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Open Government and Civic Space: A Virtuous Circle in Motion?

Gobierno Abierto y Espacio Cívico: ¿Un Ciclo Virtuoso?

The principal mission of OGP is to make governments more open, accountable and responsive to citizens. In other words, its success depends in large measure on civic space or enabling conditions for people to freely organize, participate and communicate to shape the political and social structures around them.

By its very nature, civic space is predicated on the three fundamental freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly. These freedoms are enshrined in the constitutions of most countries and are an integral part of international law. Yet, their realization – without which active citizens and civil society organizations are constrained from achieving OGP’s purpose to ensure better and more inclusive governance – remains incomplete.

According to the data from the CIVICUS Monitor, only 4% of the world’s population live in countries where the freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly are adequately protected. The CIVICUS Monitor, which relies on participatory research and draws from several sources of information, provides a worrying picture of the state of civic space around the world, classifying countries along five cascading categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed.

OGP countries fare much better than non-OGP countries with regards to civic space conditions. Nonetheless, challenges remain. Despite commitments to the contrary, of 79 OGP countries, only 24% (19) have open civic space while 34% (27) have narrowed civic space.

Worryingly, the proportion of OGP countries in the ‘obstructed’ (34%) and ‘repressed’ categories (7%) remains quite high. Such conditions typically lend themselves to serious systemic abuses, including attacks on human rights defenders and journalists, violent repression of protests, and arbitrary limitations on the work of civil society organizations, particularly those engaging on politically or socially sensitive matters. Notably, Azerbaijan is the only OGP country listed under the ‘closed’ category – and is currently on suspended status because of gross human rights abuses and the government’s inability to guarantee an environment for civil society to engage with the OGP process.

OGP processes rely substantially on dialogue and collaboration between government and civil society actors. Given the importance of healthy civic space to the fulfilment of OGP’s purpose, OGP action plans should systematically include commitments designed to protect and expand civic space. So far, however, OGP action plans remain under-utilized as tools to enable civic space for public and civil society participation. According to a recent study by OGP’s Support Unit and Independent Reporting Mechanism, only 100 out of 2,733 commitments included in action plans pertained to civic space. A significant proportion of these commitments were concentrated in a handful of member states.

There is no shortage of ambition in OGP’s founding principles. But without enabled civic space, open government is not possible: the fates of open government and civic space are inseparable. As highlighted in a CIVICUS paper drafted for OGP last year, against the current backdrop of democratic regression and civic space degradation, OGP is well placed to promote a virtuous circle in which improved civic space allows for more meaningful state-civil society collaboration. All it takes to set this this cycle in motion is informed optimism and political will.

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