By Deirdre de Burca, Forus Advocacy Coordinator, attending the International Civil Society Week in Belgrade (Serbia)

Today, Deirdre de Burca, Forus Advocacy Co-ordinator, attended the Civil Society Summit in Belgrade that was organised by Civicus, Action For Sustainable Development and others. There were about one hundred and fifty civil society activists in attendance from different regions of the world, including quite a number of Forus members in the Belgrade Youth Centre where the summit was held including Oyebesi from Nigeria, Emele from Fiji and Anselmo from South Korea. 

The purpose of this one-day Summit was to launch a concerted mobilisation of civil society between April and September 2019 to put the issue of closing and shrinking space for civil society globally on the agenda of the UN Special General Assembly and High-Level Political Forum in September. The Civil Society Summit was to bring together the leadership and members of civil society networks, platforms, and international organisations to sign a Declaration and Call to Action and to set out our plan of action to put closing civic space on the international agenda (read the press release).

The Summit was organised on the day before the International Civil Society Week started and one of its main purposes was to launch the Belgrade “Call to Action” – a civil society call to stand together to defend people’s values for a just and sustainable world, reverse the closing and shrinking space for civil society, stop the increasing attacks on human rights defenders and the undermining of democratic participation and increase the prospects for an inclusive Agenda 2020 and the full realization of the SDGs.

The summit started with an opening speech by the Director of the Office of Co-operation with Civil Society of the Serbian Government who welcomed us all to Belgrade.  Justin Kilcullen, the co-Chair of CPDE, Anabel Cruz Chair of Civicus and Bojana Selakovic, Programme Director of Civic Initiatives all spoke as part of the first session. The dominant theme of the day was the need for civil society to resist and push back against many of the restrictions that are being imposed on those who are active in the civic life of their countries – whether promoting human rights or defending their environment from degradation and exploitation. 

The Chair of Civicus told us that Serbia, where the summit was being held, had experienced its own form of populistic nationalism under Milosevic’s leadership and that the country had experienced huge economic difficulties as a result, massive migration and deep social divisions that were very difficult to heal. 

Other speakers told us that in the recent year 111 countries have experienced serious “civic space restrictions” – which amounts to more than half the countries in the world! Citizens of these countries are increasingly experiencing restrictions on freedom of expression and association, the right to protest peacefully.

We were reminded that an enabling civic space is key to the successful implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Many different examples from around the world were given of civil society activists – from more traditional CSOs and newer emerging social movements - actively resisting and giving hope to others. Bolana Selakovic, Programme Director of Civic Initiatives, spoke about the way in which many populist politicians are now trying to turn the public against civil society by dividing the world into simplistic categories of national “patriots” and traitors”- civil society is often portrayed as a “traitor” for legitimately criticising government for human rights abuses etc.

Participants took time during the day to remember all of the human rights defenders and environmental activists who have been attacked and killed over recent years- their numbers continue to increase, although it is widely believed that the official statistics underestimate the extent of the problem.

Speakers from the Philippines and Brazil described how a change of political leadership in their countries had created a new environment of fear for activists. The role of civil society in reversing the slide towards illiberalism was highlighted. We were reminded that the struggle for a fully engaged, democratic free and inclusive civil society was extremely important as it made our societies better for all.

It was a great opening day to the International Civil Society week and I look forward to several more stimulating and inspiring days ahead!