1. Overview of the OECD’s approach to the protection and promotion of civic space

Protected civic space – defined in the OECD Survey on Open Government (hereafter “the Survey”) as the set of legal, policy, institutional and practical conditions necessary for non-governmental actors to access information, express themselves, associate, organise and participate in public life (Figure ‎1.1) – enables collaboration between civil society, citizens1 and governments. When the fundamental civic freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, association and the right to privacy are protected, citizens can engage meaningfully in decision-making processes, evaluate outcomes and hold their governments to account. Protecting civic space is thus about fostering and promoting the necessary environment in which citizens and non-governmental actors can exercise their right to participate in public affairs (OHCHR, 2018[1]).

The protection of civic space comes in different forms in OECD Members, ranging from constitutional guarantees and legislation to specific policies and practices governing key areas of public life. A thriving civic space emerges through joint efforts by a range of governmental institutions and across the public sector to protect civic freedoms and foster substantive opportunities for civic engagement. However, while the essence of these rights remains static, their scope and implementation evolve and need to be recast over time. While societal change and technological innovation have invigorated civic space in many countries, they have also contributed to the emergence of new pressures and threats.

The acceleration of the digital transformation due to the pandemic, for example, presents a new set of opportunities as governments expand the scope of virtual participation for citizens. At the same time, this shift poses challenges to freedom of expression, as governments grapple with countering online hate speech and mis- and disinformation.2 Traditional notions of freedom of assembly and association have become more complex with the global reach of today’s online activism and the shift away from formal organisations towards informal social movements. Similarly, the right to privacy has to be balanced against governments’ security imperatives and the growing pervasiveness of technology in everyday life. As always, context matters: countries where the rule of law and civic freedoms are respected, with strong oversight mechanisms and a long-standing commitment to democracy, are better equipped to provide an enabling environment for civic space and civil society than countries with less established institutions and protection mechanisms.

By promoting and protecting civic freedoms and providing concrete opportunities for collaboration with citizens and civil society, governments can better align services, policies and laws to societal needs. Ensuring a healthy civic space, both on and off line, is thus a prerequisite for more inclusive governance and democratic participation more broadly. Countries that commit to fostering civic space at both the national and local levels reap many benefits: higher levels of citizen engagement, strengthened transparency and accountability, and empowered citizens and civil society. In the longer term, a vibrant civic space can help to improve government effectiveness and responsiveness, contribute to more citizen-centred policies and programmes, boost social cohesion and ultimately increase trust in government. Crucially, in order to realise these benefits, sustained efforts are needed, coupled with ongoing data collection and monitoring to detect and counter any constraints, given the centrality of civic space to democratic life. Indeed, the degree to which a country protects its civic space is a strong gauge of the health of its democracy more broadly. See Figure ‎1.1 for an overview of the dimensions of civic space that are discussed in the report.

The past decade has seen increasing international recognition of civic space as a cornerstone of functioning democracies and significant efforts to defend and support it. A range of international initiatives and declarations have elevated related concerns to the height of international policy debate in recent years (UN, 2020[3]; PACE, 2018[4]; UN, 2016[5]; 2021[6]). In 2020, the Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) António Guterres launched a high-profile Call to Action for Human Rights with seven priority areas, including “rights in times of crisis” and “public participation and civic space” (UN, 2020[7]). The same year, the European Union (EU) released a European Democracy Action Plan to address growing challenges to democracy (EC, 2020[8]). The United States (US) President Joe Biden convened a Summit for Democracy in 2021 aiming to demonstrate how democracies can deliver on the issues that matter most to people, including civic freedoms and civic capacity. The Open Government Partnership (OGP), which gathers government leaders and civil society to promote transparent, participatory, inclusive and accountable governance, also launched a high-profile Call to Action to encourage its members to protect civic space and enhance citizen participation in 2021. Reinforcing democracy became a central priority for the OECD Public Governance Committee in 2021.

Such initiatives come as a response to concerns about a democratic backslide across the world in recent years that is affecting civic space and reshaping the contours of engagement between people and their governments. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute3 noted in 2021 that while the world is still more democratic today than it was in the 1970s or 1980s, there has been a global decline of liberal democracy over the past decade (Alizada et al., 2021[9]). At the same time, low voter turnout and increasing apathy towards mainstream political parties in many established democracies are a sign of disengagement from traditional democratic institutions. Indeed, data suggest that public satisfaction with the way that institutions are functioning is low. Results from the 2021 OECD Drivers of Trust in Public Institutions survey illustrate that governments could do better in responding to citizens’ concerns and expectations (OECD, 2022[10]). The survey finds public confidence is evenly split between people who say they trust their national government and those who do not. Just under four in ten respondents, on average across countries, say that their government would improve a poorly performing service, implement an innovative idea or change a national policy in response to public demands. Only three in ten feel they have a say in what the government does (OECD, 2022[10]). Crucially, people’s perception of opportunities for meaningful engagement is strongly associated with levels of trust in government. Complex and sometimes transboundary global issues are influencing the malaise, including economic and climate pessimism, concerns about disinformation, rising populism and political polarisation, coupled with increasing inequity and inequality across the globe. The challenge for democratic governments is to ensure that a greater number of people feel that political systems and institutions are meeting their needs and that their voices are valued and listened to.

By linking the protection of civic space with their public governance reform efforts, OECD Members are seeking to ensure more effective, inclusive and impactful civic participation in democratic processes and government decision making. Mindful of the challenges they face, OECD Members are thus working to strengthen their civic space as part of reinforcing and renewing their democratic institutions.

The OECD’s work on civic space and civil society stretches back over a decade.4 The OECD Observatory of Civic Space was established in 2019 with the aim of gathering data and good practices on the legal, institutional and policy frameworks that OECD Members can implement to promote and protect civic space (Box ‎1.2) [GOV/PGC(2018)4/FINAL]. Since then, through both the observatory and other parts of the OECD Secretariat, the Organisation has engaged in the following range of activities, in line with increased demand and requests from OECD Members:

  • Civic space scans and open government reviews: In-depth qualitative scans and chapters in open government studies have been completed or are ongoing in several OECD Members and non-Members including Brazil, Finland, Morocco, Portugal, Romania and Tunisia, providing specific guidance to governments on protecting their civic space at the national level.

  • Global analysis of civic space: The present report is based on a 2-year data-gathering exercise from a total of 52 OECD Members and non-Members, yielding a vast evidence base on related initiatives, gaps and good practices. A follow-up survey will be repeated every three years.

  • Civic space standards: In 2021, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), comprising 30 OECD members, adopted the DAC Recommendation on Enabling Civil Society in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance [OECD/LEGAL/5021]. The standard includes pillars on protecting civic space (Pillar 1) and supporting and engaging with civil society (Pillar 2) in development co-operation. In June 2022, the Recommendation on Creating Better Opportunities for Young People [OECD/LEGAL/0474] was adopted by the OECD Council. It includes a provision on recognising and safeguarding youth rights and protecting civic space for young people with targeted measures for disadvantaged and under-represented groups.

  • Forum for dialogue and exchange: The OECD continues to act as a convenor of dialogue on civic space, public governance and democracy, bringing together governmental and non-governmental actors at the highest levels for regular interaction, dialogue, consensus building and the development of standards.

By integrating civic space into its public governance agenda in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the OECD is promoting an expansive and holistic understanding of open government that explicitly recognises that transparency, accountability, integrity and participation are only possible when the broader environment is conducive (Table ‎1.1). To take concrete examples, open data do not lead to transparency if citizens are unable to access, use and critique them; similarly, access to information yields little accountability if journalists are threatened or arrested for using it; and participation in public decision making is hindered if CSOs are struggling to operate, arbitrarily dissolved or drowning in red tape.

This first OECD comparative report on civic space is a central part of the work of the OECD Observatory of Civic Space. It aims to offer a baseline on the protection and promotion of civic space drawn from verified data collected through a survey of 33 OECD Members and 19 non-Members (Box ‎1.3) and complemented by a review of key trends and recent developments in government policies and practices in addition to international legal frameworks and standards (UN, 1966[27]; 2016[5]; 2021[6]; 2011[28]; 2020[29]).

The recommendations and suggested measures that are included in the report are drawn from a variety of sources, both descriptive (e.g. government data provided by respondents to the OECD Survey, analysis from CSOs and academia, good practices) and prescriptive (e.g. existing OECD standards, international standards). Sources are clearly identified throughout the text.

Data provided by governments include national laws, regulations, policies, strategies as well as good practices in the four areas assessed in the report. OECD standards cover a wide range of issues, including open government, policy coherence, gender equality, artificial intelligence and broadband connectivity, among others. The report draws on existing international guidance related to civic space to underpin related recommendations and associated measures, including UN standards, as well as guidance from regional human rights bodies and courts, such as the European Court of Human Rights or the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Analyses from CSOs and academic institutions are considered where relevant, along with their insights into how they see civic space is protected in practice (Figure ‎1.2).

The main aim of the report is to support OECD Members and non-Members to protect civic space by giving a full overview of the different dimensions of civic space and current practices and suggesting measures that could be considered to promote and safeguard civic space.

To do so, the report provides:

  • Comparative government data, including on national legal frameworks, policies, strategies, institutional arrangements and actual practices on the promotion and protection of civic space.

  • An overview of existing OECD standards on a variety of issues relevant to the protection of civic space.

  • An overview of existing guidance provided by international and regional human rights bodies on issues relevant to the protection of civic space.

  • An overview of trends and patterns in OECD Members and selected non-Members, in addition to regional analyses on Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) and Africa.

  • Highlights of good and innovative practices.

  • An evidence base for any future OECD standards on civic space.

The report’s added value is that it brings a government and a public sector implementation and reform perspective into ongoing debates on the promotion and protection of civic space, which are currently largely dominated by perception surveys, analyses from civil society and guidance from international organisations, such as the UN and other regional human rights bodies. This focus provides insights on key legislation, policies and public sector practices that help to foster and promote civic space. Furthermore, the report brings together government data (validated by the OECD) and compares them with non-governmental data, in addition to existing and agreed upon OECD and international standards, to provide guidance on strengthening alignment with these standards.

Countries that participated in the Survey were explicitly requested to provide data based on national legal frameworks that are applicable in normal circumstances, not emergency or temporary measures due to the onset of the pandemic. This is because, when the survey instrument was drafted in mid-2020, any emergency measures that negatively affected civic space were presumed to be of a short-term nature. Recognising that the medium- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on civic space has yet to be fully understood, the pandemic is discussed in a number of sections.

The report captures the evolving reality of the legal, policy and institutional frameworks and practices that surveyed governments have put in place in the four key areas detailed in Figure ‎1.1:

  • Chapter 2: Facilitating citizen and stakeholder participation through the protection of civic freedoms. This chapter provides an overview of the status of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and the right to privacy as cornerstones of democratic life. It discusses related legal protections and exceptions to the full enjoyment of these rights, followed by a review of implementation trends, challenges and opportunities, including in the context of COVID-19. It examines discrimination as an obstacle to equal participation in public policy making and reviews legal frameworks and practices protecting human rights defenders. Finally, it examines the types of mechanisms that exist to counter violations of civic freedoms, including oversight and complaints bodies and the role of public communication in promoting civic space.

  • Chapter 3: Protecting and promoting the right to access information as a core component of civic space. This chapter provides an overview of the fundamental right to access information (ATI) as a key element of civic space and open government. It firstly outlines the role of access to information as a right, its intersection with other civic freedoms and how the right is protected and promoted through international treaties and conventions. The chapter then focuses on the legal framework for ATI, including constitutional recognition and ATI laws and how their various provisions can be more effectively implemented to foster civic space. Finally, it outlines trends, challenges and opportunities for strengthening the right to access information.

  • Chapter 4: Media freedoms and civic space in the digital age for transparency, accountability and citizen participation. This chapter provides an overview of the status of press freedom and civic space in a digitalised world, including relevant legal frameworks. It discusses harassment and attacks targeting journalists and makes suggestions on building the necessary enabling environment for reliable, fact-based journalism. It considers the protection of online civic space for citizens and related challenges such as hate speech, mis- and disinformation. Finally, the chapter reflects on the importance of personal data protection for civic space and safeguarding civic freedoms in the context of increased use of artificial intelligence.

  • Chapter 5: Fostering an enabling environment for civil society to operate, flourish and participate in public life. This chapter explores the measures OECD Members and non-Members can take to foster an enabling environment for civil society. It examines legal and regulatory frameworks governing the establishment and operations of CSOs, in addition to registration requirements and appeal mechanisms. It focuses on good practice in improving the enabling environment through government strategies to protect civil society and support recovery in the aftermath of COVID-19. It then discusses key challenges such as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and examines support for civic space as part of development co-operation. It also assesses key regional challenges and opportunities within the EU, the LAC region and Africa, providing proposals for consideration.

Chapters 2-4 address issues that are pertinent for citizens and CSOs, whereas Chapter 5 focuses largely on the conditions that are specific to organised civil society (see also Box ‎1.3). The themes of equality, inclusion, non-discrimination and democratic participation are addressed as cross-cutting issues throughout the report.

Within OECD Members, the protection of civic space is complex and evolving. In some respects, the picture is mixed: while many OECD Members consistently occupy top rankings in related international indices, others score lower in particular areas or across a range of indicators.5 Nevertheless, in many OECD Members, aspects of civic space have been strengthened in recent years by progressive government initiatives, laws and institutions, coupled with powerful and dynamic civic activism, social movements and public pressure. Grassroot social movements, mass protest movements, deliberative assemblies and local referenda are just some manifestations of a democratic revival in some countries (Youngs, 2021[33]).

The legal bases for protecting civic space are generally strong in OECD Members. Relevant legal frameworks are for the most part far-reaching and applicable to anyone physically present in a country, even if irregularly (Section 2.1 in Chapter 2). Selected key findings of the report, based on the Survey, include the following:

  • Recognition of freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association: All (100%) respondent OECD Members protect the freedom of expression of anyone on their territory and 91% protect peaceful assembly and freedom of association for anyone.

  • Development of protective institutional mechanisms: Some 84% of respondent OECD Members have established independent public institutions that address human rights complaints, and many of these have set out the main elements of such institutions in their national constitutions.

  • Transparency and open data: The right to access information has been enshrined in the constitutions of 70% of OECD respondents.

  • Proactive strategies in place: 68% of respondent OECD Members have strategies in place to protect and promote the enabling environment for civil society on their territories and 48% as part of development co-operation (Figure ‎1.3).

  • Existence and enforcement of anti-discrimination legislation: Almost all respondents (91%) have laws protecting anyone from discrimination and 47% have established institutions that specialise in discrimination cases and in promoting equality. Protection against discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, gender, sex and sexual orientation is well established and a total of 94% have legislation protecting people from hate speech and 78% criminalise it, while at least 44% of OECD respondents have explicit measures in place to address online hate that targets women.

Despite these legal foundations, there are exceptions, gaps and implementation challenges. Non-governmental actors use a variety of methodologies to assess and rank the various dimensions of civic space. While these assessments generally suggest a strong performance among most OECD Members, they also point to challenges in different areas. Data from CIVICUS, for example, show a decline in 8 OECD Members with regard to freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association: in 2022, the organisation reported that civic space was “open” in 42% of all 38 OECD Members and “repressed”, “obstructed” or “narrowed” in the remaining 58% (CIVICUS, 2022[34]) (Figure ‎1.4). In 2018 (the earliest year for which relevant data are available), these proportions were 53% and 47% respectively.6

Echoing this broad trend of approximately 20% of OECD Members experiencing a decline in different areas, the V-Dem Institute’s Liberal Democracy Index scores for OECD Members – measuring the overall health of democracy in the world – show a decrease “substantively and at a statistically significant level” in seven OECD Members between 2011 and 2021 (Boese et al., 2022[11]).7 Drilling down, according to V-Dem’s Civil Liberties Index, which is a component of the above index and includes a range of relevant indicators, including on media, freedom of expression and CSOs, there has been a statistically significant decline in eight OECD Members when the scores of 2021 are compared to 2011. Three OECD Members have noticeably improved their index ratings over the past decade.

One area of civic space where civil society has reported a significant decline is media freedom. The proportion of OECD Members where the situation is regarded as favourable for journalism has halved in the space of six years (Section 4.3 in Chapter 4). This period covers the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and hence some of the impacts of the emergency measures are reflected in the results. It also coincides with increased vilification of and targeted violence against journalists, coupled with a rise in polarisation in many OECD Members (V-Dem Institute, 2021[35]). The year 2021 saw two journalists killed in European cities: Amsterdam and Athens.8 In other areas, OECD research points to an emerging decline in the enabling environment for CSOs working with specific groups such as migrants or on specific issues such as climate change, in individual OECD Members (Box ‎1.1). However, these challenges can be observed in a very small number of Members and do not appear in global rankings and indices (Section 5.2.3 in Chapter 5).

The foundations for the protection of civic space in OECD Members are strong. However, data indicate that there is backsliding in certain areas in some OECD Members alongside progress in others. Within countries, existing legislation and practices may have different impacts on some sections of the population (e.g. minorities or particular demographic groups), given systemic marginalisation and exclusion. Respect for civic space may vary across a country and across sectors, ministries and other public institutions. In many OECD Members and non-Members where parts of civic space are restricted, this may be the result of a backlog of needed reforms to adapt legal frameworks and practices to modern-day challenges, rather than deliberate attempts to impose limits. At the same time, OECD research indicates that it is necessary to go beyond international rankings to understand and protect civic space at the national level. Furthermore, research shows that all OECD Members and non-Members face at least some challenges in protecting their civic space, particularly for minorities and marginalised groups, and that ongoing monitoring using disaggregated data is essential (OECD, 2021[36]). For example, the recent OECD Civic Space Scans of Finland and Portugal show that even in OECD Members with a strong commitment to civic participation and an impressive international standing in relation to freedom of the press, rule of law and respect for civic freedoms, a sustained effort is needed to maintain high standards.

The report recognises the need to adopt a comprehensive and systematic approach to protecting civic space that is co-ordinated across public institutions as a cross-cutting policy challenge. In view of this, it suggests a whole-of-state and whole-of-society approach, providing recommendations and associated measures for the many different actors involved in protecting the fundamental rights that form the bedrock of societies in OECD Members, as a community of like-minded nations committed to “the preservation of individual liberty, the values of democracy, the rule of law and the defence of human rights” (OECD, 2021[37]). Furthermore, it should be noted that the subject of civic space is vast and this report aims to provide an accessible, but not exhaustive, baseline of data on its current status. Forthcoming publications from the OECD Observatory of Civic Space will continue to explore other emerging civic space issues in depth, with a focus on regional, national and local levels.

Key areas that require further attention in OECD Members, all discussed in this report, include:

  • Restrictions on freedom of expression, both on and off line, including due to the criminalisation of defamation, insufficient freedom of expression safeguards in the context of countering terrorism, the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation as well as hate speech, and violence and harassment targeting journalists and human rights defenders.

  • Restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, due to insufficient protection of protestors by law enforcement actors, as well as police violence used against protestors in a few OECD Members.

  • A lack of protection in practice for minorities in some OECD Members.

  • Disruptive new digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, posing new risks to equal participation and non-discrimination.

  • Challenges for the CSO enabling environment, including the use of SLAPPs, smear campaigns and restricted space for those that engage on particular issues such as the environment and migration, constraints on access to funding and onerous registration, reporting and accounting obligations, and restrictions on the activities that they are allowed to engage in.

Box ‎1.4 provides an overview of the OECD’s ten high-level recommendations on the protection of civic space.

References

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Notes

← 1. For the purposes of this chapter and in line with the OECD Survey on Open Government, the term citizen is meant as an inhabitant of a particular place and not a legally recognised national of a state.

← 2. The OECD defines misinformation as false or inaccurate information not disseminated with the intention of deceiving the public and disinformation as false, inaccurate, or misleading information deliberately created, presented and disseminated to deceive the public (OECD, n.d.[39]).

← 3. See https://www.v-dem.net/ for more information.

← 4. In 2012, the OECD produced a guide on partnering with civil society as part of development co-operation (2012[38]).

← 5. All but one of the top 31 countries in V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index are OECD Members (Boese et al., 2022[11]). At the same time, the bottom 3 OECD performers rank 87th, 91st and 147th respectively.

← 6. One OECD Member improved its score over this period.

← 7. V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index draws on 71 indicators on liberal and electoral democracy including 44 indicators that are broadly related to civic space: 6 on freedom of assembly, 9 on freedom of expression and alternative sources of information, 20 on equality before the law and individual liberty index, 5 on judicial constraints on the executive and 4 on legislative constraints on the executive. One country improved its ranking over the same period.

← 8. Content provided by RSF for the report.

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