Civil Society & Democracy

The erosion of traditional democratic institutions have posed significant challenges both for human rights organizations, and for democracy more broadly. While nationalism and polarization have driven many of these trends, historically marginalized or excluded groups are also demanding a more expansive understanding of democracy and rights. What can human rights offer our societies as they struggle with these tensions? How can human rights movements and organizations transform themselves, their tactics, and their vision to respond to and grow from these challenges?

 

Cosmopolitan cities in an illiberal world

By: Nelson Camilo Sanchez
Español

The economic crisis from the pandemic could bring solutions from the global South into global North cities that are less accustomed to confronting such issues.

From Toyi-toyi to “I Can’t Breathe”: African lessons in protest and liberation

By: Emerson Sykes
Español

Americans seeking racial justice can learn a lot about protest and liberation from Africans.

Pandemic denial: an imperfect storm for autocratization in Brazil

By: Conrado Hübner
Español | Português

Rather than using the pandemic to consolidate power, Bolsonaro has denied the problem and clashed with his own government—could this mistake end his autocracy?

Normalizing the state of exception: Japan’s response to COVID-19

By: Saul Takahashi 
Español

COVID-19 may prove to be just the game changer that Japan’s prime minister needs to push through his agenda for revising the Constitution.

Chile’s constitutional awakening

By: Jorge Contesse
Español

In Chile, protests against metro fare price hikes led to an unprecedented constitutional process.

Marching against India’s discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act

By: Arpitha Kodiveri
Español

Demonstrators across India protested a new Act that prohibits certain religions from citizenship while fast-tracking others.

Global Rule of Law Index reveals worrying trends for human rights protection

By: Elizabeth Andersen & Alicia Evangelides
Español

The rule of law is the foundation for human rights, and a global index shows respect for this fundamental principle is declining worldwide—a persistent trend evident ...

How to identify a contemporary authoritarian regime

By: Daniela Ikawa
Español | Português

To identify a contemporary authoritarian regime, we can start by asking what Hungary and Brazil have in common.

How can the human rights community respond to severe political polarization?

By: James Logan
Español | Français

Severe political polarization is tearing at the seams of democracies around the world, with dangerous consequences for our societies, institutions, and human rights.

Fighting for rights in the streets—not just the courts—of Hong Kong

By: Katrin Kinzelbach & Eva Pils
Español | 简体中文

The Hong Kong protest movement has long given up hope that Hong Kong’s rule of law can be protected with judicial means only.

Counter-terrorism laws provide a smokescreen for civil society restrictions

By: Susan Wilding
Español

States need to focus on strategies that actually work and expose governments that are dismantling democracy in the name of countering terrorism.

Instead of shrinking space, let’s talk about humanity’s shared future

By: Thomas Coombes
Español | Français | العربية

To make the case for civil society, we have to talk less about the threats it faces and more about the values it stands for, how it contributes to society and show ...

The era of state mobilization is over: Welcome to the streets

By: Cate Brown
Español

As civilian protesters take to the streets to demand their rights, human rights leaders consider a future of citizen-led activism.

Sustaining civil society: learning from legacies of long-term funding

By: Merrill Sovner & Barry Gaberman & William Moody
Español

The project of developing civil society organizations that keep the government in check and nurture democratic practices and values is a multi-generational effort.

Polish activists fight for rights already guaranteed in their constitution

By: Małgorzata Szuleka
Español

The democratic community in Poland is under threat, but activists and judges who use the constitution to push back against the government and fight for human rights ...

Technology and gaming innovations bring new life to Russian NGOs

By: Tatiana Tolsteneva
Español | Русский

Russia’s non-profit sector has been playing a constant game of catch-up—can new media technologies break this pattern and appeal to younger audiences?

To protect human rights abroad, preach to Trump voters

By: Howard Lavine & James Ron
Español

Religious leaders can help convince the most ethnocentric and authoritarian American voters to oppose Washington’s backing of abusive dictators.

Navigating human rights in war-torn Yemen

By: Osamah Alfakih
Español | Français

Defending human rights in war-torn Yemen requires persistence, creativity, and strategic changes to daily operations.

No, Americans don’t support airstrikes that kill civilians, even when they target terrorists

By: James Ron & Howard Lavine & Shannon Golden

Polls that show Americans support airstrikes against suspected terrorists ignore some very large caveats.

Americans to Trump: If war comes, follow the Geneva Conventions

By: Alexander H. Montgomery & Charli Carpenter

Recent studies argue that Americans are relatively insensitive to the laws of war. There’s only one problem: that conclusion is wrong.

Undemocratic civil society laws are appearing in democracies

By: Chrystie Swiney
Español

The much-reported clampdown on civil society is not restricted to authoritarian states – restrictive laws on CSOs are spreading into many democratic states too

Alarm bells ring as EU governments target “political” NGOs

By: Cathal Gilbert & Giada Negri

Across the EU, several member states are preparing to cut funding to civil society organizations. In many cases, cuts are aimed at advocacy and human rights organizations ...

Treaty pushes for environmental justice in Latin America and the Caribbean

By: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah
Español

Despite closing space for civil society, the new Escazú Agreement—which offers protection measures for environmental groups and defenders—is a shining example of ...

Dropping the defense: hopeful stories fight stigma in Hungary

By: Stefania Kapronczay & Anna Kertész
Español

Dropping defensive tactics and reframing human rights in a relatable way are both key to responding to stigmatizing backlash in Hungary and connecting to new audiences.

Better data can counteract soft repression

By: Katrin Kinzelbach & Janika Spannagel
Español | Français

Changing the way we document human rights abuses—such as paying more attention to soft repression—could correct our understanding of what is really happening.

The end of tyranny: South Africa’s civil society fights back

By: Ivor Chipkin
Español

Powerful civil society coalitions have re-emerged in South Africa, using litigation, social mobilization, and diverse political coalitions.

Rethinking the notion of a human rights crisis

By: Kathryn Sikkink
Español | Português

The frame of constant crisis has negative implications for human rights, especially when questions of legitimacy arise. But hope—based on empirical evidence of ...

Death by a thousand paper cuts: regulatory attacks on NGOs

By: Edwin Rekosh
Español

A wave of unjustified government regulation is threatening NGO operations, and proactive responses are essential in order to effectively resist.

Strategic responses to the “Foreign Agent” label

By: Jonas Wolff
Español

Instead of letting governments define the terms, CSOs need to take “foreign agent” allegations seriously and address them strategically.

Resist or flee: NGOs respond to Egypt’s crackdown

By: Khaled Mansour
العربية | Español

In the last few years, the Egyptian government has launched an unprecedented crackdown on civil society, causing human rights NGOs to flee, adapt or freeze.

Resilience in non-democratic contexts: perspectives from Venezuela

By: Rafael Uzcátegui
Español

As elected governments increasingly launch power grabs and smear campaigns against their critics, NGOs across Latin America must work together to restore democracy, ...

Populism and human rights: a new playbook

By: César Rodríguez-Garavito & Krizna Gomez
Español | العربية

With populist leaders stoking nationalism and violating basic rights, traditional advocacy strategies are losing their effectiveness. The human rights movement ...

Turkey’s democratic deficit and the European Court of Human Rights

By: Dilek Kurban

Erdoğan will likely succeed in removing the only genuine political opposition in the Turkish Parliament. And it will all, technically, be legal if the ECtHR does ...

Reducing dependence on foreign aid—what will it take?

By: James Ron & José Kaire & Archana Pandya & Andrea Martínez
Español

Modest investments into local fundraising capacity could transform the global human rights community into a truly sustainable and autonomous force, rather than ...

Reclaiming civic space: global challenges, local responses

By: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah & Mandeep Tiwana
Español | Português

To reclaim civic space, there are three key drivers that organizations must focus on, and three critical issues affecting local responses.

Fighting for indigenous rights in the Trump era

By: Tereza M. Szeghi
Español

American Indians are actively resisting Trump’s efforts and working to achieve their civil and human rights, even as US federal and state governments work to erode ...

Five key battles for re-imagining democracy in a radically changed world

By: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

The challenges facing civil society now aren’t about reviving our weakening de-mocracies—they are about re-imagining democracy for a radically changed world.

NGOs are adapting to closing space when they must push back

By: Julian Oram & Deborah Doane

Most development and funding organizations are adapting to shrinking space rather than challenging it, but is this trend inevitable?

Protecting human rights defenders in Asia: using networks to fill the gaps

By: Lorenzo Urbinati & Sejin Kim
Español

Data on human rights violations in Asia proves the need to establish a network of protection mechanisms at the national, regional, and international level.

As NGOs speak out, expect clampdowns to grow

By: David Kode
Español

Governments from Uganda to Poland are silencing activists and organizations that criticize them—what can these NGOs do to fight back?

Evidence indicates that we should be hopeful—not hopeless—about human rights

By: Kathryn Sikkink
Español | Português

We compare our current human rights situation not to the past but to an imagined ideal world, and thus we always fall short.

Trump’s threats to a liberal world order are not entirely new

By: David Forsythe

Trump’s attitude towards human rights is not entirely new: our presumed liberal world order is more about liberal economics and pursuing wealth than about protecting ...

To strengthen global resistance, resource young feminists

By: Felogene Anumo & Ruby Johnson
Español | Français

Young feminists are pushing back and forging new paths in global resistance, but they need financial support and personal security to achieve real gains.

Building up vs. trickling down: human rights in Southern Africa

By: Kristi Heather Kenyon
Español | Setswana | Zulu

Do we achieve human rights by enacting UN-sanctioned treaties at the legislative level, or at the grassroots level? The history and culture of each country may ...

The Achilles’ heel of the European Court of Human Rights

By: Sergei Golubok
Français

The whole European system of human rights protection is powerless when confronted with bad faith, and this represents its existential threat.

Creative persistence: women’s funds responses to the backlash against feminism

By: Augusta Hagen-Dillon
Español

Widespread backlash against progressive values and mounting legal restrictions have led women’s activists and funds to respond creatively.

Indigenous rights in the Russian Arctic: self-determining communities or stakeholders?

By: Laura A. Henry
Русский

When indigenous rights are not observed, communities that shift their demands from the state to the corporation may trade in one form of power imbalance for another.

Losing the battle for hearts and minds

By: Stephen Hopgood
Español

The battle for human rights—as seen in the treatment of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar—may be losing ground as populist democracy becomes entrenched.

Contesting regression: citizen solidarity vs. the decline of democracy

By: Alison Brysk
Español

Even where rights are on the rocks, citizen solidarity and resilient rule of law are the best bets to contest regression.

Irreconcilable tensions? Global human rights institutions and democracy

By: Lisa Sundstrom
Español

To restore people’s faith in liberal democracy, will the human rights community need to scale back to a “core” set of rights, or open up to more diverse understandings?

Court judgements are shaking political foundations—and upholding rights

By: James A. Goldston
Español

In Kenya, Guatemala and Brazil, courts have defied presidents and shaken up politics—is court-centric advocacy one of the few remaining avenues to legitimately ...

How to confront restrictive legislation in Nigeria

By: Victoria Ohaeri
Français

Linking online campaigns to offline action has become critical in challenging closing spaces in Nigeria.

Public interest lawyers need new tools to protect the vulnerable

By: Garth Meintjes
Español | Русский | 简体中文 | العربية

The paradigmatic wall that separates lawyers into two camps—private and public—is a barrier to the possibilities and a threat to the health and resilience of our ...

New threats against human rights defenders require new kinds of protection

By: Padre Melo
Español

Human rights organizations and funders in Latin America need to rethink how they protect defenders in light of increasing threats from non-state actors and impunity ...

Using the Sustainable Development Goals as a weapon against populism

By: Martin S. Edwards & Lis Kabashi

The Sustainable Development Goals could give activists the rhetoric they need to hold the Trump administration accountable.

“Speaking truth to power:” a call for praxis in human rights

By: Alicia Ely Yamin

Human rights require struggles over power and systems of thought—not just fights against individual violators and institutional inequities.

Republicans move to break with the United Nations

By: Paige Berges

Republicans are revisiting a move to withdraw from the United Nations and related human rights treaties—what would this really mean?

Taking the battle for civic space online

By: Marte Hellema
Español

As online spaces become increasingly restricted, human rights activists must stay aware of the risks and benefits of technological developments.

Will human rights law actually protect us from fascism?

By: Eva Nanopoulos

Human rights regimes such as the European Convention on Human Rights are unlikely to shield citizens against the wave of authoritarianism threatening liberal democracies.

Preparing for terrorism—and potential torture—under President Trump

By: Courtenay R. Conrad & Justin Conrad & James A. Piazza & James Igoe Walsh

Will Trump’s unequivocal position on torture affect how the US responds to future terrorist attacks?

Modi and Trump - voting strongmen, voting hate

By: Zahir Janmohamed

Donald Trump’s win in the US and Narendra Modi’s in India two years ago are both about the majority claiming greater victimhood.

Might Trump lead US activists to rediscover international human rights?

By: Mark Philip Bradley
Français

Recent social justice struggles in the US have largely eschewed the language of global human rights. But, Trump might lead US activists to seize human rights again.

Opportunities for resistance: Trump’s authoritarianism and the law

By: Stuart Wilson

Human rights values and rule of law are lost on authoritarians, but the need to clothe their action in forms of law is not.

The death knell of American Exceptionalism under Trump

By: David Forsythe

If Trump pushes his agenda too far, Republicans concerned with liberal democracy and rule of law might start to push back.

The world is watching—corporate action on Trump travel ban

By: Salil Tripathi

Many corporations have already taken a stand against Trump’s travel ban, and corporate leaders advising Trump must defend human rights.

Under threat: five countries in which civic space is rapidly closing

By: Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

Restricted freedoms and intensifying governmental control raise the risk for social and geopolitical conflict.

Human rights as a grassroots, transformative response to Trump’s “America”

By: Chris Grove
Español | العربية

Human rights—as a movement that critiques systemic inequalities and affirms our common humanity—offers a transformative alternative to a politics of fear and exclusion.

Making the human rights movement great again—amidst rising nationalism

By: James A. Goldston

As angry rhetoric and illiberal nationalism soars globally, the human rights movement needs clear thinking rather than sudden shifts.

Human rights groups are secretly US agents. True or false?

By: James Ron & David Crow
Español | العربية

For rights activists, Trump’s victory is a dark cloud with one silver lining. For the next four years, human rights groups will be inoculated against accusations ...

Trump’s victory could push the human rights movement to transform

By: César Rodríguez-Garavito
Español

Donald Trump’s victory is a threat to human rights, but could it also push the movement to transform and strategize with greater urgency?

Why the American Electoral College matters for human rights everywhere

By: Benjamin James Waddell

The history of the American Electoral College demonstrates the importance of combating violators of human rights and the institutions supporting them.

To preserve human rights, organizational models must change

By: Edwin Rekosh
Español | Français

The current human rights business model is not keeping up with trends in technology, philanthropy, business and society.

Trump, the other and human rights in society

By: Inga T. Winkler

The stigmatization and “othering” we’ve seen in Trump’s campaign will perpetuate systemic inequalities.

A post-Brexit, post-Trump World could learn from Colombia

By: Christian Medina-Ramirez 
Español

A shell-shocked America, a Brexit-divided United Kingdom and a crisis-stricken Europe: they should all note the conciliatory efforts made by Nobel Peace Prize winner ...

Bringing back waterboarding? Torture policy in Trump’s America

By: Lisa Hajjar

As the US prepares for president Trump, anyone who cares about human rights should be alarmed that he has pledged to restore torture as one of his top five priorities.

Trump’s election makes US human rights pariah

By: David Petrasek
Español | Français

A Trump presidency poses a grave threat to human rights—not only in the US but also worldwide. For human rights advocates, it can’t be business as usual.

Trump and the limits of human rights

By: Samuel Moyn
Español | Français

No matter how good our ancestors were in creating the international human rights system, it cannot change that we might need different options now.

International pressure on US human rights matters now more than ever

By: Kathryn Sikkink
Español | Français

Domestic politics are important, but we need international human rights law in the United States now more than ever.

Fascism rising

By: Stephen Hopgood
Español | Français

Global institutions and principles now face their sternest test. Trump’s victory suggests human rights activists should devote themselves to the morass of domestic ...

Closing space in Hungary with a Russian cookbook

By: Péter Krekó

Hungary is using Russia’s playbook to close down civil society space, and many Western allies are hardly even noticing.

Development banks and the silencing of dissent

By: Gretchen Gordon
Español | Français

By ignoring community concerns around development projects, multilateral institutions can become complicit in human rights violations and closing space.

Opening up civic space requires creativity and careful navigation

By: Rachel Hayman
العربية | Русский

Even where civil society space is constrained, local organisations can create positive relationships with state and external actors.

It’s time for development banks to start listening

By: Maina Kiai
Español

The aid community often ignores the wishes of the very people it’s supposed to be helping. The world needs a more bottom-up approach to development.

In Venezuela, data is power

By: Christian Medina-Ramirez 
Español

Venezuela’s lack of reliable data on socio-economic metrics poses both challenges and opportunities for human rights advocates.

To implement Agenda 2030 in Africa, people must be at the centre

By: Charles Kojo Vandyck  & Maame Darkwaa Twum Barima

Increasing threats to citizens’ freedoms will derail the sustainable development goals.

In Asia, freedom of speech is critical in the fight for human rights

By: Henri Tiphagne & Marte Hellema

Protecting freedom of speech, assembly and association in Asia is the lynchpin to protecting all human rights.

For sexual minorities, “closing space” for civil society means losing access to critical services

By: David Kuria Mbote
Français

Closing space for African sexual and gender minority groups is about far more than advocacy—it is about accessing critical services that no one else provides.

Do South Africans really have the right to protest?

By: Julian Brown 

South Africans’ right to protest exists on paper, but authorities have effectively suppressed dissent by making it too dangerous.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership: a missed opportunity for civil society?

By: Mark Aspinwall
Español

Civil society could have played a key role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership—why were they left out?

No middle ground: the risks of being a human rights defender in India

By: Mathew Jacob

Volunteers in India are banding together to form a network that protects human rights defenders.

Does “de-Kirchnerizing” Argentina mean dismantling human rights policies?

By: Alejandra Dandan
Español

A key concern for many Argentinians, among the numerous changes Mauricio Macri’s government has implemented, is the dismantling of hard-won human rights gains.

Local funding is not just an option anymore—it’s an imperative

By: Jenny Hodgson

As local rights groups seek alternative funding sources, the closing space for civil society makes this even more imperative.

Old dogs and new tricks: rethinking human rights business models

By: Edwin Rekosh

In this climate of closing space, we have an imperative to rethink the business models for protecting human rights.

Violent groups aggravate government crackdowns on civil society

By: Shannon N. Green
Français

Armed non-state actors, criminal elements and violent extremists—not just governments—are responsible for the increasing crackdown on civil society.

What drives the crackdown on NGOs, and how can it be stopped?

By: Kendra Dupuy & James Ron
Español

Foreign aid is always political, and elevates the risk of a government crackdown on NGOs.

In for the long haul: a creative fight for space in Kenya

By: Ezra Mbogori 
Français

What started as a “one time” reform exercise has turned into a long-term battle for Kenyan civil society.

In the name of security: when silencing active citizens creates even greater problems

By: Iva Dobichina & Poonam Joshi
Español

Silencing activists in the name of security can stifle actors most likely to challenge extremist ideologies, making insecurity worse.

Foreign funding restrictions: far more than just “an illegitimate excuse”

By: Annika E. Poppe & Jonas Wolff
Français | Español | Deutsch | العربية

Those that justify restrictions on foreign funding for civil society have strong normative arguments that cannot be dismissed lightly.

Civil society in the post-Soviet space: fighting for the “End of History”

By: Orysia Lutsevych 
Русский

“Partly free” countries in the post-Soviet space must fight even harder now to protect growing civil societies.

Reclaiming space through UN-supported litigation

By: Maina Kiai
Español

Working together, the UN and civil society are using innovative legal action to protect fundamental human rights and re-open lost civic spaces.

Missing: an international response to the rising tide of impunity

By: Cathal Gilbert
Español

Civil society organisations are targeted because political elites know they have power. But where is the international backup?

Are we being innovative in protecting civic space?

By: Araddhya Mehtta
Español

Taking lessons from history’s best dissenters, civil society is finding new ways to make cracks in shrinking spaces.

Introducing openGlobalRights’ newest debate: ‘closing space for civil society’ – analyzing the drivers and responses

By: Shannon N. Green & Archana Pandya

Civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide are under significant pressure. Questions abound about whether current trends indicate a permanent setback for civil ...

Activists in an international system: pushing for change in Sri Lanka

By: Ruki Fernando

Local and international activists have been crucial in getting a UN response in Sri Lanka.

Human rights at a crossroads: 18 months after Ayotzinapa

By: Janice Gallagher & Paula Martinez Gutierrez
Español

Eighteen months after Ayotzinapa, Mexican civil society has pulled together in new and promising ways to challenge the state.

Rethinking progressive NGO funding in Israel

By: Hillel Ben-Sasson
Español

Marked as traitors by the dominant Right for relying on foreign aid, Israeli liberal NGOs need a wider base of local donors.

Grounds for (a little) optimism? Russian public opinion on human rights

By: Theodore P. Gerber 
Español | Русский

Despite Putin’s clampdown on Russian civil society, public opinion trends point to growing support for civil liberties.

Adapt or perish: the new normal for civil society

By: Shannon N. Green
Español

As space for civil society closes, donors and civil society leaders are realizing they cannot take public support for granted.

For Moroccan rights groups, good reputations aren’t enough

By: Rachid Touhtou  & James Ron & Shannon Golden
Français | العربية

Without building a strong popular base, the Moroccan human rights community cannot capitalize on its good reputation.

Crushing dissent: NGOs under threat in India

By: Seema Guha

Can NGOs and India’s political opposition stop Modi’s civil society clampdown?

Data-driven optimism for global rights activists

By: James Ron & Shannon Golden & David Crow & Archana Pandya
Español | Français | العربية

Opinion polls across four world regions suggest that human rights activists can be cautiously optimistic—the public likes and trusts them.

Government repression and bureaucratic hoops spell gloom for rights groups in Bangladesh

By: Mubin S. Khan
বাংলা

Amidst tighter donor budgets for human rights, NGOs in Bangladesh are also grappling with increasingly intrusive governments.

Disputes over foreign funding in Israel mask much deeper issues

By: Dimi Reider
العربية | עברית

If Israeli human rights groups are labeled fronts for foreign interests due to their funding, what does that make Israel itself?

Pure hypocrisy: India’s fear of foreign funding for NGOs

By: Medha Patkar

The Indian state aggressively promotes foreign investment in all sectors but civil society.

Is the emerging middle class our best hope for global rights activism?

By: Doutje Lettinga
Español | Français | العربية

A global poll into perceptions of human rights confirms there is hope for international human rights organizations to build alliances within Southern civil societies ...

Strategic choices facing Israeli rights group during the current war

By: Dahlia Scheindlin
עברית | العربية | Español | Français

How should Israeli rights groups respond to this new war, and to the hatred many Jewish Israelis feel towards them and their work?

In for a bumpy ride: international aid and the closing space for domestic NGOs

By: Saskia Brechenmacher & Thomas Carothers
Español | Français | العربية

The global pushback against domestic NGOs has arrived. International donors must learn to cope, but it won’t be easy.

Anti-ngo legislation in Israel: a first step toward silencing dissent

By: Daniel Sokatch

Ultra-nationalist political parties are yet again trying to crack down on dissenting Israeli NGOs. This is the latest in a longer series of efforts to fundamentally ...

In Kenya, averting a move to strangle civil society with the financial noose

By: Maina Kiai
Français

In October Kenya introduced legislation capping foreign funding to NGOs and requiring that money be channeled through a government body. Though narrowly defeated, ...

Human rights, democracy, and development: partners at last

By: J. Brian Atwood
Español | Français | العربية

The human rights movement, the democracy-promotion community, and development donors have common goals, but they have not always seen themselves as allies. It is ...

The struggle for a truly grassroots human rights movement

By: James Ron & David Crow & Shannon Golden
Español | Français | العربية | Português | Türkçe

Using cutting-edge human rights perception polls, the authors explore links between social class and domestic human rights movements in Mexico, Colombia, Morocco, ...

 
 
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