritised for help to leave when the Taliban took over, saw hesitation and delay.


Equally, the UK’s adoption of its new independent ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions regime for putting travel bans and asset freezes on those who commit human rights violations indicates a willingness to challenge those who do harm, even when there may be diplomatic and other costs for the UK. But it currently stops short of providing protection to those targeted for exercising their civic freedoms. People standing up for democracy and basic rule of law are routinely attacked by several of the UK’s strategic security and trade partners including India, Kenya, Uganda and Saudi Arabia to name only a few. In line with developments in some G7 countries, the UK could use and expand its regime to ensure rapid, coordinated and targeted sanctions against high level officials involved in orchestrating gross human rights violations of fundamental freedoms of association and assembly, expression and information, and participation.


Similarly, in order to succeed when promoting openness internationally, the UK needs to have its own house in order. Laws and policies that undermine civic space, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which threatens to not only restrict but criminalise the right to protest, can easily be cited by governments overseas telling the UK not to interfere in their activities. The current proposals to weaken judicial review, not to mention the terrible accompanying political rhetoric demonising human rights lawyers, need urgent reconsideration. And, as forces across the UK pilot facial recognition technologies, and transport hubs and shopping centres are scanning millions of people’s faces without consent, the UK could demonstrate its leadership on privacy by introducing an immediate ban on police and private company use of facial recognition in areas open to the public. For the same reasons, the proposals to limit the reach and authority of the Information Commissioner precisely at the moment the UK moves away from the gold standard European data protection regulations should also be re-examined. As a first step the UK could demonstrate its commitment to civic space at home by requesting the OECD’s Observatory of Civic Space to conduct a Civic Space Scan of the UK (as Finland has recently done) that will benchmark the status of domestic civic space and offer expert guidance on ways to strengthen existing frameworks and practices.[15]


The Integrated Review sets out the UK’s welcome commitment to ‘active diplomacy’, ‘maximising the UK’s convening power’ and its intent to seek election to new multilateral fora that will ‘shape the international order.’ There is huge potential to be a ‘force for good’ here. As a Security Council member, the UK is very well positioned to substantially influence the UN’s counter-terrorism agenda, and should seize the opportunity to ensure public security frameworks have proper clarity of scope (including through clear and narrow definitions of terrorism and extremism), and that civil society groups are included in counter-terrorism policy development. Concrete action might also include pushing for stronger safeguards for civic space and civil society in the UN Global Counter Terrorism Strategy and future UN resolutions regarding civic space; support for a clear compendium of all COVID-related emergency measures, with a scheme to review these and set dates for their repeal; pushing for the creation of an independent human rights impacts monitoring mechanism and indicating that further funding to the UN Office of Counter Terrorism conditional on this; and action to reset the international ‘countering-terrorism financing’ controls which have had the unintended consequence of removing civil society’s access to critical funds.[16]


The Integrated Review underscores the UK’s commitment to leadership in development of international cybersecurity and internet governance frameworks, aligned with freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, access to information and privacy. Such a commitment is welcome as it is critical to safeguarding meaningful civic space around the world. The tremendous power of new and emerging information technologies means that as well as promising huge social and economic benefits, they are also very attractive to those who would use them to monitor and restrict democratic activities. As part of its commitment to openness the UK should advocate for rights respecting policy and governance in this area, and the deterrence of trade in ‘dual use’ technologies that may do harm – perhaps even joining the call for a moratorium on the export of surveillance technologies that can be used against human rights defenders and other members of civil society.[17] Similarly the UK’s policy on and conduct of trade negotiations needs to be coherent with the commitment to open societies and protecting civic space, meaning privacy standards and data protection must not be on the bargaining table.


How might the UK use its resources to meet its commitments to supporting open societies?

To make scarce resources work harder, the UK could combine innovation and collaboration with like-minded donors from public and private funding communities through strengthening existing and forming new pooled funds that support networks and coalitions addressing three essential pillars of an enabling environment for civil society. Firstly, with continuous waves of peaceful demonstrations occurring worldwide, existing legal defence and protection groups and mechanisms are overwhelmed, struggling to mobilise sufficient resources to provide quality assistance to detained activists. There is a specific opportunity for the UK to pool donor funds to resource a new global network of national, regional, and international organisations, coordinated by CIVICUS, to defend the right to protest and dissent on and offline. Secondly, with the increase of large-scale crises such as the ones in Belarus, Myanmar and increasing risks in Afghanistan, the existing international human rights defenders’ protection mechanisms supported by bilateral and multilateral agencies (such as Lifeline: Embattled CSO Fund and, and several excellent regional funds (including in the UK’s priority geographies of the Indo-Pacific and Sub-Saharan Africa) are struggling with capacity and resourcing. The UK should increase its contributions to those mechanisms and design a common strategy to increase the efficiency in delivering assistance to activists at risk. Thirdly, if the UK wants to effectively tackle the drivers and enablers of authoritarianism and closing civic space, especially with regard to the rights implications of emerging counter-terrorism and cybersecurity frameworks, it could consider contributing to a new, ground-breaking Global Initiative on Civic Space and Security supported by our organisations that will facilitate flexible and aligned collaboration among donors, civil society and other partners (such as from the tech and creative arts sectors).


How the UK funds this work is also important, especially given the signal in the Integrated Review to evolve the UK’s offer ‘using a variety of funding models’ and considering the reckoning the FCDO has to make with decolonising aid, increasing diversity and inclusivity, and shifting power toward a more ‘locally-led’ approach to rights-based development. The FCDO could model how to fund civil society advancing open societies and civic space in two ways: (1) by ensuring it funds in line with the G7 Open Societies statement and the newly agreed OECD DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance, which prioritises in Pillar One ‘Respecting, Protecting And Promoting Civic Space’;[18] and (2) by modelling with other bilateral agencies, such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), and building on their ‘Guiding Principles for Engagement With and Support to Civil Society’, an approach rooted in trust-based financial support and grant making that follows locally led decisions about priorities, in line with what civil society groups say they need to successfully defend and expand civic space and open societies.[19]


A real ‘force for good’

The UK is not the only liberal democracy at a critical juncture in its domestic and diplomatic relationship with countering terrorism and promoting open societies and human rights. The last 20 years have seen enormous costs to human rights and security, and not least in handing authoritarian governments an extended licence to justify any new measure as ‘counter-terrorism’ and restrict civic space. As we look ahead to a decade of enormous challenges, we desperately need multilateral solutions forged with as much good faith as can be built. Active diplomacy, convening new accountable fora and using elected positions wisely, and with integrity, could make all the difference. There is a Summit for Democracy on the horizon, where profiling civic space and commitments to its protection and expansion can be made on the world stage. The work to ensure civil society thrives in free and open civic spaces needs doing both quietly and on platforms, bilaterally and multilaterally, and needs resource as well as good intentions.


And it is not only the UK Government who needs to step up; civil society should stand up for its own. A wide range of UK actors should be prominent and active in naming the attacks on civic space and helping to demolish the impunity it currently has. MPs across all parties partake in many inter-parliamentary fora, where there are opportunities to raise the profile of these issues, and the Speaker and his office, should be on hand to support and promote such efforts. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy should build on its existing research and utilise its networks and close relationship with parliaments, parties, and civil society to push for the expansion of civic space through its country offices.[20]


The philanthropy community, including our organisations, are ready to support this work in tandem with the UK Government and multilateral bodies. We have an analysis, networks, strategies and resources ready to power up and challenge the crackdown on civic space.


Iva Dobichina is Division Director with the Open Society Human Rights Initiative. Previously she worked for Freedom House, an independent, US-based watchdog organization, where she served as director of programs for Central Asia. 


Poonam Joshi is Director of The Funders Initiative for Civil Society. She is a lawyer and was previously at the Sigrid Rausing Trust and Amnesty International UK.


Sarah Green is a consultant for The Funders Initiative for Civil Society, and works in human rights and gender-based violence advocacy and campaigns


James Savage is the Program Director of the Enabling Environment for Human Rights Defenders at The Fund for Global Human Rights, and previously worked at Amnesty International UK and for Peace Brigades International.


[1] HM Government, Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021,

[2] V-Dem Institute Democracy Report, March 2021,; Economist Intelligence Unit, Democracy Index, 2020,; Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipwitz, Democracy Under Siege, Freedom House, 2021,

[3] Frontline Defenders Global Analysis 2020,; and Last line of Defence, Global Witness, September 2021,

[4] United Nations: Office of Counter-Terrorism, UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,

[5] Amnesty International, Laws designed to silence: The global crackdown on civil society organizations, February 2019,

[6] International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) Civic Freedom Monitor,

[7] International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) COVID Tracker; and Antonio Guterres, The world faces a pandemic of human right abuses in the wake of COVID-19, The Guardian, February 2021,

[8] Ben Hayes and Poonam Joshi, Rethinking civic space in an age of intersectional crises: a briefing for funders, The Funders Initiative for Civil Society, May 2020,

[9] Ali Altiok and Jordan Street, A fourth pillar for the United Nations? The rise of counter-terrorism, Saferworld, June 2020,

[10] OHCHR, Egypt’s targeting of human rights defenders must stop, says UN expert, January 2021,

[11] Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia: Verdict upheld against Loujain al-Hathloul, March 2021,

[12] Human Rights Watch, India: Activists Detained for Peaceful Dissent, April 2020,

[13] UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, Annual Report 2019, see:

[14] UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, Funding and donors,

[15] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Observatory of Civic Space:

[16] ECNL submission to the UN Human Rights Council’s on the impact of counter-terrorism financing measures on human rights , see:

[17] OHCHR, Spyware scandal: UN experts call for moratorium on sale of ‘life threatening’ surveillance tech, August 2021,

[18] OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC) Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance, July 2021,

[19] Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Guiding Principles for Sida’s Engagement with and Support to Civil Society, 2019,

[20] WFD, Time to stop talking about ‘closing space’ for civil society?, October 2017,; Julia Keutgen, 4 things parliaments can do to protect citizens’ democratic freedoms, WFD, March 2021,; Julia Keutgen and Susan Dodsworth, Addressing the global emergency of shrinking civic space and how to reclaim it: A programming guide, WFD, March 2021,

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