- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
In the last ten years, both in Asia and in Europe, attacks against civil society actors defending human rights and fundamental freedoms as well as uncovering environmental issues, corruption cases and trafficking in persons have become more systematic. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are stigmatised, often portrayed as non-nationalist, elitist, spies or ‘foreign agents’ used by foreign countries to meddle in domestic affairs. They are sometimes even denounced as terrorist organisations.
It has been well documented that governments have used legal restrictions which have hindered CSOs from receiving foreign funding. CSOs have also been subjected to repeated audits, investigations, intimidation, harassment and surveillance, and their staff members have been imprisoned, tortured or even executed. They also face obstructions to travel and difficulties in obtaining visas.
Even in supposedly stable democracies, media freedom is increasingly inhibited, primarily due to the spread of ‘fake news’ and the populist anti-media backlash. While the Internet and new media can help support civic engagement and mobilisation, they also provide a platform for governments to control public opinion and monitor civil society actions. Creating government-organised civil society organisations is another tactic to legitimise government policy, attract foreign funding and confuse the public about the work the CSOs are doing.
Of all actors, the state remains a vital player in setting the conditions for civil society organisations to operate
In the meantime, ‘uncivil’ groups – anti-democratic forces bringing together organised citizens that emerge as a result of economic and political shift and frustration – are also on the rise in Asia and Europe. This frustration is largely due to people’s increasing disappointment in the way development policies have been shaped and implemented. People see these policies as reasons for the ever-widening inequalities. They therefore seek an alternative way for fair and just development.
A careful, comprehensive and innovative approach is needed to deal with these issues. But first, there is a need for a more explicit and more popular messaging on why civil society matters, why civil society space is essential, and what can be done to defend it. This requires cooperation and collaboration from all involved stakeholders: CSOs, states and businesses.
The 5th Asia-Europe Editors’ Roundtable in 2010 suggested that Asia and Europe need to learn from each other, as challenges and risks are increasingly inter-connected across borders as well as across sectors. The Europe-Asia cooperation could focus on institutional processes that enable Asia and Europe to ensure secured civic space. This, however, comes up against the limitations, distrust and prejudices that exist between Asia and Europe.
Of all actors, the state remains a vital player in setting the conditions for CSOs to operate or participate in the public sphere through the legal and institutional capacities at its disposal. And it is in this area that ASEM can play a key role as a platform for inter-regional cooperation to push back against restrictions and establish an inter-regional early warning system.
ASEM can also take the lead on promoting a safe, enabling environment in which CSOs can operate freely and securely. The importance of civil society space for empowering people belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups – as well as those who have dissenting views or beliefs – needs to be emphasised, and in that ASEM could call on states to ensure that legislation, policies and practices do not undermine or restrict human rights or civil society activities defending these rights.
However, we should also recognise that ASEM has been criticised for lacking established links with civil society groups in the last two decades. This is an issue that has created conflicts not just between civil society actors and ASEM governments but also among ASEM partners themselves.
Even in supposedly stable democracies, media freedom is increasingly inhibited
It is regrettable that people-to-people forums such as the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) are still not part of the formal ASEM process.
Perhaps central to all debates related to global governance, democracy and human rights require bringing back the real meaning of the term ‘civil society’. Nowadays, civil society is taken to mean organisations or actors. But in fact, we should look at civil society as a space where people can relate to each other openly, respectfully, non-violently and with tolerance and mutual trust. This will allow us to see civil society as a vehicle for political process and engagement, enabling citizens to contribute to society and exercise rational discourse relating to the public interest.
Civil society groups play crucial roles when it comes to promoting and enriching the dialogue between Asia and Europe beyond official channels. At the same time they enhance engagement with a wider audience in creating a legitimate space for expressing their alternative voice. Regardless of all the impediments and difficulties they face, civil society organisations are here to resist and stay – and rightly so.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.
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