New 2022 report: Global civil society amid disruption and conflict

2022 is halfway through. It’s clear this is a year of immense disruption, mayhem and contestation. Horrendous war crimes are taking place in Ukraine. The conflict is spurring soaring living costs, impacting the most vulnerable people, already faced with the adverse impacts of the pandemic and extreme weather caused by climate change.

In this scenario, concerned citizens and civil society organisations are responding by protesting misgovernance, campaigning for justice and helping out those worst affected. CIVICUS’ 2022 State of Civil Society Report analyses global events and outlines the current state of play.

Five findings with implications for the future stand out and are highlighted below.

Rising costs of fuel and food are global protest triggers

Governments around the world are failing to protect people from the impacts of massive price rises worsened by Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Fossil fuel companies are banking record-breaking profits while many people, already strained by the pandemic, are struggling to make ends meet.

Public anger at corruption and dysfunctional markets is rising. In Sri Lanka, mass demonstrations against crony capitalism recently led to resignation of the prime minister. In Indonesia students protested over the rising cost of cooking oil. In Spain, increases in food, energy and fuel prices brought thousands to the streets in early 2022.

In more repressive contexts protests are met with state brutality. In Kazakhstan over 200 civilians were killed with impunity following protests over fuel price increases in January.

Reported lethal violence has also come in response to recent food price protests in Iran. In contested political environments such as the occupied Palestinian territories the potential for renewed cycles of protest and state violence remains high.

These are harrowing times for democracy but there are successes too

Institutions and traditions of democracy are facing increasing attacks from anti-democratic forces. Military coups are making a comeback. In Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Myanmar, Sudan and Thailand armies are running governments.

In Tunisia hard-fought gains are being reversed by a president who dismissed parliament, took control of the judiciary and is rewriting the constitution. India’s constitutional commitment to secularism is being strained by religious intolerance promoted by its ruling party. In El Salvador, a president with a legislative supermajority is removing democratic checks and balances.

In Nicaragua, a sitting president organised a fraudulent election, enabled by mass repression. In Turkmenistan, the outgoing president bestowed the office to his son. The Philippines election saw two authoritarian dynasties enter into an alliance to win the presidency and vice presidency through a campaign of disinformation and falsification of history.

Nonetheless, there have also been bright spots, with successful mobilisations to strengthen democracy. In the Czech Republic and Slovenia political leaders who fostered divisiveness were voted out. In Australia, the incumbent government, with its failure to act on climate change, was defeated after almost a decade in power.

Meanwhile, Chile elected its youngest and most unconventional president ever, and his choice of cabinet reflects the country’s diversity and his commitment to social justice. Honduras elected its first woman president, who ran on a progressive platform to address poverty, expand women’s sexual and reproductive rights and tackle corruption.

Struggles for justice and equality are gaining momentum

Despite severe pushback by anti-rights groups on hard-won gender justice gains in Afghanistan and on women’s sexual and reproductive rights in countries such as Poland and the USA, the overall global trajectory is leaning towards progress.

In several Latin American countries including Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador and Mexico, restrictions on abortion have been eased. While opportunistic politicians in Ghana and Hungary have to sought to gain political advantage from the vilification of LGBTQI + people, globally the normalisation of LGBTQI+ rights is spreading.

Recently, the people of Switzerland voted in favour of an equal marriage law. Even in the challenging context of Jamaica advances have been made by civil society through the regional human rights system.

Steps forward have come after years of campaigning by civil society, which is increasingly modelling and proving the value of diversity. A new, young and diverse generation is forging movements to advance racial justice and demand equity for excluded people. They are embedding demands for rights for everyone with potential impacts for better democracy and inclusive economies.

Action on climate justice has transformative potential

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change through its recent reports has made clear that greenhouse gases must be cut drastically to avoid catastrophe. As the brunt of climate change continues to be disproportionately felt by excluded populations, renewed urgency is being demanded by civil society movements for governments to make ambitious emission cuts.

Activism, including mass marches, climate strikes and non-violent civil disobedience, is likely to intensify as the impacts of destructive storms, heatwaves and floods are being felt by growing swathes of populations.

Vital street action will continue to be supplemented by other tactics. Climate litigation is growing, leading to some significant breakthroughs, such as the court judgment in the Netherlands that forced Shell to commit to emissions cuts.

Shareholder activism towards polluting industries and their funders is intensifying, and pension funds are coming under growing pressure to divest from fossil fuel companies. The intersectionality of the climate movement holds hope for the future.

The UN needs to revitalise itself

A key purpose behind the formation of the UN in 1945 was to ‘save succeeding generations from the scourge of war’. Experience from the past few years, including in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sahel region, Syria, Yemen and many other places shows that the UN’s record in preventing and stopping conflict is patchy at best.

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and brutal attacks on civilian populations have further exposed fundamental weaknesses. The UN Security Council is hamstrung by the veto-wielding role of Russia as one of its five permanent members, although the UN General Assembly voted to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council.

The UN’s top leadership are expected to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights’ and ‘establish conditions for justice under international law’ but have often struggled to find their resolve when powerful states have committed grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A lot of the UN’s energies appear focused on humanitarian response and management of crises over effective preventative diplomacy and justice for victims. Meaningful civil society engagement and access to key arenas can help overcome these bureaucratic shortcomings. Regardless, courage and vision will be needed from within and outside to reinvigorate the UN.

The world as it stands today is characterised by crisis and volatility, where regressive forces are mobilising a fierce backlash against struggles for equality and dignity, but also where determined civil society actions are scoring vital victories for humanity.

Together with Democracy Without Borders and Democracy International, CIVICUS is spearheading a campaign for inclusive global governance called ”We The Peoples” which promotes a cross-UN civil society envoy, a UN world citizens’ initiative and a UN parliamentary assembly. This article was originally published by IPS.

Mandeep Tiwana
Mandeep is Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS