Robust civic space is essential for good governance, the rule of law and for enabling citizens to shape their societies. However, civil society space around the world is under significant pressure and the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated this situation.
The weakening of international institutions and democratic norms worldwide has resulted in fewer constraints on autocracies. Meanwhile, the rise of nationalism, populism and illiberalism is taking its toll on civil liberties.
The private sector is in a unique position to work with civil society organizations to uphold and defend civic freedoms and support sustainable and profitable business environments. Companies have the capacity, resources and expertise to enhance the protection of civic space.
Robust civic space is essential for good governance, the rule of law and for enabling citizens to influence the shape of their societies and the policies adopted by their governments. When civic space is protected, people can meet, organize and advocate, and exercise essential rights such as the freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. Social justice leaders and human rights defenders can speak truth to power, mobilize citizens, and press for transparency and accountability from governments. But civil society space is shrinking dramatically around the world. This is the case both for established democracies with active and diverse civic spaces – where civil society is increasingly finding it harder to operate – and for countries with developing national human rights institutions or limited freedoms – where an already difficult environment for civil society has undermined their ability to function effectively at all.1
These challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The shared benefits of robust civic space require collective responsibility from a wide range of stakeholders. In 2020, the International Law Programme, Asia-Pacific Programme and the Latin America initiative in the US and Americas Programme at Chatham House focused on how new alliances with non-traditional actors can strengthen support for civic space. In our first phase we concentrated on the impact of the private sector. Business and civil society operate in and benefit from a ‘shared space’ – the rule of law, accountable governance and civic freedoms are essential to the realization of good governance, accountable institutions and stable business environments.2 While there is an increase in corporate engagement on societal issues, including the establishment of initiatives such as the Business Network on Civic Freedoms and Human Rights Defenders, corporate action in support of civic space is currently limited, largely ad hoc and generally confined to a small cluster of engaged multinationals. Potential routes for effective coordination or collaboration with other actors, including civil society organizations, remain under-explored.
Through a series of roundtables and webinars with private-sector actors, civil society organizations and other key stakeholders, we considered the potential for the private sector to play a greater role in strengthening and protecting civic space. We explored the drivers of, and barriers to, corporate activism; identified good practice; and discussed practical strategies for the business community. This paper summarizes key insights that emerged during these discussions, including thoughts on the way forward. We hope these may further the understanding and willingness of companies to engage more actively on these issues and generate more productive engagement with the civil society sector in their mutual interest.
Ruma Mandal, Director, International Law Programme.
Bennett Freeman, Principal, Bennett Freeman Associates LLC; Harriet Moynihan, Senior Research Fellow, International Law Programme and Thiago Alves Pinto, Project Consultant.