In April 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Kola Ecological Center, a small environmental group in Russia’s Murmansk region, a “foreign agent,” notes Saskia Brechenmacher, an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program:
The organization’s offense? It had advised regional authorities on nuclear waste handling and opposed plans to extend the run time of a local nuclear power plant—and, importantly, it had accepted Norwegian funding in the past. It now joins more than 150 Russian NGOs for whom the foreign agent label has led to crippling fines, onerous lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, liquidation.
Throughout history and across cultures, associational life has enabled people to hold the powerful to account, to advocate for and implement progressive social changes, according to a new report from Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association:
From the anti-slavery and anti-apartheid movements, to transnational advocacy campaigns against poverty and inequality, to women’s suffrage movements across the globe, to the countless thousands of groups seeking to improve livelihoods and hold governments to account – the transformative power of civil society is seemingly self-evident. However, civil society’s role in changing societies for the better is deeply contested, it adds. The space for civil society globally is closing rapidly. In established democracies as well as autocratic regimes and states in transition, laws and practices constraining freedoms of association and of peaceful assembly are flourishing.
This report contributes to the debate by discussing, mapping and quantifying the myriad ways in which civil society has improved societies globally in the past decade: protecting civil and political rights, advancing development objectives, moving societies towards freedom and equality, achieving and upholding peace, regulating corporate behaviour, protecting the environment, delivering essential services, and advocating for economic, social and cultural rights.
“Imagine a world without civil society,” Kiai (right) writes in the report, documenting civil society’s positive contributions across the globe. “That world is bleak.”
An advance unedited version of the report is available in English here.