By Gavin Charles
This week Ottawa is hosting the Global Summit of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), an international alliance of countries committed to increasing the transparency, accountability, and accessibility of government processes. The work of the OGP is a fundamentally democratic one, based on the premise that citizens deserve to know what their government is doing, when and how.
Shared data can give citizens and the civil society groups that represent them enhanced opportunities to engage, advocate, and influence. Yet as too many authoritarian regimes have demonstrated, the same tools – particularly in relatively unrestricted digital contexts – can be used to oppress civic activists and repress human rights. Intensified surveillance and limited expression are just as potential consequences of openness as democratic empowerment and participatory governance. To address these risks, as governments work to open their processes, they should also work to open and protect civic space.
In April in Belgrade, Serbia, civil society representatives from around the world united in a Call to Action urging governments of all countries to reverse a disturbing global trend – shrinking and closing space for civil society. In the 20 years since United Nations members states endorsed a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, recommitting to the fundamental civic freedoms of expression, association and assembly, more than 3500 human rights defenders have been killed globally. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, the leading tracker of civic space, more than 60% of the world’s population – some 4.5 billion individual human beings – live in countries where civic space is closed, repressed, or blocked.
Just as an empowered civil society is key to the fulfilment of human rights and human freedom, it is essential to the achievement of sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lays out, in 17 intersecting and integrated Sustainable Development Goals, a clear framework for attaining economic, environmental, and social sustainability by 2030. This agenda, adopted by all 193 UN member states in 2015, is both highly challenging and absolutely necessary. But while governments have the primary accountability to these commitments, governments cannot achieve them alone. Civil society, the private sector, and individual citizens must all join in their pursuit.
As the Belgrade Call to Action states, “strengths of civil society are its diversity, its rootedness in communities and territories, its direct development experience, and its capacities for public engagement.” These are the benefits that civil society offers governments in support of their obligations to their people and to the planet, and these are what is lost when civil society is suppressed and civic space is diminished.
This critical role of civil society is receiving increasing recognition. A recent statement by the Community of Democracies (CoD) – a rare example of an intergovernmental organization in which civil society has a seat and voice at the table – drew the link between media freedom, a key component and indicator of civic space, and sustainable development. The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC), a platform co-led by the UN and OECD, is an increasingly multi-stakeholder body where a civil society representative now serves as co-chair alongside governments.
Canada is currently the chair of the CoD’s Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society and a member of the Steering Committee of the GPEDC, making it exceptionally well-placed to be a leading advocate for civil society as a core partner for sustainable development. At home, this engagement will be complemented and guided by a set of policy action plans on partnership with civil society for international assistance. These action plans are set to be launched later this year, following an impressive process of co-development by Global Affairs Canada and a civil society advisory group.
Canada has another opportunity to make a mark and take a stand this week, right in the nation’s capital. As Canada hosts the Open Government Partnership, it should reaffirm that open civic space goes hand in hand with accountability and sustainable development – for governments, civil society and all of us.
Gavin Charles is the Policy Team Lead at the Canadian Council for International Co-operation, Canada’s national coalition of civil society groups working for sustainable development and humanitarian action.