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Defending Civic Space: How OGP Can Step Up

Defendiendo el espacio cívico: El papel que OGP puede desempeñar

Joe PowellandVivien Suerte-Cortez|

When the Open Government Partnership (OGP) was launched 10 years ago, one of the aims was to enhance public participation so that citizens could have a say in how they are governed and in decisions that affect their lives. Today, nearly all OGP members have implemented reforms that aim to improve participation opportunities. In addition, most OGP members have a forum where government reformers and civil society regularly meet to co-create and implement reforms that open up government. 

However, civic space goes beyond public participation and overall it has been in decline globally, including in OGP countries and local contexts. There have been 15 consecutive years of erosion of political and civil rights according to Freedom House. This poses a challenge to the OGP community: how can OGP co-creation processes and action plans provide a space to make ambitious reforms that help to open and protect civic space, for example by enhancing and protecting spaces for citizens to express themselves freely, to organize in groups for a common purpose, and to gather together to make their voices heard? 

The good news is that the current OGP co-chairs have launched a Partnership-wide call to action, which has civic space as one of its top priorities and calls for all members to join. This builds on promising examples where reformers in government and civil society have started using the OGP space to commit to open civic space reforms and have begun the hard work of implementation:

Citizens Overseeing Police Accountability in Nigeria

In 2020, there were massive protests against police brutality in many countries around the world. Following public outcry over videos and photos of police brutality in Nigeria, youth activists, civil society organizations and citizens gathered in massive protests across the country to call for the disbandment of the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and for accountability for officers’ actions. They also used social media to bring the international spotlight to the protests and the government’s response to them. Media organizations reported that just a few days after the protests started, over 100 people had been killed. The #EndSARS movement prompted discussions about how open government approaches could be used to protect civic space and safeguard people’s right to protest safely. 

PHOTO: Credit: Samson Maxwell via Unsplash

Civil society and government agencies involved in the OGP process convened to discuss if the OGP action plan could be one way to move the conversation forward. Using the country’s OGP multistakeholder forum, civil society organizations and government stakeholders – including the Police Service Commission (PSC) and the National Human Rights Commission –  committed to improving the oversight role of the Police Service Commission, foster a dialogue between citizens and police forces, and ensure scheduled visits to police stations to assess the conditions of service and adherence to proper procedure. Despite the many challenges civil society in the country still face (such as funding and lack of frameworks to monitor the compliance of the PSC standards), the commitment to enhance police oversight and the inclusion of civil society in the design and implementation of police reform is an important step. It is now part of Nigeria’s formal 2019-22 OGP action plan

Fighting for Restorative Justice in Indonesia 

In Indonesia, a coalition of civil society organizations reported significant constraints to freedoms of expression and assembly, as well as cases of police violence against protesters. In many instances, access to legal aid was not available to those arrested for exercising their right of expression. This coalition of organizations worked with the Indonesian government and proposed a commitment in their OGP action plan to ensure access to information on cases and arrests made based on protests, and ensure transparency in the criminal justice system.  

 Civil society groups continue to call on the government to enhance civic space protections and include even more groups in their co-creation process.

Preventing Illegal Government Surveillance in Mexico 

In 2017, civil society and media organizations found evidence that the government had misused sophisticated spyware which was then used to surveil lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders. Civil society organizations decided to leave the Mexico OGP process until those responsible were held accountable and measures were put in place to avoid future incidents like this. It wasn’t until a new government approached civil society and activists to put the issue back on the table that their open government process started anew. 

Click on the image to read Juan Manuel Casanueva’s interview on Mexico’s surveillance commitment.

The reestablishment of the OGP process was underpinned by the need to address the unregulated use of surveillance tools and to establish democratic controls that prevent the interception of private communications in Mexico. Using their OGP action plan, civil society organizations in Mexico are working with government agencies to develop a framework to regulate the acquisition and use of surveillance technology. Despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, civil society organizations continue to advocate for enhanced regulation on this issue and protect people’s right to privacy.

Where to Next?

More than 100 OGP members are co-creating new action plans this year and have a chance to add meaningful reforms that protect and enhance civic space in their OGP action plans. When co-creating these new ambitious commitments, OGP members should:

  • Engage and convene relevant implementing agencies in OGP co-creation processes, especially those that have the mandate over issues relevant to civic rights. 
  • Broaden their coalition of civil society partners working across different issue areas. Diversity and inclusion are key to developing commitments that respond to the needs of the community and advance civic space priorities.
  • Use OGP action plans to ensure time-bound implementation for any civil society strategies. This could ensure that shared milestones are tracked by both government and civil society partners as co-commitment holders and implementers. 

There is a major opportunity in 2021 to advance civic space reforms in OGP that go to the heart of some of the democratic backsliding the world has seen in recent years, and to showcase them at the 10th anniversary Global Summit in December of 2021, hosted by the Republic of Korea in Seoul and online. Open civic space can help to underpin efforts for an inclusive recovery from the pandemic, tackle systemic inequalities of income, race and gender in society, and to build more resilient and citizen-centered democracies across OGP member countries. The time for action is now.

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