London / Montevideo — Brave protests against women's second-class status in Iran; the mass defence of economic rights in the face of a unilateral presidential decision in France; huge mobilisations to resist government plans to weaken the courts in Israel: all these have shown the willingness of people to take public action to stand up for human rights.
The world has seen a great wave of protests in 2022 and 2023, many of them sparked by soaring costs of living. But these and other actions are being met with a ferocious backlash. Meanwhile multiple conflicts and crises are intensifying threats to human rights.
Vast-scale human rights abuses are being committed in Ukraine, women's rights are being trampled on in Afghanistan and LGBTQI+ people's rights are under assault in Uganda, along with several other countries. Military rule is again being normalised in multiple countries, including Mali, Myanmar and Sudan, and democracy undermined by autocratic leaders in El Salvador, India and Tunisia, among others. Even supposedly democratic states such as Australia and the UK are undermining the vital right to protest.
But in the face of this onslaught civil society continues to strive to make a crucial difference to people's lives. It's the force behind a wave of breakthroughs on g abortion rights in Latin America, most recently in Colombia, and on LGBTQI+ rights in countries as diverse as Barbados, Mexico and Switzerland. Union organising has gained further momentum in big-brand companies such as Amazon and Starbucks. Progress on financing for the loss and damage caused by climate change came as a result of extensive civil society advocacy.
The latest State of Civil Society Report from CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, presents a global picture of these trends. We've engaged with civil society activists and experts from around the world to understand how civil society is responding to conflict and crisis, mobilising for economic justice, defending democracy, advancing women's and LGBTQI+ rights, calling for climate action and urging global governance reform. These are our key findings.
Civil society is playing a key role in responding to conflicts and humanitarian crises - and facing retaliation
Civil society is vital in conflict and crisis settings, where it provides essential services, helps and advocates for victims, monitors human rights and collects evidence of violations to hold those responsible to account. But for doing this, civil society is coming under attack.
Catastrophic global governance failures highlight the urgency of reform
Too often in the face of the conflicts and crises that have marked the world over the past year, platitudes are all international institutions have had to offer. Multilateral institutions have been left exposed by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It's time to take civil society's proposals to make the United Nations more democratic seriously.
People are mobilising in great numbers in response to economic shock - and exposing deeper problems in the process
As it drove a surge in fuel and food prices, Russia's war on Ukraine became a key driver of a global cost of living crisis. This triggered protests in at least 133 countries where people demanded economic justice. Civil society is putting forward progressive economic ideas, including on taxation, connecting with other struggles for rights, including for climate, gender, racial and social justice.
The right to protest is under attack - even in longstanding democracies
Many states, unwilling or unable to concede the deeper demands of protests, have responded with violence. The right to protest is under attack all over the world, particularly when people mobilise for economic justice, democracy, human rights and environmental rights. Civil society groups are striving to defend the right to protest.
Democracy is being eroded in multiple ways - including from within by democratically elected leaders
Economic strife and insecurity are providing fertile ground for the emergence of authoritarian leaders and the rise of far-right extremism, as well for the rejection of incumbency. In volatile conditions, civil society is working to resist regression and make the case for inclusive, pluralist and participatory democracy.
Disinformation is skewing public discourse, undermining democracy and fuelling hate
Disinformation is being mobilised, particularly in the context of conflicts, crises and elections, to sow polarisation, normalise extremism and attack rights. Powerful authoritarian states and far-right groups provide major sources, and social media companies are doing nothing to challenge a problem that's ultimately good for their business model. Civil society needs to forge a joined-up, multifaceted global effort to counter disinformation.
Movements for women's and LGBTQI+ rights are making gains against the odds
In the face of difficult odds, civil society continues to drive progress on women's and LGBTQI+ rights. But its breakthroughs are making civil society the target of a ferocious backlash. Civil society is working to resist attempts to reverse gains and build public support to ensure that legal changes are consolidated by shifts in attitudes.
Civil society is the major force behind the push for climate action
Civil society continues to be the force sounding the alarm on the triple threat of climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss. Civil society is urging action using every tactic available, from street protest and direct action to litigation and advocacy in national and global arenas. But the power of the fossil fuel lobby remains undimmed and restrictions on climate protests are burgeoning. Civil society is striving to find new ways to communicate the urgent need for action.
Civil society is reinventing itself to adapt to a changing world
In the context of pressures on civic space and huge global challenges, civil society is growing, diversifying and widening its repertoire of tactics. Much of civil society's radical energy is coming from small, informal groups, often formed and led by women, young people and Indigenous people. There is a need to support and nurture these.
We believe the events of the past year show that civil society - and the space for civil society to act - are needed more than ever. If they really want to tackle the many great problems of the world today, states and the international community need to take some important first steps: they need to protect the space for civil society and commit to working with us rather than against us.
Andrew Firmin is CIVICUS Editor-in-Chief. Inés M. Pousadela is CIVICUS Senior Research Specialist. Both are co-directors and writers of CIVICUS Lens and co-authors of the State of Civil Society Report.