Time is Running Out: Civic Space Closing Rapidly in the Middle East



I. Introduction

The emerging constraint on activism and advocacy for human rights in countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is the closure and absence of civic space.  Civic space constitutes the room for activism as well as the grounds on which freedoms are institutionalised to be protected by engagement with the public. The lack thereof and imposed restrictions on civic space in the region is a direct factor behind the wider public disengagement with human rights violations and violent government crackdowns on human rights defenders (HRDs). Therefore, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) has produced this new report as a follow-up to numerous formal and informal discussions about civic space, such as those developed at the Gulf and Neighbouring Countries Platform in January 2018 and during the civic space conference that it convened in August 2017 with key international and regional civil society organisations (CSOs). During both events, participants surveyed the state of civic space in the region by identifying threats and closure tactics, and concluded with a set of recommendations to protect civic space.

The main takeaway of the August 2017 conference was that the closure of civic space is a global phenomenon; yet it is pressingly challenging in the MENA region due to the repressiveness of its governments and their authoritarian systems that challenge any room for independent CSOs’ work especially when related to human rights.

Since the conference in August 2017, participating organisations -including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS, ARTICLE 19 and IFEX - have acknowledged this important juncture in human rights advocacy in the region. Therefore, they have increased their focus on the closure of civic space by regarding it as a chronic problem in the MENA region and elsewhere that requires some immediate and feasible solutions.

It is important to highlight that in using the term ‘civic space’, it is not intended to limit our understanding of the exercise of rights and freedoms to the physical realm only. Civic space encompasses and surpasses the physical versus cyber demarcation. It is the room in which multilayered and diverse activism occurs across different mediums. As such, it is particularly more manifest, and strengthened due to the centrality of the Internet and social media, especially in the region, which has facilitated the emergence of civic space virtually in cyberspace.

Therefore, the threat is heightened as government efforts in restricting civic space occur both online and offline, complicating repressive measures taken by governments to excessively put HRDs under surveillance that results in their prosecution for both online and offline activism. For more on the topic, see GCHR’s report issued in June 2018: “Mapping Cybercrime Laws and Violations of Digital Rights in the Gulf and neighbouring Countries.”

The recommendations provided later in this report are guided by the discussions GCHR has held with partners, along with the principles of the Civic Charter, the Global Framework for People’s Participation: “The Civic Charter is grounded in our common humanity and universally accepted freedoms and principles. It provides a framework for people’s participation that identifies their rights within existing international law and agreements.”

CIVICUS Monitor Ratings evaluate the openness and strength of civic space in respective countries. In this regard, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are rated ‘closed’ which indicates that civic space is not sanctioned legally or by practice. Annihilation of attempts to challenge this closure is met with extremely repressive measures by governments and non-state actors. Another three countries, Iraq, Qatar and Oman, are ‘repressed’ and this implies that there is a window for activism, however, it is subject to the same highly repressive measures as in ‘closed’ countries. Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan are ranked as ‘obstructed’, where CSOs may operate but civil society faces a combination of legal and practical constraints. The high risk endured by HRDs and CSOs in closed and repressed countries discourages and challenges them from pursuing their work.  GCHR is a partner of the CIVICUS Monitor, reporting on the Gulf and neighbouring countries (see segment of map on cover.)


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