As COVID-19 swept the globe, deepening existing fault-lines in societies and generating fear and uncertainty, many governments used the pandemic as a pretext to clamp down on civic freedoms, sparking protests in many countries. The 10th annual edition of the State of Civil Society Report by global civil society alliance CIVICUS shows that despite the odds, millions of people around the world mobilised to demand more just, equal and sustainable societies during the pandemic.
Overall, the comprehensive 328-pages report includes five chapters covering the global struggle for racial justice, challenging exclusion and claiming rights, demands for economic and evironmental justice, democracy under the pandemic and civil society in the international arena.
Mobilising against the odds
Globally, the mass mobilisation that made headlines and changed the conversation was the resurgence of demands for racial justice under the Black Lives Matter banner in the USA and beyond following the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020. People from all walks of life came to the streets to demand an end to systemic racism and police brutality.
The scourge of racism was highlighted in places as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands and South Africa. The determination to end police brutality resonated widely, encouraging uprisings against police violence, notably in Nigeria.
Even in highly repressive countries, people bravely put their bodies on the line to oppose abusive power and demand democratic freedoms.
India witnessed the largest coordinated strike in world history as farmers defied brutal tactics to protest against corporate capture and elite collusion. Exposure of grand corruption in authoritarian Russia brought people to the streets, where they were met with more repression.
Bold civil disobedience against military might was offered in Myanmar. Dreams of democracy were deferred in Algeria, Belarus and Hong Kong, among others, but people showed extraordinary courage, taking to the streets in the face of great odds, keeping alive hopes for change.
Proving the power of collective action
The success of collective action led to breakthroughs in democracy and human rights across the globe.
In Chile, concerted street protests led to a commitment to develop a new constitution through democratic processes, with gender parity and Indigenous representation guaranteed. Sustained mobilisations in Argentina resulted in abortion being legalised, while in several countries young environmental activists took action to keep climate change in the spotlight.
Civil society’s collective action forced an election re-run in Malawi, and overcame systematic voter suppression in the USA. In Thailand, tens of thousands of protesters called for democratic reforms, including, for the first time, demanding a curb on the powers of the monarchy; activists used many creative forms of protest, including using giant inflatable ducks during mobilisations and holding ‘Runs Against Dictatorship’.
Following civic actions, same-sex relations were decriminalised in Bhutan and Gabon and same-sex marriage legalised in Costa Rica.
Many states failed the pandemic test
The pandemic offered a stress test for political institutions, and most were found wanting. The inadequacy of healthcare and social support systems was revealed. International cooperation was lacking as governments asserted narrow self-interest, birthing the dismal practice of vaccine nationalism by wealthy industrialised countries.
Many governments poured out official propaganda and sought to control the flow of information, ramping up censorship and criminalising legitimate inquiry and commentary. China was in the front rank of states that expanded surveillance practices and trampled on the right to privacy.
During the pandemic, several states increased their coercive power. In the Philippines, people were put in dog cages for breaking pandemic regulations, while in several Middle Eastern and North African states, including Bahrain, Egypt and Iran, human rights defenders remained in crowded jails, at risk of contracting COVID-19.
Some countries – notably New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan – got the virus under control, won public trust and communicated pandemic response measures clearly, while largely respecting rights and democratic freedoms. This shows that the path of repression taken by many was not a necessity but a choice.
When states failed to respond effectively to the pandemic, civil society stepped up, providing help to people most in need and defending rights. Civil society organisations responded swiftly with vital support, distributing cash, food, medicines and sanitary supplies, sharing accurate information on the virus and providing healthcare and psychological services.
The UN’s 75th anniversary
In the fifth chapter, the report points out, among other things, that in the pandemic year, and with most debate about the international system focusing on the role of the WHO, it was a difficult time to try to use the UN’s 75th anniversary as an opportunity to talk about reform and renewal, as many among the civil society that engages with the UN had hoped. Nevertheless, work to do so continued, even if it attracted relatively little attention in the global arena.
According to the report, civil society’s efforts have crystallised around three clear and practical proposals for enhancing democracy and civil society participation at the international level: a UN World Citizens’ Initiative, a UN Parliamentary Assembly and a high-level UN Civil Society envoy or focal point.
CIVICUS’s report calls on states to reverse rights restrictions imposed under the pandemic at the earliest opportunity. It urges them to respect human rights and democratic freedoms, and listen to the voices of protesters. It asks the international community to do more to uphold norms on civic freedoms and support peaceful assembly. The great current wave of protests is sure to continue.