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Civic Space and Open Government Reform in Asia and the Pacific

Espacio cívico y reforma del gobierno abierto en Asia y el Pacífico 

As reformers across Asia and the Pacific explore ways to open government, civic space is an essential starting point. To underpin successful reforms, governments must enable people to speak freely, act in coordination, and advocate for change. The OGP process presents an opportunity to strengthen democratic freedoms and empower civil society in the region.

Australia, Indonesia, the Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Sri Lanka have initiated 12 OGP commitments focused on civic space. In particular, since 2019, more countries are addressing civic space through the OGP platform. Papua New Guinea, for example, included commitments on cooperation between government and civil society organizations in both of its action plans. In 2021, Indonesia and Mongolia began their first commitments to improving the environment for civil society – including a promising Mongolian reform intended to amend legislation on source anonymity for journalists. The most ambitious initiatives have emerged from action plans developed with strong civil society partnership.

While this is a promising start, many of the civic space commitments made by OGP members in Asia and the Pacific have failed to achieve noteworthy results – in part, because they have not always pledged to make concrete improvements. According to CIVICUS, more than half of the member countries in the region are classified as obstructed or repressed. Now more than ever, it is critical that countries in the region address civic space restrictions both through the OGP framework and beyond. Here are a few actions to take:

  • Enable civil society to operate and access resources by removing barriers, including to foreign funding. The ability to access resources is an essential component of freedom of association under international law. The Philippines now requires all international aid for civil society organizations to be cleared by the government. This is likely to have a chilling effect on foreign contributions and organizations’ ability to access resources. OGP countries in the region should revise frameworks governing access to resources, to ensure that civil society organizations are not subject to more restrictive regulatory regimes than those applied to other entities.
  • Amend anti-terrorism frameworks to support civic freedom. The region has seen an increasingly securitized approach to civil society. Recent laws and policies—for example in the Philippines and Sri Lanka—directly target civil society activities by adopting overbroad definitions of terrorism that facilitate crackdowns on the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression, assembly, and association. OGP members should commit to reviewing and amending these frameworks for human rights compliance with inputs from civil society.
  • Roll back civic space restrictions related to COVID-19. Many countries in Asia and the Pacific implemented states of emergency that granted expansive state powers, blanket bans on assembly, and the criminalization of the spread of false information. For example, in Indonesia, law enforcement officials investigated street artists for paintings critical of the government’s response to the pandemic. In April 2020, Mongolia enacted a law which prohibits the media from disseminating false information on COVID-19, raising concerns over violations of legitimate expression. Many such measures appear to be indefinite, without any sunset provisions, and have limited judicial or legislative oversight. This type of measure should be reviewed, revised and, as appropriate, retired through participatory processes engaging a diverse array of stakeholders, especially as public health justifications subside.
  • Expand participation mechanisms to ensure meaningful public consultation in law and policy-making. Mechanisms for public participation have historically been lacking across much of the region and were further eroded as a result of the pandemic. However, meaningful and inclusive public participation is essential to making government more effective and more responsive to the needs of the population. OGP members should also ensure that the right to public participation is recognized in law. 

These efforts must go further than vague promises. Commitments that lay out the specific changes to improve civil society’s operational environment are critical to achieving lasting reforms. At the outset, reformers can build in guarantees, designing commitments that clearly outline ambitious numeric, geographic, and financial targets.

Reformers can draw on each others’ strategies. For example, in the Philippines, a commitment expanded access to online government-civil society town hall meetings. This opened local civil society organizations’ engagement with government decision makers, providing a platform for dialogue on a range of policy issues, including civic space restrictions. In the Kyrgyz Republic, the OGP process embedded civil society experts in a risk assessment on terrorist financing, which lowered the risk of new restrictions in their sector. This daily collaboration laid groundwork for government stakeholders’ broader inclusion of civil society expertise, for example on amending the law on nonprofit organizations. 

Convening diverse coalitions is another tool for achieving reform. Coalitions often have more legitimacy and better access to resources. Civil society and government reformers can broaden engagement to include champions from parliament, the justice system, local government, media, trade unions, or the private sector. Reformers can also draw on the new OGP Democratic Freedoms Learning Network to connect with peers who face similar challenges. 

Through OGP, countries in Asia and the Pacific can build on recent progress by working with civil society partners to lift key civic space restrictions. An enabling environment for civil society can promote sustainable achievement of open government reform. 

So how will you empower civil society in your country?

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