Repression of Civil Society Poses an Obstacle to Achieving the SDGs

Repression of Civil Society Poses an Obstacle to Achieving the SDGs

By Shabnam Moallem, Research and Advocacy Intern, Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.

As part of the 60th UN Commission on the Status of Women, GNWP in partnership with Cordaid organized a panel titled “Repression Against Civil Society: An Obstacle to the Achievement of the SDGS?” The event took place on Tuesday March 15th, 2016 at the Salvation Army in New York City with 25 plus people in attendance. Following an introduction by Ms. Mavic Cabrera-Balleza, International Coordinator of GNWP, and Ms. Hetty Burgman, Director of Security and Justice at Cordaid, the panel members dove into a deep discussion on the current status of civil society while sharing their experiences working with civil society in Burundi, Kenya, and Afghanistan. The attendees to the event then participated in a dialogue with the panelists on potential avenues for action in each country as well as globally.

The introduction highlighted the increasing repression of civil society at a time when their role is becoming increasingly important. Ms. Cabrera-Balleza highlighted the need for the involvement of civil society in the implementation of the SDGs if they are to be effective despite the existing gaps in some of their targets. Furthermore, she pointed out the panel’s own experiences in their respective countries as examples of the existing and future obstacles civil society faces in their work. Ms. Burgman further described the context of increased repression towards civil society that is now often justified by regimes claiming it in the name of countering violent extremism. By labeling civil society activism as terrorism, regimes have discredited and isolated organizations and limited their access to resources.

The panelist each spoke about their experiences working in their respective countries to illustrate this repression towards civil society and its effects. Mr. Christian Ngendahimana from Burundi was the first to speak. He is the co-founder and director of Fountain-ISOKO for Good Governance and Integrated Development where he works on community recovery and gender equality. Mr. Ngendahimana shared the stories of human rights advocates and NGOs in Burundi that have faced an increase in violent repression and efforts to silence them in the past year. Human rights defenders and civil society activists have been killed, assaulted, threatened, or forced to flee the country. A still fragile country, Mr. Ngendahimana highlighted the need for international support to push Burundi towards implementing peaceful principles and the importance of choosing dialogue over violence.

Ms. Joy Mbaabu, a Kenyan lawyer and founding director of Amani Communities Africa, spoke to the ways in which the vibrant and active civil society in Kenya has been restricted. With over 8,000 nonprofits in Kenya, NGOs employ over half a million people in the country. However, increasing repression has meant the closing down of many organizations. In particular this has occurred in the coastal region of the country where a majority of the population is Muslim and therefore the government associates the NGOs in the region with terrorism and youth militarization. Despite the fears of the Kenyan government, faced with the growth of violent extremism and terrorism, Ms. Mbaabu asserted that they should not be violating the freedom of expression and assembly of the people. A balance between these two objectives is possible.

Sharing the dynamic context in Afghanistan was Ms. Samira Hamidi from the Afghan Women’s Network. The new government elected in 2014 has been more open to the role of civil society and has recognized the importance of their work in development. However, access to funding and resources for NGOs has been a persistent obstacle, and the increasing lack of funding has caused many smaller organizations to close down. The government has also made efforts to pass restrictive legislation on protesting which has threatened the ability of many organizations to assert their rights. The lack of resources available to organizations in Afghanistan is perhaps a less violent means of repression, but if it limits the ability of civil society to participate in the public sphere and bring the people’s voice to the state then it is still an important obstacle to tackle.

The panelists all identified important recommendations moving forward, both for the governments in their countries as well as the international community and civil society globally. For governments and national stakeholders the recommendations generally called for the end of repression against civil society and the lifting of suspensions on NGO activities. Furthermore, the lack of accountability for acts of repression and violence should be fought with investigations into these ongoing crimes against human rights defenders and civil society advocates. They also called for the international community to support civil society organizations in these countries and pressure governments to engage with civil society and lift repressive mechanisms. International NGOs should also partake in the effort to support local organizations on their work to implement the SDGs, including by channeling funding through local NGOs.

Although the experiences of Mr. Ngendahimana, Ms. Mbaabu, and Ms. Hamidi vary according to the specific political and social contexts of their countries, these different forms and avenues for repression of civil society are all growing trends and important threats to their work that must be addressed. If the SDGs are going to become a reality, civil society is going to be the key implementer and must be supported and strengthened by their governments as well as the international community to do so.

This blog does not necessarily represent the views of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders.

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