Coalition response
March 2021
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Human Rights Defenders Coalition: Tackling corruption to defend civic space in Malawi

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The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) in Malawi was created in 2017 to provide protection and support for human rights defenders (HRDs), and to defend the civic space within which these activists operate. The coalition’s overarching focus has been on tackling corruption.

In 2019 when election fraud ignited the anger of everyday Malawians, HRDC stepped in to unite activists and citizens across the country, mobilising calls for greater accountability, and using litigation strategies to protect the freedom of assembly. This instance of electoral fraud was indicative of how corruption was negatively impacting the fair functioning of government, and in turn the enabling environment for civil society. Meanwhile, HRDC’s experience demonstrates the (sometimes) blurred line between the struggle to defend what can often be thought of as ‘neutral’ space and the need for civil society to be ‘politically’ engaged, along with the ways in which corruption and civic space are intimately linked.

Threats, attacks and harassment
During the 9 months of protest, there were multiple cases of serious physical threats and attacks made against members and leaders of the HRDC. These attacks were designed to instill fear in activists and deter them from organising further protests. Prominent figures of the HRDC were also subject to other forms of harassment. For example the HRDC vice-Chairperson and an executive member were arrested and charged with inciting people to contravene the law, after they called for citizens to protest in front of the State House as the President was yet to assent to a rerun of the election. The government also attempted to sue HRDC organisers. They claimed that protestors were damaging property and looting, and demanded that the organisers should bear the cost of such damage. These tactics drained the coalition of capacity and resources, and put membersat risk of physical harm.

Capacity and resources is an ongoing issue
The coalition’s leadership has not had the time or resources to build the capacity of its regional and district members regarding the HRDC’s mandate, and human rights awareness more generally. Although some limited funding and capacity building support was secured, allies and funders were quickly put off by government threats. For example it was reported in the media that HRDC had been ‘trained in guerilla warfare’ and an international civil society organisation (ICSO) was named as having provided support to that end (they had in fact been providing much needed security training). International actors were afraid to associate themselves with HRDC, as the issue was thought to be ‘too political’. As a result the coalition struggled to secure financial or practical support during a critical period. 

De-centralised power empowers people
A decentralised structure gave people at the community level the autonomy to make suggestions and decisions, within the coalition’s mandate. This meant that the HRDC leadership, who could not be everywhere at once, had contacts whom they could trust to make decisions at any level. 

Bridging to the legal sector was important
By formalising a connection with the Malawi Law Society, the founders of the coalition built a bridge between civil society and the legal sector from the outset, gaining connections with lawyers who were able to support activists and CSOs under attack as they challenged the fraudulent election results. In contexts where the judiciary has not been compromised, the rule of law is an important tool for defending space for civil society.

International solidarity matters
Organisations including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Frontline Defenders stayed connected with HRDC and raised the alarm at the international level over arrests and threats. This awareness and solidarity was an important form of psychological support. Members sometimes struggled, wondering whether they were doing the right thing in mobilising people to demonstrate but hearing others elsewhere speak out on their behalf motivated them to continue. On the other hand, solidarity was less forthcoming when the coalition sought diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Whilst protests and litigation were ongoing, HRDC participated in a task force convened by development partners, involving political parties and diplomatic representatives from other states. HRDC found themselves having to make the case for why demonstrations were needed, as external stakeholders feared the situation would degenerate into civil strife or war, and were averse to associating themselves with the movement. This underscored the importance of ensuring that international allies have a thorough understanding of the specific context in question, and revealed how this can require advocacy with international actors (and therefore resources and capacity) in order to secure solidarity.

Technical capacity is needed
HRDC and its members need ongoing support from ICSOs and allies, for example to develop technical capacities, such as financial and legal knowledge, to hold the new government to account and defend civic space. In particular, the coalition aims to develop proposals for a strong legal framework that would support the work of HRDs and civil society, and to work with the government on this framework whilst there is still good will. The international community can provide training and learning on best practice to strengthen these proposals, whilst in turn learning from the experiences of HRDC and Malawian civil society.

  • The High Court and the Supreme Court dismissed the government’s request for an injunction against protests, concluding that the right to demonstrate was unconditional and that the state could not impose blanket bans or use the courts to ban the protests.

  • The Constitutional Court nullified the results of the 2019 presidential election, calling for a new election to be held, and the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission finally resigned. A new Chairperson (elected by the judiciary) was able to push through plans for a fresh election.

  • In June 2020 an election rerun took place, and a new president, Lazarus Chakwera, was sworn in, leading a coalition government. Promisingly, Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party’s campaign promises had included the support of operations of local and international human rights civil society organisations (CSOs), “through a permissive and enabling policy” (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).

The demonstrations, alongside legal approaches, played a key role in ensuring that the Electoral Commission and President were ultimately held to account.

“Judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held… key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led demonstrations… This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing. (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).

HRDC members have been able to meet with the new President several times already to have candid and honest conversations about the issues Malawians are facing. The President has already addressed some of the issues raised during these meetings, for example the coalition has secured an agreement with the Corruption Bureau for a new whistleblowing initiative. By engaging in pro-democracy action at a critical moment, HRDC has helped to increase the odds of a more open context for civil society, whereby CSOs and activists can contribute to good governance and therefore to broader social and development goals. 

Report Date | March 2021     Type | Coalition response     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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Articulación Feminista de Nicaragua: The role of women’s movements in building solidarity against closing civic space in Nicaragua

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The Articulación Feminista de Nicaragua is a network of over 100 organisations and individuals that works in pursuit of democracy, and the exercise of full citizenship by the Nicaraguan population.

The movement is involved in processes to find peaceful solutions to Nicaragua’s current crisis, ensuring that women’s rights are central to any potential solutions.

The Articulación has worked alongside new and emerging youth-led movements born out of the April 2018 protests and resulting national crisis. It has brought the feminist agenda into the public debate, strengthened digital activism, and deepened collaborations between different organisations focusing on democracy, justice and rights. The Articulación has contributed to enabling some youth movements and women’s movements in the interior of the country to connect to national networks and has worked to protect activists from attack in a context of severely closed civic space and repression.

Risk of physical harm
By protesting and organising, members of the Articulación risk imprisonment, where they are often subjected to violence and sexual abuse. Movement leaders face threats from the police and paramilitary groups, and as a result many have had to flee, seeking refuge in countries such as Costa Rica or Spain, an exodus resulting in significant ‘brain drain’ across the movement as the civic space has closed. Members of the Articulación have continued to protest and organise despite these risks.

Legal threats
Some feminist organisations were closed in 2018, and most groups are now under pressure because the government is constantly enacting new legislation targeting CSOs, including several recently approved repressive laws. These include the Law for Regulation of Foreign Agents, used to repress those CSOs receiving resources from international sources; a law on cybercrime, which seeks to censor digital media; and a law on hate crimes that introduces life imprisonment for political dissent, without a clear definition for what acts amount to dissent.

Pervasive machismo
By trying to alter the narrative and the ‘macho’ culture that is so pervasive throughout the country, women’s groups and feminists find confrontation not just from the state, but from their own families and communities. Sexual assault has become part of the repression experienced by activists and women, and the impunity around this must be addressed.

Sustaining coordination and engagement
Sustaining internal coordination and alliances with other movements and spaces is particularly challenging given the complexities of the context and the risks involved. The Articulación’s lack of structure or formality also makes engagement with international groups difficult, as such cooperation often requires quite rigid standards and models that do not easily accommodate social movements. It is also difficult to dedicate time to advocacy strategies vis-à-vis international feminist movements, as the Articulación is occupied with more immediate defensive and protective work. Maintaining the movement’s existence without resources or permanent support from international allies is very
challenging.

Collaboration
Youth groups have their own dynamics, and it is important to take these into account and respect their ways of working, when collaborating. Young women’s groups need their own space. The Articulación underlines the importance of strengthening other organisations and movements, rather than overriding or replacing them through the neglect of their particular objectives. They also stress the importance of engaging in dialogue with groups where there is agreement on aspects related to democracy and justice, even if these groups do not entirely align with the Articulación’s agenda. In these mixed political spaces, feminists contribute by defending the exercise of full citizenship rights, promoting the role of women as political actors.

Seizing opportunities
Narrative and cultural change take time, but movements can also take advantage of key national moments. Feminist movements were able to use the crisis to highlight the nature of the dictatorship and its detrimental effects on the country and center the narrative of peaceful protest and freedom, as opposed to one of violence and war. Young people have taken up this civic struggle, and do not see war as a way out of the political crisis.

Women’s groups are operating in a dictatorship where they are seen as enemies of the state, and so their continued existence and activities are a positive outcome in this context. They are a successful and effective movement just by virtue of continuing to operate.

Specific outcomes include:

  • Influencing the narrative and therefore the agenda. The movement has initiated a now institutionalised phrase ‘Free country to live’ to replace the long-promoted slogan of ‘Free country or die’. Feminists now have a much more visible role in terms of political participation and proposals for social change, and national media has picked up this analysis.
  • The support of vulnerable communities through continuous work that includes supporting women victims of violence, and supporting humanitarian activities across the country.
  • Securing international solidarity, through awareness-raising, preparation of reports to human rights bodies, promoting coordination of advocacy efforts with feminists in exile, and promoting solidarity for those activists who go into exile. As the movement highlights: “every text message, article, demonstration, every message of love and energy has given us strength to continue this fight for justice and the democratization of our Nicaragua.
  • The protection of activists, through legal support, security protocols, training on the international human rights system and the use of its mechanisms, and on the safe handling of information and communication technologies.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Americas     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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Bond UK: An umbrella body’s response to closing civic space

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Bond is a membership body for UK-based organisations working in international development.

It unites over 400 civil society organisations in pursuit of global change, with members ranging from small specialist charities to large international civil society organisations with a world-wide presence.

Concerned by restrictions made to the enabling environment for civil society in the UK, and the precedent that this could set internationally, Bond has engaged in coalition activities on civic space issues, carrying out convening and coordination with its members and other civil society actors. This work has ranged from campaigning for the voice of civil society organisations within the UK, to advocacy efforts focused on influencing government policy on diplomacy and development.

Technical nature
Individual measures and restrictions are very technical in nature, making it difficult to garner support for reform. They are too complicated for many CSOs to engage with, and it is challenging to secure support from politicians and the public on such complex issues.

Existentialism vs. capacity
Many CSOs do not perceive these types of measures to be existential threats to their ability to continue operating and achieving their objectives. For example, international development organisations do not usually make use of mechanisms such as judicial reviews. Therefore, although there is a recognition that these measures do add up to a shrinking of civic space, many groups cannot justify dedicating capacity to the issue over and above their core work.

New normal
Some organisations have become used to the restrictions and see them as the ‘new normal’, in terms of the environment in which they must operate. They are adapting to restrictions rather than speaking out against them. Bond’s members work on international development – understandably, they prioritise their capacity on the core issues, i.e. their primary missions and the causes they were founded to address such as ending global poverty.

Diversity
It is important to have broad, diverse coalitions. Advocacy on these measures and restrictions has been most effective when it has been part of a collective effort involving both international actors and domestic groups from all backgrounds. The leadership of key players in the domestic sphere such as the Quakers and Friends of the Earth enabled connections with CSOs across the UK and across sectors.

Expertise
Given the technical nature of the legislative or policy-based restrictions that are introduced, expertise is needed to enable sector-wide understanding and the development of strategies to push back. Deciding where this is housed and resourced within a coalition is important.

Umbrellas
Given the reduced advocacy capacity amongst many organisations, and the natural disconnect between primary missions and technical restrictions, umbrella bodies are key actors in the resistance.

  • Engagement with the UK Electoral Commission, and the resulting publishing of new guidance on the Lobbying Act, helped CSOs to feel more confident about campaigning in the run up to the general election in 2019. The collaborative actions of Bond and others helped to thaw the chilling effect that had silenced organisations in previous years.

  • The collective action and networking that was developed in response to the Lobbying Act resulted in a platform that was then well placed and poised to continue campaigning as new restrictions or measures were introduced. Certain organisations or alliances might actively work on specific issues, such as the judicial review process, whilst the wider network has been able to amplify messages and offer solidarity when required.

Organisations who have viewed the growing package of restrictions as an existential threat – mostly environmental and human rights organisations who engage more in public campaigning – have advocated against the measures and lobbied for civil society’s voice to remain intact.

In drawing a connection between the international and domestic spheres, Bond saw the need to be more outspoken, and engaged in collaborative, multi-sector advocacy efforts to resist the closing of civic space in the UK. In doing so, they have highlighted the key role that can be played by umbrella bodies with the capacity to undertake the more technical work required, and the political will to campaign on behalf of their members. They have also underlined that international solidarity must be underpinned by a commitment to civic space ‘at home’: “By ignoring these regulatory issues at home, we – civil society actors, funders, regulators – are complicit in closing space abroad: effectively saying to the world that these restrictions don’t matter and that they don’t cause harm. But they do.” (Bond (2018): Is the UK setting a bad example on civil society space?)

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Europe     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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UnidOSC: How research, advocacy and capacity-building have been used to defend the space for civil society in Mexico

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UnidOSC is a coalition of organisations formed in Mexico in 2015.

It seeks to foster coordination among civil society organisations (CSOs) on the defense of rights inherent to the freedom of association, and on the construction of an enabling environment for civil society.

UnidOSC is a coalition comprised of CSOs, foundations, academics and activists interested in protecting the operational space for civil society through proactive strategic proposals designed to advance the sector, and diverse responses to new risks and challenges that arise. The coalition has provided an identity for the collective effort to defend and champion civic space in Mexico and in the region.

Galvanising a diverse range of CSOs
Some invited organisations have expressed an interest in the coalition, but have not committed to participate actively, mainly because CSO rights are frequently seen as second in importance to CSOs’ own causes. The coalition is working to expand membership for broader scope and diversity, but this remains a challenge.

Competing priorities
It can be challenging to incorporate the multiple priorities of so many different types of CSOs. To mitigate this, the Committee tries to identify the different needs of the membership and translate them into initiatives that can be of benefit to most organisations, or for those that are most vulnerable. Some regulations affect all
CSOs and cross-sector solidarity is needed
to tackle these.

Technical assistance as solidarity
UnidOSC has benefited greatly from technical assistance from international groups experts in civic space such as ICNL, ECNL, Human Security Collective, the WINGS network and others. These groups have provided technical assistance either relating to legal aspects of the enabling environment, or by sharing good practice from other countries such as strategies for digital security, or inviting UnidOSC representatives to spaces and platforms for exchange and learning. This kind of solidarity has been invaluable, and should expand.

ICSO gap
It has been difficult for the coalition to engage with more international civil society organisations (ICSOs). Whilst there might be the desire to engage on civic space at an international or secretariat level, those concerns are not necessarily shared by colleagues in ICSOs’ country offices, as their focus is often more on the cause related to their specific mission. UnidOSC has formed good relationships with some ICSOs who participate as full members, as they see the close connection between the protection of civic space on the one hand, and the work that they are mandated to do on the other. However, that link is not always clear. Some ICSOs have, however, acted as allies to the coalition, if not as full members, for
example by supporting with the dissemination of research.

  • Expertise and capacity: Although the initial campaign has not yet succeeded in reforming national CSO legislation in Mexico, the work formed the base of even more advanced legislation that has since been presented at state-level. If those reforms are adopted, it would create a precedent that could lay the ground for future national reforms. UnidOSC’s work has helped to create a feedback and solidarity loop whereby regional, national, and local advocacy initiatives can strengthen one another.

  • Access: Members have benefited from the coalition in terms of access and direct participation, including access to research, the exchange of learning, and an opening up of dialogue with multiple different authorities and stakeholders that influence the regulatory framework for CSOs.   

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Americas     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG): Working in coalition to push back against national security overreach in Canada

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The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) is a coalition of Canadian civil society organisations, established after the adoption of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.

The coalition’s aim is to protect and promote human rights and civil liberties in the context of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Since its creation, ICLMG has been a platform for exchange among organisations and communities affected by the application of national security laws.

This case study looks at how this long-standing coalition has developed, and the strategies it has used to advocate for greater accountability and transparency in Canada, and to resist the overreach of national security.

Maintaining energy long-term
In being such a long-standing coalition, ICLMG sees a high turnover of representatives from member organisations engaging with the campaigns and activities. The secretariat has to serve as a shared institutional memory for the policy positions that organisations have taken, and there is a challenge inherent in having to remind members of past engagement and in encouraging renewed participation.

Maintaining funding long-term
Turnover in representatives, alongside financial constraints faced by members, has meant that maintaining a consistent and increasing level of funding takes ongoing work.

Technical nature of work
Coalition members generally recognise the importance of the work undertaken by ICLMG, but it can be challenging to translate this into support amongst the general public, particularly in order to build pressure to change laws and policies. However this presents opportunities for the coalition to think through how to articulate the problems clearly.

Value of institutional memory
Long-standing campaigns need a consistent coordination mechanism driving and leading the work. ICLMG was the only institution with a detailed memory of the key moments between 2001 and 2017, and they were able to link this important history and background to the present day work, ensuring that the learning from years of advocacy informed the demands of civil society when the opportunity to participate arose.

Common discourse is vital

At the time of ICLMG’s founding, the language and discourse around national security and civil liberties was in flux. By developing a common set of principles, policy goals and public discourse, the coalition was able to have an impact on the framing of these issues, particularly in the media.

Flexible structure
Despite existing for 20 years, the ICLMG coalition has never formally incorporated as a standalone institution. Staff has been housed and employed by several different member organisations, including Inter Pares. Likewise, the coalition’s finances have been administered by a succession of member organisations. Functioning in this way has allowed the coalition to remain responsive and agile, and allowed for coalition staff to have much needed administrative support. This places a higher level of importance on institutional memory and individual involvement.

 

  • Coalition members came to a consensus on every question in the national consultation, meaning that everyone was on the same page in their advocacy efforts.

  • The introduction of a Review Agency was finally included in the National Security Act of 2017 and the Agency was then established in 2019. Although the coalition is critical of many of the other changes brought in through the Act, for example the increasing of surveillance powers, the inclusion of the Review Agency is a success. Its introduction means there will be one body with the power to look across the collaborative work of multiple security agencies, providing greater accountability and transparency, and therefore, protection.

  • This has an impact beyond issues of rendition. There are agencies that work closely together on issues pertaining to domestic security, ranging from what is typically considered to be counter-terror activity through to the policing of protests against extraction or the policing of indigenous communities. A lack of oversight of these agencies’ collaborative work leads to a greater risk of damaging practice that could shrink civic space for progressive civic actors. The mandate of the new review agency offers the potential for deeper investigation and broader accountability, which should also act as a deterrent to agencies participating in collusion and corruption, including coordinating anti-terrorism activities with their US counterparts that may be unlawful.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Americas     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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Civic Organisations. It Works: A coalition to boost the profile and presence of civil society organisations in Poland

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Civic Organisations. It Works is a coalition of civil society organisations in Poland. The coalition came together in 2017 to consider the narrative used in the media and by the government that had enabled considerable attacks on civil society organisations in the public sphere, alongside growing restrictive legislation.

Members of the It Works coalition reinvented their communications in order to improve public perceptions of civil society. Rather than use reactive strategies in response to government attacks and smear campaigns, they developed a long-term approach rooted in ‘hope-based communications’, designed to reveal the role and added value of the third sector as a proactive strategy to keep space open for civil society.

Reaching a consensus
Collective decision-making can be a challenge. With a communications team made up of representatives from 10 different organisations, reaching a consensus can sometimes be a long process. However, the principle of democracy is considered important as each group brings different strengths. It also helps to ensure broad buy-in for the strategies taken, and unity of messaging within campaigns.

Representation
To begin with, the coalition wanted to be an umbrella for all CSOs. However, it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work, as there were certain contexts that required a political stance. For example, members wanted to run a campaign alongside planned gender equality parades, using communications with the slogan ‘Love. It Works’ to demonstrate solidarity with LGBT+ communities. There was pushback, because such a campaign would inevitably alienate some organisations. In order to enable participation in the parades and to help steer future actions, members took the decision that their actions and strategies must be guided by a set of values centered on freedom, human rights and equality. This would enable them to determine when they could take necessary political positions to stand in solidarity with minority or vulnerable communities. This meant that some organisations would not join the group.

Doing the groundwork pays off
It was important to make the difficult discussions at the beginning of the process, to clarify a shared agenda and purpose, to build trust amongst members, and to create a strategy that all members could endorse. As a consequence, there was a heavier time commitment and workload from members in the development stage. But as a result, once a strategy had been agreed on, the day-to-day work was more straightforward and now only light consultation is needed when clarifying next steps on campaigns.

Campaigns grounded in values create solidarity
Hope-based communications are effective. Although the coalition does not yet have the numbers or statistics to fully demonstrate the change in trust amongst the public regarding CSOs, there has been an encouraging response to the campaigns conducted to date. Well-known public figures have endorsed the messages, and the sector as a whole has been keen to be involved. This is because the campaigns are rooted in values rather than just in specific topics, and this has created the space and structure for cross-cutting solidarity.

  • By sharing photographs, films and infographics, the coalition showcases CSO programmes and projects and demonstrates how they make a difference to the lives of people in Poland. Interviews and stories have been featured regularly in various publications including Vogue Poland, whilst some of the films produced for the campaigns have been shown in cinemas across the country. So far, campaigns have attracted over 4 million online visitors.

  • Although the impact in terms of a change in public perception is difficult to measure, as is often the case with long-term communication initiatives, organisations do feel safer engaging in communications campaigns and advocating for civil society, due to the protective umbrella of the coalition. By being part of a collective effort, the risk of raising one’s voice is reduced. As the coordinator has highlighted: “We believe we are now stronger in the face of attacks.” Meanwhile there are plans to conduct a survey to measure any change in the levels of public trust.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Europe     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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#KeepItOn: Organising the global effort to end internet shutdowns

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The #KeepItOn campaign and coalition, hosted by Access Now, unites and organises efforts to end internet shutdowns worldwide.

Members of the #KeepItOn coalition work together to identify, verify and document incidents of internet shutdowns in order to raise awareness of how they violate human rights. The coalition also works to prevent their occurrence through advocacy, capacity-building and litigation. Uniting under the banner of #KeepItOn and now with 220 members worldwide, they have successfully fought internet shutdowns in several national contexts, while raising the profile of the issue at the international level.

Coordinating a holistic response
It is a challenge to ensure that the right resources are in the hands of the right partners in the right place at the right time. Contexts where shutdowns are most prevalent are also settings where civic space is narrower, or closed. Thus, there are fewer civil society organisations operating there who are able to work with a global coalition, or who have the skills needed for a holistic response (policy expertise for understanding the political context and technical expertise for running tests and identifying how the shutdown is implemented). Coordinating these moving parts is challenging – the grassroots grants programme is aimed at developing this infrastructure through capacity-building, in order to mitigate this ongoing challenge.

Be prepared
Coalition members have learned from different contexts to be proactive rather than reactive. Now, rather than waiting for a shutdown to happen and then responding, they try to anticipate the challenges that may arise, for example around upcoming elections, and create strategies depending on the risks that are foreseeable.

Inclusivity
The decentralised model has been key to the coalition’s success. Although Access Now is an international organisation, many of its team members don’t have first-hand experience of internet shutdowns. It is vital therefore that those with direct experience of blackouts and restrictions are able to speak for themselves. Access Now has provided guidance and resources and initiated the development of the coalition, with the aim of being inclusive and raising up the true diversity of experiences. More support is needed from ICSOs to support those communities on the ground who are most affected by restrictions.

High-level figures and international and regional bodies have denounced internet shutdowns as a result of the coalition’s advocacy efforts, for example:

  • In 2016 the UN passed the resolution on the Promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, condemning internet shutdowns, and urging states to refrain from ordering such measures. This was further maintained in 2018. Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights passed a resolution in 2016 condemning the use of shutdowns by state parties during elections and protests.
  • In 2017, 30 governments coordinated by the Freedom Online Coalition declared their commitment to fight internet shutdowns, in a statement issued at Access Now’s RightsCon meeting in Brussels.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs have condemned internet shutdowns, and have cited data collected by the coalition in their annual reports to UN bodies. Such reports include the 2019 Human Rights Council Report on Freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the digital age, and the 2020 Human Rights Council Report on Disease pandemics and freedom of opinion and expression.
  • Recent litigation wins against internet shutdowns have been recorded in Togo and Indonesia.

This has created important international and regional support and accountability, and is an important step in ensuring that shutdowns do not become the new normal.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Region | Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
October 2019
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Civilisation: Coalition-building to fight back against government attacks on civil society in Hungary

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Civilizáció (Civilisation) was established as a joint campaign of Hungarian civil society organisations in early 2017.

Their mission is to strengthen the image, constituency and support of civil society and civic action; to increase levels of solidarity; to share knowledge and skills to strengthen the civil society sector; and to take action against shrinking civil space and increase the opportunities of democratic participation and the diversity of civil society.

Standby
Civilisation was established in response to a crisis, and therefore their coalition has been built upon resistance. They work best together when there is an external threat or something to respond to. Without a common, clear goal to motivate their joint work, there is a risk that the interest and engagement of members will decrease. The government has gone relatively quiet during 2019, and so the coalition has been ‘on standby’. They cannot maintain that mode infinitely, and so a common focus or theme is needed that brings the members together and inspires joint action.

How to cooperate
This has been the first real cross-sector coalition in Hungary, and learning to cooperate and to work together took time. Members had to work hard to recognise and acknowledge different styles and types of CSOs, and different attitudes, approaches, appetites and agendas. It took some time to harmonise this, and to recognise and appreciate the diversity of the network. The lessons learned during earlier (failed) coalition-building efforts contributed to this – they taught more experienced members to exercise patience. Mutually agreed internal decision-making rules, based on the principles of ‘one member – one vote’ and ‘everyone contributes according to their capacities’ were also important, particularly for smaller, weaker members to feel safe and comfortable in the coalition.

  • Members are now better prepared for threats. Capacity has been built via shared resources, and links have formed between sectors and groups that were not previously connected, as this is the first truly cross-sector coalition in Hungarian civil society.
  • Although the international and regional solidarity has not stopped restrictive legislation passing into law, it has helped Hungarian civil society feel seen, and not forgotten, which has been incredibly important.
  • They are better organised. During quiet spells, the coalition is able to ‘plan for peace times’, developing longer-term strategies such as a positive image campaign, but also to prepare for adverse developments.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | Coalition response     Region | Europe     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
October 2019
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Spaces for Change: From informal networks and collaboration to the Action Group for Free Civic Space in Nigeria

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In 2018, Spaces for Change (S4C) – a Nigerian civil society organisation (CSO) working to infuse human rights into social and economic processes – initiated the idea of a learning-and-sharing hub on closing civic space.

What began as an informal network designed to deepen cooperation and solidarity eventually transformed into the Action Group on Free Civic Spaces in Nigeria, a coalition of 61 organisations working to co-create a unified sector position and voice to defend civic space against security-induced restrictions. Members work on diverse thematic issues, however they are all committed to ensuring that government regulations (framed around national security) do not shrink civic space.

Trust-building
National security questions are sensitive, and so as groups started to convene and collaborate around this, it took time to build trust and overcome the sensitivities in the room.

Balancing inclusion with capacity and skill set
It is important to try and ensure that group actions are inclusive, so that certain sector voices are not left out. However, when dealing with something like a Mutual Evaluation process, high level evidence based analysis is required, and so inclusion must be balanced with the capacity and skill set needed for that level of discussion.

Getting buy-in
Getting buy-in can be challenging. People can be suspicious when approached to join a coalition. It’s vital to find the central themes that connect constituencies and connect to the spirit of different organisations’ missions.

Common ownership
Nigerian civil society organisations have developed coalitions in the past, but they have proved difficult to sustain. In this instance, the Action Group has worked hard to ensure there is a sense of ‘Common Ownership’. Rather than the coalition being led by one group, it belongs to everyone, which has created a sense of buy-in that ensures the work is relevant and sustainable.

Non-financial support
Non-financial support can be just as helpful as funding. Many groups have contributed meeting spaces, covered their own transport costs, or shared resources in place of contributing funds, and this has helped to keep conversations going and to strengthen the coalition.

  • When operating as an informal network of like-minded organisations, Nigerian CSOs defeated two successive, restrictive bills. Whilst some CSOs have stronger ties with decision-makers, others have a stronger presence on social media, and others have the capacity to engage harder-to-reach groups and communities. Working together, inhabiting these different roles according to their different capacities and expertise, groups have been able to defend and reclaim civic space.
  • As a formalised coalition, the group is engaging with international institutions to ensure that the non-profit sector in Nigeria is properly represented during evaluations and assessments of the country’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism measures. They have managed to develop relationships with global coalitions, and gain access to important meetings with regulators.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | Coalition response     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
October 2019
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Vuka!: Building an international coalition to coordinate and enable civil society’s response to closing space

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Vuka! is a broad coalition of approximately 160 international, regional and national civil society organisations, working to incubate new forms of resistance and organisation.

Its Secretariat is housed within CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) and maintains a 19-member Steering Group.

With its large membership, multiple action teams and multi-country focus, Vuka! is something of a ‘meta-coalition’. With its Country Coordination Calls, Vuka! manages country-level responses to closing space.

Opening civic space
Coordinated action to respond to an opening rather than a narrowing of civic space, have proved more difficult to carry out. Among ICSOs, there is rarely a coordinated response to ‘opening space’. Civil society is skilled and experienced at fighting restrictions, but when there is sudden access to resources and space, what should support from ICSOs look like? It’s proven more challenging to determine what actions can be agreed upon on ’opening’ country calls.

Tension between depth and breadth
Coalitions often struggle with a natural tension between depth and breadth. Should the network dedicate their time to fewer countries and do deeper work there, or respond to a larger number of countries what would benefit from increased coordination?

Trust
When asking people to dedicate time to information sharing and collective discussion, you must first build trust and prove the value of engaging. Part of that is about not dominating the conversation, and making rather than taking space. Those stewarding or coordinating a coalition shouldn’t be in competition with members. The secure platform developed for Vuka! has been invaluable in helping to create that trust.

Coordinator role is key
Someone needs to be able to synthesise the information shared in order to properly identify potential next steps.

Resources and mechanisms
The collating of information and identifying of solutions needs to be backed up by resources and mechanisms to enable those ideas to reach fruition.

  • Because of the diversity of Vuka’s membership, allies with different expertise and networks can push information out to different stakeholders. The advocacy statements and campaigns have greater reach because members disseminate the information to their constituents and key influencers.
  • In closed settings, avenues for dissent are restricted and opportunities to engage with international or regional bodies are limited. So, including the UN or other Commissions on the calls to enable their engagement with national organisations has proved very helpful.
  • As well as the initiatives that have been formally spun out to other Vuka! action teams, many organic, bi-lateral connections and projects have been initiated thanks to these calls. The calls have acted as a platform for bridge-building between civil society actors who otherwise might not have worked together.
  • The secure, tailor-made platform that is used alongside the calls has allowed members to feel more confident in candidly sharing sensitive information about their strategies and activities, meaning that international civil society responses in national contexts can be mapped and analysed, in order to find gaps or opportunities for joint action.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | Coalition response     Region | Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

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