Closing Space for Civil Society / Human Rights Defenders / IHRFG Events

Reflections from IHRFG’s Human Rights Lab on the Closing Space for Civil Society

IHRFG recently held its semi-annual conference in San Francisco, culminating in a Human Rights Lab where participants strategized and collaborated to respond to the closing space for civil society. Following the event, funders shared their reflections and lessons.

Contributed by Caitlin Stanton, Urgent Action Fund –

Sometimes, the closing of civil society space is quick and severe. The sudden and arbitrary imprisonment of a budding human rights lawyer, for instance. Sometimes, the closing is a slow erosion; a death by a thousand paper cuts, as in the labyrinth of regulations faced by Mexican human rights organizations under a law to implement Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) guidelines. Both are examples of a trend in restrictions on civil society noted with alarm for some years now. An article published by IHRFG in 2014 documented funders’ rising concerns over this trend. “Dark Days for Civil Society” is how Sarah Mendelson bluntly describes the situation in an article this past March for Foreign Affairs. At Urgent Action Fund, we published an account of the misuse and abuse of “anti-terrorism” legislation to curtail the activities of women’s rights organizations in 2012.

Closing Space Logo_SharedYet despite increased concern, coordinated and collective responses by funders have been few. It was this situation that prompted a 2015 workshop and the important new report on Challenging the Closing Space for Civil Society, by Ariadne, the European Foundation Centre, and IHRFG.

Last Friday, human rights funders again gathered to explore how we might collaborate on strategies to protect the fundamental freedoms of citizens to engage in civil society during a “lab” organized by Human Rights Lab and IHRFG.

Spending focused time in cross-organizational/inter-disciplinary breakout groups during the lab was valuable. It led us to think through strategies, from pragmatic, grantee-responsive tweaks to grantmaking processes to broader advocacy interventions such as engaging in the evaluations of FATF implementation. Many conversations focused on how we can promote locally-developed, contextually–appropriate, narratives that celebrate activists, emphasize the value of their work for families and communities, and tell the story of how their human rights organizations play a force for good in society. For one example of this, check out (and contribute to) the #ActivistsWeLove campaign on Twitter.

Back at Urgent Action Fund, we continued the conversation. Senior Program Officer Meerim Ilyas provides security grants to activists when they face threats such as those described above. She says the restrictions take an increasing toll, primarily on activists, but also on the program staff responsible for finding ever more creative ways to get funding to them. She thinks about the 114 civil society groups in Russia labeled as “foreign agents” under a restrictive new law and the more than a dozen of those groups that have already closed down. On the list are linchpin organizations working for equality for women and LGBTQI people, along with environmental groups, youth groups and others. “Are funders moving fast enough?” Meerim wonders. “While we meet and discuss and strategize, organizations are shutting their doors, their staff put on trial.”

Ultimately, my takeaway from the lab was this. Funders are ready for more coordinated and intentional action on this issue. Many paths to action are open, and now is the time to act. For insights on strategy, we must look to those most impacted by these trends and to the tactical adaptations they pilot each day.

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